Two decades ago, when I told my friends that I wanted to start a cultural festival to celebrate Denver’s Asian American community, the challenge seemed formidable. The Asian American population here was quite small then, and we had a bigger stigma to overcome: Our culture teaches us to be quiet, respectful and hardworking, so we weren’t used to promoting our accomplishments.
That’s why I’ve been thrilled to witness how the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival has become an anticipated cultural event in Denver. This weekend, more than 120,000 people are expected to attend the nineteenth annual festival in Sloan’s Lake Park that will feature 55 teams racing authentic 40-foot-long dragon boats, musical performances and a marketplace selling Asian food and crafts. This success clearly mirrors the rise of Asian American communities across the country. Today, we are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States, according to a new report by New American Economy (NAE). And we are doing much more to project our voices — and celebrate our significant contributions.
Prior to launching the festival, I knocked on doors in Denver’s pan-Asian community and found supporters among the Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean, Asian Indian, Filipino, Laotian, Cambodian, Mongolian and Japanese groups who shared my enthusiasm. Dragon boat festivals hail from China, date back 2,000 years and are popular all over Asia. During the race, a team of 22 paddlers works together to power the wooden boats, whose heads and tails are beautifully carved. In the Taiwanese style of racing, the winner is declared after the person sitting on top of the dragon head grabs the flag at the finish line and throws it into the water. Having lived in Colorado for more than forty years, I knew the race would appeal to our city’s love of athleticism and appetite for physical adventure.
Over the years, the team-style competition has been a great way to engage the community. We register racing teams comprised of members from Asian American community organizations, local nonprofit organizations, corporations as well as Denver Parks and Recreation employees and the Denver Police Department.
The Asian American population in Denver is small — just over 4.5 percent – but we’ve come a long way since the city’s Chinatown was demolished during anti-Chinese riots in 1880. In 2007, the city established the Denver Asian American Pacific Islander Commission to connect the community, the Agency for Human Rights and Community Partnerships and the mayor’s office. In the beginning, the City and County of Denver supported the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival by providing grants, security and logistical help. Both Denver’s mayor and Colorado’s governor usually make an appearance.
Our state and municipal leaders clearly appreciate how much Asian Americans have to give. In 2017, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders earned nearly $745 billion in income nationwide and paid more than $218 billion in taxes, according to the NAE report. The median income of such households was $80,100, compared to $60,000 for the U.S. population as a whole. Further, the report found significant Asian American contributions in both high-skilled STEM fields and in the food and service industry.
As a minority group, we still have a lot of work to do to make our voices heard, whether it’s running for political office or educating the public about cultural stereotypes.
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I am proud to have created something that connects all Denver residents, be they immigrants or native-born. The Colorado Dragon Boat Festival not only showcases how supportive and welcoming our city is, but it also sends an important message to us all: Asian Americans have a rich culture and, if we use it, a strong voice.
Taiwanese immigrant Ding-Wen Hsu is a co-founder of the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival, which will be held July 27 and July 28 at Sloan's Lake. Find out more about the Dragon Boat Festival at cdbf.org.
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