Rewriting the new year

A New Year festival helps the local Hmong community remember and redefine its traditions

<b>New tech tucked into traditional Hmong garb at the New Year festival.</b>

New tech tucked into traditional Hmong garb at the New Year festival.

photo by letrice fowler

It was afternoon on the final day of the Miss Hmong California pageant, and contestant No. 4 got a tough question during the Q&A round.

“A big issue in our community is that Hmong men are divorcing their wives to marry younger women in Laos or Thailand,” the host read from a card. “What can we do to prevent this problem from happening in the future?”

Cha Vang, who was sitting in the audience waiting to hear the answer, knew the issue by another name: abusive international marriages, a kind of domestic violence that affects families locally and abroad. The men go into poor villages to find young and often underage girls who live in poverty.

The contestant answered: “We need to educate and tell our women and our girls to not engage Hmong married men,” said Maiv Neeb Xyooj, in translation. “Because we only have one life, we should only engage with a single man so that you are worthy of who you are as a Hmong woman.”

Her answer was controversial. Though she did receive cheers and applause, Vang wasn’t satisfied, nor the judges. The theme of this year’s pageant was “Hmong Women Empowerment,” after all, and the judges generated many questions that challenged the contestants to think of solutions to improve gender equality. The correct answer is important: For a year, Miss Hmong California is seen as a role model for young girls.

But she’s also an upholder of tradition, part of a larger mission of Sacramento’s Hmong community in hosting this event.

The pageant was billed as the main attraction at the 13th Hmong New Year festival, a four-day celebration that brought thousands of people inside and outside of Sacramento County’s Hmong community to Cal Expo beginning on Thanksgiving.

For me, an outsider, Hmong New Year meant getting lost in another culture’s stimuli: Hmong food, fashion, film and lots of Idol-style stage competitions.

For the Hmong crowd, it’s much deeper. The older generation preserves a heritage that fled from persecution and genocide immediately following the Vietnam War to places like Sacramento, which is second to Fresno in holding the largest Hmong population in California. For some in the younger generation, like Vang, it’s about expanding what it means to be both Hmong and American at the same time.

Getting lost in Hmong New Year

The festival started with an entourage gathered for the New Year’s ribbon cutting. Parallel lines of men and women in traditional clothes formed a catwalk for community leaders including Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly and State Assemblyman Kevin McCarty. My guide to the ceremony was Vang, the executive director and co-founder of grassroots poli-org Hmong Innovating Politics, or HIP.

She pointed out the traditional attire: vests twinkling with the percussion of hanging silver coins. Crowns ornamented with multicolored foam puffs and metal embroidery. Dresses stitched with zigzags, stripes and unpredictable shapes.

“The younger folks, they don’t like the heaviness of it,” Vang said of the outfits and their accessories. “Your body does ache at the end of the day. [But] the older generations want you to wear it because it’s really hard to put it away.”

It’s not all fashion. In fact, these garments tell something more crucial: Where your family is from and what Hmong dialect you speak.

There are three dialects. The most common in the U.S. are Hmong Daw (color-coded white) and Hmong Njua (blue or green), which originate from Laos, Vietnam and Thailand. The final dialect is the native Chinese Hmong, called Danashan. These groups use different words, pronunciations and even interpretations of the traditions. Vang said that while families often intermingle, parents prefer their kids to marry within the same dialect for convenience.

Many of the younger folks had come to the festival to find a significant other. And as the VIP filed through the catwalk for opening remarks holding boiled “blessing” eggs for luck in the new year, their clearing revealed an old game among the crowd.

In similarly parallel lines, Hmong young and old engaged in a courtship sport: pov pob. It involves tossing a tennis ball to the one you fancy, and if there’s a spark, it turns into a game of catch. Parents chaperoned close by their daughters as the gentle ball frenzy ensued to what sounded like 1950s rockabilly sung in Hmong on an outdoor stage.

The game has changed since it started overseas. Originally, players would take turns singing to each other.

“[About how] if you get together, how you would treat the other person,” Vang said. “You have to listen to each other and answer back in song.”

As it’s been modernized to accept talking, what hasn’t changed is that people judge.

“Hardcore judging,” Vang said. “Not just the girls, but her parents and everybody else around you.”

Past the pov pob was a bazaar of booths. Billowing smoke and barbecue scents invited me into the dining space for Hmong sausage with purple sticky rice, papaya salad and other Hmong and Southeast Asian dishes. Rows of tents displayed skincare products, indie R&B records, foreign language films about vampires and village life, bamboo funeral flutes, jewelry and dresses (lots of dresses). Lawyers, veterans and other professions and organizations also posted up, including HIP.

“In the 40 years we’ve been here … the vendors definitely give you an idea of the different professions that have come out of our community, having the freedom to pursue different opportunities,” Vang said.

The purpose of the pageant

Rows of hundreds of chairs looked onto a high stage with a glass chandelier, a throne and a giant backdrop that read “Miss Hmong California 2018.” In the corner: a brand new Nissan for the winner.

There were ten contestants this year competing in six rounds, including a platform round where they outline a community service effort they’ll make as the winner, dance competition, talent show, “sexy” catwalk round and the final Q&A. And for the first time, they were not required to speak Hmong perfectly, said John Thao, a pageant coordinator.

Training started in September. The women were taught how to walk, act, dress and dance based on a mesh of Hmong and Hmong-American standards. The judges looked for several winning factors:

“Beauty, talent, correctly answering the questions,” Thao said. “And also the clothes, the fashion. Let’s say if they wear an evening gown, who looks the most sexy wearing the gown?”

The competition began in Laos in the mid-70s before traveling overseas, Thao said, and honoring their heritage is what draws the audience most to the pageant.

“Every year that [we hold] Miss Hmong pageant competition, it really symbolizes our people remembering back to the old country,” Thao said.

That’s not to say conformity is the way to score big. Thao recalled one contestant who played an original tune on a qeej, a bamboo flute intended for funerals. Until recently, men were the only ones allowed to play it. The contestant doubled her points by including dance with her routine.

The final round drew the most attendees to the auditorium. Questions were generated by the panel of judges, many of them doctors, lawyers and educated professionals. These were more challenging, and more progressive, questions than the years prior, when the judges were less qualified and more male, Thao said. This year they asked: How do we change the fact that all the Hmong clan leaders are men? What should we do about domestic abuse silenced by divorce stigma in families? The answers were sometimes disappointing, Vang said, including the question about international marriages.

But Thao said he was satisfied with the winner, Cindy Cha.

“I think she did good from the beginning to the end,” Thao said. “I think she had the look, she had her body figure, her personality. Everything added up.”

In the hourlong ceremony leading up to the announcement, last year’s Miss Hmong California, Mai Yang Thor, advised her pageant sisters to press on with their community platform regardless of whether they win, gifting them each with a copy of her fundraising letter, which she used to reach out to donors.

Thor is not the only one who uses the festival to raise awareness.

When she helped found HIP, Vang said she wanted to push the community to leverage themselves in politics. She feels the festival needs more engagement with issues facing the Hmong population and other communities of color.

“[The festival is] an opportunity for us to celebrate our identity and embrace our beautiful culture,” Vang said. “But for HIP, it’s also about connecting the cultural identity to what’s happening in our country as Hmong Americans.”

The festival has gotten more politically focused with the election of Mayor Ly and public officials like Mai Vang, a Sacramento Unified School District board member who also co-founded HIP.

Large cultural events like these still have a ways to go, Cha Vang said, including allowing more of the younger generation to be participate in the programming so that their values are represented.

But she’s hopeful.

“My hope is that these festivals allow our communities to celebrate our culture, but also provide education so that our community understands the issues that impact them.”