The stories we share

For Hmong Americans, patchwork and embroidery are keys to preserving history and documenting the future

Pachia Vang, in front of the “Thailand Refugee Camps” exhibit she curated for the HmongStory 40 in February 2017.

Pachia Vang, in front of the “Thailand Refugee Camps” exhibit she curated for the HmongStory 40 in February 2017.

Photo courtesy of Vlai ly

Pachia Vang is an artist grant recipient of the University of California Critical Refugee Studies Collective. She wrote this essay while assisting SN&R with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2018 California Fellowship.

“What’s Hmong?”

It’s a question I hated growing up, because for a long time, it was really hard to answer. Yes, we came from Laos. But we aren’t Lao. And although we originated in China, we’re far from Chinese—at least not Chinese American. Our migration stories are completely different.

“Mama,” a child cries, looking to his mother as soldiers gun his father down.

“You stay here,” a man reassures his brother, who lies covered in blood. They hold each other for the last time. “When I will reach Thailand?” a couple wonders, hidden from the violence between two trees. “Hurry,” “Hurry,” people say all throughout. An elderly woman falls behind her group. “Quickly, they don’t wait [for] you,” a man turns around and tells her.

These violent scenes, preserved on fabric, are those that exist in the memory of the Hmong community, stories that tell of our migration to the United States and our journey in becoming American. After decades of fighting in the U.S.’s war against communism in Laos, we found ourselves alone when U.S. forces left Vietnam in 1975. Those who had won were now seeking revenge, and to escape mass retribution, we became refugees, a people exiled from our lands and pushed to the camps of Thailand on the other side of the Mekong River. Defeated and impoverished, we turned to what we’ve always known best to survive, to maintain hope and to preserve a cultural identity—our needlework.

Known for their formulaic designs, story cloths are square or rectangular shaped textiles covered in embroidered images of people, animals and nature. They tell tales of Hmong history, culture and life. A craft that is 40 years old, or as old as our diaspora from the East, they’ve become an integral part of Hmong textile art, which spans across countries and generations.

“Since 1975 Vietnamese have come to control Laos & harm the people,” Read embroidered lines at the top of one cloth displayed for the HmongStory 40, hung on a wall along with other story cloths, each with unique narratives. Celebrating four decades of Hmong refugee migration to the United States, the grassroots exhibit took place in Fresno, Merced and Sacramento, home to over 60,000 Hmong.

Put together in the partnership with Sacramento City Unified School District, the Sacramento exhibit opened for two weeks in February 2017, breaking up Hmong history into four parts: “Life in Laos,” “The Secret War,” the “Thailand Refugee Camps,” and “California.”

The “Secret War Story Cloth,” displayed at the HmongStory 40.

Cloths displayed at HmongStory 40 were unconventional. They didn’t read in their usual top-down, left-to-right order. Instead, the scenes were raw, scattered and read from the bottom-up, with broken bits of English written down to give insight to what was happening.

Although story cloths would eventually become a good source of income to get us through the camps after the Vietnam War, they first served as genuine ways for us tell stories we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. Although we have a writing system today, for generations we had been illiterate. Drawing pictures to document our history was our best bet at being heard. And making story cloths also helped us cope with the dreariness of refugee camp life. It was a source of beauty, expression and healing from the tragedies of war.

These unique pieces at HmongStory 40 were a testament to this. Predating the commercialized story cloths we see today with cute people and picturesque settings, they showcased raw Hmong ingenuity and imagination. A diversity which is hard to come across today, since all story cloths are made to look exactly the same now.

The homogenization of story cloths is a reflection of the conundrum we find ourselves in currently: a people who have lived relatively poor and marginalized throughout time, running to “catch up” with the rest of the world, but also fearful of losing what we’ve held onto to survive for so long: our group identity.

So we’ve found different ways to cope. HmongStory 40, for example, was a huge cultural movement as much as it was an educational exhibit aimed at reclaiming history through our own lenses and narratives. Looking at cloth more closely teaches us something really important about ourselves in this crucial moment, because they are markers of who we are and where we come from.

Not having a writing system, we’ve developed a strong oral tradition which tells us that our embroidery patterns are actually remnants of a writing system we used to have in ancient times. Pushed south out of Central China centuries ago, it was something we lost along the way. Now dispersed throughout Southern China, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, we continue to hold onto these symbols as national emblems of who we are. How we wear them shows exactly where we come from, down to the province and city. And this type of identity-wearing is important to us, even in death, because our soul is supposed to embark on a journey to our ancestors in Central China, recognizing them only through the clothes that we will both share and wear when we arrive.

Today, regardless of how much our language and customs may have changed throughout time and space, clothing helps us continue to recognize one another, connecting us to this spiritual understanding of what “land” and “home” is, which is rooted in our memory. Here in Sacramento, this longing for “land” can be translated to “space,” a search for a “place,” which we have been fighting to belong to for the last 40 years.

The new H.O.P.E. Center, or Hmong Organizing for Progress and Empowerment, can help fill this void. It officially opened off Eleanor Avenue in Del Paso Heights on Saturday, October 27, with a massive story cloth hanging in the hallway to welcome everyone in, reminding all that this is a place for community.

With the goal of being a co-working space, there are already classes in session for dance and language. But organizers also have plans to a build a cafe and a rotating exhibit space, where they hope to attract artists from the community to participate. They want the center to serve as an incubator that can help the “cultural renaissance” flourish since HmongStory 40 took place. It’ll offer necessary support as a new generation of Hmong Americans rise.

Today, despite being the second largest Asian population in Sacramento, and the largest throughout the Central Valley, many are still wondering what Hmong is. It’s a question that can be answered not just in our common history, but in the tales of the future we stitch together.