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Hmong Lucy goes to China

On Feb. 10, Hmong Lucy — a statue created by St. Cloud-based artist Kao Lee Thao (aka Inner Swirl) – will be the main attraction at a reveal party in St. Paul.

Hmong Lucy, a statue created by St. Cloud-based artist Kao Lee Thao, will be the main attraction at a reveal party at the Community School of Excellence.
Courtesy of Inner Swirl

It’s been a long journey from Lucy van Pelt to Nkauj (Miss) Hmong Lucy, but the latter is about to make her bow.

On Feb. 10, Hmong Lucy — a statue created by St. Cloud-based artist Kao Lee Thao (aka Inner Swirl) – will be the main attraction at a reveal party (1-4 p.m.) at the Community School of Excellence (270 W. Larpenteur Avenue in St. Paul). 

After that, she’ll travel to Changsha, the capital city of the Hunan province in China, and take up permanent residence in Yanghu Wetland Park as part of a parks gift exchange between the sister cities of St. Paul and Changsha.

“We have invited the mayor, a senator, House representatives, and City Council [members] to come to support this project and bring the Hmong community over to visit Hmong Lucy and take some pictures with her,” said Tha Ying, chairman of the Hmong Cultural Plaza Advisory Group, a subcommittee of the Minnesota-China Friendship Garden Society, which raised funds for the creation and commission of Hmong Lucy and four other Peanuts statues that will soon be housed at the Changsha park

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Nkauj Hmoob Lucy is a symbol of how we’ve adapted to our hardships but our culture will continue far through the ages,” emailed Kao Lee Thao, the artist who created Hmong Lucy. “The Peanuts character’s eyes are round in appearance. I chose to change the shape of her eyes to appear more ethnic while carrying the color scheme in her makeup. She’s wearing my interpretation of a traditional Hmong clothing infused with my expressive patterns. I worked with the existing Lucy sculpture to conform our vibrant outfit and culture.”

An ancestral connection

“The Hmong trace their ancestral heritage back to this area of China, so it’s really great to have that connection,” said Linda Mealey-Lohmann, president and founder of the Minnesota-China Friendship Garden Society, the 12-year-old nonprofit working on the construction and design of a garden at Phalen Regional Park, which breaks ground in June with four structures scheduled to be built by the end of the year.

“Phalen Park is heavily used by the Hmong community, and St. Paul has the largest urban Hmong community in the U.S., so it’s really great to be able to combine that in this sister city park in Phalen. It’s going to have both authentic Chinese structures and it will also have the Hmong component that will represent that Hmong ancestral connection.

“There are actually about 2 million Hmong that live in the Changsha area. So we hope this connects on a cultural basis as well as opening up doors between Minnesota and Hmong and Chinese businesses.”

“About 50,000 Hmong people live in St. Paul, and 80,000 in all of Minnesota, so St. Paul has a large Hmong population and Changsha also has a large Hmong population, at 1.5 million,” said Vang.

Snoopy and his doghouse

Lucy isn’t the only statue traveling to China. The set includes Snoopy and his doghouse, Joe Cool Snoopy, Linus, Lucy, and Charlie Brown. 

“For the Snoopy doghouse, we commissioned a Minnesota-Chinese artist, Yudong Shen, to do the design for the doghouse that involved four or five state symbols, and he did it in a Chinese brush style painting design, so it’s really cool to see the loon and the pine trees and the lady slipper and butterfly all on the doghouse all in this beautiful brush-style painting,” said Mealey-Lohmann.

Designed in 3D created digitally by Thao, the Peanuts statues were created at Mendota Heights-based designers and builders TivoliToo. But Lucy is the only one to be transformed into a Hmong girl with Hmong features and dress.

“We picked Lucy because of Hmong traditional costume, and a man’s costume is not looking good at all; it’s just very plain,” said Vang. “But the woman’s costume is beautiful, so we picked Lucy to be Hmong. At first we thought it should be Charlie Brown, but decided that would be too plain, and the Lucy [statue] just turned out beautiful.”

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Lucy’s debut was in 1952

It all started in 1947, when St. Paul’s first newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer, ran “Lil’ Folks,” a comic strip invented by Charles M. Schulz that became “Peanuts” in 1950. Lucy made her Peanuts debut on March 3, 1952, and a few months later pulled the football away from Charlie Brown for the first time. Six years later, Sister Cities International was launched at President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s White House conference on citizen diplomacy. 

When Schulz died on Feb. 12, 2000, the Peanuts Character Sculpture Project inspired artist to create over 500 Peanuts statues in five years, and to this day wacky psychedelic cartoon bronze and acrylic Peanuts characters can be spotted, posed and poised and living happily and happily ever after, all around St. Paul and beyond. 

The original Lucy, of course, is best known as the original mean girl who antagonized Charlie Brown, provided common sense via her psychiatric booth, and for being super crabby — so much so that journalist Christopher Caldwell once narrowly wrote of the consummate big bully sister figure, “Lucy is no ‘fussbudget.’ She’s an American nightmare, a combination of zero brains, infinite appetites and infinite self-esteem, who is able to run roughshod over all her playmates. At her best, she is the most terrifying character in the history of comics.” 

No matter. Lucy is about to be loved like never before. And at a time when America is seen as a spoiled brat led by an enfant terrible, China and Minnesota have been engaging in a friendship that has born fruit and is proving to be more than symbolic.

“When we put Hmong Lucy on Facebook, a lot of Hmong community across the U.S. said ‘Oh, yeah, Lucy is good,’ and they liked it!” enthused Vang. “Everybody knows, and I hope in China a lot of the Chinese community and the Hmong community will recognize Lucy, too.”

“I don’t know for sure, but I think that people in China don’t know that much” about Peanuts, said Ying. “Only the real educated people and people who are in the city maybe, but I don’t know if the Hmong community or the China community know that. I think it is something that is strange for them, first reaction, because they don’t know about the Peanuts characters, so they will need to have an explanation about those when we send those gifts to Changsha. We will have to have a description.”

“We really wanted the sister gift to be representative of St. Paul and our community, and we thought with Charles Schulz being born in St. Paul, and with all these Peanuts characters, that would be a good symbolic gift from the City of St. Paul,” said Mealey-Lohmann, who has traveled to China several times in the name of the sister city project, and told the Star Tribune, “Traveling around China, you see a lot of ‘Peanuts’ icons everywhere. We proposed [the statues] to them, and they were very excited about that.”  “So hopefully it will be a very meaningful gift. Chinese love the Peanuts characters, in particular Snoopy, so I think they’re excited to get these.”

Sister cities since 1988

The St. Paul-Changsha sister-city project started in 1988, and the two cities share history with the Hmong.

“I am from Laos, and our ancestors and great grandparents are from China,” said Ying. “We are originally from China. We still have a thousand relatives and friends in Southern China.”

“When my parents crossed the Mekong River in search of a new life I knew early on I needed to pursue my passion because so many died for my freedom,” emailed Thao, who will give a presentation on the making of Hmong Lucy at the reveal party this weekend. “After I graduated with a media arts and animation degree I started my own company called Folklore Studio

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“Although my career is driven by 3D animation I picked up a paintbrush in 2004 and my world has never been the same. My work is infused with an expressively fluid style that allows viewers to travel into the past and see the echo of Hmong folktales, themes, and patterns passed down verbally from generation to generation in the Hmong culture.

“As a Hmong artist I’ve struggled finding a balance trying to honor my culture but also express my appreciation of what it means to live in America. To be able to transform an iconic Peanut character with Hmong inspired patterns balanced these two influential cultures.”