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Celebrating and reflecting on Hmong history, culture

By Matt Ehling | Friday, Nov. 28, 2008
Today the doors of St. Paul’s RiverCentre will open to host the 32nd annual Minnesota Hmong New Year celebration.

1981 Hmong New Year celebration
Photo by Marlin Heise/Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
1981 Hmong New Year celebration at Highland Junior-Senior High School, St. Paul.

Today the doors of St. Paul’s RiverCentre will open to host the 32nd annual Minnesota Hmong New Year celebration. The event features contemporary entertainment and traditional ceremonies from more than 4,000 years of Hmong history.

The Hmong community in Minnesota has grown rapidly since its first members arrived in the late 1970s, when they fled persecution in Laos during the aftermath of the Vietnam War. In the decades since, the history of the Hmong people has become increasingly intertwined with the history of Minnesota, as the local Hmong community has grown and prospered (the 2000 U.S. Census listed 41,800 Hmong residents in Minnesota). At the end of the state’s 150th year it is fitting to look back at the history of a people whose journey has brought them from the provinces of southern China to the cities of Minnesota and beyond.

As with any historical narrative, it is also worth examining how this story has been told — and mis-told — over time. Indeed, efforts are under way to record and disseminate interviews with many of the Hmong who lived through the Vietnam War period to make sure their history isn’t lost and that their children, grandchildren and others get an accurate picture of what came to be called the “Secret War.”

Hmong history in China
While many Minnesotans are familiar with the story of the Hmong people as it relates to the Vietnam War era, their history spans many centuries, says Lee Pao Xiong, director of Concordia University’s Hmong Studies program. Xiong, who helped found the program in 2004, notes that early Hmong history is complex, and often difficult to relate with precision, since there was no written Hmong language prior to the mid 20th century.  Furthermore, Xiong notes that much of the critical work that has been done in this area has been undertaken by Chinese academics, and awaits translation by Hmong scholars in the West.

Historians who have studied the early periods of Hong history describe a highly organized, clan-based society that moved — in part — out of southern China and into Laos as late as the 1800s. The idea that the Hmong have deep roots in Laos is a common misperception, according to Xiong.

“There are more Hmong in China than anywhere else,” he notes. Earlier this decade, when he was appointed to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian-American and Pacific Islanders, Xiong recalls telling Bill Clinton that while there were 300,000 Hmong in the United States, there were 10 million Hmong worldwide, with over 9 million in China.  “He was just shocked,” says Xiong.

Xiong notes that the clan-based structure of Hmong society has maintained itself over time, and that the contemporary surnames of Hmong-Americans largely correspond to historical clan designations. Within traditional Hmong culture, clans are differentiated by their traditions — most importantly, how they choose to honor their ancestral heritage.  There is speculation among some academics, says Xiong, that the very clan names now used by the Hmong people may have been imposed on them by the Chinese, as a way to categorize the Hmong communities under their rule. According to Xiong, “There are conversations among scholars that the Chinese came up with a classification system. For instance, my last name is “bear” in Chinese. When I go to China, my fellow Hmong ask if I’m part of the “Bear” Clan. That’s one piece of Hmong history that is interesting to speculate about, but we don’t really have an agreement on it yet.”

A conflict over an imposed term
An early conflict over the framing of Hmong history had its roots in the Hmong experience in southern China. According to the writings of prominent Hmong historian Doctor Yang Dao, the Chinese term for the Hmong people — “Miao” — has derogatory connotations. This term, Yang Dao notes, was not a name that the Hmong applied to themselves, but rather it was imposed on them by outside cultural forces. This became an issue in the West after western historians first encountered the Hmong people and began to use the term “Miao” as a descriptor in their academic writings.  While there are linguistic disagreements over the original meaning of the term “Miao,” ethnic Hmong have long held that the term has only been used in a pejorative sense.

As University of Minnesota scholar Mai Na Lee wrote in the January 2005 edition of the Journal of Hmong studies, “The objection of the Hmong in the West is not to the original meaning of the word “Miao,” which could be debated, but how the Hmong themselves perceived it in historical context.” During the 1970s, Doctor Yang Dao’s advocacy of the term “Hmong” led to its standardized throughout the West.

Friction between Hmong peoples and Chinese dynastic rulers eventually led to the exodus of large groups of Hmong from southern China. This migration began in the 1700s, and stretched into the 19th century, at which time the Hmong came into contact with French colonialists who had taken possession of much of southeastern Asia. There, the French and the Hmong clashed during a series of localized rebellions against French rule. According to the writings of Mai Na Lee, “The Hmong of Laos were the first group to threaten the colonial order in 1896 just three years after Laos became a French protectorate. In this year, Hmong leaders refused to collect taxes from people who had not been informed of its increase. An armed struggle ensured, which ended in the negotiation for a new tax settlement, and twenty-five years of peace.”

Tensions break into open revolt
Mai Na Lee has written extensively about this period, and notes that the Hmong and French colonizers continued to skirmish throughout the early part of the 20th century. By 1919, tensions broke into an open revolt that “engulfed virtually all of northern Indochina,” she says. While acknowledging this history, Mai Na Lee’s writings warn of the dangers of generalizing Hmong cultural behavior based on a selective reading of these years. This period created a myth in the West, she says, “that the Hmong are warlike, fiercely independent, and unassimilable.”  For her, this is a myth that remains to be challenged.

For the Hmong, the colonial years in Laos were marked by alternating periods of conflict and alliance with French forces, as well as by frictions with the Vietnamese and Lao peoples. These frictions eventually caused some rifts among the Hmong people themselves. According to Lee Pao Xiong, the Hmong of southeastern Asia eventually split into separate factions that wound end up on different sides of the military struggle that came to be known as the “Secret War.”  Xiong relates that, “during the Secret War, you had one part of the Hmong people venturing onto the Vietminh side — the Vietnamese side — and one group of Hmong staying in Laos” and eventually aligning with the Americans.  “Even to this day,” Xiong says, “you still have an element of the Hmong people who sided with the Vietminh.  They’re in key positions in Laos right now.”

Conflicts between the Hmong of Laos and the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao movement set the stage for the entry of the Americans into the Hmong historical narrative. During the Vietnam War, the CIA sought out Hmong help in attacking Vietnamese supply lines that crossed the Laotian border. Early in the conflict, the CIA approached Hmong Gen. Vang Pao about the possibility of collaborating on military operations. Vang Pao, who was already engaged in direct combat with the Pathet Lao, welcomed the assistance.  Says Lee Pao Xiong, “Vang Pao needed arms and trusted the Americans.”

At the time, Vang Pao maintained that the Americans won World War I, had won World War II, and he believed that they would prevail in Vietnam. Chong Jones, a small business owner from Portland, Ore., whose father served with Vang Pao during the Secret War period, notes that some of Vang Pao’s officers were skeptical of American intentions at the time, but that their counsel was not heeded. Says Jones, “Some officers warned him that the Americans were going to leave one day. He never believed this could happen.  He was wrong.”

A variety of missions for the CIA
Operating from the jungle outpost of Long Cheng, Vang Pao’s forces engaged the Vietminh and Pathet Lao, and undertook assorted missions on behalf of the CIA. These missions included everything from guarding American radar installations to rescuing American pilots shot down over the jungles of Laos. Hmong casualties during this period were high.

Twin Cities actor and filmmaker A-yia Thoj, whose father fought in the Secret War, relates the heavy toll that the conflict took on his father’s generation. He notes that as the war progressed, many older Hmong soldiers were killed, and the burden of combat fell to their children.  “As the war went on, many of the fighters were only thirteen or fourteen years old,” says Thoj. 

American journalists were the first to term the conflict in Laos the “Secret War.” This handle alluded to the fact that U.S. military operations in Laos were not authorized by Congress, and were largely hidden from the American public by the White House. As Lee Pao Xiong notes, “Laos was supposed to be a neutral country, but everyone was there. That’s the fascinating thing, that the Americans were not supposed to be there, the Russians were not supposed to be there, the Vietnamese were not supposed to be there, but everyone was there.”

After the fall of Saigon to the Vietminh in 1975, American forces withdrew from Southeast Asia, and the Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao took over Laos. Hmong soldiers were left to confront the Pathet Lao with no American military support. As the Pathet Lao consolidated their hold over the country, they moved against Hmong fighters who had backed the United States. Soldiers and their families were forced to flee Laos for refugee camps in Thailand, and many died en route. Large numbers of Hmong remained in Thai relocation camps until the late 1970s, when the U.S. Congress cleared the way for Hmong refugees to immigrate to America.

Relating Hmong history to generations
The history of the Hmong people is a complex tale, and the turbulence of recent decades has posed challenges to its telling — even among the Hmong who settled in the United States. According to Lee Pao Xiong, there can be a disconnect between the generation that fought in the Secret War and their children, who were largely raised in the United States. Some members of this younger generation, he notes, do not fully understand the historical context in which their family’s journey to America took place. “These stories are not being taught in high schools. It’s not until you get to college that you get a taste of it,” says Xiong. I talk to people who say “General Vang Pao — who is he?  Even people in my generation who are not as involved in doing research or probing more — they don’t know.”

Chong Jones has noted a certain amount of reluctance by veterans of the Secret War to discuss the events of that turbulent period. Many veterans, he says, simply wish to leave the past behind.  He believes that their reticence presents a challenge for younger generations of Hmong-Americans who are curious about their history. “My generation has little knowledge of what happened in Laos and how they got here,” he says. What little historical information exists is available from western sources.” Jones worries that the recitation of exclusively western versions of Hmong history will alter the nature of that history for future generations. “When regurgitated repeatedly, western perspectives become fact by default,” he notes.

In recent years, Chong Jones has transformed his personal interest in the events of the Secret War into an extensive oral history project.  Jones — whose father was a confidant of Vang Pao — grew up in Laos, but was sent to America for his formal education. After the Communist takeover of Laos, he remained in the United States, and was adopted by an American family.  Members of his biological family fled Laos in 1975, and his father, Toulu Chongtoua, eventually migrated to France. Curious about his cultural heritage, Jones began to conduct audio and video interviews with his father and other relatives:

From curiosity to necessity
“I started this project out of curiosity,” he says.  “The more I listened to the elders, the more I became intrigued.  I realized that I needed to record their history. … Once these men are gone, the information will be lost forever.”

As of this writing, Jones has recorded dozens of interviews with Hmong military commanders, soldiers, civilians, and others who lived through the Secret War period, including some in the Twin Cities area. He believes that the preservation and dissemination of Hmong history will provide benefits for younger Hmong-Americans, who often feel conflicted about their cultural identity, just as he did as a young man.

“I notice that the second generation Hmong kids are facing the same dilemma,” he says. “Some are lost. I believe that one way you empower children is by giving them a sense of pride. This is why our recent history is so important.”

Lee Pao Xiong hopes that the efforts of the Hmong Studies Program — in conjunction with the work of Hmong scholars around the world — will help to guide and mediate the telling of Hmong history, particularly as it is buffeted by the fast-moving currents of American society. “I think that the Hmong people have this enormous ability to adapt to a changing environment,” says Xiong. “And we are thriving — and we are becoming integral members of society. We’re doctors, we’re lawyers, we’re politicians, we’re educators. I think it’s exciting, and we just need to look at the potential for more contributions from within the Hmong community.” This ability to quickly adapt, he says, also provides challenges for preserving the past.

A-yia Thoj notes that the preservation of Hmong history — and Hmong culture — is ultimately in the hands of the younger generation of Hmong-Americans. “As a culture, we need to make conscious choices about how to relate to our history and heritage.  If we don’t do this, then those choices will be made for us.” 

Matt Ehling is a freelance television producer and documentary filmmaker based in St. Paul.

What: Hmong New Year Celebration, with singers, dancers, shopping, ethnic foods
When: Friday, Nov. 28, to Sunday, Nov. 30, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. each day
Where: St. Paul RiverCentre
Tickets: $5 in advance or $6 at the door