Jud Phay (JP) Leong is a board member at the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati and an organizer of the Asian Food Fest. He currently lives in Cincinnati, and was born in Fort Collins, Colorado to a mother from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and a father from Ipoh, Malaysia before moving first to a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts and then to Perrysburg, Ohio, a suburb of Toledo.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between JP and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) on March 1, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Jud Phay Leong (JL): So let me do one thing real quick. My full pronunciation of my name is Leong Zhe Fei.
Ruth Chang (RC): What does that mean— Leong Zhe Fei?
JL: So the way that my last name has been explained to me is that it stands for — the characters are “strong tree under rain.” So a resilient tree is Leong. And then Zhe Fei — my dad named me after Thomas Jefferson, a great philosopher.
RC: Tell me about where your parents are from. And then, subsequently, how history goes.
JL: So, my parents are from Malaysia. My mother is from Kuala Lumpur and my dad is from Ipoh. KL is the capital of Malaysia. Ipoh is famous for a certain actress — Michelle Yeoh, she’s from there. And so, [my parents] they met at a summer camp while they were teenagers and started a budding romance that went all the way to university. They went to university at the National Taiwan University in Taipei. My dad ended up getting a graduate degree from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado, and my mother followed him there. They got married there on June 21, in either the early ’70s or late ’60s — they don’t remember, which is kind of funny. Sadly, they only have one photo from their wedding. But they got married there and then about 10 years later, I was born. My brother was born in ’78 and I was born in ’81.
RC: When and where were you born?
JL: I was born in Fort Collins, Colorado, in July of 1981.
RC: And subsequently, what was the neighborhood like growing up?
JL: I lived in Fort Collins, Colorado for the first five years of my life. Fort Collins Colorado is a suburban college town; Colorado State University I believe is the major employer there. And it’s about 20 or 30 minutes outside of Denver. So very suburban. We lived in a subdivision and it was very predominantly a college, white, middle-class atmosphere.
When I turned six, my dad got a job in Massachusetts. He got a job working at Bell Labs in the Boston area. So our family uprooted and moved to the Boston area in a town called North Andover, which is another suburban, predominantly white, middle-class neighborhood in the outskirts of the Boston area. In Boston, there’s a huge Chinatown, huge Chinese community — at that time, predominantly Cantonese. My parents are Cantonese, so they were Cantonese speaking, so they very much felt like home.[There was a] very strong Chinese community — Chinese organizations, Chinese church, Chinese school, which my brother and I famously failed out of trying to learn Mandarin. [It] didn’t help that our parents spoke predominantly Cantonese at home. [But] not their fault — my brother and I are both slackers. We lived in Massachusetts, up until the mid-’90s, in which my dad got a job in the Toledo area at a company that no longer exists. It was Libbey-Owens-Ford, which was an automotive glass manufacturer and residential and commercial glass manufacturer in Toledo — one of the reasons why Toledo was called “the Glass City.” It is now owned by Pilkington, which is an England-based company. So my dad got a job at LOF in Toledo and we moved to Perrysburg, Ohio, which was another white, middle-class, actually upper-middle-class neighborhood in the outskirts of the Toledo area.
RC: What was that like?
JL: My brother and I had very unique different experiences with the move from Massachusetts to Toledo. There is a tradition, if you will, in Chinese culture, where parents or a husband and wife will live in different places for the sake of the family for a number of years apart, whether it’s traveling or actually living in different places, one working in one place, one working in another. And so my parents actually did that. My dad took my brother and moved to Toledo first when he was in eighth grade, and I was in fifth grade. When I got to seventh grade, we then — my mother and I — finally moved out to Toledo. So, my brother and dad had been living in the Toledo area for three years longer than I had. I moved to the Toledo area, and I moved to Perrysburg specifically, in 1994. The start of the good years of the world, when gas was 99 cents — all that good stuff.
RC: I would love to have you explain the landscape that was there [in Toledo] at that time, and what your parents did?
JL: When we moved to the Toledo area, we had a lot of expectations. I personally had a lot of expectations about what Ohio was from my history books. All I actually really knew about Ohio was that it had the great Serpent Mound. So, I was looking forward to seeing that when I moved to Ohio, but other than that, it was a pretty blank slate. So, when we got here, it was kind of like that with cultural trappings. We went to the Chinese church to meet other Chinese folks; there weren’t all that many. It was a pretty small community at that time. Then as I’d mentioned, Perrysburg is an upper-class, white, affluent suburb of Toledo. So the high school reflected that. When my brother and I both went into high school, it was our joke that there were only three Asians in the entire school and two of us were related. So, that was very much true of our general experience. My parents were going to the Chinese restaurants to meet the owners and finding these pockets of folks that they met, whether it’s at the Chinese church or through other organizations. There wasn’t really a cultural organization in the Toledo area at the time. So my parents got their group of friends together and started brainstorming and putting together an organization that was celebrating Chinese culture in Toledo.
RC: What are some of the things that you did that helped form a connection to Chinese culture for you growing up?
JL: My mom really wanted us to get involved and learn about our culture and those kinds of things. My mom taught dance. When she was younger, she was a radio personality and political activist, and all those kinds of things. So she had strong community involvement in her background. She wanted to make sure that her children also were involved in that way. So when we were in Massachusetts, we would participate in these annual Chinese New Year’s celebrations. We would be either part of a little martial arts troupe or a little dance troupe or the child’s version of the lion dance.
When we moved to Toledo. There was none of this apparatus in place… But without an apparatus in place, my parents wanted us to have a more cultural experience. So they took the onus to have Chinese New Year celebrations at area restaurants. They worked with civic institutions like the Botanical Gardens in Toledo to host Asian experiences. They had an area set aside in the Botanical Gardens where folks could get in and experience food and activities, things like that, to learn about Chinese culture. Then for Chinese New Year celebrations, my parents and this organization put together money and purchased a lion head – they had it custom made in China, and had it imported — and they forced myself and my brother and several other younger folks into performing the lion dance, and other little cultural things to have and celebrate Chinese New Year.
RC: And so that period of light of your life seems to be pretty formative. Because later on, you mentioned that these cultural celebrations inspired other things now in Cincinnati.
JL: Following our graduation from high school, my brother came down first to the University of Cincinnati. And I followed him three years after. We found a similar state of lack of community at the university. So, there were pockets of “This is the Chinese group,” “This is the Vietnamese group,” “This is the Korean group.” Due to my brother and I not really being fluent at all in Chinese, we didn’t really fit in with the Chinese church, which had traditional Chinese language. We didn’t really fit in with Chinese organizations that were there really to celebrate being Chinese. We were just looking for people who were like us. So my brother really started making connections in college with Vietnamese friends, Korean friends, Japanese friends, and they started forming student organizations; one of them is Discovering Philippines and the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA). These were all organizations that they started while they were in college. I had the privilege of being on campus and having these organizations who my brother helped and worked with try to recruit me thinking that I was Filipino or Vietnamese. But it was a wonderful experience to have, people being like, “Hey, you look kind of like me, you should hang out with me.”
Once they graduated from college, they stayed in the area. A lot of folks tend to stay in Cincinnati once they graduate. They started working professionally. They started owning businesses, operating businesses, but they really wanted to keep hanging out together. They thought civically, what were some of the ways that they could continue to hang out together? So, they started hanging out on Sundays playing volleyball and then they started organizations that were already nationally-made, like the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP). So, the Cincinnati chapter of the NAAAP started here as a result of these friends from college who wanted to keep hanging out together after college.
RC: So, that experience early on led to you pioneering in the city. I’m wondering if you could talk about any of the immigration waves in general in Cincinnati. What is the history and the forces that pull people to this area? Do you know what are some dominant Asian subgroups that live in Cincinnati and why?
JL: I’ll try and tap into what I know. So specifically, around Cincinnati, there are several strong Asian groups of representation. But the ones off the top of my head: there’s a strong Japanese contingent, because there was a Toyota manufacturing plant base in the Northern Kentucky area. So, there’s a strong Japanese contingent in the Northern Kentucky region. There is a strong Vietnamese diaspora here in the northwest and northeast suburbs. There is a strong Korean community, as well, I am familiar with. There were several Korean churches. Some of them are closer to campus, some of them farther from campus. There is a strong Chinese community, as well. Aside from the Vietnamese diaspora that came with the immigration from the result of the Vietnamese war, the other groups are primarily associated with commerce and business. So, as I mentioned, the Japanese folks came predominantly with Toyota. A lot of the hallmark Japanese restaurants here in the Cincinnati region began because folks in the Toyota executive suites needed places that they wanted to eat at. So, they brought chefs. We have Chinese who continually are brought here because of the global national corporation, Procter & Gamble (P&G), which is one of the larger companies here in Cincinnati, headquartered here. So, they bring a lot of their international recruits here and a lot of them end up staying looking for community and all those kinds of things.
RC: How did you end up serving Asian Food Fest at Asianati?
JL: Asian food fest was born in the early 2010s. It was a bunch of these friends from college once again, getting together and kind of just making it up as they go along, bringing a bunch of folks to the suburbs of Cincinnati. We initially had 10 or 12 food vendors and folks came and experienced entertainment and those kinds of things. Every year it has continued to thrive and grow. A few years ago, the ragtag group that was running Asian Food Fest decided that they needed to save a little bit of money. They needed to start a nonprofit. So, they started the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati, which is now the parent organization that runs Asian Food Fest. Out of that, as we approached 2020, we had a strong sense of continuing to want to build a community. Larger cities like Chicago, Boston, LA, and San Francisco — they have Chinatowns. While we have little enclaves in the north of the city and south of the city of different immigrant populations, none of them really have a concentration of enough stores and storefronts and restaurants and community to really constitute a strong town or neighborhood. So, our initial idea was to leverage the relationships we already had with the region’s restaurants and industry, and pulled together a virtual community called Asianati that brought together and basically served as a virtual Asia town. So, people who were interested in the Asian experience in the city of Cincinnati could go to a website and find where restaurants are, find where activities are. And so we birthed Asianati out of that.
RC: What are some accomplishments since its founding?
JL: We have gone from 10 to 12 vendors in our first year, to a decade later, having nearly 40 vendors and having nearly 60,000 attendees at our festival. We’re shooting to get 70,000 to 80,000 at our next upcoming festivals. Not only that, running these festivals has been such an amazing experience because, monitoring social media chatter, people are asking like, “Hey, I’m going to book a hotel for this weekend. I’m coming in from out of town. I’m flying in from out of town to experience Asian Food Fest in Cincinnati.” So, it’s become more than just a “for our own community” kind of thing; now it’s a showcase for the region. It’s a showcase for Cincinnati, for Dayton, for Northern Kentucky and Louisville. In Columbus, we have food vendors who come in and participate from there. We have visitors coming in from the Chicago area, which blows my mind because I love Chicago. I love Chicago’s Chinatown. And I’m so surprised that people feel there’s still something to be experienced in Cincinnati with our Asian community.
RC: Were there any personal revelations that sort of led to this desire to bring people together? Do you have any stories about why this is needed here?
JL: For my own college experience, my own personal experience, I, for a long time, tried to live in a post-racism, post-racial universe, in my own mind. But I was constantly reminded of taking abuse. As a college student, I had epithets spoken at me, and I have had beverages and things like that thrown at me while I’m just crossing the street.
I’ve heard this comment that there’s a “fight or flight” [mentality], but with Asians, there’s also a “flock” mentality. So, the groups that I’ve been involved with here in Cincinnati, have been very forward-thinking in terms of thinking about how we need our community to be together. And Asian Food Fest was a way that the restaurant community could get together and celebrate Asian food and culture.
RC: Just reflecting as an Asian American living here and making a career here, what are some of the nuances to being Asian in Cincinnati that are specific — whether it’s challenges or opportunities for communities here?
JL: Being Asian in Cincinnati is a different experience. Cincinnati is the place I’ve lived the longest, which surprised me because I always expected to go back to Boston. They have winning sports teams. So I was expected to go to back to Boston — I love it so much. I’ve been to New York many times. [I’ve] been to the West Coast, been all over the world. And people perceive an Asian male differently based on the relative Asian populations. So, being in Boston, or in New York, it was very interesting to see how people greeted me differently. I don’t mean verbal greetings, but people’s postures; they don’t walk across the street, they don’t glare at you and then look away. They actually provide eye contact and all those kinds of things.
So here in Cincinnati, it’s still a bit, I would say, more white-centric, more Caucasian-centric. The conversations about race are very much rooted in the Black-and-white experience and its conflict. There’s a really strong history [here]. Cincinnati is a border city. It was a significant hallmark for the National Underground Railroad movement. So, there’s a lot of historical significance to it in its history in America. But as far as the Asian question here in Cincinnati, here in the Midwest, that’s not something that people really wanted to talk about. I think that a lot of what we’re doing with Asian Food Fest with Asianati and the other organizations in the area that are putting on events, they are elevating and raising awareness of issues not only specific to the Asian community but also hopefully issues that raise up all minorities in the area.
RC: To conclude, we’ve talked a lot about a variety of things, but what is still today an issue that you care about that you feel still needs addressing — that you’re still working towards?
JL: So, one of them definitely is the Asian community’s relationship to the Black community. It has been one that has historically been used to pivot against one another. And there have been times of clairvoyance where we’ve realized that we’re basically in the same boat. And we need to really work together to help each other to improve all communities’ situations. So that’s one that is daily on my mind; I work pretty closely with some Black social justice organizations here in town. And as friendly as I am with them, we’re still trying to figure it out. It’s not something that’s going to come easily, because there’s a lot of historical tension between the Asian community and the Black community. But I’m hoping we really do figure that one out.
The second issue, personally one of the things that I want to do, is continue to expand how we think about the Asian diaspora and the Asian community. At least in the United States, when one talks about Asians, they’re usually thinking about East Asians, so they’re thinking about the Chinese, the Koreans, the Japanese, and they’re neglecting a whole swath of Asia. Admittedly, this is a national or geopolitical boundary that was drawn by white people, but Asia, as a continent, encompasses as far east as Istanbul all the way through to the Pacific Islands. So, it’s a huge swath of folks that are brown people. So, I have a strong affinity towards any folks that are experiencing oppression and racism and exclusion and discrimination. That has been something, in the past 20 years, strongly directed at our West Asian brethren — so folks in the Middle East and all those kinds of things. And East Asians have been kind of biding our time, protecting our own tribes. And I think we’re in a position that we can expand our support and our love and thinking about food, our palates, to the western and southern Asian diasporas.
The wonderful thing about the city of Cincinnati is that the Indian community is another strong community here, a lot of them brought in by Procter & Gamble again. But a lot of them have taken roots here and stayed. They’ve started temples. And we have our first Indian, and therefore Asian Mayor Aftab Pureval. He is really a beacon of light here in the city, I think, not just for the Asian community, not just for the Indian community, but for all who are suffering oppression, all who are experiencing homelessness and those kinds of things.
Actually, that leads me into my third thing: ownership of land and ownership of homes. One of the interesting things is, being here for so long, I get to experience all of the housing prices over the past 20 years that I’ve lived here. When I started in college, my rent in a college dorm was like $275 per person and it was stupid cheap. Now that I work at the University and student workers, I talked to them and their luxury apartments that they are forced to live in, because there’s no cheap housing anymore, is like $1,100 per person. That’s insane to me, especially when you think about the next generations. Where are they going to settle? So much of what we’re doing with the Asian American Cultural Association of Cincinnati is trying to build places where families can take root and continue to grow this Asian community. But where are they going to live? We’re getting further and further outside of Cincinnati because housing prices continue to rise, despite rising inflation, despite rising interest rates and all those kinds of things. That not only impacts the Asian community; it also impacts the African American community. Where are they going to live? So, suddenly we’re once again competing for resources. So, figuring out some sort of solution is really heavy on my mind.
RC: Looking back, how did you draw from your own Asian history and Asian heritage [in the work you do]?
JL: A lot of what my parents instilled in me was bridge building. Whether it was in Fort Collins, Colorado, predominantly white; whether it was in North Andover, Massachusetts, predominantly white; or Perrysburg, Ohio, predominantly white. They were always trying to make bridges. My mom teaches a cooking class where her students are predominantly white up in the 577 Foundation in Perrysburg. She’s done that for the past 20 years — always trying to build bridges to other cultures, to share not only our own culture but to learn about other cultures. When I came to Cincinnati, one of the first people that I met is [now] one of my best friends, Yemi Oyediran, and we started a production company together. And we are both the children of immigrants. We both have a strong affinity for sharing cultures and learning about cultures. Cincinnati has a rich history of bridging cultures. It is a border city; it is a literal bridge between the South and the North. It has been a bridge of music between the African American music tradition and the white Appalachian music tradition, which, since its birth, has been rock and roll, funk and soul, which has then birthed R&B and hip hop, and all those kinds of things. So, that has been a line through my entire life, and I really do owe that to the upbringing and experience that I’ve had all these years, thanks to my parents.