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Looking back at the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in East Tennessee

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

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

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Pacific Islanders make up 2.6% of Tennessee's population. That's more than 180,000 people.

Roughly 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 stretch back to the late 1800s, but local historian and founder of the Knoxville History Project Jack Neely said their stories are often forgotten.

"Asian people, including immigrants, have made a big impact on Knoxville in some 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 East Tennessee's first football team in 1889.

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

It drew several world leaders to the area and was the first time China had participated in a fair of that size since 1904, according to Neely.

The Chinese Pavilion was the most popular attraction at the fair.

"It was by far the single most popular part of that fair," Neely said. "It was an amazing new thing because China had been the forbidden 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 brings in 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 of different backgrounds.

"I think people start to learn and then accept the different cultures," Alderman said. "I think Knoxville is becoming a very welcoming community for all other nationalities."

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

The event has been paused for two years because of the pandemic but will be returning on August 28 at World's Fair Park.


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