Slowed but certainly not stopped by Parkinson’s disease, Local Colors Executive Director Pearl Fu – dubbed Roanoke’s Ambassador of Goodwill – is preparing once again for the Local Colors Festival on May 18. The annual event is somewhat displaced this year, since the lower bowl of Elmwood Park is closed as an amphitheatre is being constructed.
Local Colors will still use the upper portion of Elmwood Park, where the entertainment stage will be set up. Food vendors will be stationed in front of the main Roanoke public library on Jefferson Street. Founded by Downtown Roanoke Inc. more than two decades ago, Fu, a Chinese immigrant, has made Local Colors her own over the years.
Besides the festival, which will run from 11am to 5pm (kicking off with a Parade of Nations), Local Colors offers outreach programs on diversity, translation and networking services for immigrants, and the summer-fall “Taste of Culture” lunch time events near the Market building. A Local Colors International Choir sings at the Roanoke City Christmas tree lighting and will be on hand at the May 18 festival.
One Local Colors program let recent immigrants spend time with Roanoke police officers, trying to dissipate some of the suspicion they often felt for law enforcement in their native countries. An international festival day that will celebrate diversity at Williamson Road restaurants and shops is in the works.
Fu is fond of pointing out that when Local Colors began only four nations – representing ethnic groups here in the Roanoke Valley – were part of the festival. “I said there has to be [people from] more than four countries residing in Roanoke,” she recalls thinking at the time. DRI officials told her to go to work, rounding up as much diversity as she could. This year, more than 100 countries will be represented in the Parade of Nations, at the food booths, and on stage with demonstrations of native dances, music and costumes. Italy is the featured country this year.
“Mayor [David] Bowers used to say that diversity was someone from Wisconsin,” chuckles Fu, who came to Roanoke in 1986. Fu saw the opportunity to celebrate diversity and gradually got involved with Local Colors. Early on she would go up to people she encountered who were from different ethnic backgrounds, asking them to get involved with the Local Colors Festival, now in its 23rd year. More often than not they said yes.
Fu came from a prominent Chinese ethnic minority; in China her father was governor of Hunan Province at one point and is fondly remembered. “He is now a hero in the Chinese history books. I’m very proud of his legacy,” said Fu, who studied song at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Maryland. In fact Fu once sang at the White House during the Kennedy administration. “I still can’t believe that happened,” she marvels more than 50 years later.
Dian Bolling, the office manager for Local Colors, said a portion of Elm and Jefferson Streets will be portioned off for this year’s festival. “We have a wonderful, expanded children’s area,” she notes, “and all day exciting entertainment.” The parade will begin on Bullitt Avenue near the Patrick Henry Hotel, winding up at the Elmwood Park stage.
Entertainers from Roanoke’s sister city of Wonju, South Korea will be on hand, as will performers from Columbia. The Southwest Virginia Ballet Troupe will perform, and Opera Roanoke singers will belt out Italian arias. An ethnic fashion show takes place on stage at 3pm. “The big draw is the food – real people making authentic dishes from their country,” said Fu. “Roanoke is no longer just like Wisconsin,” jokes Roanoke’s Ambassador of Goodwill.
Newcomers should be proud of their heritage noted Fu, even as they attempt to assimilate. “The mission of Local Colors is to embrace people that are new to the country.” The Local Colors Festival is one way for Roanokers to start embracing those newcomers.
(Publisher’s Note: Roanoke Star Editor Gene Marrano will emcee the Grand Finale portion of the Local Colors event on the Elmwood Park stage, which always ends with a group sing-along around 5pm. See localcolors.org for more information on the May 18 festival and the organization)
by Gene Marrano