The history of the Asian American Council of Oregon is synonymous with the history of its flagship annual festival – the Oregon Asian Celebration. This event not only began as a way to pass along the rich diversity of Asian cultural traditions to succeeding generations, but also to provide an opportunity for build community for all of its citizens, Asians and non-Asians.
The organization was founded in 1986 and is unique from most community-based Asian organizations in the United States. Early founders felt it was important to create a Council that was inclusive of individuals representative of various Asian ethnicities, rather than operating as a Council dominated by one Asian ethnic group to fulfill its vision. They envisioned creating an organization that would could be catalyst for creating a positive image of the Asian community, building cultural awareness, promoting Asian services and businesses, building pride in their children of Asian cultural heritage and succeeding generations, providing referral services, and most importantly, serving as a communication link amongst the Asian community.
The founders came up with a mission statement for the newly formed council. And as the years went on, the organization opened up its board of director positions to anyone, regardless of their ethnicity, who was interested in supporting this mission.
Formerly known as the Eugene-Springfield Asian Council, the organization’s humble beginnings was as an effort to bring together the small population of Asian and Asian American community leaders and business owners in the Eugene and Springfield area as a way to create awareness of Asian owned businesses, build a sense of community, and to develop support for each other.
During the mid-1980s, several key community leaders such Angie Collas-Dean (Filipina community activist), Ada Lee (Chinese businesswoman), Vern Ho (Chinese education administrator and community advocate), Ken Nagao (Japanese architect), Richard Lin, (educator and Taiwanese business owner), David Toyama (Japanese, Lane County Government), and Miso Joo (Japanese, public school educator and activist) reached out to others who represented other Asian ethnic groups to join a newly formed council for the purpose of building more awareness of Asian businesses in the area and also increase awareness of Asian cultural diversity. The expanded membership included others who represented Indonesian, Malaysian, Pacific Islanders, and Thai ethnicities. Out of this discussion emerged the creation of an Asian Business Directory that would be a way to learn of other Asians in the community, but also result in providing an important communication network amongst the disparate Asian ethnic groups.
To publish the directory, however, donations and funds would be needed. The idea emerged to produce an Asian cultural festival based on a highly successful event in the early 1980s that was produced for an economic development delegation visiting from Taiwan. Area business leaders, community advocates, and government officials attended an evening cultural event that featured a diversity of Asian cultural performances and foods.
The success of this event set the stage to begin plans to produce a larger festival for the general public and to charge general admission as a fundraiser for the Asian Business Directory project. The new event would expand to include diverse Asian cultural performances, Asian foods, fine arts, folk crafts, demonstrations, and displays. On February 16, 1986, a six-hour festival took place in the auditorium at the Lane County Fairgrounds. More than 700 people attended. Admission was $1 for adults and .50 cents for children 12 and younger. The Council’s founders deemed the event a success with great things to come in the future.
A few years later, and building on the enduring success of the annual Asian Celebration, the founders in the late 1980s envisioned the establishment of a cultural center that could serve as a hub to facilitate cross-cultural exchange. The center would offer educational programs, space for performances, exhibits, community gatherings, meeting space, and art shows.
The IRS denial as a 501 (c3) “nonprofit organization” led the Asian Council founders to create a “sister organization” called the “Asian American Foundation of Oregon” that would officially become the charitable arm of the Asian Council. The foundation could then seek donations to begin collecting funds to one day establish a cultural center and support the foundation’s mission was nearly identical to the Asian Council’s mission.
The vision to eventually establish a cultural center continues to this day. Since its founding, the foundation has awarded annual college scholarships to deserving students who have made significant contributions to furthering the mission of both the Asian Council and Asian American Foundation of Oregon.
Since the foundation’s early years, it has made several attempts to secure the property for a cultural center. A viable option has yet to surface, and the foundation will continue its search for land or buildings to fulfill its vision.
Because the Asian Celebration appeared to be highly successful with the general public, the Asian Council seeded several other Asian cultural events in the community between the 1980s-1990s, with most continuing today. These events include:
Asian Kite Festival – 1987 to present
This event started at Amazon Park/Community Center and today is held at the Yujin Gakuen Immersion School. It is held in early May each year. (Cancelled in 2020, 2021, & 2022 due to Covid-19).
Obon & Taiko Drumming Festival – 1989 to present
This event started at Lamb Cottage in Skinner Butte Park and now takes place at Alton Baker Park near the picnic shelter area. It is held on the last Saturday of July each year. In 2021, the Obon Festival welcomed the annual Oregon Asian Celebration that is traditionally held indoors, to join the Obon Festival at Alton Baker Park.
Dragon Boat Races – early 1990-1992
This event started at Petersen Barn Community Center and continued for 2 or 3 years.
The mission of the Asian American Council of Oregon (AACO) is to create opportunities which foster friendship and harmonious relations among all people by presenting events and activities that will stimulate a better understanding of Asian and Asian-American cultures.