Who will lead the Hmong?

Eight years after General Vang Pao’s death, no clear successor in sight

A statue of the late Hmong leader, General Vang Pao, was unveiled in Chico in 2015.

A statue of the late Hmong leader, General Vang Pao, was unveiled in Chico in 2015.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

About 600 Hmong from across generations and time zones packed the Hmong Palace Church in South Sacramento on May 5 to honor one of their heroes and greatest shamans, Xa Houa Lee, who died peacefully in his sleep in April just before he would have turned 80.

All along the right wall of the church were poster-size photos showing Lee leading his people out of Laos ahead of the pursuing Pathet Lao across mountains and the treacherous Mekong River into Thailand.

The ceremony—which blended Christian and Hmong traditions—drew Hmong leaders from as far away as Minnesota to celebrate Lee, “Beloved Husband, Father, and Grandfather, Respected Leader and Shaman,” according to the program, written in English and Hmong. The eulogy was delivered by a younger member of the Lee clan, Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly, one of the most prominent Hmong elected officials in the nation.

A decade ago, that eulogy would have been given by “The General,” Vang Pao, who led his people from Laos to Vietnam to safety in Thai refugee camps and finally to the United States, now home to some 350,000 Hmong refugees and their offspring.

But more than eight years after his death in Clovis from pneumonia and heart failure at 81, the next generation of Hmong leaders is struggling to find a new collective identity—and someone to emerge as their champion, godfather and guide.

“That is the most important question facing our Hmong people,” Ly said in an interview.

Elk Grove Mayor Steve Ly, second from left, is revered as “Uncle Ly” though he was too young to serve in the secret army alongside his father and uncles during the Vietnam War.

Photo via MayorSteveLy.com

‘The General’

For centuries, Hmong have relied on powerful leaders, and Vang Pao has been called the greatest general of the Vietnam War by the American officers who served alongside him. He was an almost mythic figure, believed to be invulnerable to communist bullets. He traveled California and the nation, lobbying public officials, visiting Hmong communities, settling disputes, attending weddings and funerals and promising his people a better future. Every year around Thanksgiving, there were multiple Hmong New Year celebrations across California, Minnesota and Wisconsin to accommodate The General.

He led a secret jungle army of more than 10,000 guerillas, some as young as 12, who were paid about $4 a month by the CIA to battle the Vietnamese communists and Pathet Lao from 1961 to 1975. He helped unify the 18 Hmong family clans, including the influential Chang (or Cha), Ly (or Lee), Her, Moua, Thao, Vang and Xiong.

Since his passing on June 6, 2011—a date thousands of Hmong have committed to memory—the old Hmong clan councils have lost some of their power. Hmong in their 30s and 40s are retelling Hmong history through documentaries and online forums. Sacramento has emerged as the new Hmong capital of California, eclipsing Fresno, and several nonprofits are trying to provide new leadership and direction.

Vang Pao’s brother-in-law and right-hand man, Col. Ly Teng, and another brother-in-law, Dr. Touxa Lyfong, both spoke in Hmong at Xa Houa Lee’s funeral, along with one of Vang Pao’s sons, Ci Vang.

They noted that Xa Houa Lee protected his village of Fuesai for a decade, then was elected village chief (Naiban) and became known for his compassionate, fair, open-minded judgment.

“Houa Lee would want everyone who is living to love one another. That is the way it’s supposed to be for us to survive,” said Ly Teng. “He was a leader most of his life. A loving person and hardworking family man, and he would want the next generation to work even harder and go to school.”

Mayor Ly delivered a similar message, speaking passionately in Hmong and then English, since many Hmong under 30 aren’t fluent in their elders’ language.

“Today, we are sending home a hero,” Ly said. “For us to send him home, we must remember his contributions to the Hmong community … and also American society by saving American lives during the Vietnam War… This is a story each of us children of the Hmong army should be proud of. This has earned us the right to be here.

“In this time and this nation, when people look at us, some say maybe we don’t belong here. I’ve heard it: ’Maybe refugees shouldn’t be mayors, maybe we shouldn’t be here at all,’” Ly said. “Your father and grandfather is more than just an elder, he kept his village safe and served as a village leader … you young people, listen to my words.”

He is revered as “Uncle Ly” though he was too young to serve in the Secret Army alongside his father and uncles. Trained as a lawyer and youth counselor, Ly is also serving as a bridge between Hmong pot growers and law enforcement as far away as Siskiyou County.

But no single leader has emerged nationally.

According to 2017 Census Bureau figures, more than 101,000 Hmong live in California, the largest concentration in the U.S. Community leaders say those numbers don’t reflect thousands of Hmong who haven’t been counted, often because they—like their ancestors who moved from Siberia to China to Southeast Asia to the United States, France and Australia—are constantly on the move from city to city and state to state.

Hmong dancers performed at a Project HMONG gala at Sacramento State University on June 7<i>.</i>

Photo by Stephen Magagnini

Some of Sacramento’s key Hmong leaders have moved to the “Hmong Paris,” Minneapolis-St. Paul, home to 81,260 Hmong. Several thousand more Hmong from the Central Valley moved to North Carolina and Alaska after the 2008 recession.

Xiong estimates there are as many as 40,000 Hmong living in the Sacramento metropolitan area, far more than the 31,000 reported in 2015 by the Pew Research Center using Census data. Fresno reported 34,000 and Chico 5,000, making it the ninth largest Hmong population center in the country.

During the Great Recession, thousands of Hmong from Sacramento and other Central Valley cities—struggling to feed their large families—moved to Alaska, where after a year’s residence, each family member qualified for the Alaska oil fund dividend, ranging from $1,500 to $3,000 per person per year, said community leader Prasat Lee. Hmong families, often 10 or more people, started receiving upwards of $20,000 a year.

Lee, 73, left Clovis and his security job in Fresno and in March 2008 founded the nonprofit Hmong Alaska Community in Anchorage with his wife Mai, who speaks fluent English. At one point, “we had 6,000 Hmong in Alaska, but they go up and down, from California, Wisconsin and Minnesota,” Mai said. Hmong from Sacramento have found jobs working at Walmart, Target, McDonald’s and car rental agencies, and as janitors, housekeepers and sky caps, Lee said.

Lee, who served in Vang Pao’s guerrilla army for 10 years at $5 a month, remembers President Nixon’s promise in 1972: “Defend the Ho Chi Minh Trail and if you lose you can be Americans.”

Both he and his wife revere Vang Pao. “After he died there is a problem, there is no leader,” Mai said. “Some people say we want to be the new leaders, and there’s another Hmong organization, representing the younger generation, wanting to compete with us.”

Hmong Center of Alaska Inc., also in Anchorage, has a website featuring eight young Hmong leaders promising to help new arrivals “bridge the gap” with state and local officials and provide translation services to deal with issues such as early pregnancy, school dropouts, domestic violence and suicide.

President John F. Kennedy speaks at a press conference about Laos on March 23, 1961.

Photo courtesy of John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Divided clans

Sacramento’s Vaming Xiong—considered the Hmong Martin Luther King Jr. just as Vang Pao was called the Hmong George Washington—said that since Pao’s death, “different clan leaders and heads of different organizations throughout the U.S. are proposing people to take over for V.P., a least someone who would have a voice that the majority would listen to, someone who would unify the Hmong people in the U.S. But there is no agreement, and there hasn’t even been an election.”

Xiong, 52, a career development coach in Sacramento, galvanized the largest protests ever at Sacramento’s federal building in June 2007, calling for the release of The General and the rest of the so-called Laotian 11, charged with terrorism for plotting the overthrow of communist Laos. Those nonviolent protests—drawing more than 10,000 Hmong at a time—led to Pao’s release. All charges were dropped.

“No matter what we do, we can’t replace V.P., we can’t even come up with an umbrella organization,” Xiong said. “The 18 clans used to be the Hmong International Council, but since V.P. died that council collapsed. Now each clan has their own association. And V.P. himself said clans are only for marriages, not for governing.”

Without a unifying leader such as Vang Pao, competing Hmong organizations are now battling for control over the annual Hmong New Year celebrations, political representation and public funds to provide social services.

Sacramento, Fresno, Minneapolis-St. Paul and other Hmong enclaves often hold multiple New Year celebrations, where Hmong from across the state, nation and world come to reconnect with their clans and meet their future wives or husbands, Xiong said.

“New Year has become a battleground over who gets the most money to put it on. The whole Hmong world used to come to New Year’s in Fresno, now the tradition is dissolving.”

Xiong’s wife, community leader Mycie Xiong, said that “an increasing number of people are saying, ’We do not want to be a part of the in-fighting.’”

Indeed, Mycie Xiong sees a brighter future in the post-Pao era. “There are many more Hmong entering the mainstream through political office all over the nation, from Sacramento to Washington, D.C., from Minnesota to Wisconsin to North Carolina,” she said.

Women like Xiong, who works with Hmong kids who have behavioral issues and belongs to the nonprofit Hmong International Culture Institute, are stepping into leadership roles and more Hmong women than men are graduating from college. Of the 326 Hmong who graduated from Sacramento State between 2012 and 2014, 62% were women.

Another female Hmong leader, Mai Vang, the oldest of 15 siblings, said she was elected to the Sacramento City Unified School District board in 2016 on a platform that calls for separating data on Asian students so all national backgrounds aren’t lumped together.

She supports an Early Identification and Intervention system for unique cultural and social problems. “We have about 4,000 Hmong students in our district, and 70 percent are low-income students,” she said.

The next generation

The future of Hmong America was on display June 7 at a gala for Project HMONG (Help Mentor Our Next Generation), one of several initiatives at Sacramento State designed to foster Hmong academic success.

From fall 2005 to fall 2018, Hmong enrollment at Sac State jumped from 153 to 1,075, making them the second-largest Asian group on campus, said President Robert Nelsen.

But only about 2% of Hmong students graduate from Sac State in four years; 97% grew up speaking Hmong, 79% are first-generation college students.

Sac State has one of the largest Hmong student populations in the nation, said one of the gala’s co-chairpersons, Kaying Hang of the Sierra Health Foundation.

Nhia Khang, right, the first Hmong to graduate from Sacramento State University, poses with Oakland City Councilwoman Sheng Tao at a gala on June 7.

Photo by Stephen Magagnini

“There is much to learn from the Hmong diaspora and their journey,” Nelsen said. “It’s a legacy of the Vietnam war … but it is also a legacy of what our future will be.”

More than 350 people attended the gala, including Hmong educators and administrators, police and sheriffs, health care professionals, entrepreneurs and public officials. The theme: “Threading the Needle of Hope Through Education.”

During the program, event co-chairpersons Danny Chao Vang of Sac State and Sac State student Andrew Yang noted that the median age of the Sacramento region’s Hmong is 19, many of them college-bound.

“While we serve as cultural brokers and straddlers, we as the children of refugees are reminded of the journey our parents or grandparents took. It was not easy and their generations may never fully transition to life in America,” said a Project HMONG statement in the gala program.

“However, thanks to their efforts … we are hopeful that one day a cadre of Hmong professionals will actively participate on issues impacting our community and successfully negotiate a path for positive change.”

The audience gave a standing ovation to the family who started it all, represented by Nhia Khang, whose dad and brother fought in Vang Pao’s guerilla army. The family escaped to a Thai refugee camp and then became the first Hmong to resettle in Sacramento in 1976, when Khang was 13.

“My dad found a job as a dishwasher, and we were living on $20 a week,” Khang recalled. He spoke no English and had almost no education. He told CSUS senior writer Cynthia Hubert he’d carry a Hmong-English dictionary with him so he could learn his new language a few words at a time. But he went straight from middle school to American River College, got his associate degree and enrolled at Sac State.

In 1985, he became the first of thousands of Hmong students to graduate from Sac State. Khang also earned his master’s degree in social work at Sac State and worked for San Joaquin County children’s services until he retired in 2017. His mother, a shaman in the mountains of Laos, inspired him to pursue a career in public service. Three of his children have also graduated from Sac State.

He advised the dozens of Hmong students in attendance to “know what you want in life and work as hard as you can for it. Do it as quickly as you can! Anyone can do it, but you need to put your heart into it.”

While the younger generation appreciates the sacrifices made by their elders, they are making their own music, starting their own businesses and winning on the academic front instead of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Between fall 2008 and 2016 at Sac State, 2,950 Hmong graduated in health and human services; 2,091 in social sciences and interdisciplinary studies; 1,723 in natural sciences and math; 1,701 in business; and 1,177 in engineering and computer science, according to numbers compiled by Vang.

A gala scholarship winner, Mai Xiong, told a familiar story: “We moved to America in 1996 and me and my siblings missed classes to translate at my parents’ doctor’s appointments after my mother suffered a stroke at 34.”

“My dad, a nurse’s assistant who worked for the Chao Fa [Hmong freedom fighters], got a job in construction. We lived in Willows, Chico and Sacramento. For years, there were 11 of us crammed into a two-bedroom apartment infested with rodents.”

Now treasurer of the Sac State Hmong student association, she said her parents always put their education first.

“My dad walked through three villages in Laos to go to school,” she said. “He wanted me to be able to use my voice to help others.” Before her mom had a stroke, she would drive to her cousin’s house in the middle of the night so he could help Mai and her siblings with their homework.

“My parents taught me something very important—resilience,” she said. “Failure paralyzes you. If you remember your motivation, you will bounce back stronger and better.”