Wealth of culture

Thailand in spotlight: Multiple ethnicities gather for celebration

February 11, 2011 

People don't wear fancy clothes on new year's day in Thailand. They know they could get drenched in buckets of water or blasted with a giant water pistol wielded by new year revelers. But visitors to Saturday's Asia Pacific New Year's Celebration in Tacoma won't have to worry about getting wet even though the event will spotlight Thailand and its customs.

“No water fights at the Tacoma Dome because it’s cold still,” said Peter Tangpiankij, president of the Thai Association of Washington State and one of the event organizers.

The Tacoma-based Asia Pacific Cultural Center is organizing the 13th annual celebration of new year traditions and cultures of Asian and Pacific Islander communities in the greater Puget Sound area. Each year, the gathering emphasizes one community. This year, it’s Thailand’s turn.

While most communities will have about 15 minutes each on stage, the eight-hour celebration features a two-hour program dedicated to Thailand. In addition to live performances of traditional dance and music, the segment includes a Thai boxing demonstration and a fashion show of clothes from the country’s four regions.

It’s a rare opportunity for area residents to see a wealth of Thai culture, said Tangpiankij. Even the Thai Royal Consulate-General in Los Angeles is sending a representative.

“We are honored, we are proud, and we are happy to be part of it,” Tangpiankij said.

At least 16 cultures will be represented at the festival. The continuous live entertainment will include traditional dance from Samoa, Tonga, Cambodia, India, Vietnam and Korea, and performances by a Japanese chorus, an Okinawan taiko drum group and a Hawaiian band. Other participating communities are the Philippines, China, Tahiti, Fiji, Guam and Taiwan.

Performances are only part of the festivities. Visitors can browse through arts and crafts displays or shop at more than 60 booths. They can see crafters make Korean lotus flowers and demonstrate Korean calligraphy. Children can play cultural games and try origami, the Japanese art of folding paper into miniature animals and other items.

When their tummies begin to growl, festival-goers can try pad Thai or cashew stir fry from Olympia restaurateur Narai Asian Cuisine, or go for the skewered barbecued pork and Viet-style chow mein with lemon grass and tofu from Tacoma’s Bamboo Grill.

Lua Pritchard, executive director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center, urges families to enjoy the entire day’s worth of offerings. “These performers work hard to perform and need people to stay and watch,” she said.

While multiple ethnicities congregate at the festival, it also is a reminder that each community and its new year traditions overlap and vary.

For instance, Japan’s new year festivities coincide with the western calendar date of Jan. 1 while the Chinese and some Southeast Asian peoples focus on the Chinese lunar calendar that started Feb. 3. The Chinese lunar new year is linked to the Chinese zodiac associating animals with each year in the 12-year cycle.

In the Chinese zodiac, 2011 is the year of the rabbit. Children born this year are said to share the hare’s personality traits of compassion, grace and calm. The Vietnamese Tet new year observes the Chinese zodiac, but the cat replaces the rabbit.

While Thais observe the new year countdown Jan. 1 and some celebrate the lunar year, their biggest new year tradition happens April 13-15, a time rooted in ancient Indian astrological calculations.

The festival will showcase Thai culture, rather than serve as a strict interpretation of a Thai new year celebration, Tangpiankij said.

During the three days of the Thai new year, Thais visit temples to offer food and money to the monks and pour jasmine-scented water over statues of the Buddha.

To show gratitude to their ancestors, many people bring urns with the ashes of loved ones, write the names of the departed on paper, then watch the monks ceremoniously burn the paper and pass it to "the other world," said Tanya Manley, a native of Bangkok who immigrated to Tacoma four years ago.

Elders receive visits from younger relatives and splash water on their heads as a blessing, Tangpiankij said. Spectators line the streets to watch parades featuring women who wear traditional clothes and compete in beauty pageants.

And whenever people walk down the street, they risk getting soaked by water guns. But they don’t get mad. It’s the height of summer, and the temperature hovers in the 100s.

“It makes you feel fresh and fun,” said Manley, who works as an adviser at Pierce College.

In the Puget Sound region, water-throwing festivities are observed at Thai churches and temples in April but not to the same extent as in Thailand, Tangpiankij said.

The 2000 Census tallied about 5,000 people of Thai descent living in the state, he said. While last year’s census figures have yet to be released, Tangpiankij said the population undoubtedly will have grown.

“There are quite a lot of Thai people in Pierce County. Quite a few got married to G.I.s during the Vietnam War,” Tangpiankij said. “Now they come here to study. Some work in the colleges, some of them own Thai restaurants, some work in the military serving the nation.”

Formation of the Thai Association of Washington State in 2009 speaks to that growth. There was an earlier statewide group of Thai people, but it disbanded about 18 years ago.

“Now we have more people, and our economy is stronger,” he said. “We want people around here to enjoy the diverse colorful culture we have.”

Debby Abe: 253-597-8694, debby.abe@thenewstribune.com

ASIAN NEW YEAR AT THE DOME

What: 13th annual Asia Pacific New Year’s Celebration. The Asia Pacific Cultural Center, a nonprofit group in Tacoma, organizes the event along with members of at least 16 Asian and Pacific Islander communities, with support from numerous sponsors. Thailand will be in the spotlight for this year’s festivities.

Where: Tacoma Dome Exhibition Hall

When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Saturday

Admission: Free

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