Nostalgia and Cultural Re-Creation: The Case of the Hmong Diaspora [1]

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.

Published in Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies. Vol. 19, No. 2. 2008. Pp. 125-154.

Contents

 

  1. Introduction

  2. The Hmong Diaspora

  3. Hmong Cultural Representation

  4. Nostalgia and Dislocation

  5. Cultural Reproduction Strategies

  6. Diversified Outcomes

  7. A Postmodern Hmong Identity

  8. Conclusion

  9. References

  10. Footnotes

Introduction

This paper aims to look at how the Hmong living in the diaspora have responded to their nostalgia for their homelands of Laos and China. Although this response is varied, most of it is in the form of cultural reproduction or the invention of a new repertoire of cultural practices for the consumption of Hmong communities both in the diaspora and the homeland. This includes the commodification of gathering products like dry herbs and medicinal plants, home-made embroideries and professionally produced items such as traditional costumes and movies. Originally, this (re)production was aimed at the Hmong living in Western countries where a very urbanised and highly structured Western way of life did not allow access to these traditional goods. The movies and new costumes, however, have been quickly adopted by those living in the homeland as well, so that today they have become symbols of a transnational Hmong culture and identity. They now serve as the links between members of the Hmong international community, the objects of Hmong international consciousness. This paper will discuss the process of cultural re-creation and its outcomes since 1975.

 

The Hmong Diaspora

As one of the many tribal minorities also known as Miao or Meo [2], the Hmong are traditionally found scattered in the border regions of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand. In China, the Hmong is one of four minorities classified as part of the generic “Miao” nationality. Best known for their women’s elaborate head ornaments and colourful costumes, the Hmong have a clan-based social system organised according to specific surnames. With most of those in Asia still carrying on subsistence farming, the total number of Miao in China in 2000 is estimated at 9.2 million with 3.1 million being Hmong. The Hmong population today totals 4.5 million worldwide if we add the following: 860,000 in Vietnam; 460,000 in Laos; 150,000 in Thailand; 2,000–3,000 in Myanmar; 300,000 in the USA; 15,000 in France; 2,000 in Australia; 800 in Canada; 300 in Argentina; and 110 in Germany (Lemoine 2005).

 

While more than three million Miao remained in China, their original homeland, close to one million migrated to neighbouring countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar. This dispersion started sporadically in the early nineteenth century as a result of overpopulation, Chinese occupation of native territories and political oppression. However, the largest Hmong diaspora was formed after 1975 when the American withdrawal from the Vietnam War and the Lao civil war culminated in the displacement of more than 180,000 Hmong from Laos and Thailand. Some of these asylum seekers first worked under the French as colonial village militia, but most joined the CIA-financed “secret army” under the command of General Vang Pao during the 1960's. Others consisted of Hmong villagers who put up armed resistance against the new Lao government and fled to Thailand after suppression by Lao and Vietnamese communist troops. These refugees later resettled in the Western countries mentioned above. The Hmong are thus spread all over the world today.

 

After more than thirty years of this global dispersion, what type of diaspora have the Hmong become? For Cohen (1997), a diaspora often manifests the following common features: (a) a dispersion from an original homeland, often in traumatic circumstances; (b) a collective myth about the homeland and a commitment to its maintenance; (c) the development of liberation or return movement; (d) a strong ethnic group consciousness; (e) an ambivalent and sometimes troubled relationship with the host society; (f) solidarity with co-ethnic members in other countries; and (g) the possibility of contributing to and enriching the host society, culturally or economically. Not all features may be present in a diasporic group. These criteria are also used by Safran (1991:83–84) and are discussed at length by Clifford (1997:247–50).

 

When seen from the perspective of the Hmong in the West, they show all the features identified by Cohen for a diaspora, with some aspects more dominant than others. For instance, although the Hmong still remember China as their original homeland, Laos has come to play a more prominent role because it is the immediate past motherland in which many of the first generation Hmong in Western countries were born or grew up in so that their memories of it are still fresh in their mind. They left Laos with a great sense of loss and were scattered as refugees into different parts of the globe by force of circumstances. The homeland of Laos was taken away by their enemy, the communist Pathet Lao with the support of North Vietnam. Many of the exiles have thus formed or joined political movements which aim to wrestle the homeland back into the fold of the democratic world so that they could return to live in it in freedom.

 

Those who carry on these homeland politics have formed organisations, raised funds among co-ethnics in exile and lobbied for international support since 1981, although the armed resistance against the Lao People’s Democratic Republic started as soon as the latter assumed control of Laos in 1975 (Lee 2007b: 352–73). There are a number of these exile liberation groups, but the most well-known is the United Lao Liberation Front led by Gen. Vang Pao, who was recently alleged to have attempted to buy arms “to engage in the violent overthrow” of the government of Laos, a breach of the American Neutrality Act [3]. On June 4, 2007, General Dao and ten co-conspirators were arrested by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. After many demonstrations by Hmong all over the United States, they were released on bail on July 12, 2007, with their court hearings still pending. If convicted, they could face life imprisonment (Davis 2007), a prospect seen by many as a betrayal of the Hmong by the United States and their political alliance during the Vietnam War. Indeed, many of Vang Pao’s supporters still firmly believe that he is a hero and will help them recapture the homeland from the communist Pathet Lao.

 

The majority of the Hmong in Western countries, however, have come to accept the reality of the new Lao government, and have often returned to Laos to visit relatives, to do business, or simply to see old places of their younger years [4]. Those who are more enterprising have begun making feature movies based on their former life styles and legends in the homeland, historical documentaries that show scenes from the old country—all of which are aimed to make financial profits from the exile Hmong communities by appealing to their melancholy longing for a mythical homeland.

 

Thus, apart from the seemingly futile homeland political activities in which many Hmong leaders have been engaged, I would argue that the most significant area of these transnational activities is in the (re) production of the Hmong culture for home and commercial consumption, especially in the diaspora. Before looking at this issue, let us briefly see what constitutes Hmong culture.

Hmong Cultural Representation

Barker (2000:37) sees culture as being related to the values, norms and symbolic representations of everyday life. Because it is concerned with traditions and social reproduction, culture is amenable to creativity and change as the totality of ways of doing things that is passed on from generation to generation. In this passing down of tradition and everyday practice, some features will change or become lost due to their selective use, and new ones replace them. Culture is thus never static, but a dynamic part of society. According to Honigmann (1963:322), a culture at any moment remains closely tied to the landscape in which its members live or which they use to make a living. Whether the group sees this cultural field as an enabling or disabling factor in their life will affect how they respond to its many components.

 

In general, Hmong cultural representation consists of two main categories. The first contains tangible elements such as national musical instruments (the reed pipe or qeej, the Hmong flute and mouth harp), women’s costumes and ornaments, tools (the carrying basket or kawm, Hmong hatchet and axe), house form, preferred physical environment, arts, shamanic healing performance, rituals (wedding, funeral), written literature, and other physical artefacts. The second consists of intangible elements such as language, social organisation, religion, traditional music and singing, social values, norms, history, myths, folk tales, oral texts, and ritual chants (the “Showing the Way” and the “txiv xaiv” funeral recitals [also mentioned in the first category], and zaj tshoob wedding songs).

These elements can be regarded as aspects of the traditional Hmong culture found among Hmong villagers in Asia, but much of this culture has changed for the Hmong in the West as a result of exposure to other mainstream cultures or assimilation to them, lack of usage or irrelevance, and the recent adoption of new practices. The traditional culture is composed of customs, beliefs, and artefacts found in village settings in China and Southeast Asia where they are maintained and passed down for personal and community use rather than for monetary gains. Performers carry out religious rituals as community service with only minimal fees expected and accept only what is given them, instead of charging a nominal fee. In the new culture, items from old Hmong traditions have become commodities for the consumption of Hmong and tourists to their villages. Costumes, musical instruments, farming tools, and video representations of singing and traditional life styles are produced or bought not for their inherent everyday usage but because they are “heritage goods” (for Western Hmong) or “ethnic curiosities” (for tourists) to be amassed in personal collections, although they may hardly play any role in the daily life of their owners. Even Hmong shamans in the West now charge a set fee for their healing sessions. They want cash instead of accepting payment in kind such as meat from the animals that are killed for their rituals, as was previously the case.  

 

The new culture also sees most Hmong men taking the easy way out by preferring to watch Hmong rituals rather than learning or becoming directly involved in them. In the United States, many only watch video enactments of cultural performances or stay aloof at social functions, preferring Western suits to Hmong traditional costumes. They speak “Hmonglish,” a mixture of Hmong language and English words while the majority of second-generation Hmong cannot even communicate in their mother tongue. In the rush to assimilate to mainstream Western societies, or in the daily rat race to make a modern living, many Hmong have no time to learn their own cultural skills, and have become vicarious spectators, a “Society of the Spectacle” (De Bord 2006). In their preference to consume rather than produce, many Hmong in the diaspora also prefer to convert to other religions simply because they find Hmong rituals “too hard” to learn, or to have little relevance in their new life [citation?]._ These factors have greatly contributed to Hmong culture undergoing many changes, replacements, or losses.

 

As seen by Hall (1997a: 3), “culture . . . is not so much a set of things . . . as a process, a set of practices” concerned with “the production and the exchange” of meanings and values. When a group of people are transplanted into a new environment in which its members are faced with calling these meanings and values into question, adjustment and change have to be made. For the Hmong, this constantly in-motion cultural process is further exacerbated by a strong yearning for the homeland left behind, for a past that has become “a foreign country” (Hartley 1953: xvi) [5]. Like other migrants and refugees facing new cultural challenges, this strong yearning has involved the Hmong in what Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) call “the invention of tradition.”[6]. A tradition is a way of thinking, behaviour, or practice that is followed by a group of people as something they value, something connected to the past that works for them or makes their life meaningful in the physical context in which they now live. Where many such traditions become a coherent set of social usages or customs, they form the basis of a people’s culture (Lee 2005:146). An invented tradition is a new “set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature, which seek to inculcate certain values and norms of behaviour by repletion . . . [and which] attempt to establish continuity with a suitable historical past” (Hobsbawm 1983:1). A tradition may be invented because current practices fail to meet the demands of the moment and alternatives have to be found. A new invention may also add status to a tradition that has lost its impact and value.

 

I will now examine the extent to which the Hmong in the diaspora have engaged in the (re)invention of traditions and the factors involved in this process.

Nostalgia and Dislocation

Relocation to other countries, especially when forced, often leads to nostalgia or a bittersweet longing for things, persons, or situations of the past and is often perceived as a long-term homesickness. Davis (1979) states that nostalgia, arising partly from the need for identity construction and maintenance, is manifested most acutely among those who experience identity problems, such as the elderly. Nostalgia is thus a form of collective search for identity, by making selective use of the past as we confront the social and psychological realities of the present. According to Boym (2001:xiii–xviii), nostalgia is “a longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed . . . a sentiment of loss and displacement, a romance with one’s own fantasy . . . a superimposition of two images—of home and abroad, past and present, dream and everyday life.” She identifies two forms of nostalgia: restorative and reflexive. Restorative nostalgia attempts a “trans-historical reconstruction of the lost home” and sees itself as “truth and tradition” which needs protection. Reflexive nostalgia dwells on the longing itself and acts to slow down the homecoming, calling the truth into doubt.  

 

Within this framework, it is obvious that the Hmong in exile have been undergoing restorative nostalgia as they try to reproduce many of the cultural artefacts and practices which they believe to have existed in the past in the homeland. They have added new elements to this restoration which have been borrowed from cultures with which they have recently come into contact. As a diaspora, the Hmong meet most of the criteria of being a nostalgic community. In their search for identity and a positioning of themselves in the world, they exhibit all the nostalgia identified by Davis (1979) from simple or unexamined nostalgia, reflexive nostalgia which has been subject to critical consideration for historical accuracy, to interpreted nostalgia or critical treatment of the nostalgic experience itself. Over the thirty years that they have been living in very alienating Western social environments, many have given a lot of thought to their longing for the past. During the first few years of their U.S. resettlement in the late 1970's, they were sponsored by church groups and individuals all over the country and were thus scattered as single families in nearly all fifty American states. Many did not even know where other family members and friends were relocated. They were too busy learning English and trying to settle down to have time to think about the old homeland. The trauma of dislocation and resettlement without their traditional extended kinship network was such that more than a hundred household heads died mysteriously in their sleep (Munger 1982:307–19; Tobin and Friedman, 1983:439–48). No medical authorities could find the causes of these sudden, unexplained deaths which stopped after the Hmong started to re-migrate and join other Hmong in various urban centres in America.

 

It is during the period after this secondary migration from 1982 on that nostalgia started to take hold of the Hmong. By this stage, many had worked long enough to have accumulated savings to travel back to Thailand to revisit refugee camps or Hmong villages, and to immerse in Hmong traditional life. Others went to China for the first time to explore the original homeland and to find the descendants of ancestors left behind in the nineteenth century. They videotaped their travels and often shared these with family members and friends. Soon, the more enterprising of these travellers made commercial documentaries of their journeys and discovered that there was a hungry, eager market for their amateur media products. Those Hmong who could not make the return journey longed to see familiar places, artefacts, and traditions from the homeland so much that they became a global mass market for those who could bring back anything from the homeland to sell: costumes, videos, herbs, amulets, and music compact disks.

 

Whereas the Hmong of Thailand and China display and sale their traditional artefacts to tourists for money (Schein 2000 and Cohen 2000_), those in the diaspora in the West do it primarily to satiate their longing for cultural practices and goods used in the old homeland. Traditional costumes may be worn to assert one’s ethnic identity in the face of overwhelming cultural diversity in the new environment, but other forms of culture such as animism and traditional music are recaptured because of nostalgia and the lack of satisfying alternatives. The nostalgia industry has become such a strong feature in Hmong life in Western countries because, like other diasporas, the Hmong use nostalgia to search for meanings in new and unfamiliar settings.

 

Beyond nostalgia, however, other factors are also involved. The most important of these include: the impact of Lao civil war; migration; access to capital; education and improved skills; travel to other parts of the world and other Hmong communities, and migrating from traditional rural villages to highly complex city living. The war in Laos that officially spanned 12 years from 1961 to 1973 caused major disruption to the Hmong and other inhabitants of the battle zone. Many were forcibly evacuated from their settlements to refugee centres. This forced displacement greatly deprived the Hmong of access to traditional resources that contributed to the viability of their traditions, such the cultivation of hemp to make women costumes and batiks. Living as refugees in the midst of many ethnic groups and engaging in other occupations such as soldiers, public servants and traders also exposed the Hmong to new ideas and opportunities to adopt or borrow practices from other communities. Their escape to Thailand and eventual resettlement in the West further reinforced this cultural borrowing through the assimilation of new ideas, thereby eroding aspects of the traditional culture such as language and religion through schooling in other languages and changing from Hmong animism to Christianity. The conversion and the adoption of other belief systems have greatly enhanced the loss of not only the number of traditional practitioners of Hmong religion but also its knowledge base.  

 

As mentioned above, capital and education are other major factors involved in changing many facets of Hmong culture today. Access to money after settlement in Western countries enables the purchase of new materials of different colours for costumes, the acquisition of electronic equipment such as video cameras and music recording studios. Entry into formal education and training has enabled displaced Hmong to learn new languages, skills, ideas, and the growth of new talents. Money and travel to other parts of the world have forged new links and resulted in learning new traditions. For example, the hand-shake used by Hmong men today as a sign of greeting and parting is adapted from French colonialists, and the wrist-stringing khi tes ceremony to call in the soul of a sick person to re-join the body or hu plig is a Lao and Thai custom that exists only among the Hmong in Laos and Thailand.  

 

These gains through education, travel, and migration have been offset by other losses. Killing live animals as sacrifices for ancestors is illegal in Western countries. Shamanism, ethnic music, and costumes are restricted to a small group of ethnic users. Furthermore, when ethnic costumes are no longer used by everyone, skills related to their production are also lost as young girls are no longer taught how to embroider and sew their own clothes. Many now do not even know how to sew a button. In most cases, skills are lost not only from the lack of use, but also from the fact they have become obsolete or the materials necessary for their use no longer exist, for example, bamboo to construct Hmong flute or reed pipes. Many Hmong in the diaspora thus see these restrictions as threats to a supposedly genuine Hmong culture and identity. Hence, many Hmong long for the homeland and for what they believe are replicas of their past culture. As stated by Barkan and Shelton (1998:2–3), “the ransom of the journey [into exile] is also loneliness, separation, shattered dreams, madness and forgotten love. Without a map, the voyager who has tasted the pleasures and displeasures of exile is unable to steer the ship back home.” Having undergone border crossings, immigration and relocation, the Hmong are trying to find their way to the past by developing a diasporic culture that is different, yet inseparable, from that of the motherland.

Cultural Reproduction Strategies

Elements of a culture are made and remade as part of the “culture circuit” (Stuart Hall 1997b and Johnson 1986:283–85). This culture circuit includes: (i) production or the introduction of new elements and the manufacturing of cultural artefacts for public or private consumption; (ii) regulations which are enforced through consumer tastes and preferences, available raw materials, costs, means of production, social norms and commercial potential; (iii) representations in public and private venues, display styles, through planned or unplanned exhibitions; (iv) consumption through the mass market for private and public use: and (v) identity formation or development of a collective consciousness arising from the outcomes of producing and consuming the new elements and artefacts.

 

The Hmong diasporic culture has gone through much of this process over the last thirty years. While elderly members of the community want to recapture what they have lost, their children born and raised in the new countries are adopting new cultural items from other people around them. Both groups of cultural players are thus inadvertently involved in this process of maintenance and change, reconstruction, and destruction. Although some traditional elements are lost in the diaspora, new ones are introduced for their contemporary relevance, often in direct opposition to the old ones. For example, Hmong parents in America may prefer to spend their weekends watching videos of traditional singing with music imported from Laos. Their teen-age children, however, may use their free time practicing band music and screaming hip hop songs improvised from Hmong language in the garage, hoping to show off their talents at the local Hmong New Year concert. Conflicts may thus arise between the old and the new, thereby propelling the culture towards further change and development. Such conflicting signs are indicative of a culture that is dynamic, alive, and growing.

 

In the face of these challenges and opportunities, how have the Hmong tried to preserve or enrich their culture? Lee (2007a) suggests that they have attempted to do this though several approaches. The first involves relearning ritual chants and their performances such as the funeral music qeej tuag (life-ending mortuary music) or the txiv xaiv (selective blessing) chanting by interested young people and individuals through classes sponsored by Hmong organisations. These organizations pay for the venue and the teachers, give out achievement certificates to those who complete their training, and encourage the local Hmong community to use the new performers. In America, the Hmong Culture Center in St. Paul, Minn., and the Lao Family in Fresno, Calif., are examples of two such organisations that work toward the survival of traditional Hmong culture. Many similar groups also operate in other American states, Australia, and other countries.

 

The second approach consists of encouraging the use of modified religious and funeral rituals so as to render them more acceptable to the new societies they now live in, including conversion to Christianity to avoid these traditional practices. It is not known how many Hmong in the diaspora have converted to other religions today. The 2000 U.S. census did not even mention this factor, but it is estimated that more than one third of the American Hmong population of 186,000 are now Christian [7]. Before the 1960's, small numbers of Hmong in Laos are known to have become Christian with some embracing Catholicism while smaller groups of mostly Blue Mong choosing Baptist sects. This conversion accelerated in the 1980's in the refugee camps in Thailand through Western missionaries and continued after settlement in America where many Hmong families arrived under the sponsorship of church groups. Today, the Christian Missionary Alliance with headquarters in Denver, Colo., has the largest number of Hmong members with branches and missionaries in many American states and Southeast Asia.

 

The third and most effective cultural reinvention strategy has been the production and consumption of large numbers of music videos, feature films, and video documentaries depicting “real” heritage items and traditions from the homeland. Horrific bull fights and courting traditional singing from Laos are especially well-received. Although designed for intra-ethnic consumption, Hmong videos are popular because they are an ideal means for cultural learning and identity production since they can be made and distributed expeditiously across great spatial divides. For this reason, Hmong ethnic video products are “positive trends in the context of a global economy of representation that generally excludes minority peoples from representing themselves” (Schein 2004b: 279).

 

The fourth major approach to Hmong diasporic cultural reproduction involves hundreds of Hmong Web sites. The first information site, the Hmong-Australian Resource Page, was established by Dr. Pao Saykao in Melbourne, Australia [8]. A very popular site today is the Hmong Homepage, which hosts a chat group, the Hmong Studies Journal, news on recent publications and conferences, as well as useful Internet links on the Hmong [9]. Other well-used sites have information on Hmong ethnography and current issues [10]. These are a few of the many websites that provide a rich source of information for users, especially young Hmong people who feel lost in the diaspora and want to find directions by learning about their culture and history.

 

The fifth approach in Hmong cultural reproduction is the dissemination of news and cultural information through the media such as radio broadcasts, magazines and newspapers. This is also a very popular approach, as it also allows the producers to make money. A number of online magazines like 18-Xeem (18 Clans) and Unplug target the Hmong’s young subculture in America. Many Hmong print magazines have also been published. The most enduring publications are two newspapers, Hmong Times and Hmong Today, based in St. Paul, Minnesota. Both are published in English and Hmong, with the first also available online. The Hmong operate radio stations or programs in Hmong on local community radios in many U.S. cities where there are large numbers of Hmong listeners. In St. Paul with its population of 40,000 Hmong, there are five such radio programs. These publications and radio programs often feature stories on Hmong culture and history, thus awakening a new sense of connectedness among listeners and readers across different geographical boundaries.

 

The sixth strategy of Hmong cultural reproduction involves Hmong in the diaspora visiting the homeland in Laos, Thailand, or China to get a taste of “real” Hmong everyday life. They videotape their journeys and share the images with family and friends back home. They bring back cultural artefacts, souvenirs and, for a few men, maybe even a young wife. They scour familiar landscapes they left behind in the old country. In this way, the tourists reconnect with the old culture and people they used to know, and attend cultural performances they have not seen for many years, like the door spirit ceremony that cannot be done in America, bull fights that are not allowed in the West, or the genuine Hmong New Year celebration in December with beautiful young girls dressed in true Hmong costumes playing ball games and singing courting songs, something Hmong girls in the West no longer do. This final approach focuses on selling traditional herbal medicine, hand-made embroideries, musical instruments, and ethnic costumes from the homeland, as well as publications on the Hmong through shops and personal outlets to those interested in learning about their “Hmongness.” These products are touted as representing the core of what it is to be “Hmong, ”reflecting genuine Hmong values. Using and owning these items are seen as a meaningful way to satisfy the diasporic longing for a lost traditional life.

 

Collectively these different approaches are indicative of a “restorative nostalgia” as discussed by Byom above. They try to re-create what they long for as “tradition[s] and truth[s]” that need to be preserved. Sometimes, it may include the invention of new artefacts and cultural items by appropriating them from other people they come into contact with, as these new elements become a necessary part of their new life. For instance, the Hmong history that has been recently reclaimed and written has many dates adapted from Chinese records and western accounts of events. As an oral tradition people, the Hmong did not have their own written records or dating system. The names of many leaders are also renditions in these foreign languages and may not sound much like Hmong. Some heroic figures are also appropriated from other non-Hmong sources such as Sonom, a Tibetan tribal leader, found in the books by Savina and Quincy (Entenmann 2005).

Diversified Outcomes

In their attempt to recapture history and the past, to re-live what they left behind, what have the Hmong produced or reinvented? Due to the uncoordinated nature of this cultural re-creation, the results have been rather uneven. Sometimes, what is reproduced is far from being in the traditional true form and may be something completely different. For example, Hmong ethnic costumes are now mixed between the different Hmong sub-groups who no longer have their own costumes and colours as was the case thirty years ago when white skirts were used by White Hmong women, or batik skirts by Blue Mong. Today, the very elaborate embroidered costumes from Chinese Hmong have even been adopted with their ornate circular headgear. The materials employed now include factory-made patterns and are very light, not the hemp skirts with hand-made decorations used previously. Today’s Hmong girls reject these as being outdated.

 

In the area of dance, the diasporic Hmong have also adopted group dancing which they never had when they were in Laos. Many young girls in the United States now form dancing groups that compete for prizes and attention during New Year celebrations and other special occasions. Some even hire choreographers from China to teach them full-time. As a result, they have added not only dance to the Hmong cultural repertoire, but also beautiful dance costumes in the Hmong style. Like Hmong modern music, these dances have been improvised from other cultures such as Chinese, Indian, and American. Indian and rap dances are the most popular with young people. Music is the most productive area with heavy borrowing and artistic influences from foreign sources, or neighbouring cultures. Music of all styles ranging from Lao folk singing, and Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Korean, and Western pop to the latest hip hop have been attempted and marketed commercially, in addition to Hmong traditional music and singing. Many new singers emerge every year. The Hmong diaspora is constantly flooded with, and eagerly buy, these music compact discs produced in Laos and the United States.  

 

Although books have been written on the Hmong in English, German, French and Chinese by Western writers such as Geddes (1976), Cooper (1995) and Tapp (1986 and 2003). A French Catholic missionary, Fr. Yves Bertrais (1985 and 1992), was the first to collect Hmong oral stories and publish them in Hmong. In 1994, a group of Hmong in Minnesota set up the Hmong American Institute of Learning (HAIL) to promote creative writing through its Paj Ntaub Voice magazine. Many works of fiction have been published to enrich Hmong literature such as the four novels written in Hmong by Nhia Pao Lee in Australia; Dust of Life: A True Ban Vinai Love Story (2004), the first Hmong novel written in English by Gary Yia Lee; and Bamboo Among the Oaks: Contemporary Writing by Hmong Americans (2002) edited by Mai Neng Moua. At present, large numbers of articles and books come out each year on the Hmong and are listed in bibliographies online by the Hmong Studies Internet Resource Center in Minnesota [11]. The Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul puts out the peer-reviewed Journal of Hmong Studies twice a year and a newsletter updating on the latest publications on the Hmong [12].

 

In the arts, the Hmong still make jewellery, now using mostly aluminium and not silver as they used to do, because the latter is too heavy to wear and expensive. The Hmong in Western countries continue to purchase these traditional ornaments to meet their nostalgic and identity assertion needs. Modern painting has been taken up by many young Hmong artists in the United States, with the most well-known being Seexeng Lee who markets his art collection through his website [13]. Others promote their work through a shared website [14], with frequent exhibitions held at various galleries in American cities where the Hmong live. Hmong women in Laos and Thailand continue to do embroideries, although this handicraft is now lost to the Hmong in the diaspora. Embroideries used to be made by women for their own personal use but are now commercial items made in large quantities in Laos and sold internationally. Quilts and wall hangings or story cloths are recent inventions by Hmong women while in the refugee camps in Thailand. These large embroideries, depicting Hmong village life and recent history in Laos, are available in museums and galleries around the world.

In the area of media production, video representation and reconstruction of Hmong culture have been well exploited by the Hmong with hundreds of movies and documentaries on the homeland made for commercial consumption in the West. One of the best-known producers is Mr. Su Thao, based in California, whose video documentaries on the Hmong in China, Vietnam, and Myanmar (Burma) have brought a new level of self-awareness to the Hmong global community. Yupheng Xiong in Minnesota also made a series of videos on Hmong history in China and Laos and has contributed much to Hmong knowledge about the past. Today, dozens of new movies and music compact discs are made each year and are sold at Hmong New Year venues, online and in shops in the diaspora. The Hmong media industry is now big business. It fills a big void among the elderly diasporic Hmong who have little to occupy their time.

 

With regard to religion, traditional beliefs in the existence of the soul and spirits are still followed by the majority of Hmong in the diaspora. However, as noted previously, rituals requiring the sacrifice of large animals like pigs and oxen have been modified, or even abandoned so as not to go against the law in the new countries of settlement. Funerals in particular have changed. Hmong funerals are now held in commercial funeral homes, regardless of clan and ritual differences, whereas it was previously a taboo to do so. The old system has also lost many followers through conversion to Christianity. The Hmong language has suffered the most after settlement in Western countries. Some Hmong in America speak Hmong with an American accent and use many American words. Those in France have a clear French accent. In some locations, only the elderly first generation can still speak the language. Writing is another area of controversy with more than half a dozen scripts competing for acceptance, although the Romanised Popular Alphabet (RPA) system has become the most popular.

 

Another significant outcome is that the Hmong now have a written history. Fr. Francois Savina’s book in French Histoire des Miao (History of the Miao, 1924) gave the first truncated Hmong history on paper. The first book in English that tries to piece together the Hmong’s early history in Laos was written by McCoy (1972) but with a very biased view of Hmong leaders. Yang Dao (1975)_ reconstructs Hmong history in Laos in French from a Hmong perspective. Fr. Jean Mottin (1980) wrote another attempt in French (later translated into English) entitled “History of the Hmong.” Keith Quincy (1988 and 2000) was the first American scholar who used interviews with Hmong informants, Hmong legends and past references to the Hmong/Miao in other publications to put Hmong history into chronological order, beginning with Chinese records dating to 2700 BC down to the present time. In France, Larteguy (1979) has a book on Hmong history in Laos with much emphasis on their involvement in the local opium trade. Hassioun (1997) published an account of the Hmong in France, including a short history of their settlement. Tapp and Lee (2004) also provide a similar account of the Hmong in Australia. Many books have been written in Chinese on the history of the Hmong/Miao in China, but were inaccessible to Hmong and other readers in the West until Vwj Zoov Tsheej (2004) and his team of writers in China produced an encyclopaedic volume in Hmong RPA on Hmong history and culture around the world.

 

Although these outcomes belong to different cultural fields, they share many common features. Most are derived from practices in Hmong history. They are all manifestations of cultural elements adapted or appropriated for their usefulness to the present. Some are reclaimed from past traditions while others are invented or borrowed, all with the aim of meeting the changing current needs of the Hmong in both the homeland and the diaspora. Some of these new forms of culture may stray from the older features and their common Hmong origins, like modern band music, the group dances, the oil paintings and videos which did not exist in the distant past but have become very popular today. Reclaimed or refashioned items from old traditions receive new life out of nostalgia for past homeland practices. These changes occur because Hmong society in the diaspora is fast changing and new traditions have to be invented to meet the urgent needs of the moment or to ensure survival into the future.

A Postmodern Hmong Identity

From this discussion on the diverse outcomes of Hmong diasporic cultural reproduction, it is obvious that the Hmong culture has undergone many transformations, so much so that many Hmong have started to question the authenticity of these innovations that are now being used as markers of a changing Hmong identity.

 

According to the UNESCO Nara Document on Authenticity (1994, clauses 9–11), to be authentic, a cultural item must have meanings for the community to which it belongs and be rooted in the values attributed to it by its users. As different cultures assign different values, it is difficult to assess values and authenticity on the basis of some universal criteria. Cultural goods must, therefore, be assessed within their specific cultural contexts. Furthermore, cultural reinvention should empower the ethnic community by bringing them pride and adding to their strength rather than simply trying to bring back the “authenticity” of past practices and artefacts for its own sake. It should not only be concerned with the materials of the past but also their relevance to the present (Wijesuriya 2007:96). It is thus not an issue how we define “authenticity” in regard to the changing culture of the Hmong in the diaspora. If a cultural item meets the current needs of the people so that they value it, are willing to use it and to pay for such use, and become energized by it, then it is authentic to them. The concept is relative to each culture, as human societies are always changing through the creation of new traditions, borrowing from other groups and by reinventing themselves in order to ensure their viability and survival. In the process, they undergo “staged authenticity” (Cultural Survival, 1982:1). What is authentic today may not be so in a few decades or for the next generation. 

 

Another issue of concern is the changing Hmong identity brought about by the seeming loss of culture among members of the younger generation, and the borrowing of other cultural forms from the mainstream. The very name used to describe them as a group often comes under regular scrutiny in the Hmong media and Internet discussion groups. Those living outside China want to be known only as “Hmong,” while those in the original homeland in China see nothing wrong with being called “Miao,” the name given them by the Chinese who used it historically for non-Han “barbarians” of southern China. Still others in the diaspora are unhappy that the name “Hmong” has become adopted internationally as a generic name for both the White Hmong and the Blue Mong. The Blue Mong see this as political hegemony by the more dominant White Hmong and want to be known simply as “Mong,” the way they pronounce their name.

 

While the issue of a single name for all Hmong remains unresolved, some see this as a reflection of the Hmong’s flexible culture and identity, to cope with change by not setting things in concrete. These seeming contradictions and disagreements allow the Hmong opportunities to engage in identity exchanges and identity production. When Hmong from America visit their co-ethnic Miao in China, they are often bewildered by the fact that large sections of the Miao population do not speak Hmong or have customs similar to them. Despite this, the Hmong visitors usually identify themselves as Miao with their hosts. When Miao from China visit the Hmong in America, they switch to calling themselves Hmong. This identity switching is based not on a common culture and language, but on a “general notion of fraternity as well as more particularised bonds of kinship and marriage alliance . . .” (Schein 2004a: 278).

 

In this sense, there seems to be no enduring “authentic” base from which identity can be drawn. According to Wijesuriya (2007:93), identity is derived through three components in the cultural contents of a heritage item of a group, be it a temple, a religious ritual, or a musical icon. The three components are: (a) the original function of the item, (b) its connection to the group/community, and (c) its continuity through time. These components must be present for a regenerated cultural item to have an impact on group identity. In other words, the reinvented item must be able to fulfil its original function from the past, it must be connected or identified as belonging to the community, and it must have a history of being with that community or culture. This may be true of items in the recent past, but not those that cease to function because they were too ancient. Since culture is dynamic and constantly changing, its components will eventually diverge and differ when people move to different locations. Over time, these changes make it impossible to trace back elements or items based on a universally shared origin. As Hall (1996a: 89) points out, although rooted in the past, identity and the cultural elements that give rise to it are often changing, a dynamic and “incomplete process,” so that identity is a “production” that involves “questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming rather than being: not ‘who we are’ or ‘where we came from’ so much as ‘what we might become’, how we have been represented and how that bears on how we might represent ourselves” (Hall 1996b: 4).

 

For the Hmong in the diaspora and the Miao in China, the reconstruction of their shared identity through economic exchanges and cultural visits reflects this process of “becoming” and of representing themselves rather than simply agreeing to what the mainstream cultures have represented for them. This identity production is manifested most clearly in the changes among Hmong traditional costumes that blend different dialect and regional groups together to form a new “global” Hmong fashion trend. Although outwardly there appears to be great changes in the designs and colours of these costumes every year, as can be seen at any Hmong New Year celebrations, these transformations have been done by combining and using concepts, materials, and practices found in every day Hmong life in different geographical environments. They are what Lewis (1993) refers to as innovations “within the frame of the familiar;” although they are constantly changing, they retain the essence of the past and the quality of remaining part of the Hmong culture.

 

Apart from the changing costumes, the new Hmong global identity has been enhanced through the mass production and world-wide marketing of large numbers of videos on Hmong culture and the homeland, as discussed previously. This has been by far the most positive outcome of attempts at cultural reproduction and new identity formation. Videos help to connect the global Hmong community in their living rooms (Lee 2007a). This practice is found among many indigenous groups “who have experienced massive political, geographic and economic disruption” and who use the media “to help construct identities that link past and present in ways appropriate to contemporary conditions” (Ginsburg 1991:94).

 

The identity thus produced is based not solely on common cultural traits or reinvented traditions but also on spatial and political dynamics. It is a notional identity formed from crossing state and geographical boundaries, an identity that is not bounded by one country or one culture but by sharing one world. Collective cultural identities are now reshaped by spaces under conditions of a postmodern geography through the use of cable and satellite television broadcasting, media representation, and exchanges (Morley and Robins 1995).

 

Ascherson (2007:22–24) notes that cultural destruction by acts of war may profoundly affect the families and individuals involved, but it usually does not undermine the collective identity of a group in the long term. Collective identity, like historical monuments, is quick to form but slow and difficult to change, regardless of what may happen to the mortals bearing its name. It may change direction here and there but maintains some continuity with the past as many of its cultural markers remain constant at the core, despite changes occurring at their peripheries. As a result of being transplanted into new and bewildering urban, cultural, economic, linguistic and political environments, many Hmong feel alienated due to their background as a simple pastoral highland people from Asia. Having resettled in highly urbanised living conditions in the West, the Hmong have had to develop new coping mechanisms, like British farmers of the last century who were forced to move to the cities and who often developed

 

a complex inventive, strongly patterned set of responses to social dislocation and change . . . a critical nostalgia, a way to break with the hegemonic, corrupt present. . . .This sense of pervasive social fragmentation, of a constant disruption of “natural” relations, is characteristic of a subjectivity [connected] with city life . . .The self, cut loose from viable collective ties, is an identity in search of wholeness, having internalised loss and embarked on an endless search for authenticity. (Clifford 1986:114)

 

Under so many social pressures and with an ongoing sense of heightened nostalgia in a local landscape they find difficult to identify with, the Hmong have fashioned a new globalised Hmong identity based on the bringing together and adopting of Hmong cultural items and practices from various countries of residence. This has led to a new diverse and dynamic culture and a transnational identity among the Hmong worldwide, largely made possible by modern communications, the Internet, ethnic video consumption, and ease of travel. Thus, apart from the need to satisfy their nostalgia for the past, a newfound freedom to express their culture as well as the effects of cultural isolation in anonymous Western urban jungles have made it necessary for many to assert their identity as something unique through displaying what they regard as authentic cultural forms and the invention of new artefacts or practices to add to new global identity, to affirm their current relevance.

Conclusion

 

This paper examines the Hmong who have a rich culture with both tangible and intangible components, as exemplified by the use of the reed pipe qeej music instrument as their national icon and the colourful women’s costumes that represent different subgroups, as well as many oral traditions in the form of religious beliefs, folk tales, ritual chants, and wedding songs. This culture has undergone great transformation, following their dispersion from Laos and resettlement in Western countries after the end of the Lao civil war in 1975. As an Asian people transplanted in alienating Western societies, many Hmong suffer from nostalgia, especially the elderly members of the first generation. Most of them are involved in attempts to restore their authority in the homeland through political movements, or at least to resurrect dreams and cultural practices of the past to be re-lived or used in the present.

 

It is argued that this “restorative” nostalgia has led to the invention of new traditions such as new costumes, new music and dances, a written literature in place of oral customs, and, more importantly, a global transnational identity. The latter is based on a renewed level of national consciousness and connections through media in the form of video products depicting “real” Hmong life and communities in different parts of the world, visits to other Hmong communities, radio broadcasts and messages, Internet discussions, and newspapers to share ideas and news on local and international Hmong issues. These many cultural and social innovations have renewed and empowered the Hmong to a new level rather than weakening their culture and identity. Their re-awakened identity has now become globalised, transnational, and not just confined to the highlands of Southeast Asia as a subsistence hill tribe as used to be the case thirty years ago. Although many issues and needs remain to be addressed, Hmong cultural (re)production continues to thrive unrelentingly. Oral traditions continue in areas such as funerals and weddings where poetic chants are still used, but the telling of folk stories by the elderly to the young has virtually lapsed and is being replaced by books and magazines that are published annually, along with videos depicting folk stories in graphic colours.

 

This seems to indicate that the Hmong cultural production will continue unabated, pushed on by commercialisation, the commodification of Hmong culture, and the ever-diverse new talents emerging among Hmong diasporic and homeland communities. On the one hand, the experience of living in the diaspora can be “embittering, frustrating and morbid . . . [but] the challenge of fusing or living between different worlds, languages, cultures and identities is a rich experience” (Barkan and Shelton 1998:11). As stated by Williams (1971:320), “a culture, while it is being lived is always in part unknown, in part unrealised.” As a process, culture never stays inert. The future is thus difficult to foresee. The only certainty is that Hmong culture is undergoing tremendous change, partly as a result of cultural commodification and adopted elements from other cultures, but mostly as a response to the Hmong’s longing for a homeland and a past that now exist mostly in their social memories.

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Footnotes

  1. This article is based on a seminar paper given at the Hmong Studies Program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on November 9, 2007. I would like to thank Professor Chia Youyee Vang of the history department, the university administration, and the Hmong community there for making my visit a most memorable experience. I also wish to thank professors Chia Vang and Nick Tapp, and the two anonymous reviewers of this paper, for their very helpful comments, which greatly enhanced this revised version

  2. These are names used by outsiders for this particular ethno-linguistic group: the group only calls itself Hmong, a more respectful term without the negative connotations associated with being “cats” (Meo in Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand) or “barbarians” (Miao in China).

  3. Criminal Complaint Charge sheet, “United States vs. Harrison Jack et al.,” U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California, June 4, 2007.

  4. Although research in Australia undertaken by Tapp and Lee (2004) indicates that the Hmong in the diaspora visit each other more frequently than they do the homeland in Laos.

  5. See further expansion of this theme in a book on the past by Lowenthal (1985).

  6. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewer of this paper who pointed out this most useful source of information.

  7. According to Youa Pao Yang, head priest for the Catholic community from Laos in Washington state, there are about 30,000 Christian Hmong in the USA. About 20,000 are members of the Christian Missionary Alliance, 6,000 Catholics, and the remaining belonging to various other denominations (interview, November 18, 2008).

  8. http://www.hmongnet.org/hmong-au/ozintro.htm

  9. http://www.hmongnet.org/

  10. See, for example, http://www.garyyialee.com

  11. See http://www.hmongstudies.org/

  12. www.hmongcenter.org

  13. www.seexeng.com

  14. www.hmongartists.net

 

GARY YIA LEE

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