By Janet Lumb, Director of Accès Asie
Accès Asie was created in 1995 to present all artistic disciplines: dance, comedy, theatre, video, film, visual arts, music, poetry, performance and new media.
We feature artists with origins from over 20 countries: East Asia (Japan, China, Korea); Southeast Asia (Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, Singapore); South Asia (Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka); Central and Middle Eastern Asia (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and Armenia).
Festival Accès Asie, also known as the Montréal Asian Heritage Festival, was founded on an Asian Heritage Month mandate established in the United States in 1976. This was further developed by the Toronto Asian Heritage Month Group in 1993. The national network of Asian Heritage Month groups and activities vary in mandate from arts presentations to forums, discussions to tributes of outstanding members from the Asian Canadian communities. The Montréal version of this mandate was revised to reflect Montréal’s cultural climate.
The Festival formed in response to a need for a stronger Asian presence in the Québec cultural climate. The Honourable Senator Vivienne Poy declared the month of May in the Senate as the “Asian Heritage Month.” Officially recognized by the ex-minister Sheila Copps in 2003, Asian Heritage Month was celebrated by over 10 cities across Canada in 2005 and the City of Montréal officially declared the month of May as Asian Heritage Month in May 2004.
Accès Asie is the longest running Asian Heritage Festival in Canada.
There are some past prominent players who deserve to be recognized and acknowledged for this formation. In 1995, impressario Bernard Nguyen first approached Janet Lumb about organizing a Festival to celebrate Asian Heritage Month. An ad hoc collective first formed with Bernard, Rebecca Chong, Hunt Hoe and Lumb. A big thank you goes to Toronto’s Asian Heritage Month director Saheed Khan who initiated with the Canada Council for the Arts and Garry Cristall a national Asian heritage meeting in 1996. This meeting consisted of activists such as Vancouver’s Jim Wong Chu and Zainub Verjee, Toronto’s Desh Pardesh team and Montréal’s team of Bernard Nguyen, Atif Siddiqi and myself. With a small efficient team that included such folks as Patrice Fouché, Atif Siddiqi, Salman M. Hussain, Nancy Tatabe, Viviane Schami and Vivi Anthy, the Montréal Asian Heritage Month Group was born. I would like to thank Bernard for his great initiative and foresight during the formative years (1995–96).
Artist, musician, writer and gay activist extraordinaire, Himmat Shinhat was instrumental from 1996–2000 in developing the spirit of the Festival. Himmat is responsible for designing the primary graphic image of our present day logo. Himmat was also a coordinator, translator, performing artist, writer, steering committee member and essentially helped to shape the Festival as it is today. A most grateful kudos goes to Himmat Shinhat who is presently in Ottawa with the Ministry of Immigration.
Milton Tanaka, a newly arrived immigrant who fell in love with a Québecoise and who shocked the Montréal community with his unimaginable Japanese Latino flair, was a treat to work with from 1997 to 2001. During this time until he became a father, Milton maintained a semblance of order in the chaos as the irreplaceable right hand man, Festival coordinator, translator and press attaché.
From 1996 to 2002, a loosely knit group of artists met in various cafes and homes monthly. Stories abounded then as they do now. Do you know about the time when the Festival team was kicked out of Commensal and we were out of a meeting place for awhile? Thanks to Timothy Chan from the Chinese United Services Centre for saving us by offering office space in Chinatown for a brief period. How about the one about the Festival being run out of a bedroom for the first seven years of operations?
In 2002, the Festival officially moved into our office at Centre Gesù. The Festival has since moved three times in this same building to accommodate an expanding team from one staff on a weekly basis in 2002 to our present situation in 2006 of five or six workers ranging from contracted staff, salaried employees, interns, students and volunteers. Wonders never cease.
Appreciation, thanks and gratitude does little to express my heartfelt acknowledgement to the list of the many incredible hopeful believers, urban warriors, fighters, activists and kind souls.
Khosro Berahmandi danced his way into the Festival in 1998 as an artist, volunteer, curator, contracted worker and presently as General Manager. The devastating horror of how and why he came to Canada is a head twisting mismatch to his respecting, honourable integrity. Khosro is an angel who fell to this earth.
Hunt Hoe has been ever present but invisibly since our inception in 1995. As financial consultant, he is responsible for the finances, finalizing grant budgets and ensuring that we are not in debt. Because of Hunt, the Festival has great dance music and rockin’ parties during our potlucks at his place and stays afloat in the wild and wacky runnings of a festival.
Every right is fought for. It is with great thanks that I commend the Canada Council for the Arts for their leadership to listen and to react to community leaders such as Chris Creighton-Kelly, Sharon Fernandez and the list goes on, for their belief to instill the national conscience with the ideals of racial equity in the arts. Without such individuals and leadership, our Festival would not exist. A great many thanks to all individuals who support and help to make this Festival come alive.
Accès Asie Mandate and Artistic Objectives
- To dismantle stereotypes and “cultural barriers”
- To encourage dialogue creating interdisciplinary, intergenerational and intercultural solidarity that further the level of appreciation and understanding of Asian arts, culture and history
- To facilitate the expression of the diversity and exchange of the cultural richness thereof to the mainstream of Canadian society
- To present works by artists of Asian origin and/or works that is based on Asia
Background to Asian cultural expression in Montréal
Montréal is one of the most culturally diverse urban centres in Canada and includes a significant Asian population. However, the Asian population of Montréal is quite diverse in that it is comprised of many communities, each with its own racial, ethnic, linguistic and/or cultural identity. In addition to this cultural diversity, Asian communities are also geographically fragmented across the urban expanse of greater Montréal and its suburbs.
Such an environment renders dialogue, exchange and collaboration between these communities very difficult and generates great obstacles in the struggle to establish any kind of solidarity. Asians wanting to maintain their culture may often become isolated or ghettoized within their own small community and find themselves at odds with the mainstream. Others, perhaps because of alienation from their own community or because the pressure to assimilate weighs more heavily on them, may abandon their community or their cultural identity altogether.
Barriers to mainstream culture
Even though Canada has officially adopted an ideal of multiculturalism, long held prejudices about what constitutes Canadian identity remain institutionalized. The images of Canadian culture and identity propagated by the media remain predominantly “white.” As with many other communities, Asians have had great difficulty in reconciling this image of Canadian culture with their need to assert and to express their own identities.
Media stereotypes continue to have a profoundly disempowering effect on Asians. The struggle to establish that feeling “Canadian” while also taking great pride in one’s Asian culture do not have to be mutually exclusive has only recently begun to receive the kind of attention it deserves.
With regard to Asian artists, the mainstream often groups all artists of colour and their work together in ways that fail to recognize differences of race, class and culture. Since their work is not seen to fit into the arbitrarily defined norms of what constitutes “white” Canadian culture, it is almost automatically excluded from the mainstream.
Barriers between Asian communities
Historically, there has been cultural and economic reciprocity between the different communities in Asia. However, after arriving in Canada, the various Asian communities tend to fragment. This isolation is often the result of trying to adapt to a social environment that is considerably different from the one in the country of origin. Consequently, the interaction and dialogue that was present outside Canada is severely reduced and cultural differences, religious and language barriers further compound this effect.
Barriers for non-traditional artists within their own communities
Many Asian artists are doing work that is either experimental or constitutes a fusion of “east” and “west.” In order to do this kind of work, they have often had to do so outside their communities. As a result, Asian communities are unaware of these artists, are not exposed to their work and rarely have opportunities to support them. Consequently, it has become imperative to facilitate the reconnection of these artists to their communities.