By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
February marks the start of the Year of the Snake on the Chinese calendar, and the traditional celebration of the Chinese New Year nearly slithered away from downtown Hilo.
However, supporters are coming together to put funding concerns aside and hold the 11th annual Chinese New Year Festival on a “zero budget” if they have to, said Alice Moon, director of the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association.
“It’s on,” said Moon, who notified DIA members last week that the 10-year-old event was being canceled. A miserable holiday shopping season and dwindling grant funds for cultural activities spelled its doom, she said. But several DIA members refused to accept the festival’s demise, and you could say it’s being brought back by popular demand.
“We may not have everything we’ve had in the past,” Moon said. “It’s going to be a smaller event.” But it’s on. “We really had to make this happen.”
The event will be held from 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Feb. 9, beginning at Mooheau Park downtown. The festival will include performances by Kobudo Taiko and the Hawaii County Band, and dozens of artists, food vendors and more.
Many “vendors, tried and true,” count on participating in the festival each year and had already been preparing, Moon said. Organizations like Hui Okinawa, “every year they look forward to it. Over the weekend, all these things came together.”
Moon said the DIA’s difficulty developing funding sources this year was the reason for canceling the event and she was reluctant to tap the struggling downtown merchants for more support. Past festivals, which have included pageants, dinners and paid musicians from Honolulu, have had costs ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.
County Product Enrichment Grants, supported by funds from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, formerly provided the DIA funds for the festival, Moon said, but the grants have been opened up to commercial businesses and her nonprofit cannot compete. Last year, the DIA applied for but did not receive funding. This year, it did not apply.
“There has been less and less money over the past four years,” she said.
“I don’t know about (hiring) lion dancers this year,” she said. There’s only one lion dance troupe on the island, Big Island Shaolin Arts in Waikoloa, and they represent a considerable investment in the festival. The troupe is also already committed to other events on the Lunar New Year’s Eve, when the DIA has scheduled its event.
“They had to make other arrangements,” Moon said.
“The Christmas season was brutal downtown,” she said. “Many businesses are hanging on a thread,” and Koehnen’s Interiors, always a strong supporter of DIA events, closed its doors in December. “Right now we’re at the tail of the dragon, and people are maybe feeling that.”
Attendance at past festivals has reached 10,000-12,000, she said.
Well-known design artist Nelson Makua, who has created the T-shirts and posters for all of the festivals, was not surprised by the announcement that the festival was closing.
“I understood it. I wasn’t that shocked.” But he was “really happy” upon hearing that it’s going to be held after all, even if not as big as in year’s past. “Better than being off,” he said. “I just felt it gave people a breather after Christmas and kicks off the whole year in Hilo.”
Next year will be the Year of the Horse, then the Chinese calendar cycles back to the Year of the Ram again, when the festival began, and Makua hopes it lasts long enough to complete the full calendar cycle, at least.
Dennis Taniguchi, director of the East Hawaii Cultural Center, was “very disappointed” to learn the festival was being canceled. “It’s a very important holiday, and there’s absolutely nothing else on the island. It doesn’t make sense.”
EHCC sponsored live performances in Kalakaua Park and helped support local artists and musicians and the downtown community, but those fell by the wayside due to lack of the same funding that nearly did in this year’s Chinese New Year celebration. He wonders why the HTA, which this year has been touting high numbers of visitors to Hawaii, has been cutting back grant funding for local cultural events like Chinese New Year celebrations.
“This year we’ll have a money-less festival,” Taniguchi said. “It’s just a constant struggle to bring people into downtown Hilo.”
Moon called the event the “largest and only free Chinese cultural event focused on this auspicious holiday. We really don’t see much of the Chinese culture presented this way.”
“I think it would be a big loss to the community,” said Lily Chow, widow of the late Robert “Steamy” Chow. The Chows were early supporters of the festival. “It was his Uncle Hiram (former State Sen. Hiram Chow, owner of the Kress Building) who brought it to Hilo,” she said. “Steamy managed the Kress Building for him.”
“We support the community with our Chinese culture,” Chow said. “I would like to see it perpetuated, but over the years, it seems the culture is dwindling away. The public and the county should support it. It should be a big part of the culture of the community.”
And now it will for another year, Moon said, with the “help of a small group of people gathering together to honor our ancestors and our families.”
For more information, visit www.downtownhilo.com.
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.