The Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation, a Birmingham-based nonprofit, has jumpstarted a campaign to bring an Asian cultural complex to Birmingham.
Helen Kim, Ph.D, the current president of the Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation, along with her colleagues Robert Davis, Kusum Singh, Sanjeev Chaudhuri, Margaret Stinnett and Rangbao Li, want to see an Asian cultural complex that includes a Chinese garden, a cultural center and an “International Peace Plaza” connecting the two.
“We’re in communication with the mayor’s office. The mayor himself and a lot of the city council are very supportive of having this Asian cultural center and Chinese garden somewhere in the city of Birmingham or in the Greater Birmingham area,” Kim said. “We think it’d be really good for Birmingham.”
Kim, a retired associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at UAB, serves as both the president and as a board member for the Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation. The Foundation, which obtained non-profit status in May 2005, was founded by Davis, a retired high school science teacher, to support Asian cultural organizations around the Greater Birmingham area and across the state.
Shifting the Focus
Before Kim joined the organization in 2009, its main goal had been to build a classical Chinese garden, much like the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese garden seen in Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Lan Su Chinese garden in Portland, Oregon. However, as the organization has matured over the past 10 years, the focus has shifted slightly.
“We’re still wanting to build a Chinese garden, but our goal has shifted to where our first emphasis is going to be to build an Asian culture and education center,” said Kim. “Hopefully on the same big site as the Chinese garden.”
There are 11 authentic Chinese gardens in North America alone: two in Canada and nine within the U.S. However, no authentic Chinese gardens currently exist in the Southeast. According to Kim, Chattanooga flirted, and may still be flirting, with the idea. However, she seemed confident that Birmingham will be the first city in the Southeast to host such a structure.
“[The garden and cultural center] is going to happen and we hope soon. It’s going to be on a continuum with the other Chinese gardens in the U.S.,” she said. “Ours is going to be unique, though, because none of them have an official Asian cultural center… the Asian cultural center is going to be a separate building bridged by the International Peace Plaza, which we’ve named after Gandhi.
“We’ll be the only Chinese garden with an adjoining cultural center. We’ll be the to-go destination,” she added.
Kim was born in Korea and her two daughters joke about their mother’s lack of knowledge regarding the Korean language. With her retirement, however, Kim has become more engaged in learning about her roots. When not speaking at conferences and dealing with Foundation logistics, Kim is learning Korean as part of a Korean church community in her spare time, as well as partaking in and admiring Korean and Japanese art, embroidery, and block printing.
Within the past few years, Kim and her youngest daughter were offered a chance to see authentic Chinese gardens up close. Kim was invited to Shanghai, China for a conference and was able to visit Suzhou, a city west of Shanghai, the de facto Chinese garden capital of the world.
“Even small Chinese gardens are expensive,” said Kim. The reason: Chinese gardens, even those in North America, are all built in Suzhou, by classical Chinese architects, and shipped over. Landscaping and other matters dealing with property are handled jointly by American contractors and Chinese architects. All this planning and meticulous set-up puts on a heavy price tag.
Funding and Going Forward
The next step for the foundation is funding. Currently, the organization is gathering resources and starting its capital campaign, as well as finding a location with the several acres required for a full-fledged Chinese garden and cultural center. “It’s got to be several acres. And we want the site to be contiguous, [with] both the cultural center and garden on the same site,” said Kim.
As of right now, the organization meets in a downstairs room of the Hoover Library for board meetings and, when traveling ensembles or dinner parties are present, at Kim’s own residence, a lakeside home in Hoover.
In addition to constructing a home for the foundation and tourist hotspot for Birmingham, Kim also hopes to build a relationship between the diverse communities in the Magic City and around Alabama. “The world is becoming increasingly smaller and smaller. It means that prejudices arise because people don’t understand each other; they don’t know you so they fear you,” Kim said.
“They don’t know your foods, your arts, your cultures. There are these barriers and they are starting to get broken down. If we can make it more accessible, and we can have a place where we can celebrate, people are going to be more amenable to coming to our local food and cultures festivals… If we can have Asian arts and cultures become more familiar to people, then Alabamians are going to be more amenable to accepting and appreciating us. And that can only help us.”
The Alabama Asian Cultures Foundation’s is not solely focused on educating Americans on Asian culture, but also on educating Asian immigrant families and incoming students on American culture. The foundation also wants to provide English lessons and language classes and help Asian individuals in transitioning to American business and behavior, according to Kim.
The foundation organizes a few programs a year, most notably its Alabama Asian Cultures and Food Festival held in April. This year the festival will be held on Saturday, April 9, 2016 at the Zamora Shrine Temple in Irondale. Dances, performances and festivals are some of the activities that the foundation sponsors throughout the year. In recent years, the foundation has financially supported a collaborative concert between the Birmingham Boys’ Choir and the Jasmine Dance Ensemble, an all-female Chinese dance group. Other events have included the hosting of a Korean Percussion and Dance ensemble known as Chae Hyang Soon in 2010 and Arabesque, a contemporary Vietnamese ballet company.
For the Birmingham 2021 World Games, the foundation wants to pursue a leading role. “We want to support the whole effort any way we can, but specifically we want to support the hosting of the athletes from Asian countries: providing interpreters, educating them where the Asian restaurants are and providing a venue for on-site Asian foods for all athletes to try. We just had a meeting with the mayor about it,” said Kim.
The story above reflects a correction in spelling of the name of a city, the addition of a board member not listed on the AACF’s website, how Helen Kim is learning Korean and that she is a native of Korea.