Art Talk with Txongpao Lee of the Hmong Cultural Center
St. Paul, Minnesota
All photos courtesy Hmong Cultural Center, St. Paul, Minnesota
A student performs on the qeej, a tradtional Hmong instrument.
We recently spoke with Txongpao Lee, director of the Hmong Cultural Center of Minnesota. Located in St. Paul, the Center serves the 52,000 Hmong (pronounced ?mong?) in Minnesota. Minneapolis-St. Paul hosts the largest metro-area Hmong community in the United States, with other large communities in Fresno, California, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
While there are Hmong communities throughout Southeast Asia, most of the estimated 220,000 Hmong in the U.S. fled ongoing persecution based on Laotian Hmong support of U.S. forces during the Vietnam War. As recently as 2004, more than 5,000 Hmong were resettled in Minnesota after taking refuge at a Buddhist temple complex in Thailand.
The Hmong Cultural Center offers cultural, educational, and social services, from ESL training to citizenship classes, and cultural programs, including Arts Saves Us, a traditional arts education program supported by the NEA.
Girls in traditional Hmong dress.
NEA: What?s unique about the Hmong and their culture?
TXONGPAO LEE: The Hmong are totally different from other Southeast Asian communities, such as Laotian, Vietnamese, and Thai. The Hmong are totally rural. The Hmong culture has its own identity, clothing, community, and language. There are 18 Hmong clans. Each clan has its own leader; they are the eyes and ears for their clan.
Many Hmong do not have any formal education. So when they came to the United States, many of them didn?t know how to read or write. This is the pattern from the late 1970s up to the 90s, and even with newer arrivals. But here they have a chance to go to school.
NEA: Tell us about the Hmong Cultural Center and its programs.
LEE: Hmong culture is very structured and formal. Young people say it?s too hard to learn and practice. That?s why Hmong elders founded the cultural center in 1992. They didn?t want to see the culture disappear because young people weren?t learning it. One of the founders of the center is Mr. Tougeu Leepalao, our Cultural Arts Programs Instructor. You can see Mr. Leepalao performing traditional Hmong songs and ceremonies on our website.
Arts Saves Us is an afterschool and summer program for Hmong youth. We teach middle and high school students Hmong music, dance, and ceremonies. For example, we teach the older students how to sing the wedding song. When there is a Hmong marriage, you need a Mej Koob [pronounced ?may kong?], a person who represents both families. Once they sing the song, the couple is legally married.
Our music is about our history. If people lose their culture, and they don?t know who they are they will not respect themselves or other people. We need to teach young people how to respect their own people, their elders, and their culture. Then they will respect other people and cultures as well.
With kids who get involved in our programs, I see the older students teaching the younger students. It?s a mentorship program, a leadership opportunity. It?s something I see happen every day.
Students give a public qeej performance.
NEA: The qeej is one of the musical instruments that students can work with in the Arts Saves Us program. What is its role in Hmong culture?
LEE: The Hmong have played the qeej [pronounced ?cane?] for thousands of years. We use the qeej to communicate with the spirit after a person dies. The spirit can understand the music, because the qeej is made from bamboo, which the Hmong believe is the first plant in creation. The music of the qeej helps guide the person?s spirit back to where it came from. Our young people learn the story of the qeej and how to play it. And when they learn about it, they learn where they came from, and they recognize who they are.
NEA: What else do you want people to know about the Hmong Cultural Center?
LEE: We work with other cultural groups in the area. We perform at Native American cultural events, and at schools in St. Paul. We also have the Hmong Resource Center where we are collecting books and articles about Hmong history. Many researchers and educators have used our library.
NEA: What do you see for the future of the center?
LEE: The Hmong Cultural Center will continue to teach and preserve our culture, and people can come and use our facilities. I?m planning for us to have our own building, right now we rent. There will be more visibility for people to learn about the Hmong. I encourage readers to visit our website, or feel free to contact me to learn more about Hmong culture.
To learn more, visit the Hmong Cultural Center website.