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Kansas City’s AAPIconic festival is a ‘love letter’ to Asian communities

Performers in a red dragon costume open its mouth and make it dance. The dragon looms large in the left side of the frame. Behind them is a crowd of people in front of Café Cà Phê.
Savannah Hawley-Bates
KCUR 89.3
Dragon dancers perform in front of Café Cà Phê for the Vietnamese coffee shop's grand opening Aug. 13, 2022.

This year’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Festival is expected to be three times bigger than last year’s. Through vendors and performances, the Cafe Cà Phê owner wants to showcase the many different cultures included in the label and help others connect with each other.

Nearly 40 vendors and 10 performers will gather for the second annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Festival hosted by Cafe Cà Phê Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Food trucks and vendor booths will line Columbus Square Park, just a few blocks from the Vietnamese coffee shop.

For Jackie Nguyen, owner of Cafe Cà Phê, the festival is about creating space for Asian and Pacific Islander people in Kansas City. She calls it “a love letter to the Kansas City AAPI community.”

“We are part of the community,” Nguyen says. “We are taxpayers, we are nurses, doctors. And the city hasn't necessarily done anything huge of this scale to celebrate those cultures. I think it's really important — especially in the Midwest where Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are underrepresented — that we do something to show people we should take up space and be celebrated.”

Asians and Pacific Islanders make up a little more than 2% of Kansas City’s population. Nguyen says the community is very tight-knit, bound together by the similarities in their cultures and work ethic. She also says people in the AAPI community have stories to tell that have gone unheard. Nguyen is hoping this festival will help change that.

“Although the community's small, it still is mighty and we take up a lot of space here in restaurant culture, in salon culture and clothing culture,” Nguyen says. “It just seems a little crazy to me that there hasn't necessarily been a festival of this scale”

Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month was established by Congress in 1990, but it wasn’t recognized by Kansas City until 2021. That year, Cafe Cà Phê helped host the city’s celebration. And in 2022, the cafe hosted its own festival at Columbus Square Park, near the Vietnamese coffee shop’s brick-and-mortar location.

This year, the AAPI Heritage Festival will again be at the park but will be about three times as big. Instead of planning the event in three weeks, like last year, the team has had three months. Cafe Cà Phê has a slew of sponsors for the ‘90s-themed event – including Fresh Karma as a presenting sponsor.

Smoke ‘n’ Seoul, a Korean and Kansas City barbecue fusion food truck, will be one of the food vendors at the event. Nancy Stears says the festival, and the business she co-owns with her husband, Greg, showcase the pride she has in her culture.

“I moved here from a very Asian community (in New York) to Gardner, Kansas, and there's not a lot of Asians,” Sears says. “I was learning to kind of hide back and try to blend in or just not be seen and then I met Jackie and I saw what she was doing for our community. I'm like, ‘You know what? It's okay to be seen. It's okay that I'm here and I'm different and I'm not like everybody here.’”

Peter Nonprasit is a a graphic designer and owner of Wasteland Society, an ‘irreverant apparel company.’ Nonprasit and his wife, Sarah Dye-Nonprasit, will be selling their brand’s apparel at the festival, including a new design with the words ‘Relentless Immigrant’ released specially for the event to honor Nonprasit’s and his parent’s immigration from Thailand.

“I'm a naturalized citizen — I came here with my parents, we were refugees. I was only a few months old when we left (Thailand) to here. Growing up here, I didn't really latch on to that but being around the AAPI community the last few years encouraged me to pull back and dial in to what made me and respect my culture.”

Nguyen hopes what brings Nonprasit and Sears to the festival will attract other attendees as well. She plans for Saturday’s event to be a place where people can connect with their own heritage or learn something new about another culture.

“I love my community and I wanted it to be more than just a celebration,” Nguyen says. “I wanted it to be every single person to feel loved, to feel supported and to know that they have just as much space and time just as any other culture or any other marginalized group here, especially in the Midwest where we are not represented.”

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Hannah Cole is an intern with KCUR's Up To Date.
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