Chinese Culture and Cuisine Festival celebrates 30th anniversary

Dragon masks are available for purchase at various vendor booths during the festival at Margaret T. Hance Park on Feb. 7. (Nikiana Medansky/ Downtown Devil)

Phoenix Chinese Week’s annual Chinese Culture and Cuisine Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary over the weekend.

From its former locations at Phoenix’s Chinese Cultural Center and Patriots Square Park to its current location, Margaret T. Hance Park, the festival has undergone a number of changes while striving to retain its focus on community and education.

The festival annually marks the Chinese New Year, and this year it celebrated the Year of the Rat. The festival spans three days and features food, entertainment and activities for all ages.

At the front of the park, a red stage decorated with celebratory lanterns and streamers held performances throughout the festival. Performances included everything from tai chi to yo-yo demonstrations and lion dances.

The festival also included dozens of booths highlighting aspects of Chinese culture. Vendors selling clothes, art, collectibles and more filled the park. Some booths also allowed attendees to play Chinese games, such as mahjong or picking up objects with chopsticks.

At the back of the park, a handful of food trucks circled a small sitting area where attendees could sample a variety of food and drinks of all types, including Chinese bao, Japanese ramen, fry bread and lemonade.

Though the food truck section of the festival offered a number of different Asian foods to try, vendor Jay Kwan said he believes that one of the festival’s greatest strengths is its celebration of Chinese culture and history. Kwan is the owner of an Asian bakery, Happy Buns, and has been a vendor at the festival for the last two years.

“At the end of the day, festivals like this are platforms that expose people to a variety of things,” he said. “A really small example is people don’t know what bao is, and they ask how to spell it or ‘how do you pronounce it?’and I think just little small things like that kind of increases the exposure for everyone in general.”

The importance of exposure to different cultures is also an important asset to other vendors of the festival like Julius Szakolczai, who has performed with yo-yo demonstrations at the festival for more than a decade. Throughout the festival, Szakolczai performs yo-yo tricks and brings kids onstage to learn. He uses modern yo-yos in addition to Chinese yo-yos in his acts.

“You see people who are trying to bring this culture to new people and make it available and, you know, keep people informed, and that’s important,” Szakolczai said.

He added that he enjoys seeing kids who want to learn about Chinese culture at the festival.

“When you make learning fun, that’s when people want to do it,” he said.

As for the people involved in putting on the festival itself, just about everyone agrees that the community is what has kept the festival going for so many years.

“The people are just so people-centered and about personal connections,” Jim Stack, a member of the Phoenix Chinese Week Committee, said. He explained that he has seen people from all different backgrounds come together to be on the committee and help put on the festival.

“It [the community] just makes this big city seem so much warmer and close,” Stack said. He has worked with the committee for the last 10 years and primarily helps with the sound system and information booth.

“We love it because the people that we deal with are just so warm and nice, and we even meet with them and do things on the side that aren’t even related to this because they’re good friends, not just somebody on a committee,” he added. “This isn’t a job, this is a passion.”

Though the festival itself is over, Phoenix’s Chinese New Year celebrations are not. The Phoenix Chinese Week Committee is holding a banquet on Saturday at the Great Wall Restaurant on Camelback Road to end the festivities.

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