To write a children’s book about Hmong New Year, Vong “V.T.” Bidania recalled crowds, noises, and heavy clothes.
The early morning would start with hours getting dressed. Bidania’s turban would slump; her mom would re-wrap it. A winter coat wouldn’t fit over her layers of traditional Hmong garb—skirt, jacket, sash—so Bidania would endure November’s chill in the back seat while her parents hunted for parking downtown. In the crosswalk, she would see others, old and young, dressed like her—silver coins jangling on their outfits, soon to join the chorus of sounds inside St. Paul’s RiverCentre. Rap-like chants and speaker-blurring Hmong pop music filled the stadium. From the qeej, a set of bamboo pipes: reedy interjections said to form Hmong words. As close as she got, Bidania could barely hear her parents.
They were, in other words, pre-COVID memories. “It’s shiny, it’s loud, it’s bright, it’s crowded,” she recalls over Zoom. “There’s just this energy that I can’t explain.”
Now, in the run-up to the Hmong New Year—which lasts about a week in the U.S. and begins this year on December 26—the Twin Cities–based author will sign copies of Astrid & Apollo and the Happy New Year at bookstores by herself. Unlike her pre-teen protagonists, her readers probably won’t get to witness beauty pageants, dance competitions, or ball-tossing courtship games in 2020.
Due to the pandemic, the Minnesota Hmong New Year has been canceled for the first time in 42 years. “We wanted to make sure we kept safety as our number-one priority,” says Mee Vang, vice president of the United Hmong Family, Inc. The cultural-preservation nonprofit felt protective of the 66,000 Hmong Americans who make the Twin Cities the ethnic group’s largest urban enclave. With state law mandating 250 or fewer in an indoor space, “there was no way,” Vang says.
In recent years, the Minnesota Hmong New Year has drawn about 40,000 attendees to the RiverCentre, typically around mid-November. In the four or so decades since Hmong refugees fled to Minnesota from Southeast Asia, it’s become the second largest Hmong New Year celebration in the U.S., Vang says, behind the one in Fresno, California.
Hundreds of vendors, half from out of state, bring pieces of Hmong identity. They sell tapestries, herbal medicines, papaya salad; Californian musicians tote new albums; a farmer hauled rice from Georgia last year. Days after the cancellation, an anxious jewelry designer called Vang. She had already stocked her inventory and needed to sell fast—“before it gets outdated,” Vang explains.
Vang describes the loss as more cultural than financial. The Hmong community’s other, bigger event is the International Freedom Festival (known as J4). Its 2020 demise cost some vendors a year’s income, she says. Locals mourned the summer fete’s gap year—no soccer, no street food. But for residents like Mindy Lee, this winter’s empty RiverCentre feels like a gulf.
Lee, 25, started volunteering with United Hmong Family in 2018, during the New Year’s 40th anniversary. She helped make the event more youthful, partnering with students and introducing organizers to social media.
She’ll miss the Hmong sausage, the sticky rice, the boba tea, the tricolor tapioca. But most of all: the main stage, “where all the magic happens”—the pageants, the singers, “the people being recognized because of the work they do to uplift the community, whether that’s the St. Paul mayor or the commissioner or a young person who wrote an essay.”
Without the public spectacle, the Hmong New Year still has a socially distant component, however. And Lee is counting on it.
“When I was growing up, my grandfather was the main elder in our clan family, and he would usher people into our home,” she says. Noj tsiab refers to a three-day period before the New Year, when families feast together at home. “That’s when I really started learning about Hmong New Year—that this is what community looks like, this is what family looks like, this is what love looks like.”
Celebrate from Home
Traditionally, it happened after the year’s harvest was in. Family members, spread out over the mountains of Southeast Asia, laid down their work and travelled long distances to see one another. They went all out: rice, chicken, a fattened pig, molasses made from cane sugar. “[This holiday] is the only time when the Hmong community actually takes a break,” Vang says. “And they cook a meal, whether it’s two chickens or a huge feast, and they call the entire clan or community to join them.”
The Hmong New Year solidified as a holiday when “folktales blended into cultural practices,” says Lee Pao Xiong, director of Hmong and East Asian studies at Concordia University. After a shaman struck down a soul-eating demon, according to animistic beliefs, three days of 30 celebratory meals ensued. In the mountains, crops could yield such extravagance only at year’s end. So, it was a singular event. “It’s a time to really honor the ancestors,” Xiong says, “to call back the souls of the living, and to honor the god of wealth.”
Glittery, arena-grade square footage may have templated Bidania’s ’80s and ’90s year-kickers. But, she says, “I have to be perfectly honest with you—we went more often as kids.” Her adult New Year feels more intimate. Sounds more like her dad’s sung, kitchen-table invitation to ancestral spirits. “These moments are even more special to me these days.”
This year, Bidania’s dad will likely mark the doorways with golden joss paper again—“spirit money”—for good luck. Her mom will likely hard-boil eggs. Each symbolizes prosperity, given to the souls of loved ones and to the cherished living.
Her dad’s invitation will involve rice, boiled chicken, and broth. Bidania doesn’t usually think much of it. “However,” she says, “I have to say that, right now, I do feel more emotional about it.” Her dad is getting older; she moved back to the Twin Cities, from the East Coast, to live closer to her parents. “This is supposed to be a tradition carried on in every generation forever.” Her brothers should inherit the practice—“and their children will do it for them when they are gone, and so on,” she continues.
“But, obviously, things have changed so much since we moved to the U.S.”
They’re in a metro setting far from Laos. Modernization has molded the holiday. In some cases, it’s felt progressive. In recent years, the United Hmong Family has helped single women take on the traditionally male-performed soul calling ritual. Just last year, a Hmong women’s student group hosted a New Year event at the University of Minnesota, challenging men’s lock on leadership. (Marrying later and supporting their parents longer, women have stepped into stronger roles, Mee Vang says.)
In other cases, it’s more commercial. Xiong’s family moved to Minnesota in the late ’70s, joining 2,000 or so Hmong residents. “At a school auditorium, families brought food, and we all shared in a communal way.” He compares that to the RiverCentre: “If you take away the dance competitions, the beauty pageants, there’s not much happening anymore.” Xiong worries about the Hmong youth sloughing off spirituality, unsure about shamans or unwilling to pay for one.
Still, he’d go to the RiverCentre, to document the new, machine-made Hmong fashions. As for Bidania’s own testament—her book—it’s a reminder of what those childhood moments meant. Her young heroes, caught in swirling droves, reconnected with their parents amid a community reconnecting with itself.
“What the Hmong New Year does is bridge the gap between the past and future,” says Gia Vang (no relation to Mee). Gia moved to the Twin Cities last year to join the KARE 11 news team, and she’s recalling the New Year in the Hmong hub of Sacramento, where she grew up. “My parents would say, ‘Here’s 20 bucks, you can go get food, and we’ll see you later.’”
She’d dress in her usual clothes. Or, rising early, she’d twirl for her mom, who’d pin ensembles together. The embroidered designs of paj ntaub can tell of family origins—hand-stitched history granting bodily form to oral lore. Or, the clothes can simply speak to what’s trendy. On her rounds, Gia would run into family members, friends of friends. With boys, she’d toss embroidered balls—or, simply, tennis balls.
Called pov pob, this game sparked young romance in the old country. But professional breakdancer Kevin Vang (also no relation) found a work-around: As a teen, he would arrange meet-cutes on MySpace. The 25-year-old admits he was also too shy for pov pob: “You have to look each other in the eye. I would do it with my grandma; that’s a woman for me.”
This year, without the dance opportunities (“the young kids—they love it”), Kevin says he has no plans for the New Year. He’ll miss the sense of pride—“proud of how we’ve adapted to this American culture, and excelled.”
Gia might still wear her traditional garb, social distancing around a Hmong barbecue with her dad, uncle, and cousins in the Twin Cities. Hand stitching is rarer these days, so she buys it when she can—as when she chanced upon an elaborate, red-and-black skirt at the Minnesota State Fair. “Anytime I look at it,” she says, “it feels like home.”
Like Gia and Bidania, Lee would have started New Year preparations, in late summer, with clothes: hunting for a pleated white skirt, for a black shirt cuffed with royal blue. And she wouldn’t have gone to HmongTown Marketplace or Hmong Village, in St. Paul, without her mom. “She understands the materials better,” Lee says. Over the phone, her voice falters as she admits, “I don’t speak as much Hmong as I would have hoped.”
Lee lost some language in the 10 years she grew up outside the Twin Cities, near Stillwater. But the Metro State grad, who works in digital media at a PR firm, is re-learning. “It allows me to reclaim my identity, and learn more about myself.” She’s still unpacking her determination to carry on customs. “The longer that I don’t realize this, the more I’m unable to tell my kids my history, or why we’re Hmong, and why we’re here in the U.S.”
For now, she’ll count on the early morning. At 6 a.m., her dad and brother will not meet in the cemetery this year, to honor those who came before. But at home, in the kitchen with her mom, she’ll boil the chicken and a Costco bounty of eggs.
Once, she would have counted on joss paper sealing the doors, but since her grandparents passed, “a lot of the traditions and customs didn’t necessarily float down to us.” Still, in mid-September, Lee visited a shaman. With November’s chill yet faint, she came home with bracelets blessed for her family.
“It’s just so unique,” she says, with clarity. “And I’m never going to be born Hmong again, I don’t think.”