Why is Asian culture so underappreciated in Charlotte?

 By Matt Cosper

October 17, 2017

Close interaction between ethnic groups is far more common in large cities with dense urban cores. Charlotte is a sprawling place and has somewhat maintained its segregated status long past the end of Jim Crow; it’s still rare for white and black folks to mingle with each other, much less with other growing ethnic populations. This means that many rich veins of cultural life go unnoticed and unexplored.

Courtesy of Opera Carolina

In the case of Asian culture, one difficulty lies in the sheer scale of the culture in question. Indeed it is difficult to speak of one unified Asian culture with a straight face. Asia, as a geographic designation, covers a vast amount of space and could refer to Iran, Indonesia, Japan, most of Russia and, depending on whom you ask, the subcontinent of India. These are very different people living very different lives. Is it fair to lump them all together?

The Census takers seem to think so and they report that as of 2014 Asians accounted for 5.2% of Charlotte’s population (Based on 2010-2014 data). In that same report they break down Charlotte’s Asian population into the following demographics:

  • 16,088 Indian
  • 8,047 Vietnamese
  • 5,737 Chinese
  • 2,685 Korean
  • 1,936 Filipino
  • 721 Japanese
  • 8,141 “Other”

Charlotte’s total population has nearly doubled since the year 2000, when Asians made up 3.4% of the local population. And yet, as Charlotte’s Asian community grows, most people outside of that community remain largely ignorant of it.

Chances are that your experiences of cultures other than your own are limited to food, and probably a diluted and Americanized version of that food. At least this is likely the case if you live in Charlotte. You’re not going to find the real deal in the food court at SouthPark Mall or even the many restaurants offering “Asian Fusion” cuisine. You’ve got to get out there and look for it. If you ask well-intentioned and adventurous folk about Charlotte’s Asian community they will likely proudly tell you about Dim Sum on Central, Woodlands on Albemarle Road or Le’s Sandwiches and Cafe in the Asian Corner Mall on North Tryon. Food is a great indicator of culture. A people’s cuisine says a lot about them but it isn’t everything. What about art? If the food of a culture tells us how people live, the art of a culture tells us how those people dream.

Tuan (left), Minh (middle), Le (right) of Le’s Sandwiches and Cafe. Photo by Kurt Shackelford

Opportunities to explore Asian art, both traditional and contemporary, are still pretty rare in Charlotte, and if you aren’t already immersed in those communities it can be really difficult to find your way in. It’s not to say there isn’t stuff happening and that you shouldn’t try to find it. All of us can take the initiative to seek out new experiences outside of our comfort zone. But it’s okay to admit that we need help. That is where larger arts institutions can and should help out. We’ve written before about McColl Center’s work to bring a diverse array of contemporary art and artists to Charlotte audiences and are pleased to learn that Opera Carolina is taking steps in this direction as well. This year’s Art Poetry Music benefit concert will feature traditional Chinese and Korean music and poetry amongst other selections by western composers.

The program, on October 21 in the Halton Theatre on CPCC’s main campus, is presented in partnership with the Confucius Institute of Pfeiffer University. Opera Carolina promises “A Lush Fusion of Poetry, Artwork and Opera,” and we can hope that in addition to being a fundraiser for the company, it is also a good faith effort at diversity and inclusion. The cast of singers and musicians for the evening is a fairly diverse group and includes such opera favorites as soprano Xu Lei, tenor Joshua Stewart and baritone Hyung Yun. Master Calligrapher Dr. Zhao Hong will be contributing artwork and Ding Xue’er will be playing the guzheng, a stringed instrument sometimes known as the Chinese zither.

Courtesy of Opera Carolina

Opera Carolina’s principal conductor, James Meena will be the evening’s Maestro. The program credits local multi-disciplinarian John Love Jr. as creative writer, gadfly and poet Phillip Larrimore as visual art consultant and performer / director Kim Parati as the evening’s narrator. These are exciting additions to the creative team, three of Charlotte’s most interesting creative minds. Between the artists involved, the repertoire to be performed, and the venue, this promises to be a worthwhile, if tentative, step in an interesting direction for Opera Carolina.

The company is taking a risk and it isn’t a small one, considering the conservative and homogenous nature of Charlotte’s arts culture at the institutional level. To dedicate programing to works outside of the traditional canon of Western opera says something about organizations priorities. Hopefully this signals a desire to expand the breadth and depth of what Opera Carolina provides for this community. At the very least, it is an opportunity for local audiences to dip their toes into a perhaps unfamiliar world and to begin a longer voyage of discovery that could lead to fuller engagement with the rich culture of our local Asian community.

Celebrate Charlotte’s Asian culture at Opera Carolina’s Art Poetry Music 2017.

*CLTure is a proud partner of Opera Carolina’s Art Poetry Music 2017*

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