Jefferson Award Winner Founded Southeast Asian Arts & Culture CoalitionBy Sharon Chin

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) San Francisco is home to many diverse southeast Asian cultures. This week’s Jefferson Award winner has a passion for celebrating them through colorful community events.

From lively Laotian music… to meditative Tai Chi, the Mid-Autumn Harvest Festival highlights the richness of the Southeast Asian culture at the Tenderloin Recreation Center and Children’s Playground. Hang Le To helped start this event six years ago because so many immigrant families live in the neighborhood.

“They just want to share the culture,” she explained. “Who they are, what they do.”

Hang coordinates the festival as part of the Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Coalition she co-founded in 2011. Its represents diverse ethnic groups: Burmese, Cambodian, Filipino, and Thai to name a few.

Coalition co-founder Sirch Chanthyasack praises Hang’s dedication.

“She’s focused and determined,” he said. “She wants the Tenderloin to be a strong community and preserve the bedrock of the Southeast Asian community that immigrated to this area.”

Thirty years ago, Hang was a teenager arriving in the U.S. as a Vietnamese refugee. She teared up recalling how others looked down on her.

“We worried, others look at us Vietnamese, as a gang member,” she said sadly. “That’s how they label us, so that’s a hard time.”

Now, as an adult, she encourages others to embrace their heritage. So it brings her joy to coordinate the “Faces of Asia” procession, where hundreds of people dress in their cultural attire at San Francisco’s annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration.

“I love to see people wearing their costumes and proud of themselves and who they are,” Hang said.

Hang also applies for grants, securing as much as $35,000 a year so these festivals can be put on free to the public.

And the 8-year-old girls who share their Mongolian dances are free to do so.

“I feel like really proud of ourselves,” said Rebecca Buyanjargal.

So for leading Southeast Asian community events to promote cultural diversity and ethnic pride, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Hang Le To.