Celebrating AAPI Heritage Month in East Tennessee

Approximately 18,000 people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent live in Knox, Sevier, and Blount counties.

Knoxville, Tenn. — The month of May is dedicated to celebrating the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

According to the US Census Bureau, Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 2.6% of Tennessee’s population. That’s over 180,000 people.

Approximately 18,000 people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent live in Knox, Sevier, and Blount counties.

The contributions of people of AAPI descent in East Tennessee date back to the late 1800s, but local historian and Knoxville History Project founder Jack Neely said their stories are often forgotten.

“Asians, including immigrants, have had a big impact on Knoxville in very surprising ways, Neely said.

Perhaps one of the most surprising ways is something Knoxville is now known for: college football.

Football in East Tennessee is now primarily associated with the Tennessee Volunteers.

However, before UT had a football team, a Japanese student named Kin Takahashi introduced the sport to Maryville College. There he organized the first East Tennessee football team in 1889.

Fast forward to 1982 and you’ll land at the Knoxville World’s Fair.

It attracted several world leaders to the region and it was the first time China had attended a fair of this size since 1904, according to Neely.

The Chinese pavilion was the fair’s most popular attraction.

“It was by far the most popular part of this fair,” Neely said. “It was amazing news because China had been the banned country for many years and Americans knew very little about it.”

One of the more recent contributions to East Tennessee is the Knox Asian Festival, which draws thousands of people to Knoxville every summer.

The festival was founded in 2013 by Kumi Alderman.

Before moving to Knoxville, Alderman worked as a tour guide in Tokyo. She created Knox Asian Fest to create a welcoming environment for people from different backgrounds.

“I think people are starting to learn and then accept different cultures,” Alderman said. “I think Knoxville is becoming a very welcoming community for all other nationalities.”

According to Visit Knoxville, the festival drew 60,000 visitors and nearly $1 million in 2019.

The event was suspended for two years due to the pandemic, but will return on August 28 at World’s Fair Park.