20th annual Asian alumni banquet brings hundreds to Chinatown
Just beyond the decorated arches and rows of small family-owned retail shops that have become synonymous with the neighborhood, a crowd of Cornellians and friends gathered for an event that has become as popular and important as the organization that created it. The Cornell Asian Alumni Association's (CAAA) annual New Year's Banquet was held Jan. 22 at the Grand Harmony Palace in Manhattan's Chinatown.
This year marked the 20th anniversary of the banquet, which attracts Cornell alumni from across the globe and coincides with the Lunar New Year (2011 is the Year of the Rabbit).
Roderick Chu, MBA '71, vice chair of the Cornell University Council, was this year's honoree. The organization also granted their 48th, 49th and 50th scholarships and raised more than $60,000, some of which will be used to develop a Pan-Asian garden at Cornell Plantations to be located adjacent to the Ten Eyck classroom in the recently completed Brian C. Nevin Welcome Center.
Wearing Western and traditional Asian clothing, the crowd reflected the diversity of Cornellians who chose to brave the frigid evening to attend the sold-out event. Given the geographic, political and cultural scope of Asia and the approximately 13,000 Asian Cornell alumni in the world, CAAA "strives to serve the interests of all Asians, including East Asians, Southeast Asians and South Asians," noted Monica Galinas, president of CAAA. But the banquet attracts an even wider scope of alumni, friends and current students who have made it one of the must-do social events in the city each year.
"I'd like it to be bigger," said Matthew Palumbo '83, CAAA's marketing director for this year's banquet. "This is something for the whole Cornell community." More than 350 people attended this year's event.
While attendance at the event is important to CAAA, (commonly referred to as "C triple A"), the depth of those who attend is equally as important. This year's attendees included Cornell President Emeritus Frank Rhodes; several Cornell vice presidents, deans, trustees and administrators; local Chinese association and planning council officials; State University of New York Chancellor Nancy Zimpher; Robert S. Harrison '76, CEO of the Clinton Global Initiative and chair of Cornell's Board of Trustees executive committee; and trustee and Pulitzer Prize winner Sheryl WuDunn '81 (accompanied by her husband, Nicholas Kristof, senior writer and national correspondent for The New York Times).
CAAA was created in 1990 -- the first Asian alumni group in the Ivy League -- but its conceptual history goes back to the late 1970s, Palumbo said.
The Class of 1978 was the first Cornell class with more than 200 Asian students. This was "a tipping point," Palumbo explained, and members of that graduating class were a large part of the driving force behind CAAA's founding.
At that time, "there wasn't an Asian-American studies program at Cornell or any other Ivy League school," said Palumbo. The late Lee C. Lee (professor of human development and a professor of Asian studies, credited with founding the East Coast's first comprehensive Asian-American Studies Program at Cornell), and Cornell trustee Benson Lee began to see the need for an Asian alumni group. While both Lee C. Lee and Benson Lee provided the structural and academic support for the idea of the organization, it was a group of young alumni, "spearheaded by Eugenie Shen '78," who created CAAA, Palumbo said. "This group refused to take 'no' for an answer and created a legally independent, nonprofit corporation."
Since then, the group's growth has mirrored the creation of Asian studies programs across the country, the rising number of Asian students on campus and the influence of Asians at Cornell and around the globe. Current estimates are that between 20 and 25 percent of the student body on the Ithaca campus is Asian-American or of Asian descent.
Banquet attendees enjoyed traditional Asian food and entertainment, including a 10-course Chinese meal, a Chinese face change dance and Korean Pungmul drumming (by Shimtah, a Cornell student group).
Chu, while accepting his honoree award, spoke about Asian philosophy.
"Asians set high expectations for their children," said Chu, "and believe in the value of education and the vitality of the community." These beliefs stem from the teachings of Confucius, the Chinese philosopher, said Chu.
Chu served as New York state's first Chinese-American (and the youngest) commissioner of taxation and finance, became a partner in the Arthur Andersen consulting firm, and served as chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, where he helped establish state education policies, oversaw all of Ohio's public and private colleges and universities, and was among the highest-ranking Asian-Americans in higher education in the United States.
CAAA boasts an inclusive mantra, emphasizing interaction with other Cornell affinity groups, such as the Cornell Black Alumni Association and Cornell Latino Alumni Association. The Cornell Korean Alumni Association also supports CAAA.
"We see ourselves as part of one big happy world," said Palumbo.
Chinese Scholar's Garden event July 9
CAAA's next big event is scheduled for Saturday, July 9, when CAAA, Cornell Plantations and The Cornell Club-New York City are planning a joint event at the Chinese Scholar's Garden at Snug Harbor on Staten Island.
This is the only Chinese Scholar's Garden in the U.S. and it was brought over, brick-by-brick, from Suzhou, China. See www.snug-harbor.org/chinese.html for more information.
John Mikytuck '90 is a freelance journalist in New York City.