I never met Gen. Vang Pao, who died this week in California, and can’t weigh in on whether he was the George Washington of his people, as many of Spokane’s Hmong say. But I do owe him and the high esteem the Hmong had for him, because just a picture of him opened the door to one of the strangest stories I’ve ever done.
In 1982, I wrote some stories about the Xiongs, a Hmong family relocated to Spokane, and later that year was headed to Thailand for an assignment that might take me to the refugee camps where many Hmong and other Southeast Asian refugees waited for a chance to come to America. A member of the Xiong family gave me a photo album as an introduction to the Hmong still in Thailand, and I carried it with me to a sprawling refugee camp about two hours outside Bangkok.
Once there, the U.N. staff issued me an interpreter with instructions to take me to the Hmong sector. A teenage boy came up and in halting English said “I am Hmong.” I tried to explain to people who gathered around that I was a reporter from Spokane where many Hmong lived.
It wasn’t making the translation and I was about to just drop the whole thing. But the teenager had grabbed the photo album and was thumbing through it with a half-dozen children and adults looking over his shoulder. Suddenly, the group began saying about the only two Hmong words I recognized.
“Vang Pao. Vang Pao. Vang Pao.”
I knew from writing the earlier stories that Vang Pao was THE MAN. Living at the time on a ranch near Hamilton, Mont., he made stops in Spokane where some of his former officers like Ka Toua Xiong, the subject of the series, lived.
I looked at the book and saw they were pointing to a picture from a Spokane gathering of Hmong, with the general in the place of honor. Yes, I said slowly so it could be translated across the languages. Vang Pao comes to my city to see the Hmong there.
Suddenly I went from crazy lost white guy to the most important person in camp. The Hmong came from all around to see the photos of Vang Pao, tried to tell me how long they’d been in the camp and how much they wanted to come to America. In the middle of that, one elderly woman who had wrested possession of the photo album was pointing and shouting at a picture of a young woman and a baby.
“What’s she saying?” I asked my interpreter.
Picture is her daughter, the teenage boy said. Baby is granddaughter she’s never seen. With the theme from “The Twilight Zone” playing in my head, I asked where her daughter lives.
She disappeared into her makeshift hut and re-emerged with an envelope. The return address was from a Cher Vang in Spokane. We told her to keep the book and if she wanted to write a letter to her daughter in Spokane, I’d deliver it when I returned.
Back in Spokane, I called Vang Xiong, who had given me the album, to tell him of the visit to the camp. You don’t by any chance know a Cher Vang? I asked. I have a letter for her from her mother.
Yes, he said. She’s married to my brother. I’ll take you to deliver it.