Who are the Hmong?

Perennial outsiders, they have mastered the art of survival

Hmong actor Bee Vang and Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie <i>Gran Torino</i>.

Hmong actor Bee Vang and Clint Eastwood in the 2008 movie Gran Torino.

There are as many as 350,000 Hmong (the “h” is silent) living in the United States today. At first Hmong refugees settled in the Central Valley of California. Quickly, however, colonies sprouted in Montana. Then they moved to Minnesota; today the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area has the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States. The tendency to migrate is in keeping with their historic practices in Laos, some say.

The Hmong people are traced back originally to Mongolia. About 2,000 years ago they migrated to the southwest of China. There are still sizable Hmong populations there today—along with other “national minorities,” as the Chinese call them. A recent census in Vietnam revealed that more than a million Hmong live there—almost all in the north.

The Hmong who live in the United States today mostly resided in Laos three generations ago. But they are not Lao. Lao people speak a language similar to Thai and are devoutly Buddhist. Not so the Hmong. Lao surnames tend to be long—like Souphanavong. Hmong names are usually one syllable, like Pao, Thau or Xiong. The Lao people dominate the lowland plains of Laos and the cities along the Mekong. The Hmong lived in remote highlands. Rice cultivation prevails in the lowlands but not in the Hmong highlands.

Hmong New Year Festival 2011 in Chico. The 2010 census estimates more than 4,300 Hmong are living in Butte County.

Butte County Hmong Association

(Most of what I have written about the Hmong people can be ascribed to the Mien, who are ethnically close to the Hmong. The Mien were also involved in the secret war and also migrated to the United States—though in much smaller numbers than the Hmong.)

The Hmong language is akin to Chinese, though Chinese and Hmong speakers cannot begin to understand each other. The Chinese forbade the Hmong, under penalty of death, from employing the Chinese ideographic writing system.

The Hmong were without a written language until a Romanized alphabet was created in the early 1950s by foreign missionaries. It remains today as the only written language for Hmong speech.

The Hmong were regarded as alien by the ruling class of China. They were not schooled in Confucianism and so were denied access to the privileged literati. Further, Hmong were often unfamiliar with Buddhism. They were (and often still are) fundamentally animists living in a world of good and evil spirits.

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Traditional Hmong spirituality centers on shamans, healing practitioners, men or women, chosen by the spirits to act as intermediaries between the spiritual and physical worlds. The ritual killing of chickens by the shaman in Clint Eastwood’s 2008 movie Gran Torino got that approximately correct, say Hmong I have consulted.

But Eastwood’s portrayal of the Hmong as passive folk in need of rescue by heroic Caucasians did not set well with many Hmong. As Bee Vang, the Hmong lead in the film, put it in a recent interview, “I was supposed to be clueless and have no self-respect in order for the white elder man to achieve his savior role.”

It was, he added, “like making a deal with the devil. To the extent that I did a good job, I reinforced that image of effeminate Asian guys who are wimps, geeks and can’t advocate for themselves.”

As shunned outsiders in China (and later in Laos), Hmong often resorted to illicit activities—drug trafficking, for example. That of course further marginalized them.

The more marginalized the Hmong became in China, the more they were inclined to migrate farther south. As Anne Fadiman wrote in her brilliant 1997 account of a Hmong family struggling with intercultural problems in Merced, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: “Over and over again, the Hmong have responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating—a pattern that has been repeated so many times, in so many different eras and places, that it begins to seem almost a genetic trait, as inevitable in its recurrence as their straight hair or their short, sturdy stature.”

And that brought many Hmong to the borderlands of China and Laos—as well as Thailand, Burma and Vietnam—over the last two centuries. And, finally, in the last few decades, to a grand and trying diaspora to Canada, France, Australia, Argentina and French Guiana. And finally to Chico, Calif. Do they deserve our attention and admiration? Yes, they do.