‘We are your neighbors’
Museum exhibit celebrates Hmong life in Chico
Three young dancers demonstrated traditional Hmong movements in front of a brightly colored mural depicting a jungle replete with lush green foliage, cheerfully clambering monkeys, bright flowers and butterflies. The dancers looked festive and graceful in traditional attire: shiny black silk blouses with cobalt blue sleeve accents, scarlet waist sashes and, for the young women, white panels in their black skirts.
A break between storms provided some respite for Chicoans last weekend, and on a lovely midwinter Sunday afternoon, the young dancers and the rest of the opening festivities for the dedication of Peb Yog Hmoob, We Are Your Neighbors (“We Are Hmong, We Are Your Neighbors”)—the new addition to Chico Museum’s ongoing Chico Through Time exhibit—brought welcome color to the season.
The reception and exhibit were curated by Leaders for a Lifetime, a Chico State Hmong youth outreach program made up of local high school and college age students. It operates under the guidance of Professor Emeritus Mary Portis, who has mentored the group since its inception in 1997.
As Portis explained via email, “The Chico Museum wanted a Hmong exhibit that focused on the experience of the Hmong population in Chico. Who better to do it than Hmong youth who had grown up in Chico? While the exhibit does share some Hmong history, the focus of the exhibit is life here in Chico.”
And a very lively and positive life it is, if the exhibitions of dance, art and food preparation on display and being demonstrated (and eaten) at Sunday’s event are any indication.
On the front porch of the museum, “Mrs. Vang” (who, according to Hmong customs, doesn’t use a first name) sat with matriarchal presence, stirring and dishing out endless samples of delicious pho on the museum porch. Vang, who has had seven children in Leaders for a Lifetime, did all the food preparation for the event, Portis said.
Inside, joining the three dance instructors for some numbers was Quinn Lee, clad in a plush tiger costume. Lee’s cheerfully bespectacled face peered out of her costume’s throat as she danced with the group and served as a kind of roving greeter and general entertainer to the delight of children in attendance.
The exhibition of cultural artifacts on the walls and in display cases includes many examples of Hmong embroidery, weaving and tapestry work as well as exquisite ornamental silver jewelry, and intricately costumed dolls. Along with the decorative pieces, family photographs depicting life both before and after immigrating to the United States give perspective to an ethnic group with origins in the mountain regions of China and Southeast Asia that made its way to Chico.
One item on display that I found particularly beautiful was a story cloth titled “Melon and Crops,” sewn by Mai Xiong Cha, a mother whose children are members of Leaders for a Lifetime. The piece is about 2 square feet and depicts a man and woman in a repeated motif that includes a house and plant figures over a blue background embellished with geometric stars in varying colors and shapes, the whole conveying a sense of harmonious serenity.
A popular table manned by artist Thue Xiong offered designs of traditional Hmong geometrical motifs that could be stenciled via airbrush onto arms, hands, legs or even cheeks. This reviewer chose a design that used English letters combined with a stylized flower to gracefully produce the word “Hmong,” a temporary souvenir from the opening for the new and much deserved addition to the permanent exhibit on Chico’s history.