California has by far the largest population of Laotian-Americans of any state, 58,424 as of 2010. There are large communities in both northern and southern California, with roughly 7,120 living in the Los Angeles area. There they maintain a relatively discreet profile, reflected mostly by the presence of a handful of restaurants either specializing in Laotian food or offering Lao dishes.
Modern humans have lived in what’s now Laos for at least 46,000 years. A human skull discovered in Tam Pa Ling Cave in the Annamite Mountains is the oldest human fossil yet found in Southeast Asia. Agricultural villages emerged in Laos around 4000 BCE and by around 1500 BCE, a complex society had developed.
The history of Laos can be traced back to the kingdom of Lan Xang Hom Khao, founded by Lao prince Fa Ngum in 1354. The kingdom dominated much of Southeast Asia for four centuries until the death of Sourigna Vongsa in 1694. A few years later, in 1707, it split into three kingdoms: Luang Phrabang, Vientiane, and Champasak.
In 1893 the three kingdoms were reunified by colonial France part of French Indochina. Laos produced tin, rubber, and coffee for the French but was primarily viewed and used as a buffer between their more economically important occupation of Vietnam and British-influenced Thailand. At various points during World War II, France, Thailand, Japan, and China all occupied Laos. Laos declared independence in 1945 but in 1946, France re-conquered the state.
The Indochinese Communist Party formed the organization Pathet Lao to resist (alongside the Vietnamese Việt Minh) French Colonial forces and Laos won a more lasting independence in 1953 when it was re-established a constitutional monarchy. In 1960, Laos (already involved in a civil war between the royalists and communists) was dragged into the Vietnam War and a secret military operation in which was known amongst the CIA Special Activities Division (and later the public) as the Secret War, in which the US dropped tons of cluster bombs on Laos, killing an estimated 350,000 Laotians. In 1975, Laos’s king was overthrown and the Pathet Lao made installed a Communist government. In the aftermath, the US began accepting Laotian refugees.
From 1975-1996, about 130,000 ethnic Hmong and 120,000 Laotians of other ethnicities came to the US. Laos is a multi-ethnic society and Laotians include ethnic Lao, Khmu, Hmong, Thai, Puthai, Lü, Katang, Makong, Chinese, Vietnamese, and many others. Other Laotian refugees settled in France or Canada. Within the US, following California, Texas, Minnesota, Washington, Tennessee, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and Oregon all have small but substantial populations. Most Laotian-Americans live in urban areas, the largest being around Seattle. After Seattle, smaller communities are found around the San Francisco Bay, Dallas-Fort Worth, Sacramento, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, San Diego, Fresno, and Los Angeles, where an estimated 7,120 Laotians are estimated to live.
About 2,588 Laotians live in Orange County, particularly in diverse North Orange County, where most live in Santa Ana, Anaheim, Garden Grove, Fullerton, and Westminster. In 1990, when Seng Chidhalay launched the Lao language paper, Laos Sampanth, he did so from Santa Ana. When the exiled Laotian royal family visited California in 1995, they toured the city of Westminster.
My not-terribly-intensive research has turned up a handful of somewhat prominent Laotians with ties to California. Two b-boy brothers from San Diego who refer to themselves as Lancer and EraNetik were featured on a talent show called America’s Got Talent as part of a team called Body Poets. Khan “Bob” Malythong, a badminton coach in Fremont, is also a notable competitive badminton player. Authors TC Huo, Nor Sanavongsay, and Bryan Thao Worra are associated with the communities of Oakland, Dublin, and Hemet, respectively. Lao-Chinese-Indian-Thai-American comedian and Upright Citizen’s Brigade veteran Kulap Vilaysack is a co-founder of Garage Comedy.
Typical Lao items include sticky rice, larb, chicken salad, jaew (a dipping past made from chilis), tam mak hung (a sour and spicy papaya salad), kaeng no mai (a bamboo soup), herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Wild game and insects, especially red fire ants, are not uncommon. Common beverages include beer (beerlao) and lao-lao, a rice whiskey, or the less alcoholic lao-hai. Lao cuisine is similar to Thai cuisine, albeit characterized by greater extremes of sourness, bitterness, and heat.
Lao cuisine is recognizably influenced by its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Khao-pun from the former and pho and spring rolls from the latter are both common. Yunnanese food is common in the capital and largest city, Vientiane. The influence of colonial France is evident in the presence of khao jii (baguettes), omelets, pâté, coffee, condensed milk, and croissants.
Local restaurants serving Lao food include Spicy Lao and Vientiane Thai Laos Restaurant (both Garden Grove), Tai-Kadai Kitchen (Rosemead), and The Original Hoy Ka Hollywood (Hollywood Studio District). San Diego is home to Bane Phonekoe. There are Laotian markets for sale on the shelves of Thai & Laos Market in Anaheim’s Little Arabia. Sadly, Hoy Ka Lao (Monterey Park) closed in 2015.
Roughly two-thirds of Laotians are Buddhist. Nearly a third follow polytheistic, animistic, and often shamanic indigenous religions. A small minority, about 1.5%, practice Christianity. In the US, Lao Buddhist congregations often first meet in a home, gradually adapted into a house of worship through the addition of decorative art. In Southern California, Lao wats include Wat Lao Buddhasamakhee (Santa Ana); Wat Phosayaram of Orange County (Stanton); Wat Lao Buddhist Samakitham (Riverside); and Wat Lao Buddhaharam, Wat Lao Boubpharam, and Wat Lao Navaram Buddhist Monastery (San Diego). Local Lao Christian congregations include Lao Baptist Church (Whittier) and Laotian Vientiane Church (Riverside).
Several public holidays are observed in Laos, including Boun Khoun Khao (a rice harvest festival), Lao National Day (marking the establishment of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic in 1975), and the Rocket Festival, to name a few. Perhaps the most important festivals are the various New Year’s observances, with Hmong observing theirs around December, Chinese and Vietnamese observing theirs around February, and Lao New Year — celebrated around April and related to the New Year also observed by Cambodians, Nepalis, Sinhalese, Tamil, and Thai. Also known as Songkran, the holiday is observed with festivities at local Lao wats and San Diegos’ Lao Community Cultural Center.
LAOTIAN MEDIA & ORGANIZATIONS
Paul Odom launched Lao Roots Magazine in San Diego in 2007, which has since ceased publication. Former contributor Siamphone Louankang then launched LaoAmericans.com. Local organizations serving the Laotian community include the Laos-Chinese Friendship Association, based in Monterey Park.