ORLANDO, Fla. – When Gary C.K. Lau came to Orlando from Hong Kong over 10 years ago, he knew he wanted something different. Ready to start a new life in a new country, Lau settled on helping his wife run her Chinese restaurant. What he didn’t know was that their business would become the gateway for the couple’s future roles in Orange County’s Asian American community.
“When we were at the restaurant, a lot of customers, they asked me many questions. For example, where to buy the soy sauce, how to use the chopsticks, how to celebrate the Chinese New Year,” Lau said. “And those questions I kept answer(ing) and answer(ing) again. I just think if we publish (a) magazine, we can answer it all.”
And he did just that. In 2005, Lau drew on his 25 years of graphic design experience to bring Asia Trend to Central Florida in the form of both a magazine and a community learning center. As he started bringing international news from different Asian countries to the monthly digital publication, Lau was also learning more about the eclectic Asian communities right in Orlando’s backyard.
“When we start(ed) this, we knew more and more about the local Asian community... So, we get together and get stronger for the Asian community. Before that, we only knew the Chinese New Year,” said Lau, the creative director of Asia Trend magazine and former president of Asia Trend Community Learning Center.
His partner in business and life? Shally Wong, Orange County’s official liaison to the Asian American Pacific Islander community.
“A lot of people liked to follow us, especially non-Asians,” Wong said. “They want to know more. We’re just so honored to be able to connect all the sectors. All the Asian generations, we need to support each other.”
The community center connects a diverse collection of cultures, including Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean and Japanese, the largest Asian American and Pacific Islander ethnic groups found in Florida.
It’s also changed a lot since it started over 15 years ago at the Orlando Fashion Square Mall, a facility the group vacated due to financial troubles. Anne Tsoi, the current president of Asia Trend Community Learning Center, said the organization is currently on the hunt for a more permanent location to host their regular activities.
For now, they found a makeshift home in the Russian Ballet Orlando building, where they provide classes, such as “Introduction to Vietnamese Dance and Culture” and “Japanese Taiko drumming” to all age groups, skill levels and ethnicities.
“We welcome all the Asians. Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Filipino, Hawaiian, in order to bring it to American society,” Tsoi said.
While the classes are typically taught by instructors who come from Asian countries, identifying as Asian isn’t a requirement for their students. The center often draws in Americans as well as the next generation of Asian Americans—the kids who were born here but are interested in learning more about the culture their parents and grandparents come from.
Mai-Huong Nguyen’s Vietnamese dance and culture class is known for bridging these generational gaps.
“My goal is to bring another generation in, so that they can help lead the next generation, sharing and passing the torch on,” said Nguyen, the owner of Thuyền Mây Productions.
Nguyen knows how to carry on this knowledge and legacy in both her personal and professional life. Her daughter, Clair Nguyen, serves as secretary and spokesperson for Thuyền Mây Productions.
“We perform wherever there’s a stage,” Clair Nguyen said. “Over the course of our many years, we’ve had kids as young as five and then seniors as old as in the 70s. And we all dance together. Our philosophy is about inclusion and including everyone. Unlike other dance groups, we kind of work with everyone.”
While the group has five to seven core performers, they allow anyone who is interested to practice and perform with them, abiding by the mission represented in their company name.
“Thuyền Mây translates to ‘cloud boat,’ and represents our group’s ideas and mission,” according to the production Facebook page. “Like clouds, Thuyền Mây Productions drifts freely through communities, contributing dance performances, cultural education, and the preservation of Vietnamese culture.”
Thuyền Mây Productions aims to highlight the northern, central and southern regions of Vietnam through dance, with different dance styles reflecting different regions. Their choreographed routines explore the influences of imperialism in northern and central cultures and farm life in southern culture.
“To characterize it as Vietnamese, it’s a whole production,” Clair Nguyen said. “It started in courts and theaters, so it’s always been production-oriented. We would have costumes to represent regions or ceremonies or rituals. (We have) props, like plates, candles, fans. Even spoons and cups. It just depends on the dance... and also the song.”
Nguyen teaches tradition with a twist, often adding contemporary elements to conventional dances. She said it helps further challenge and engage herself and her students.
“Since I’ve been in high school, I like to learn new things... I like to create my own theme, I like to present something different, a mix between the old and the new,” Nguyen said.
Tsoi said she understands not everyone can hop on a plane and explore Asia firsthand, which is why classes, like Nguyen’s, and festivals, like FusionFest and the Dragon Parade Lunar New Year’s Festival, are essential to bringing slices of Asian American culture to America.
“Our organization is very impacting nowadays because you see how everybody knows Chinese, Vietnamese, but they’re not really understanding the culture,” Tsoi said. “My idea is (to) help other people understand us so we can be a melting pot. I think that’ll help the community be more peaceful, like recently having so many hate crimes... We love this country. We love America. So, I like harmony and living together with other people no matter what.”
Before embarking on her role as president of Asia Trend Community Learning Center, Tsoi ran a Chinese restaurant in the Goldenrod area for 30 years. She said she sought to retire with a purpose, one this organization afforded her.
“We are very happy to participate in the community and do something for our Asian community and let people know our Asian culture,” Tsoi said.