Tumao Xiong and family in the Ban Nam Yao refugee camp in Thailand, 1980. Courtesy of Yee Xiong.

Family photos, cultural artifacts, and first-person stories, uncover the rich history and culture of Hmong in Washington State in the exhibit, “Paj Ntaub: Stories of Hmong in Washington” through Oct. 17 in the Community Portrait Gallery at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience.

Created by a committee of local Hmong community members, the exhibit is named after Paj Ntaub (pronounced ‘Pa Dau’), the flower cloth on which Hmong women stitch a record of Hmong history. One such flower cloth, made by local craftswomen in Spokane on display in the exhibit, illustrates the story of Hmong history, journeying from China to Laos, enduring the U.S.-Vietnam War, swimming across the Mekong River from Laos to refugee camps in Thailand, and traveling to the U.S.

According to the exhibit, about 2,500 Hmong live in Washington and approximately 250,000 call the U.S. home (mostly in California and the midwest states of Minnesota, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Michigan). The exhibit shows the history of those who served as soldiers on behalf of the U.S. and spent time in refugee camps, in addition to Hmong traditions in relation to death, childbirth, marriage, and the Hmong New Year. Also on display, are a model of a shaman mantle, traditional clothing, musical instruments, and jewelry crafted by Hmong that symbolizes the shackles many Hmong wore when they were enslaved in China to work on the Great Wall. Song and spoken word are also a big part of the Hmong culture and is included in the exhibit.

Also featured in the exhibit is information about the Hmong farming community and handmade farming tools. According to the exhibit, there are 90 Hmong family-operated farms in Washington who most notably sell crops at the Pike Place Market, neighborhood farmers markets and in areas as far east as Yakima, as far west as Port Angeles and Gig Harbor, to the north in Bellingham, and to the south in Vancouver. The exhibit closes with a video containing photos, videos and audio from members of the Hmong community in Washington, as well as some information about the younger generation of Hmong and the Hmong youth group, Spiral.

Prai Xiong at her Pike Place Market booth with her granddaughter, July 2009. Prai’s business is called Flower Garden, and she has been selling at the Market for nearly 20 years. The flowers are grown in Carnation and Monroe. Courtesy Prai Xiong.

Community member April Tsengyang Vang, 29, who wrote text and helped develop the exhibit, felt that it was a good opportunity to educate herself and others, as well as reconnect to her family history, heritage and culture. Growing up in America, she became disconnected from the Hmong culture and language she grew up with. Participating in the exhibit allowed her to meet a lot of Hmong members in the local community. The experience inspired her to learn how to speak the language again.

“There’s just so much that I gained from this exhibit that I didn’t expect to from the beginning,” she said, adding that it put into perspective how important it is to stay connected. “It was a life lesson.”

As a result of her work on the exhibit, Vang wants to be more involved in the community, reconnecting with her Hmong roots and building relationships. She is also planning a visit to Laos with her parents to meet her father’s cousin for the first time, who her father has not seen since the war. Vang said there was a lot of hard work that went into the exhibit, but it was well worth it. She hopes that it educates people about Hmong, the people, the history and what they have become.

“The exhibit is a great place to start learning about our people,” said Yee Xiong, 37, one of the community members that helped develop the exhibit and also president of the Hmong Association of WA (HAW).

An additional opportunity to learn more about the Hmong people and culture will be on November 6, when the Hmong Association of WA presents Hmong New Year at the Seattle Center. The day program is free and open to the public. The doors will open at 8 a.m. and the program will start at 10 a.m. and end at 6 p.m. at the Seattle Center House. Each year, new artists and musicians are featured. This year, the bands New Breed (of California), Toucer (of North Carolina), and Nuj Nphlaib (of Minnesota) will perform. Food, CD’s and videos, and other Hmong-related items, including artwork by Seexeng Lee (of Minnesota), will be sold at the event. The day event will be followed by an evening party fundraiser at the Fisher Pavilion with doors opening at 7 p.m. and ending at 11 p.m. The evening party requires purchasing a ticket for entry. Tickets can be purchased in advance, or at the New Year event.

The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience is located at 719 S King St. in Seattle. For more information about the exhibit, visit www.wingluke.org or call (206) 623 – 5124. For more information about the Hmong Association of WA and the New Year celebration at the Seattle Center, visit www.hmongofwa.org.

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