No Enclave — Exploring Hmong Los Angeles

No Enclave

HMONG LOS ANGELES

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The Hmong are a stateless people who mostly live in Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Approximately 281,000 Hmong lived in the US, as of the 2010 census, and the state with the largest population is California. While most California Hmong live in either Fresno or Sacramento Country, several thousand live in Southern California, mainly in and around San Diego, North Orange County, and Long Beach. There are few obvious indications of their presence, and just as they are stateless at home, they are similarly enclave-less here.

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Image: 蔡昌林的博客

Both DNA and linguistic evidence suggest that the Hmong lived in Southern China at least 2,000 years ago. The Chinese refer to the Hmong as “Miao,” an official designation which collectively encompasses several southern minorities, including some neither linguistically nor ethnically closely related. According to their own history, the Hmong originated in Zhuolu Town, Hebei, in China’s north, around the third millennium BCE. The legendary king, Chiyou (known in Hmong as Txiv Yawg), is claimed as their ancestor. According to various historical accounts, Chiyou was said to have been a fierce leader, possessed of four eyes, six arms, and a bronze, bull-like head with two horns. He is also claimed not just to be the ancestor of the Hmong (and all Miao), but the Dongyi (“eastern barbarians”), Nanman (“southern barbarians), and the Koreans. Conflict between the dominant Chinese people, the Han, and the Hmong led to their long migration, ultimately into Southeast Asia, where most live today.

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Textile illustrating Hmong involvement in Vietnam War and subsequent escape to Thailand (Image: Visual Culture)

During the Vietnam War and the so-called Secret War (the Laotian Civil War), the American military and CIA recruited Hmong to wage guerrilla war against the Viet Cong and Laos’s Pathet Lao insurgents. Saigon, the last stronghold of the US-backed South Vietnam, fell to North Vietnam on 30 April 30 1975. Vietnam invaded Laos in December 1975, and under the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975, 3,466 Hmong insurgents were allowed admission into the US. In May 1976, 11,000 more Hmong were admitted. By 1978, the population of Hmong-Americans had grown to about 30,000, still mostly comprised of fighters affiliated with the US-led effort and including General Vang Pao, who transitioned from Major General in the Royal Lao Army into community leader of the Hmong-American community. After the passage of the Refugee Act of 1980, more Hmong arrived, this time many more not directly involved in the US-backed insurgency. They continued to settle primarily in California and Minnesota. Today there are also a large Hmong communities in Milwaukee and Wasau, Wisconsin.

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long beach hmong new year 2009 (107) (Image: Dan Stefani)

ORANGE COUNTY COMMUNITY

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Hmong New Year 2012 Santa Ana (5) (Image: Dan Stefani)

In Southern California, most Hmong were presumably processed at Camp Pendleton, in northern San Diego County. About 3,000 Hmong lived in North Orange County in the early 1980s — a not insubstantial number — but one dwarfed by much larger influx of Vietnamese, who established Little Saigon in the late 1970s in Westminster and whose highly visible presence soon spread across a vast area which today includes parts of Garden Grove, Fountain Valley, Santa Ana, Midway City, Stanton, and Huntington Beach. Today Vietnamese comprise over 6% of Orange County’s population whilst Hmong are outnumbered by Koreans, Taiwanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Japanese, Cambodians, Pakistanis, Thais, Indonesians, and Laotians. Garden Grove is home to the Hmong of Orange County Association, though, who are responsible for organizing Hmong New Year festivities, held in November or December at the end of the rice harvest.

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In 2007, Vang Pao, then living in Westminster, was charged with attempting to overthrow the government of Laos. The federal government dropped all charges in 2009 and the former military leader died in 2011 at the age of 81, after attending Hmong New Year celebrations in Fresno. He was survived by his youngest wife, May Song Vang, who assumed his position as a community leader but herself passed away in the city of Orange in 2013.

LONG BEACH COMMUNITY

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Photography by Thom Wasper for Long Beach Parks, Recreation and Marine

A larger Hmong community arose in Long Beach, where in the 1980s they were estimated to number around 8,000. There, too, the Hmong are overshadowed by another refugee population from Southeast Asia, the Cambodians. Numbering around 20,000, Long Beach is home to the largest community of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. In 2007, an area home to many Cambodians and Hmong was designated Cambodia Town, the first recognized Cambodian enclave in the US.

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The Hmong Association-Long Beach, was founded by Yang Cha in 1981. Programs they offer include instruction of traditional Hmong dance (taught by Gorlia Xiong and Shayna Lee), music programs Qeej not Gangs (taught by Qeej Master Nao Lee Thao) and a drum group (led by Master Chang Kai), Paj ntaub Hmong needlework (taught by Paj ntaub instructor, Chong Lee Vang), and Hmong language classes taught by Teng Yang, Nancy Yang, and Mary Yang. Since 1980, they’ve hosted Hmong New Year festivities in Cambodia Town, Long Beach’s El Dorado Park.

BRENDA SONG

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Actress Brenda Song was born in Carmichael (in Sacramento County) in 1988 and currently lives in Los Angeles. Her father is Hmong and her mother, Thai. Song began working as a child model and commercial actress before landing a lead female role on the Disney Channel’s insufferable The Suite Life of Zack & Cody in 2005. She went on to star in Wendy Wu: Homecoming Warrior (2007), and had a prominent role in the well-received David Fincher film, The Social Network (2010).

JERRY YANG

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Jerry Yang (Image: Poker News)

Xao “Jerry” Yang is a poker player from Temecula and the winner of the 2007 World Series of Poker Main Event. Yang was born in Laos in 1967 and his family spent four years in a refugee camp in Thailand before coming to America. Yang currently lives in Madera.

HMONG RADIO AND MUSIC

Of California’s estimate 91,224 Hmong, far more live in the Central Valley than in Southern California, something I only became aware of a couple of years ago when I was driving back from Sequoia National Forest and I stumbled across a radio station playing some very appealing, soulful and funky pop music sung in an unfamiliar language. Of course Shazam couldn’t just admit that it didn’t recognize any, suggesting over and over again that I hold my device closer to the speaker rather than admit any shortcoming. When I got home I looked up the station and found out that it was KBIF 900 AM, “the Central Valley’s Asian Voice.” I’m not sure whether the music that I heard was Hmong or Lao, as the station plays both. Whatever the case, I was surprised to learn of the Central Valley’s Hmong population. Having gone to college in the Middle West, I knew of the Hmong community in St. Paul but no others.

Maly Vu & X2V Concert 1995 – France

Back then I remember hearing about Hmong rappers and it seemed that hip-hop was popular in the community. There are also pop singers like Maly Vu, Blong Yang, and Cua Yaj. Traditional Hmong music is often vocal or features traditional instruments like the qeej and raj (two types of reed pipe), the ncas (a jaw harp), and nplooj or nblaw (leaves).

HMONG CINEMA

I’m not aware of any Hmong films having been made in Asia but there are not surprisingly, Hmong-Americans making films, including directors Kak Lee and Moua Lee. In 2008, Hmong actors and non-actors were featured prominently in director Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino. Its star, Bee Vang (from Fresno), is apparently working on his own short, Sunset on Dawn/Kho Neeg. Co-star Ahney Her, sometimes as Whitney Yang, has gone on to act in several films. Co-star Choua Kue has also continued to work in film.

HMONG FOOD

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Image: Peeking Duck

Most dishes of the Hmong kitchen aren’t unique to the Hmong people and are merely Hmong adaptations of Chinese, Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese dishes. I couldn’t find any restaurants which claim to specialize in Hmong cuisine but Vientiane Thai Laos in Garden Grove serves Hmong sausages as well as Thai and Laotian dishes commonly eaten in Hmong households.

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Interior Dining (Image: Gerry B.)

HMONG ORGANIZATIONS & MEDIA

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Members of the Long Beach Nkauj Ci Iab Dance Group, Kaonor Lee, Maiyer Vang, Mailee Lor and Marina Thao applaud the ending of the opening ceremonies of the 39th annual Hmong New Year celebration in San Diego. (Image: Nancee Lewis)

In addition to the already mentioned Hmong organizations, the Southern California Hmong are also served by the Association of Hmong Students, UCLA, the Lao Hmong Family Association of San Diego, the Hmong Alliance Church Santa Ana, and the Hmong Alliance Church San Diego. The Hmong are a member of the UNPO. Hmong media and websites include Hmong Journal, Hmong Times, Peb Hmong, and The Hmong Tribune.

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As always, hit me with any additions and corrections. Thanks!

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in AmoeblogdiaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, Boom: A Journal of California, the Craft & Folk Art MuseumForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County StoreSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on FacebookInstagram, and Twitter.

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