Asian Cultural Council at 60: An enduring heritage of reaching out

The invitation said it all. Stark in appearance, classic in its presentation — it set the tone to an utterly sophisticated evening. And yet, it exuded a discerning allure akin to a caring friend who meticulously planned a heartwarming get-together at their home among dear friends and appreciated colleagues.

Such was the welcome dinner of the Asian Cultural Council Manila, a nonprofit organization which provides life-changing opportunities for international and cultural exchanges between Asia and the United States among its artists, scholars and arts professionals.

And so they came — some 50 guests. Close colleagues, gentlemen in jackets sans ties — minus one or two exceptions — while the ladies descended with understated stylish frocks.

The venue? The C Lounge of the Conrad Manila, an ideal berth to savor Manila’s iconic sunset in all its glory. Upon arrival at the foyer, attendees promptly sipped on cocktails, then were promptly ushered into the main section for a sit-down dinner.

In a simple and candid speech, ACC Manila chairman of the board Ernest Escaler welcomed everyone, led by the Philippine First Lady Louise Araneta Marcos. He sincerely thanked Tessie Sy-Coson for graciously hosting the evening affair.

Amiable Conrad Manila general manager Fabio Berto, along with the renowned Chef Khorr of the famed China Blue by Jereme Leung and his culinary crew, teamed up together for a curated menu, coupled with flawless wait service.

The appetizers included Cherry Tomatoes Marinated in Sour Plum and Sweet Vinegar, Crispy Beancurd Sheet with Chicken and Green Apple Salad in Truffle Dressing and Steamed Dumpling with Dry Scallop, Seafood and Coriander. This was followed by a classic Seafood Hot and Sour Soup.

The main dishes were Golden U.S. Roast Duck in Pancake Wrappers, Homemade Spinach Bean Curd in Sichuan Eggplant and Minced Chicken Sauce, Stir-Fried Beef Tenderloin with Assorted Mushrooms in Black Pepper Sauce, and Seafood Fried Rice with Signature XO Sauce.

A sweet — but not too sweet — finale was Almond Pudding with Lychee Sorbet and Ube Stick.

All throughout the friendly and leisurely gathering, harpist Avonlea Paraiso, serenaded with light classics and musical theater tunes which exquisitely matched the evening’s mood.

There was time for journeys down memory lane. The sparks which ignited the ACC flame were struck in 1963, when John D. Rockefeller 3rd established a program to support cultural exchanges in Asia and the United States through grants to individuals and organizations in the visual and performing arts.

It was a trailblazer ahead of its time, for they awarded grants on an individual basis, tailored and based on the requirements of each recipient — no two endowments were ever the same. A gentleman philanthropist, he once said, “Traditionally, Americans have viewed international relations primarily in political and economic terms with comparatively little attention given to the cultural dimension… The result is that our world outlook has tended to be bound by our own culture instead of being broadened by a sensitivity to other cultures.”

In the year 2000, the ACC Manila was established. It must be noted that fashion designer Josie Cruz Natori, likewise a philanthropist and a recipient of the Order of Lakandula — one of the highest civilian awards in the country — was the crucial piece of the puzzle in this partnership. A longtime member of the ACC New York — and being elected as the chair in 2023 — she facilitated the connection for this expansion.

Pioneer trustees were David Rockefeller Jr., Maria Isabel G. Ongpin, Isabel Caro Wilson, along with Escaler and Natori.

The local chapter then proceeded with its very own Fellowship Program, which provided and continues to provide more opportunities for cultural exchange between the Philippines, Asia and the United States through a myriad of projects from various disciplines all with the goal to promote the rich cultural heritage of the nation.

Recipients range from established masters of today’s crafts, all the way to tomorrow’s rising stars. Some notable recipients were Philippine national artists, including printmaker and mixed media expert Jose Joya, composer and pianist Lucresia Kasilag, ballet extraordinaire Alice Reyes and filmmaker and writer Kidlat Tahimik.

Other notable individuals were Nestor O. Jardin for arts administration, Myra Beltran for dance, Dr. Patrick Flores for museum studies and Leeroy New for visual arts.

Today, as the international organization celebrates its 60th anniversary, it has partnered once again with its counterparts in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Taipei and Manila for the fundraising gala, instrumental in the funding of the laudable and noble projects of the ACC, as it continues to realize the dreams and visions of those in the field of arts.