New festival celebrates Thai New Year, promotes visibility


Courtesy Pleng Narisa

New festival celebrates Thai New Year, promotes visibility

By Miranda Manier

Every April, Thailand celebrates a three-day water fight for the nation’s new year, Songkran. This year, Chicago will celebrate its own Songkran with the Thai New Year Water Festival in Uptown. 

Dew Suriyawan, co-founder of the festival, which will be held at 4753 N. Broadway May 19–20, organized the Thai Food Festival last July after recognizing a need to unite Chicago’s Thai community, he said. 

Following the Thai Food Festival’s  success last summer, Suriyawan contacted Jim Boonyanan, founder of Thai Census, a social media network that connects Thai people in U.S. cities, to research an annual celebration of the Thai New Year in Chicago. 

Boonyanan moved to Chicago just before Bhumibol Aduljadej, who reigned as king of Thailand for 70 years, died in October 2016. He was surprised at the lack of community mourning in Chicago and began his own candle vigil in Daley Plaza only two weeks after moving to the city.

The vigil drew about 500 people, he said. Since then, he has been determined to help cultivate a Thai community with the Thai New Year Water Festival as a key marketing tool. 

“The Thai community in Chicago needs something to get people together,” he said. “[We want] to promote our culture. We want people to realize that there are Thai in the country.” 

The Thai New Year Water Festival will highlight Songkran traditions, such as Buddhist prayers and water gun fights, a practice that developed from washing the feet of the elderly to show respect, according to Boonyanan. The festival will feature Thai restaurants from across Chicago, crafts and merchandise from Thai vendors, live music and traditional Thai dances, Muay Thai kickboxing, food demonstrations and friendly cooking competitions. 

According to Hac Tran, communications manager for Uptown United and a consultant for the event, the Thai New Year Water Festival offers a rare opportunity for people in Chicago to learn about Uptown’s Asian community. 

“There isn’t much of a centralized representation of the Thai community [in Chicago], so [this festival will] add Thai culture to the larger Asian [Uptown] community,” Tran said. “It’s a teaching opportunity to the larger Chicago area, [and it can] only [strengthen] this Asian enclave.” 

Boonyanan and Suriyawan would like to not only continue the Thai New Year Water Festival in the future but also to use the Thai Census network to reach other cities with large Thai populations.

They also are planning an Asian Food Festival in the next couple years, an offshoot of last year’s Thai Food Festival. 

“There are so many Asian communities [in Chicago], but they’re segregated,” Tran said. “The vision of the Asian Food Festival [will be] to offer Chicago a taste of cuisines around Asia. People look at Asian people as a monolith, but [we’re] very diverse. To present that to the larger stage of Chicago  is [an] opportunity to represent the diversity of Asia.”