Organizers of the Tacoma Moon Festival, held Sept. 21 at the city’s Chinese Reconciliation Park, advertise the annual event as a celebration of togetherness and harmony in Tacoma’s multicultural community.
Behind the scenes, that wasn’t how things went this year.
A complaint from a group that says festival organizers revoked their vendor’s permit at the last minute and then forcibly removed them from the park has landed the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation in exactly the sort of tangled dispute it was organized to avoid.
Just two hours before the Moon Festival was to begin, a group representing the Chinese spiritual movement of Falun Gong said it was ordered to dismantle its booth and leave the park.
That was despite a warm email exchange with festival planners the night before, confirming Falun Gong’s vendor space.
“I am looking forward to the Moon Festival this Saturday and your participation as a vendor,” wrote Lorraine Toler, one of the organizers and a staff member at the Asian Studies Department at the University of Puget Sound.
“See you on Saturday,” Toler signed off.
That attitude changed abruptly Saturday morning, said Rachael Hwang, one of three Falun Gong representatives who prepared the group’s display.
“At 9:30, Lorraine Toler came to the booth and told us we were not welcome,” Hwang told The News Tribune. “She told us, ‘You have to leave.’”
She started shouting. “You are not welcome. You are violent and political.”
“I tried to explain to her Falun Gong is traditional Chinese culture and not violent or political,” Hwang said.
“She said, ‘You have to go right now.’”
On Friday, when asked why the group was removed, Toler declined to give a reason.
“It’s a really good question,” she said. “I’m going to defer to someone higher up on the chain.”
Theresa Pan Hosley, president of the foundation’s board of directors, took responsibility for the decision.
“They were asked to leave because we did not have enough space to accommodate them,” she said. “It was an error made when they measured the space.
“We contacted them to express regret and ask them please don’t make a trip down here. We offered to refund fully their application fee, but still they came.”
Jenny Hu, another Falun Gong practitioner, said that was not true. She took photographs, which she shared with The News Tribune, of a vacant space she said remained at the site through the afternoon.
The real reason they were ejected, Hu suspects, is pressure — perceived or real — from the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese communist government has banned the Falun Gong organization as a dangerous cult, and is under heavy pressure from human rights groups for imprisoning and allegedly torturing members.
A bill before Congress and co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, expresses concern over “credible reports of systematic, state-sanctioned organ harvesting from nonconsenting prisoners of conscience in the People’s Republic of China, including from large numbers of Falun Gong practitioners.”
Hu said what happened at the Moon Festival was not an isolated incident. Fear of indirect repercussions from Chinese authorities has led to increasing discrimination and ostracism at Chinese cultural events throughout the United States, she said.
“A lot of the Chinese people have business in China and they fear that business being influenced by association with Falun Gong organization,” Hu said.
Hosley denied that was the case.
“This is a family event and we did not intend for them to be that way,” she said. “There was a mistake made.”
Hosley said she has advised other foundation board members, including former Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, that the board should take up the Falun Gong issue at a future meeting to formalize policies.
Baarsma said Friday that he was not involved in the decision to remove the Falun Gong group, but he said he thinks he understands why it happened. At other events, he said, the group has been loud and disruptive in voicing its political concerns.
“My sense is that there was concern that would happen here,” Baarsma said. “This is a reconciliation park, and it’s a festival that focuses on the arts, on dance performances and culture — all positive things.
“My feeling,” Baarsma said, “is that if the Moon Festival continues to focus on what it has focused on, then it should be made pretty clear to any potential participant that it is not a forum for political dissent.”
Hwang said she was aware of the focus of the festival and insisted her group had no political material or even informational material about Falun Gong with them.
Their sole purpose, she said, was to publicize an upcoming dance and music performance by the New York-based Shen Yun Performing Arts company, which is coming to Seattle in April and which Falun Gong is sponsoring.
Falun Gong’s exclusion from the Moon Festival, Hu said, is a sign that China’s propaganda campaign against them is working.
“My family experienced this for so many years in China,” she said. “It is very scary to see it happen here.”Rob Carson: 253-597-8693