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Rainbow Row — located in historic downtown, this row of famous homes is comprised of private residences painted with colors typical of the Caribbean Islands.

From top: State representative Nikki Haley going about the business of government. Chef Phillipe Chin, a pioneer of Asian fusion food, offers the small affluent town of Aiken more exotic fare at his restaurant CuiZine.

Asian American performing arts groups are offering South Carolinians insight into Asian arts through large festivals such as Spoleta USA and its more regional version Piccolo Spoleto.
CREDIT: PHOTOS: Rainbow Row photo courtesy Charleston Convention and Visitors Bureau.

STORY  Sherrie Bakshi

Belles of the South

Though small in number, Asian Americans are making a noticeable contribution to the Old South’s cultural landscape.

South Carolina, with its old Southern charm and frozen-in-time antebellum architecture, is not considered a particularly “hot” destination for those looking to relocate, particularly for people of color. Years ago, outsiders were welcomed, but perhaps not fully accepted. Nevertheless, many Asians saw it as a place of opportunity and settled there, eventually becoming doctors, scientists, engineers and business leaders. They also saw it as an opportunity to make a more lasting impression. Many felt strongly that in order to create new lives for themselves and subsequent generations, they would have to integrate into the community, creating a presence that will not only be seen, but felt and heard for years to come. Their efforts have built a solid foundation for newer generations to round out their experience through the arts, politics and hospitality. Here, just a sampling of how Asians and Asian Americans are adding a little color and spice to the Old South.

Leading the pack

Asians make up less than 1 percent of South Carolina’s population, but have the highest per capita income and are the least dependent on government aid, according to the state’s figures. Asians are also considered strong assets to the state for they generate more dollars with stronger educational backgrounds and better jobs. Indeed, Asians are making a difference in South Carolina in all sectors. They’re achieving goals unimagined by their parents and grandparents, and pursuing challenges that take them off traditional paths.

In 2004, South Carolina, a state that loves to brag about its “firsts,” had another one to add to its list. Nikki Haley became the first Indian American elected to the South Carolina Legislature and the first Republican Indian American elected to a state legislature in the United States. Haley represents Lexington County, the largest county in South Carolina with about 230,000 people — more than 80 percent of which are Caucasian.

Growing up in the small town of Bamberg, located outside of Columbia, South Carolina’s state capital and largest city, Haley knew that she wanted to be a politician. As a young girl she told her parents that one day she’d run for mayor of Bamberg. Her political aspirations led her to the steps of the state capital, but it wasn’t easy. As one of the few Indians in the United States to succeed in politics, Haley had to overcome many obstacles including racial prejudice among voters in her community. In 2004, she fulfilled her dream by defeating her opponent Larry Koon by 55 percent of the vote. Koon had served in the state legislature for 30 years.

Haley is a strong voice for Asian Americans, and she attributes much of her success and will to her parents’ support, her Sikh faith and her Indian values. She feels strongly that her political duties are not only to serve the people of her county, but also Indians throughout the state. “I have learned a lot from the Indian community,” she explains. “I hope that I can carry the same work ethics that previous generations instilled in me and members of my generation, create new opportunities for Indian Americans in politics, and inspire the next generation of them to follow in our footsteps.”

Likewise, Phillipe Chin, an internationally renowned chef and one of the pioneers of Asian fusion cuisine in the U.S., is another Asian success story. A Parisian of Chinese origin, Chin’s love of Asian cuisine stemmed from his childhood. “Growing up in Paris, the enjoyment of food was part of our life,” he says. “My father, who had served in the French army during Vietnam, learned how to create many Asian dishes and brought the recipes back with him for us to experience.”

His passion for the culinary arts and the blending of French techniques with Asian spices turned into an amazing career, taking him across the globe to some of the top culinary destinations in the world, including Paris and Philadelphia. After a few years of globetrotting, Chin was in need of a slow down and sought refuge in the small town of Aiken. Established in 1835, Aiken is an affluent city of about 27,000 located in western South Carolina. Locals enjoy golfing, playing polo, horseback riding or strolling through the downtown streets, making stops in art galleries or indulging in fine cuisine on a daily basis.

With only about 1 percent of its population Asian, Chin foresaw an opportunity to introduce and educate the tiny community with a new style of cuisine. He joined Bambu on Hickman, a restaurant located in the Partridge Inn, one of the area’s top hotels, as its executive chef in 2000. Now closed, Bambu featured the first and only Asian fusion style cuisine in the area, and it became a hit. “My patrons simply thanked me for being there,” Chin says. “These were the best compliments that I ever received because I felt as if I had fulfilled a goal by introducing a new style of cuisine for people to enjoy in a town where they were more attached to their roots and traditional foods.”

In 2005, Chin went out on his own and opened CuiZine Bar & Restaurant in downtown Aiken. “Once you do something, you want to do it again,” he says of his return to Asian fusion cuisine. The restaurant has received rave reviews and Chin has maintained his position as one of the state’s prominent chefs.

Asia on stage

Asian influence doesn’t stop at food. Lately, there has been much buzz about Asian performing arts throughout the U.S. The buzz has even reached as far south as South Carolina through the aid of local Asian American organizations, like the India Association of Greater Charleston. Established about 20 years ago by some of the first Indian families in Charleston, the association feels a sense of responsibility to educate the community about Indian arts and culture.

As a result, in partnership with South Asian performing arts groups throughout the U.S., College of Charleston (the area’s liberal arts college) and the Mrundani School of Performing Arts of Orangeburg, the association has sponsored hundreds of Indian classical dance and musical performances in Charleston.

Individuals are also catching the spirit. A strong advocate of Indian performing arts and an exceptional dancer herself, Dr. Anuradha Murali has dedicated much of her time to bringing the Indian classical arts to the regional forefront not only as a performer, but also as a financial supporter. Over the last decade, she has helped bring a number of renowned Indian performing arts troupes, including the Kuchipidi Art Academy, one of India’s most prestigious dance academies, to the state, drawing hundreds of people each time. These groups have lit up stages all over, including New York, Washington D.C., London and now Charleston.

Murali first appeared on the Charleston stage in 1995 at the city’s annual Piccolo Spoleto, a performing and visual arts festival held annually in May (a local version of the Spoleto USA Festival). She established the Mrundani School of Performing Arts to teach Indian classical dances to younger generations and is expanding its reach. “Through grants received by the state and additional support, I hope to not only showcase India’s classical arts on stage, but to bring it to the public,” Murali says. “By sponsoring more workshops throughout the state I am connecting people who have no ties to India, but who are simply enamored with the beauty and emotions involved in performing these traditional dances.”

Looking ahead

In May 2006, Charleston will host the 30th Spoleto USA Festival, one of the world’s largest international arts festivals. It has received rave reviews for years by publications such as the Boston Globe and the New York Times, and has been on the CBS Sunday Morning News. The two-week festival is filled with a variety of performing arts from across the globe, including dance, music, opera and theater. Spoleto’s executive director, Nigel Redden, says that Charleston is the perfect destination for such an event. “Charleston has always been an international city,” he says, “and Spoleto is the perfect platform for Asian performing companies looking for international recognition.” Many of the world’s most acclaimed performing arts groups have made their debut at this festival, and for the first time in its 30-year history, a top Indian classical performing arts company will make its entrance. Nrityagram, a 10-member troupe of musicians and dancers from Bangalore, India, will perform Sacred Space in Odissi fashion, a lyrical, sensuous and often ecstatic branch of Indian dance derived from ancient temple rituals. In addition, the festival will premiere Geisha, the story of a geisha and the mysterious world she lives in, directed by Singaporean Ong Keng Sen.

For many members of the city’s Asian community, these performances are accomplishments in their own right, for they demonstrate once again the impact the Asian arts are having on the Western world, even in a city as traditional and southern like Charleston.

While a number of Asians have taken stereotypical roads, specializing in scientific fields, many individuals, including Haley, Chin and Murali, have gone off the traditional path, pursuing careers in journalism, the arts (culinary or otherwise) and politics.

By taking nontraditional paths, these individuals have opened the doors to fields that have primarily been occupied by individuals whose families settled in South Carolina more than 200 years ago. Their efforts bring honor, pride and hope that subsequent generations will follow in their footsteps.

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