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CLEVELAND — Driving by the parking lot outside of the plaza at East 27th Street and Payne Avenue Thursday, you wouldn’t know there was something big in the works for the upcoming weekend, but the space will soon be transformed into a festival of culture, fresh food and plenty of entertainment as Cleveland Asian Festival is set to kick off Saturday.
For some, like Kendy Kounglavong, driving to the heart of Cleveland’s AsiaTown neighborhood is something she does regularly with her family despite the distance.
“I live like 45 minutes away and we don’t have this big of a community down there,” Kounglavong said. “We drive up here mainly for grocery shopping and food.”
Kounglavong had just spent the afternoon loading her cart up with Asian delicacies from the Park to Shop Supermarket, making sure her pantry was replenished with the ingredients to make authentic Asian cuisine for her children to enjoy as well.
“I’m Laotian,” Kounglavong said. “So we like the different ethnic foods here.”
One of the places Kounglavong frequents is Li Wah, an authentic Chinese restaurant owned by the Hom family, as is the plaza and several other locations in the area.
“Li Wah is hands down one of our top favorite spots for dim sum,” Kounglavong said. “We’ve been all over the U.S. and Li Wah is seriously top-notch.”
Li Wah has been a staple in Cleveland for decades and has, with the contributions from the Homs, become a pillar in AsiaTown.
“It’s our traditional thing, we always come here every weekend, sometimes weekdays,” said a diner leaving the restaurant Thursday afternoon.
Edward Hom, a partner at the restaurant, said that his restaurant sees visitors from all over, some coming from states away just to dine at one of the very few authentic Chinese restaurants that serve dishes that aren’t all Americanized versions of their cuisine.
“You should come for the roast pig,” Hom said. “Roast duck, we have dim sum.”
The meals served at Li Wah are plates that people seek out from all directions—because Hom says there are only a few nearby cities offering what his restaurant does.
“If they don’t come here the next nearest spots are Toronto, Chicago, and New York,” Hom said.
That’s one of the reasons Hom and his family have been so successful—that and because they aren’t just getting a pouring of support from the community, but giving back to it as well.
Hom’s family has been integral to Cleveland Asia Festival since it began in 2010. Now, in its 12th year (after the festival was canceled in 2020), Hom is continuing to make sure the weekend event runs smoothly.
“They’ve actually put in a lot to help us,” said Lisa Wong, co-founder of the Cleveland Asian Festival. “They feed our volunteers, they do whatever we ask, they’re very, very helpful.”
Wong credited those at Li Wah for helping her get everything sorted out, from food to tools to problem-solving, Wong and Hom both work hard to make Cleveland Asian Festival a success.
This year, the first in-person festival since 2019, is no different.
“We have five food trucks,” Wong said. “Ono Toro-Toro…A new egg roll food truck, it’s a mung egg roll food truck, P&P…We have Kona Ice from Westlake…We have Dr. Hibachi…Parilya the Filipino food truck.”
Cleveland Asian Festival is bringing in food and entertainment from a vast array of Asian cultures. Dance groups will perform, live music will ring through AsiaTown and vendors will sell cultural goods over the two-day event.
For those looking to explore the neighborhood, a walking tour has been laid out through the area with notable places to explore shared with visitors.
The festival is scheduled for Saturday and Sunday, May 21 and 22, running from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.
While Li Wah remains a staple in the community and will of course be serving up the food it’s so proud to create for diners over the weekend, there is a bigger goal than just seeing a rush of diners enter the restaurant. For Hom, it’s about getting the entire community involved—putting Asian cultures in the spotlight.
“The goal?” Hom said. “To leave a wonderful China Town for the city of Cleveland.”
Wong said that this weekend event can do that while also changing the way some people unfamiliar with the culture see it.
“People have misconceptions, so we’re here to change that,” Wong said.
And Kounglavong, who said she started attending the Cleveland Asian Festival years ago—she’s also looking forward to seeing Asian cultures highlighted in Northeast Ohio and is hopeful it might help create unity and understanding across other cultures as well.
“I think it’s cool that everybody rallies together and it’s not just Asian people that attend, all different nationalities and races,” Kounglavong said. “Rallying together, especially this day in age where there’s a lot of Asian hate, I just like to see us all sticking together and it’s a beautiful thing to happen, especially in Northeast Ohio. It’s a huge thing, not just showcasing our food but culture as well.”
RELATED: The Cleveland Asian Festival, celebrating food, culture and dance, kicks off May 21 in AsiaTown
Camryn Justice is a reporter at News 5 Cleveland. Follow her on Twitter @camijustice.
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