Roanoke will lose its goodwill ambassador this Wednesday.
The longtime leader of Local Colors of Roanoke and the city’s foremost advocate for multicultural appreciation and understanding, the irreplaceable Pearl Fu will move to Pennsylvania this Wednesday.
She and husband C.C. are moving into a Philadelphia apartment complex called Crane Chinatown, with a gym and pool easily accessible, where they’ll be living closer to one of their three daughters, artist Colette Fu.
Health difficulties motivated the move. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease 20 years ago, Fu uses a walker and takes careful steps.
“It’s affected my mental health,” she said. “I can’t do things with my hands anymore.”
She wistfully recalled giving cooking demonstrations on television. If they had relatives living in Roanoke, they wouldn’t leave, she said.
“Even my husband was reluctant to move.” What she’ll miss about her adopted city, she said, is “Everything. People are very caring, very caring. They’re just the kindest people.”
Roanoke is as sad to see Pearl Fu go as she is to leave it.
On Thursday, the Roanoke City Council will adopt a resolution to bestow the name Pearl Fu Plaza on the common area between the City Market and Elmwood Park that holds the Friendship Fountain and the Sister Cities Flags Pavilion.
Fu said council members Joe Cobb and Bill Bestpitch spoke to her Sunday about the impending honor.
“I was so surprised and shocked, so honored,” she said.
She said she shouldn’t be given sole credit for all the things Local Colors accomplished.
“The success of Roanoke’s Local Colors is everyone, not just me, everybody working together, wonderful kind people reaching out to all cultures.”
The Fus arrived in Roanoke in 1986 when C.C., an engineer, was transferred by Ingersoll-Rand.
“I had never heard of Roanoke before we came.”
She had been warned the residents might not be friendly to outsiders, so she set out to counter that, paying a visit to a neighbor with fresh-baked Chinese bread.
“They were as nice as can be,” she said.
Fu made it her mission to promote better understanding between people of different cultures in the Roanoke region. She attended the first Local Color event (the festival’s original name) in 1991, representing China by herself, one of only four countries showcased. Fu had many ideas for improvement and pursued them tirelessly as a volunteer.
At the time, she was already rising to prominence as a liaison to immigrant populations and a one-woman welcoming committee for Roanoke. The Roanoke Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau named her “Capital of the Blue Ridge Ambassador” in 1992. She’s been referred to through the years as “a welcome wagon on legs” and “Roanoke’s No. 1 cheerleader.”
Fu, who has long answered questions about her age by replying “that’s my only secret,” was born in the Yunnan Province of China, and her grandfather Long Yun had an attention grabbing-moniker of his own, “King of Yunnan.”
A famous general still revered in Yunnan, Long Yun oversaw Yunnan Province for 18 years and led troops against Japan during World War II. A conflict with Chiang Kai-shek, leader of the Republic of China, drove Long Yun and his family to escape to Hong Kong, where Pearl Fu grew up.
She convinced her parents to send her to college in America, and briefly pursued a singing career before meeting and marrying C.C.
A member of China’s Yi minority, her pride in her heritage informed her advocacy and her public appearances, as she often dresses in traditional Yi garments.
The Local Colors festival grew under Fu’s leadership. She became the executive director when the organization attained independent nonprofit status in 2005.
When she retired in 2014, the festival could boast of more than 100 member nations sharing their cultures via cuisine, costumes, art, song and dance.
Fu’s successor, Beth Lutjen, has retired this year. Local Colors moves forward under the directorship of Lisa Spencer, who most recently was a grants administrator for Volunteers of America Texas.
Local Colors isn’t just about putting on a festival.
“We did a lot without letting people know, a lot of advocacy which I’m proud of.”
Fu would act as a translator in courtroom cases, and help settle problems borne of cultural misunderstandings.
She related anecdotes that constituted a small sample of her experiences, one in which she intervened when a Chinese restaurant refused to serve a woman with a seeing-eye dog.
“In America, dogs are seen as really close family, but in China, they’re seen as a lower animal, not allowed in the house.”
She was able to explain the issue to both sides and quell the dispute.
She’s also been a ubiquitous presence at art events and stage performances in Roanoke, often brought by members of a network of friends who stepped up after her health problems made it unsafe for her to drive. All three of her daughters, Colette, Penny and Wendy, have returned to Roanoke this week to help pack .
After attending a class Monday at the Kirk Family YMCA in Roanoke, Fu took a seat with help from her friend Susan Coccia at a table cleared for her by Y staff, who referred to her as “Miss Pearl.” Visitors stopped to talk, expressing dismay when she informed them she was leaving.
“She’s our hero,” said Roanoke resident Anh Huynh. “She’s my superhero.”
“She obviously has been a fixture in the Roanoke Valley and the Y for numerous years,” said YMCA senior director Josh Yerkes, who added that he has known her since he was a teenager working for the Y as a life guard. Last week the YMCA held an appreciation for her, attended by about 50 people, Yerkes said.
“She’s been an icon for many aspects of community life,” said Mill Mountain Theatre Development Director John Levin. “The arts are fortunate that we’ve been one of them.”
“You memorized what I told you to say well,” Fu cracked, and Levin laughed.
“I wish you luck,” he said.