Asian traditional arts flourish locally

By Jeffrey Osborn
Northwest Asian Weekly

EWCC student Stephanie Song preparing tea at the miso no dana in the Tateuchi Pavilion at the Bellevue Botanical Garden’s 20th Anniversary celebration (Photo by Philip Hafferty)

The transition to America is difficult for many immigrants and their family members. Many immigrants in the Northwest have brought over treasured traditional arts and cultural practices and have preserved them for future generations. Seattle alone has the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience and the Seattle Asian Art Museum, a reflection that the Northwest is home to many groups.
Reaching beyond borders

Promoting a traditional art form in a different country has not always been easy. For the Japanese, grandmasters of the revered tea ceremony had resisted sharing the tradition with foreign lands.

“A couple of the recent grandmasters of the tradition believed that Chanoyou, which is what we call the tea ceremony, has application outside of Japan. Not many Japanese people traditionally thought that. You had to be Japanese before you could understand something like tea, but a couple of these grandmasters began to take tea overseas and established branches and study groups. [They] built tea houses for groups in various cities all over America and Europe. He was very much reaching out beyond the borders of Japan,” said Timothy Olson, a staff member of the East-West Chanoyu Center in Seattle.

Members of EWCC. Front seated (left to right) Bonnie Soshin Mitchell, director of EWCC, and Timothy Sowa Olson, EWCC instructor. Second row: (left to right) Haruko Nagai, Noriko Sakano, Kazumi Ohara, Cyndi Yeh, Noriko Uehara, Jennifer Altman, Masaye Sosei Nakagawa, Sachiko Levy, Nicole Levy, Kumiko Lawrence, Denise Quach, and Valerie Lieu. Back Row (left to right) Cole Lundell, Shannon Gallardo, John Dillon, Kimiko Pollone, Asako Go, Philip Hafferty, Brian Gann, Stephanie Song (Photo by Philip Hafferty)

At the East-West Chanoyu Center, the art of the tea gathering, known as the chakai, is shared amongst veteran and novice attendees alike.

“The ceremony itself is surrounded by countless Japanese arts. It’s about ceramics, it’s about metal casting, it’s about fine fabrics, it’s about calligraphy, it’s about flower arranging, it’s about gourmet cooking, all of these things are brought to bear in tea,” said Olson.

“Anyone can find something interesting in tea that would pique their interest. Actually, there’s enough for a lifetime. Once you’ve exhausted one subject, you can move onto another. It’s very rich.”

Olson admits that like all forms of art and culture, not everyone will be drawn to the tea ceremony. But for him, the attraction was instant. “For some people, this was true for me and this was also true for my sensei, the first time we saw it, we knew what it was about. We didn’t necessarily know the details or what everything meant, but we got it.”

Olson credits the tea ceremony for keeping him calm in his younger years. “I happened to be in the restaurant trade at the time, which was making me very crazy. I mean, in the restaurant business, you’re always essentially putting out fires and I really credit tea for keeping me sane during that period of time because I could go into class and no matter how bad the week had been, within 10 minutes, I had forgotten it all and I was completely enveloped in tea.”

Culture for future generations

The idea for the Morning Star Korean Cultural Center in Lynnwood was founded on the concept of sharing Korean culture through its arts. The center was started in 1985 by Jiyeon Cheh. Now, Sinae Cheh, Jiyeon’s daughter, handles most of the administrative operations at the center.

Sinae Cheh performing “Suhl Janggo” (drum dance) (Photo by

“It was sort of my father’s idea. He told my mother she should share their culture and help with the Korean immigrants who were growing up in America with no knowledge of their own culture,” said Cheh.

A still popular focus at the Morning Star Korean Cultural Center is Korean dance. Unlike many dances, which focus on movement, Korean dance focuses more on the energy within.

Amy Nielsen, student at the Melody Institute, performs Mongolian chopstick dance (Photo by Gabriel Bienczycki)

“It’s not really about the movement. It’s more about the initiation. The movement that you see is just a result of the initiation of the energy you have collected,” said Cheh.

“[Korean] dance itself is so versatile that you can do anything with it, you can do fast, you can do energetic and exciting, you can do slow and sustained movements, so with Korean dance, we don’t have a certain set of language that labels each movement. [However,] when you take the foundation and the initiation of Korean dance, you can really create anything you want.”

(left to right) Yelynn Kim and Christine Lee performs “Flower Crown Dance” (Photo by

Recently, the Morning Star Korean Cultural Center has expanded from instructing immigrant Korean children to opening classes on Korean culture and arts to the general public. The center has also opened a preschool at the Korean Cultural Center.

(left to right) David Koo and David Kim perform “Samulnon” (Photo by

“Our idea is that, rather than just sit and study out of a book, it’s more important that you learn through the arts. So we use standard lessons, but we also incorporate a lot of art in our lessons.” Cheh explains.

“Primarily, it’s about awareness. A lot of discrimination or prejudices that we [face] come from a lack of awareness, but once people encounter Korean culture, those prejudices are much less likely to exist.”

Unlikely opportunities

Many young students at the Melody Institute are children adopted from China. At Melody, these students have the opportunity to learn about Chinese language, culture, art, and foremost, dance. Through Chinese dance, elody Xie’s students have been given opportunities that are unique to most Asian Americans.

Sinae Cheh performs “Forest” (Photo by

“Some of my students were invited by the Moore Theatre last year for the show called ‘Global Dance Party.’

We were the only Asian group and the first Chinese group for this event,” said Xie.

Sinae Cheh performs “Forest” (Photo by

Another one of her students, Elizabeth Janes, was recently selected to perform in the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’ at McCaw Hall.

Xie organizes and choreographs dances for students based on their age, level, and sense of timing. This year, Melody Institute has been invited again as the only Chinese group.

“We will do another two dances, Chopstick dance (a Mongolian dance) and the Rainbow dance.”

Within each dance, language, or ritual pouring of tea is a potential for bridge building, understanding, and exploration. These traditional practices surpass physical borders to enhance cultural identity, diversity, and discovery, allowing immigrants and non-immigrants alike to express themselves in new ways. (end)

For more information or to register for classes, visit, and

Jeffrey Osborn can be reached at

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