Under Autumn Moon Exhibition

Under Autumn Moon: reclaiming time and space in Chinatown

Joan May Cordova and Kathy Shimizu share photographs and block prints documenting the meanings of Chinatown's Mid-Autumn Festival, a vital celebration of culture and community. Initiated and produced by Asian Americans United (AAU) for 15 years, Mid-Autumn Festival has been a resource for sustaining this last remaining community of color in Philadelphia's center city, and for pushing back against predatory development schemes. Organized as part of a series of events celebrating AAU's 25th Anniversary.   View Slideshow


To live as an Asian in Philadelphia is to be told in many ways that you don’t belong. Our faces are missing from the media. We aren’t represented in government. Our histories aren’t taught in the schools. Even in Chinatown Asians are too often shoved aside—by the Convention Center with its busloads of out-of-towners, in streets choked with commuters, and by attempts to push a stadium, a prison, and a casino onto the community. But for the past 15 years, there has been a night when the streets really belong to the people, when who we are and what we do takes center stage.

It started in 1995 when a group of Chinese immigrant youth expressed to Asian Americans United (AAU) members their homesickness and their longing for the upcoming Mid-Autumn Festival—a time of family reunification that was all but ignored here in the US These young people decided to recreate that festival here in honor of the elderly. Four hundred people gathered at the first celebration in the Holy Redeemer parking lot, and a Philadelphia Chinatown tradition began.

Each year, thousands of people crowd the main street of Chinatown for a day and evening of cultural performances, carnival games, arts activities, a lion dance, and a lantern > parade. The Festival culminates in a tradition of our own making: a mooncake-eating contest. And most significant of all, the event is community-made: hundreds of volunteers, dozens of businesses, and scores of artists come together to create something reflecting our values and hopes for our slice of the world.

In working for social justice, we need to build a sense of history and belonging-to-place among our people whose lives are marked by dislocation. For our children to have roots, for our families to have a sense of community, for our elderly to embrace memories and discover the power of passing on meaningful traditions, we must continually fight for the time and space to celebrate. Over the past 15 years, the Mid-Autumn Festival has become a foca point for that fight.

This exhibit of photographs and block prints of recent Mid- Autumn Festivals by AAU members Joan May Cordova and Kathy Shimizu is the first event in a yearlong celebration of AAU’s 25th anniversary. A work in progress, the display will be the basis for other documentation efforts. The quotations included here were drawn from gatherings of AAU members, who reflected on the meanings the celebration holds. We thank the following people who were quoted, interviewed or wrote reflections on the Mid-Autumn festival: Mary Banhdith, Alex Buligon, Maxine Chang, Michael Chow, TJ Do, Helen Gym, Judy Ha, Gina Hart, Eric Joselyn, Hon Lui, Dun Mark, Ellen Somekawa, Jade Trinh, Ally Vuong, Debbie Wei, Bai Wei Wu, Andy Zheng.

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About the Artists

Joan May T. Cordova began taking photos for AAU during the opening day of FACTS school in 2005. Her work is sustained by connections to history, culture, memory and communities. She is exploring various media to honor community stories. She first published photos of immigration advocacy in 2006 and worked with a Filipino American National Historical Society – Pennsylvania (FANHS – PA) and Scribe video team in 2007. She hopes that her images will reflect the spirit and values found in special moments of AAU’s Mid-Autumn Festival. She invites us all to engage in ongoing dialogue: What does this festival mean to you? To your community? To our city? What elements of history and culture do we remember? Pass on? How does reclaiming culture shape who we are and what our communities might become?

Kathy Shimizu has been volunteering as an organizing committee member and a stage manager for the Mid-Autumn Festival since she moved to Philadelphia in 2006. She created these block prints to try to convey the many aspects of the festival; the community-building, the volunteering, the expression and preservation of cultural heritage and traditions, and the fun and empowerment of gathering the wider community together in Chinatown. Through this project, Kathy hopes to increase awareness of the festival’s mission and give an alternative to the mainstream image of Chinatown while celebrating what makes the Festival so special.

About the prints

The strip of Kathy’s block prints is a work in progress depicting events as they unfold throughout the day at the Mid-Autumn Festival, from set-up to take-down, including behind-the-scenes activities, the carnival and the parade. Some of the images were inspired by Joanie’s photos, while others were created from memories of the day’s events. The words are excerpted from reflections on the festival collected from the community for this project. The creation of this strip began in 2008 (with prints created for past festival posters) and will continue until June 2010. The finished prints are created with rubber blocks. Those still in development are represented here by a sketch. In the final show the words will be either rubber or wood block prints.

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About the Photographs


  1. 7:30 am, 10th Street, day of Mid-Autumn Festival (MAF). Following months of work by dozens of people on committees, the festival begins. Ellen Somekawa, Asian Americans United (AAU) Executive Director, draws a chalk map of the festival on 10th Street to show the 10 am volunteer crew where to set up the tents, art tables, chairs, and the carnival. Photo by Kathy Shimizu, 2009
  2. More than 100 students volunteer to work with AAU leaders to set up and run the Mid-Autumn Festival. College students (former AAU high school youth) return to volunteer, often in new leadership positions, coordinating committees organizing the stage, arts, food, carnival and younger volunteers: MAF is a community and leadership building process. Here, Z. T. Lin, Joseph Tran and Chenny To set up chairs.
  3. View from Race and 10th Streets in 2008. AAU student volunteers in blue shirts sign in for their shifts. Front row seats are reserved for elders to watch cultural performances on the stage.
  4. AAU volunteer Matt Tae hangs a poster created by middle school youth in AAU’s Paths to Leadership summer program. Youth studied Chinatown and Chinatown North and created posters showing what they would like to see changed. They noticed a lack of green in the community and envisioned gardens in the place of vacant lots and food markets in the place of abandoned buildings.
  5. Children work on Chinese paper cutting at one of the many arts and crafts tables led by local artists. A team of community-minded artists organizes arts activities for children every year (calligraphy, lanternmaking, paper folding, hat-making, printmaking, and more).
  6. Lantern riddles are a traditional activity in China at Mid-Autumn Festival and other festivals such as the Lantern Festival. The riddles, often using puns, word play, and logic problems are posted on lanterns. Festival-goers who correctly guess riddles receive small prizes. High school volunteer Amy Lee stands beside the lantern riddle booth.
  7. At the 2008 Mid-Autumn Festival, Dun Mark, an 86-year old resident of Chinatown, community Tai Chi teacher, and longtime member of the Mid-Autumn Festival Committee, points to the “No Casino in Chinatown” poster. Over 25,000 people signed petitions opposing the proposed casino.
  8. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, AAU board member Helen Gym, and AAU co-founder Debbie Wei enjoy performances during the 2008 Mid-Autumn Festival. AAU moved the Mid-Autumn Festival to the main street of Chinatown in an effort to reclaim public space and to assert Chinatown’s right to exist as a community. For too long, Chinatown has been regarded as a tourist destination rather than a residential neighborhood. Bringing elected officials to the Festival is a way of demonstrating the vitality and strength of the community.
  9. Mei Mei Dancers perform a Mountain Village Dance. Performers: Christy Levandowski, Maddie McCann-Colvard, Heather McCarty, Lili McElhill, Sophie Sharm, Emily Taylor-Bannan, Becky Wenner. The Mei Mei dancers of South Jersey are all adopted from China. Their performance in the center of Chinatown at Mid-Autumn Festival helps “give them a perspective on their roots,” according to one mother.
  10. 10th Street audience. More than 6000 people—a multiracial, intergenerational crowd—participate in the Mid-Autumn Festival.
  11. Between Lion Dance performances, Nathan Trinh and Zhao Gu Gammage listen to their kung fu teacher, Sifu (Master) Cheung, explain the Chinese lunar calendar.
  12. Cheung Shu Pui’s Hung Gar Kung Fu Academy lion dancers wait to perform. A lion dance, dragon dance and lantern parade have been features of the festival for many years. The parade through Chinatown engages the broader neighborhood in the festivities, and the lion dancers are important signs of celebration.
  13. Yu Jan Wang, from Philadelphia Asian Music and Dance Association, performs a Chinese folk dance. One of many performing groups who fill the stage from noon to 10 pm.
  14. Brooms are ready for many late night AAU volunteers who sweep streets, pack up the stage equipment, stack chairs, and organize garbage and recycling, before loading materials for the move back to FACT Charter School where they will be stored until next year’s Mid-Autumn Festival.
  15. In 2009, hundreds of people sat through torrential rain to watch all of the evening cultural performances at the Mid-Autumn Festival. Photo by Kathy Shimizu

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ExcerPts from reflections

Goals of the Mid-Autumn Festival: To promote Chinatown community unity through cultural reclamation; To promote pride in Chinese culture and community; To engage various sectors of the community in support for a community-wide celebration; To promote intergenerational cooperation. —Written by AAU in 1996

AAU has always seen arts and cultural work as a fundamental means for creating social change in our communities. Folk arts in particular can be a catalyst for social change with a power that unites the political fight for social justice with a profound cultural thread which speaks to the heart and the spirit. —Debbie Wei

I see my students eagerly volunteering each year. For them, it’s a way to feel needed and part of the process of cultural transmission in a way that teens aren’t called upon to do. —Gina Hart

People talk about having neighbors. When you come to the Festival, these are your neighbors. —Hon Lui

Today, Mid-Autumn remains one of the most special celebrations for our own family. It has become a tradition that my children look forward to. My own family now honors Chusok and our Korean heritage. And every year under the autumn moon, I am ever grateful for the AAU family, this celebration, and the new traditions we create together. —Helen Gym

When I help old people, it honors my grandfather. —Andy Zheng

I want the elderly to be happy. —Bai Wei Wu

When we create a street festival, we strengthen connections among people, honor the knowledge of the elders in our communities, activate people, and value our own cultures. This is fundamental to social justice work because if people don’t care deeply about their neighbors, their fellow workers, or themselves, what will motivate them to stand up for
each other? And if people are not up for caring about themselves or their neighbors, what happens when it comes time to stand up for those who are defined as “other”? — Ellen Somekawa

We knew that working with these youth to establish a Mid-Autumn Festival in Chinatown would not only fill a cultural need, but also could serve to raise the consciousness of the Chinatown community to the fundamental human right to culture. —Debbie Wei

To me this is the greatest thing that AAU has done for Chinatown. After all, the thing is to get people together.—Dun Mark

The festival is the crossroads of community, culture, and family. There is no other place like it. —Alex Buligon

It’s good for the second generation to learn to be in charge of the Mid-Autumn Festival. They learn about culture. They learn about serving the community. And they learn about leadership – about taking responsibility and getting along with their colleagues. —Michael Chow

I want to be part of something that can unite people and make them happy. —Jade Trinh
We’ve been struggling as a community fighting against the development of highways, baseball stadiums, and casinos that only harm and constrain us. Mid-Autumn Festival is our time to celebrate our triumphs and be proud that we’re an awesome community together. —Ally Vuong

If there were no Mid-Autumn Festival, I would probably not be the person I am today. Mid-Autumn Festival connected me to Asian Americans United and AAU brought forth my passion for fighting the social injustices faced by minority communities. I am truly humbled by the opportunity to volunteer and plan this festival from my high school years and
as I graduate from college. I hope to continue this tradition and pass on to future generations the fundamental cultural and community values that the Mid-Autumn Festival has been founded on. —Maxine Chang

The decorations I like seeing the most are the lanterns some of the kids from FACTS made in art class and brought here tonight to light and to carry in the parade. —Eric Joselyn

I see a big organization that’s trying to help out one big community. —TJ Do
I understand what it’s like for people to immigrate to a new country and learn a new culture so it’s always nice to bring something from home to share. —Mary Banhdith

I think it’s just the fun of it, just the fun of meeting new people. I learn new things every time I come here. —TJ Do

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Kathy and Joanie thank all the generations of community members who have worked with AAU to create the Mid-Autumn Festival; Ellen Somekawa and the current AAU Thursday night regulars who continue to fight oppression and build communities; Debora Kodish and the PFP for sponsoring this exhibition; Gary Smalls and Brian Bazemore for installation help and advice; Stuart Brent from Vacord Screen Printing & Custom Vinyl for the wall art vinyl; family and friends in all of our communities. Special thanks to Gregor Reid from Kathy.

This exhibition is part of PFP’s “Home Place” project exploring ways in which local folk arts address displacement. It is funded by the Philadelphia Center for Arts and Heritage through the Heritage Philadelphia Program, National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Humanities Council and PNC Arts Alive. Shimizu and Cordova were supported by a grant from the Leeway Foundation.

The Philadelphia Folklore Project is committed to paying attention to the experiences and traditions of “ordinary” people. We work to sustain the diverse folk arts of the greater Philadelphia region, build critical folk cultural knowledge, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities. We’re a 23-year old independent public folklife agency; annually, we offer exhibitions, concerts, workshops and assistance to artists and communities.

Founded in 1985, Asian Americans United exists so that people of Asian ancestry in Philadelphia exercise leadership to build our communities and unite to challenge oppression. AAU has worked in Philadelphia’s Asian American communities and in broader multiracial coalitions around quality education, youth leadership, anti-Asian violence, immigrant rights, and folk arts and cultural maintenance. For more information: Ellen Somekawa, AAU, 1023 Callowhill St., Philadelphia, PA 19123, 215.925.1538, aau@aaunited.org, www.aaunited.org

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Exhibit Links:
About the artists
About the prints
About the photographs
Excerpts from reflections