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LITTLE TOKYO : Hotel Reaches Out to African Americans

March 06, 1994|IRIS YOKOI

The menu was distinctly Japanese--a bento (box) lunch of teriyaki chicken and grilled salmon.

But the rest of the recent noontime program at the New Otani Hotel was dedicated to celebrating African American--not Japanese--culture. Motivational speaker Cindy Harper fired up the audience of several hundred with encouraging words such as: "You've got to fight the negativity that bombards you." And designer Ahneva Ahneva's fashion show of African-inspired clothing elicited hoots, hollers and enthusiastic applause.

"Look around the room at all of the different colors of clothing and the ebony hue . . . and give yourself some applause," the Rev. Anthony Johnson of the Jordan Covenant Church told the ballroom full of people.

The Japanese-owned New Otani hosted the African American Cultural Exchange Luncheon on Feb. 25 as part of its effort to reach out to other ethnic groups. The 16-year-old hotel at 120 S. Los Angeles St. has long been considered a business that specifically caters to Japanese tourists and business people, but officials vowed this year to improve its community relations efforts.

"We're in existence not just for business; we like to be the center of the community," said Kenji Yoshimoto, general manager.

But in the past, the hotel focused on introducing and sharing Japanese culture with the public, holding free events like the New Year's Day celebration and flower-arranging and tea ceremony demonstrations.

Last fall, the hotel began its campaign to spotlight other cultures by inviting members of the Filipino community to a luncheon. And with Black History Month in February, an African American luncheon seemed a natural second event.

Trish Butler, New Otani catering office manager, organized the event, calling on her contacts in the African American community for help. Tickets were $10. Local artists and authors displayed their works in a mini-marketplace in the foyer.

And as attendees finished their "soul bento " lunch, the energetic Harper called on them to focus on positive attitudes and actions. "Realize you're going to fall . . . but if you fall, pick yourself up and keep on going," said Harper, who repeatedly called on audience affirmation by asking, "Right?"

Ahneva's grand-finale fashion show was also spirited and inspirational, with the designer providing snippets of African history and lessons on textiles as she introduced her fashions, which blend imported, handwoven African fabrics with more common materials.

"Ladies, you can go to work in your culture," Ahneva said, as a model walked down the runway in a black wool gabardine suit with intricate gold accents. Audience members sighed appreciatively as models showed off colorful yet regal formal gowns made with traditional fabrics from Senegal, Nigeria and Ghana.

And the mostly female audience came alive with cheers and catcalls when male models displayed mud-cloth vests, patterned jackets and even tuxedos made with printed cloth. "Men, it's time for you to get rid of that ugly black tuxedo," Ahneva said, as the men strutted and danced down the runway and audience members melodramatically fanned themselves with napkins.

Luncheon attendees had nothing but praise for the event, saying that even if it was merely a marketing ploy for the hotel, they appreciated it.

"It's a good ploy, because African Americans are consumers," said Donald Lovett, a community mediator for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. "It was absolutely wonderful, very well presented."

"It's a way to mend L.A.," said free-lance photographer Maril Delly, who displayed her works. And the rave reviews from city employees Valerie Works and Jannette Allen are bound to please hotel officials. "The hotel is beautiful, and I had the misconception that this was mostly a hotel for the Japanese," Works said.

Added Allen: "I'll be back to see what the other cultural programs are like."

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