Montreal’s Asian culture festival turns 20

We spoke to Accès Asie’s artistic and general director about the festival’s 20th edition, on though May 24. PLUS: Festival highlights.

Phoenix Artistic Troupe (Hua Yun). Performing May 22 with a free show at Place des Arts
Throughout the month of May, cities across Canada are celebrating the diverse cultures of the Asian continent from Turkey to Japan with Asian Heritage Month. Here on the Island, we’ll take the opportunity to celebrate the only way we know how: with a festival.

Accès Asie, the Montreal festival of pan-Asian arts and culture is now in its 20th year. Running throughout the month, from May 1–24, this year’s edition offers something for everyone with a stacked program of arts and cultural activities, performances, culinary delights, discussions and more.

We spoke with Accès Asie’s artistic and general director Khosro Berahmandi to find out more about the festival and this year’s program.

Dancer and choreographer Sonia St-Michel
Dancer and choreographer Sonia St-Michel

“The intention behind the festival is to present artists who live here in Montreal and have Asian backgrounds who practice contemporary expression,” says Berahmandi. “Another part of the festival presents traditional music and dance.”

When the festival began twenty years ago, it was often difficult for artists of Asian heritage, including many first generation immigrants to Canada, to continue practicing their art due to a lack of access to professional venues and lack of awareness in the larger community about the types of art that originate from across the Asian continent.

“Now a lot of people know the festival and they realize that there are so many professional Asian artists that live here. The knowledge in society has gone up, the familiarity with different cultures has evolved. At the same time, we have more immigrants from Asia. According to statistics, 60% of immigrants who come to Canada are from Asia.”

Often, when people think of Asia, they think of countries like China and Japan, but Berahmandi explains that Accès Asie is proud to celebrate arts and culture from all across the Asian continent, including South Asian countries like India and Bangladesh, and Middle Eastern countries like Turkey and Iran.

Photography by Hua Jin at 'Checkpoints' exhibition
Photography by Hua Jin at ‘Checkpoints’ exhibition

“Asia is a huge continent and there is huge diversity,” Berahmandi says. “We have so many different religions, cultures, over a hundred different languages being spoken on this continent. The festival acts to bring the communities together among themselves and at the same time bring the voice of the artists to the larger public. I believe the understanding of Asia and Asian cultures here in Montreal has grown over the last 20 years for sure.

“In the end, what we do is celebrate the unity of all the different communities that live here in Montreal through art and culture. We believe art and culture brings people together and can overcome the biases and ideas that are encouraging separation between different communities.”

The festival offers many opportunities throughout the month to discover Asian arts and culture. We’ve compiled a handy list of highlights you won’t want to miss!
May 7–17: The Tashme Project: The Living Archives

The Tashme Project is a play that relays the experiences of the Nisei, the second-generation Japanese-Canadians who were confined in internment camps during WWII, and based on testimonies from 20 former children of the camps.  MAI, 3680 Jeanne-Mance, 8 p.m. daily, $20–$25
May 9: Vernissage for Checkpoints and The State of Origin: REEL & IMAGINED

Drop by the Maison de la Culture de Côte-des-Neiges for a cocktail vernissage of two visual art exhibitions. Checkpoints features video, photography and installations on the theme of the checkpoint as a barrier to movement. The State of Origin, presented by the Canadian collective The Digital Silk Route, takes a look at the impacts of migration and globalization on individuals and communities.  5290 Côte-des-Neiges, 2–4 p.m., free. Exhibitions continue to June 14.
May 16 : Middle East Dance Competition

Come to Sala Rossa for the chance to see sixteen Montreal-based amateur and semi-professional dancers show off their skills, representing six different Middle-Eastern styles of belly-dance. 4848 St-Laurent, 9 p.m.,  $10–$15
May 21–23: Winds of Asia: Free Performance Series

Accès Asie is presenting a number of free outdoor performances at Place des Arts. On Thursday, Indian dance choreographer Sonia St-Michel will perfrom at noon and 4 :45p.m., and on Friday, see traditional Chinese dance troupe Phoenix Artistic Troupe (Hua Yun). Come back Saturday afternoon from 2 :30–5:30 for Bollywood dance performances and workshops by Danse Atmana, followed by a Japanese dance performance called Taiko Fusion, by Rie Sasahara.  Place Des Arts Esplanade, May 21–23, see program for full details.
May 22: The Thomas Wang Project by Cheryl Sim

Head to Oboro for multidisciplinary artist Cheryl Sim’s presentation of The Thomas Wang Project, based on the story of Sim’s great-uncle who was executed by the Chinese government in 1948 on suspicion of profiteering. The film noir style media installation uses one family’s personal story as a starting point for exploring the socio-cultural and political situation of China just prior to the establishment of the People’s Republic. 4001 Berri, #401, 5 p.m. and 7 p.m.,  Free
For more information about the festival and to see the full program of events, please visit the Accès Asie website.