Hmong celebration invigorates longtime traditions
Though many residents are counting the days until Christmas, one group has already celebrated the new year. On Dec. 4, the Spokane Hmong Association hosted a traditional new year party featuring colorful garb and plentiful food.
Unlike the Western new year, the Hmong people have no set calendar date for the celebration. Vang Xiong, of the Spokane Hmong Association, said because their ancestors were farmers, the festivities were usually held after the crops had been harvested; the date varied from region to region.
But two things remain unchanged. “It’s a time for young people to get to know each other in public forum,” Xiong said.
And there is always lots of food. Xiong smiled and said, “We are a traditionally generous people.”
Indeed, a smorgasbord of goodies was spread out buffet-style in the back of the gym at the East Central Community Center. The traditional Hmong rice cakes disappeared quickly as young and old gobbled up the purple, pink, white and gold delectables.
Several hundred people packed the room for the feast. Guests traveled from Missoula and Seattle to celebrate with their Spokane friends and family. The vibrant colors of richly embroidered Hmong clothing glittered under the lights and the tinkling of coins echoed. The silver coins, stitched onto vests, hats and skirts, represent prosperity.
The evening began with the traditional ball-toss game, a fun way for single folks to get to know each other. Boys form a row facing the girls and balls are tossed back and forth between them. If a girl is not interested in a boy, she simply doesn’t catch the ball he throws her way. “Many young people meet their future spouses at new year,” said Xiong.
Dignitaries from the Hmong community gave welcoming speeches in the Hmong dialect while teens from the youth association served as translators. As an elder offered the traditional new year blessing, small children scampered and chased tennis balls.
City Council President Joe Shogan also addressed the crowd. Shogan, a Vietnam War veteran, has close ties to the Hmong community. “I will never forget what you did for our armed forces,” he said.
Shogan was referring to the “Secret War” waged in Laos. During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were secretly recruited by the CIA to fight against communism. They paid a heavy price for assisting the United States.
Mai Yang, 40, vice president of the Spokane Hmong Association, finds irony in the fact that often Hmong people are confused with Vietnamese. She’s heard taunts like “go home to where you came from.”
Yang said, “We can’t. We helped the U.S. government. We are not welcome. People don’t know that there is a lot of persecution in Laos.”
Yang’s family, like many Hmong, found refuge in the United States. After five years in a refugee camp in Thailand, Yang’s family arrived in Seattle when she was 9. She eventually moved to Spokane with her father and sister.
When the speeches concluded, the feasting began. After dinner, guests were treated to a fashion show featuring ornate Hmong costumes topped with elaborate turbans or hats.
For Yang, the celebration is a vital way to honor Hmong heritage while providing a format to connect the older generation with the young. “We need to keep our culture and traditions alive for our kids,” she said.