Post-War Identity Production: Changes in Hmong Culture as a Result of the Civil War in Laos and Forced Migration to Other Countries
By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D.
The Hmong-Australia Society (NSW Branch)
Paper presented at the ICCOM Forum on “Armed Conflict and Conservation”, Rome, Italy, on 4-6 October 2005 and published in
Stanley-Price, N, ed. Cultural Heritage in Post-war Recovery (Rome: ICCROM, 2007)
As per the ICCROM guidelines (May 2005) for the Forum, this paper focuses on the ways in which members of an ethnic community have tried to preserve their culture and identity after more than 20 years of war. The armed conflict is the Lao civil war (1953-1973) and the people are the Hmong who were displaced from Laos or are still there. My aim is to see how and with what outcomes the Hmong have managed their cultural identity within the homeland or in the Western countries where many now live.
The paper begins by locating the Hmong in their historical and geographical context. I will touch on the impact of the war on the Hmong (global dispersion) before moving on to a presentation on the five themes in the ICCROM background paper, and the pragmatic conservation strategies used by the Hmong such as formal learning, electronic recording and broadcasting, the Internet, newspapers and books, video and film making, and the commercialisation of cultural artefacts. Before concluding, I will look at the new Hmong identity that is produced and its implications for an “authentic” Hmong culture.
The paper takes on a broad scope and historical perspective. It looks at the effects of war on a community whose culture is markedly different from the majority groups that its members now have to integrate into. Also considered is the multi-pronged, transnational revival of their cultural heritage in response to urgent cultural needs after their post-war relocation in foreign cultures. To this extent, the paper does not touch on risk preparedness to prevent destruction of cultural properties. It only examines how a people recovers its sense of belonging after a long war and the post-conflict recovery strategies they have used in doing so. The information for the paper comes from diverse sources such as publications on the Indochina War and the Hmong culture; discussion groups and literature on identity on the Internet, websites on the Hmong in Southeast Asia and in Western countries (language, music and religion), my own writings, and observation during my visits to Hmong communities in different places over the years as both an anthropologist and a refugee worker.
The Hmong number more than 10 million world-wide with more than 9 million in China - if other branches of the Miao nationality are included. Apart from those in Western countries, the sub-group known as Hmong currently numbers more than 5 million world-wide with four million in southern China; 600,000 Vietnam; 400,000 in Laos; 120,000 in Thailand; and about 2000 - 3000 in Myanmar (Tapp and Lee 2005).
Geography: The only land-locked country of 236,800 square kilometres in area in Southeast Asia, Laos is bordered by Cambodia in the south, China in the north, Myanmar and Thailand in the west, and Vietnam in the east. The Mekong river runs along most of its western border. With many mountainous and forested areas, its total arable land is only about 4 percent – mostly along the Mekong river valley. The country’s agriculture and transportation are often affected by the tropical monsoon which dominates its weather patterns from May through October each year (Savada 1994: ch.2). The 1995 Laos population census (Lao State Planning Committee 1997) shows the number of Hmong as 315,465 or 6.9 per cent of the total population of 4,574,848 – the fourth largest ethnic group after the Lao (52.5%), Phutai (10.3%) and Khmu (11%). The Hmong are found in all northern Laos down to Borikhamxay province, with the majority living in Xieng Khuang. They are rural mountain dwellers, although an increasing number now live in Vientiane city as public servants, students or factory workers. On the whole, they continue to engage in subsistence agriculture with some hunting, fishing and gathering.
History: there is no historical records to show where the Hmong originated from. Some claim that they left Mesopotamia in Biblical times, then migrated north trough Russia, Siberia and Mongolia before settling in their present location (Savina 1924, and Quincy 1988: 16-17). Others believe that they have always been in southern China, well before their territories were occupied by the Chinese (Ch’eh 1947 and Yang 1995). The Hmong first migrated to Laos in the nineteenth century, mostly through Tonkin (North Vietnam).
From 1893, France controlled Laos as part of its Indochina empire. Despite formal independence in 1954, the war to take Laos back from France, started by the Lao Issara (Free Lao) in 1945, continued when the USA became involved in Indochina to stop the spread of communism after the French withdrawal. By then, the Lao Issara had managed to control most of northern Laos, the home territory of the Hmong and other hill tribes.
From the beginning, the Hmong had been drawn to fight on both sides of the conflict. Those who were under the French sided with the rightist Royal Lao Government (RLG), while those in areas controlled by the communist Pathet Lao (PL) who replaced the Lao Issara, remained with them. The RLG received support from the United States and the PL from North Vietnam and the Soviet Union. After 1961, North Vietnamese troops became heavily involved in battles for the PL. The American CIA, fearing a communist victory, began recruiting Hmong into the so-called “secret army” under the Hmong leader, Gen. Vang Pao. Despite a Second Geneva Conference in 1961-62 to end the Lao hostilities, the war continued until the 1973 Paris Cease-fire Agreements halted American military involvement in Indochina, thus hastening the communist take-over and the collapse of rightist factions in Cambodia, Laos and South Vietnam in 1975. Laos is now known as the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) with its own new communist flag.
After 1975, those Hmong on the RLG side fled Laos to seek asylum in Thailand later found permanent settlement in Western countries so that today 200,000 are living in the United States; 20,000 in France; 1,800 in Australia; 1,400 in Canada, 500 in Argentina and 110 in Germany. The majority who could not escape to Thailand submitted themselves to the communist Lao PDR, but about 16,000 went into hiding with their families in the jungles of Phu Bia, the highest mountain of Laos, and other areas from where they have continued to resist the Lao authorities (Lee 1982: 212-214).
The ICCROM background paper (2005) proposes five themes for exploration: (i) dynamism of identity, (ii) records of memory, (iii) handicraft and traditions, (iv) landscape and environment, and (v) physical reconstruction of lost cultural items. I will now discuss these themes in as much as they apply to the Hmong situation.
Culture and Identity
A culture brings meaning to the lives of its members, and gives them a sense of belonging, a sense of identity through having a common history, language and other cultural attributes. Culture is thus a unifying force for its members, but it can also be a source of conflict in complex urban environments where many cultures co-exist and compete for recognition, where a person may have multiple identities through affiliation with more than one role, sub-group and culture. When faced with new and incompatible demands, members of a culture may need to alter some their cultural attributes to accommodate the new challenges, thereby also changing their cultural identity.
Two cultural items, one tangible (costumes) and one intangible (music), will be used here to illustrate Hmong identity change due to hybridity and external influences.
Ethnic Costumes: before WW II, the Hmong lived isolated in the highlands of Laos. Apart from a colonial tax they had to pay in opium and silver coins to the local chiefs, the Hmong needed not venture from their villages as Chinese traders brought in items they needed from the outside world. In those early days, their ethnic costumes and their language were the most tangible group identifiers. White Hmong women used white hemp skirts and Green Hmong women wore batik blue skirts while the men put on a black skull cap, and White Hmong men had a black turban wrapped around their head.
After WWII, Hmong costumes gradually changed. As the Hmong became displaced by the Lao civil war and were unable to afford ethnic costumes or jewellery, they gave up their ethnic attires in preference for cheaper Western casual clothes for the men and Lao women costumes for the women. The Hmong were no longer mere subsistence hill farmers, but now refugees, students, soldiers, government officials, and business people. They were not only Hmong in their isolated jungle enclaves, but also Lao citizens living alongside other Lao people. Hmong costumes were still being used, but mainly for special occasions such as the New Year or weddings.
Traditional Music: prior to and during the armed conflict, Hmong music consisted of singing, the playing of flute, mouth harp and the reed pipe. Each instrument was used on its own, and the singing was done without any music. Traditional singing consists of learned or improvised poetry as lyrics and put to folk tunes that vary from region to region or from one sub-group to another.
Hmong music changes dramatically after 1975 and settlement in the West. A few young men started to imitate modern music with Hmong lyrics put to band music. This new musical experiment went through further refinement and increased in popularity over the years, resulting in a whole new industry being born. It now has recording studios in Laos and the USA along with a global commercial distribution network through Hmong shops and on the Internet. It has sprawled many singers ranging in taste from easy listening to rap music. This new music shows true hybridity with tunes and lyrics borrowed from many cultures such as American, Indian, Chinese, Korean, or Thai. Except for the lyrics in Hmong, this modern music can no longer be used as a unique identifier for Hmong cultural identity as it is just like the music of other cultural groups.
Another complicating factor is that in their modern settings, the Hmong are no longer just Hmong, but Lao Hmong, French Hmong, or Hmong Americans as those in the USA prefer to be known. The Hmong identity has become secondary in the face of external pressure. Juggling for living space with many other culturally diverse groups, they now have multi-layered hybrid identities that demand careful negotiation, depending on what other people assign to them and no longer only on what they give for themselves. The Hmong identity is determined today not only by the Hmong but also by other people, by factors outside their control, outside their culture and community.
Hmong Records of Memory
The Hmong are an oral tradition people, and have no written records of their long history or culture. Books, libraries and archives were not found with them until 1953 when the Romanised Popular Alphabet (RPA), a Latin-based script, came into use in Laos and is now widely adopted (Nyiaj Pov 1991). With this system of writing, one of the longest attempts at Hmong records of memory is the work of Fr Yves Bertrais (also known in Hmong as Txiv Plig Nyiaj Pov), a French Catholic priest. With the help of Hmong students in the early 1960’s in Laos, he began collecting Hmong folk stories, religious rituals, traditional songs, wedding and funeral practices. After 1975, he went on to do further research among Hmong refugees in French Guyana with occasional visits to the Hmong in China. This life-time undertaking has seen the publication of 16 volumes in RPA between 1964 and 1986 in a collection called “Patrimoine Cultural Hmong” (Hmong Cultural Heritage), with other volumes still under preparation.
Other specialised areas of Hmong life, history and culture in China, Laos and Thailand have been published in English, French, and Chinese by anthropologists and other writers. Hmong scholars have also started to publish on Hmong history and culture. A rare collection of historic photographs and colonial documents related to the Hmong during the French occupation of Laos is kept at the Musee de la France d’Outre-Mer at the University of Aix-en-Provence, in the south of France. Today, large numbers of articles and books come out each year on the Hmong and are listed in bibliographies online by the Hmong Studies Resource Center in Minnesota, USA (see http://www.hmongstudies.org/). A number of oral history projects undertaken by schools in America has also been published. The Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul, MN, (www.hmongcenter.org) puts out the peer-reviewed Journal of Hmong Studies twice a year and a newsletter updating on the latest publications.
This information “recomposing” has been greatly accelerated during the last ten years with a proliferation of on-line Internet information and discussion on a myriad of social issues connected with the Hmong. There are hundreds of Hmong websites on all kinds of subjects, individuals and groups. The Hmong Homepage (www.hmongnet.org), has many links to other websites, projects and community activities. Hmong in the US also helped set up sites for the Hmong in Thailand, Laos and China, so that on-line contacts can be made or information shared with other Hmong world-wide. In addition, much information “recomposing” has been made through representation on video and audio recordings in Hmong which are sold commercially. There are video documentaries on Hmong communities in Laos, China, Burma and French Guyana. Many of these documentaries have been made by Xu Thao of All-Pro Productions, California. They are very popular among the older illiterate Hmong who cannot read books or use the Internet. A popular series is the video reconstruction of Hmong history in Laos and China by Yuepheng Xiong of Hmongland Publishing, Minnesota, USA.
Handicrafts and Traditions
Handicrafts: as a subsistence people, the Hmong used to do their own weaving, basket-making and blacksmithing. Today these handicrafts still exist in the homeland, except weaving and cloth-making. The latter has fallen out of favour because hemp clothes are coarse and their colours do not last. People prefer to buy modern nylon and synthetic fabrics that are better quality. Hmong women are famous for their multi-coloured embroideries. Those with the most skills in embroideries made the brightest costumes. Today, however, the rich are those with the best costumes as the latest style of ready-made Hmong clothes can be purchased through shops. Needle work has become a lost art for many Hmong women, particularly those in the diaspora where few girls want or need to learn embroideries, being busier going to schools or to work for wages.
Embroideries are still carried on by women in the homeland for their own use and to send to relatives in other countries to sell for money. Large hand-made quilts, wall hangings, pillow cases and table clothes were made in great numbers this way for sale internationally (Cohen 2000). The reed pipe musical instrument or “qeej”, so necessary to play mortuary music at funerals, is still made for consumption by the Hmong world-wide. These cultural artefacts continue to survive because they have become commercial products in demand by the Hmong in the diaspora. The Hmong culture thus lives on through its silversmith artisans, music instrument makers and needlecraft workers.
Traditions: While the Hmong remain in Laos, they can practise many of the traditions related to their religion of ancestor worship, shamanism, traditional medicine, funerals, oral storytelling, weddings, and kinship norms. Once resettled in the West, however, the social environment there is very different. There are laws prohibiting the slaughtering of animals in the home as required by Hmong ancestral rituals and healing ceremonies. Shamanic healing is still prevalent, even with those now living in the West, but it may require the slaughtering of a small pig. A Hmong funeral is a major event, lasting up to a week when it involves an elderly in the community, and needing four to ten oxen to be slaughtered as food for visitors and as sacrificial animals for the dead person. It is thus difficult to hold proper Hmong funerals in Western countries where funeral homes are only quiet places for a quick mortuary service, not the slaughtering of animals.
Hmong practice of herbal medicine is another prevalent tradition, but many of the Hmong medicinal plants and herbs may not be available in their current place of residence. They may have them sent in dry form from the homeland, but this often get them into trouble with local customs and quarantine officers. The result is that herbal medicine is becoming a lost tradition for the Hmong in the diaspora. With the passing of many of the elderly, shamans and herbalists have also become scarce as few young people want to take up this ancient art of healing.
Landscape and Environment
In Laos, the Hmong used to move villages every few years after the farming land around their settlements had become exhausted. Their houses were simple wooden structures with a shingle or grass roof, and they rarely carved any landscape or built anything lasting such as shrines or monuments. Nevertheless, many of those in the diaspora acutely miss the homeland environment. As a pastoral people, the Hmong prefer to live on mountain tops with a cool climate and lush tropical vegetation. For this reason, about 3000 of them chose to settle in French Guyana and resume farming in this tropical environment. In France, a large number went to live in Nimes where they eventually dominated the vegetable growing business in the region. In Australia, half of its 1,800 Hmong population moved to North Queensland to grow bananas. A return to tropical farming helps to satiate the longing for landscapes and a way of life they had left behind.
Others prefer venturing back to Asia to search for kinship ties or simply to reconnect with familiar places is another option. They made video of these places to bring back to view by those who could not visit, and eventually a whole video production industry was born from these early personal travel documentaries. Today, thousands of Hmong in the diaspora return to Laos and Thailand to join the New Year in November each year, since New Year celebrations in the West are not as authentic and entertaining as the genuine event in the homeland where young girls in their best ethnic costumes come out in drove to play ball games and to engage in courtship – something inexistent in the West. A few even found life in the diaspora so unappealing that they decided to repatriate to the homeland. They wanted to return to an environment where life is simple, where they feel safe from crimes and unrestricted by official law and regulations, and where they can resume the practice of old cultural traditions they have difficulty with in the West.
As stated before, the Hmong do not have any enduring icons or monuments destroyed by the war which must be physically rebuilt. At most, they have cultural items or traditions which became lost or forgotten during the war and after relocation to the West, such as ethnic costumes, embroideries and musical instruments. Attempts have been made for the physical reconstruction of cultural artefacts such as the iconic reed pipe or “qeej”. Before, the new Laos opened its doors to foreign visitors in the late 1980’s, the Hmong in the diaspora used to buy their “qeej” from the refugee camps or Hmong villagers in Thailand. Some even tried to make the instrument locally using plastic pipes, but this proved unpopular as the plastic instrument did not sound as good as the genuine bamboo one. Today, the diasporic Hmong can purchase the “qeej” without problem from Laos so that the only problem remaining is to find people who know how to use it, or who are willing to learn to play funeral music with it.
A few enterprising individuals tried to reproduce Hmong embroideries by machines in Japan using Hmong patterns on dyed materials, but they looked more like cheap multi-coloured fabrics than genuine hand-sewn embroideries so few people used them. Traditional costumes did not need to be replicated, as they have always been available. They are the single cultural item that has been most successfully adapted and transplanted back to the homeland, due to easy access to fine and colourful fabrics and the inventiveness of Hmong women in Western countries. They combine the styles and colours of Hmong costumes from other countries, and remix the skirts from one sub-group with the blouse or head gear from another. Where the items are not too divergent, they use items from another country such as China with those from Laos to come up with the best and brightest combination.
From the above discussion, it can be seen that the Hmong has used a variety of conservation strategies to recapture or to move forward their cultural heritage for personal use or for commercial mass consumption where radically different mainstream environments make it difficult to maintain some traditions. This is true especially of religious and funeral practices that require the slaughtering of live domestic animals. Other traditions may weaken or disappear from lack of interest, lack of skilled practitioners such as needlecraft and other artisans; or from the lack of the necessary resources such as small bamboo stalks to make a good reed pipe musical instrument.
Overall, the strategies used by the diasporic Hmong to meet their heritage needs and challenges have included:
Facilitating the relearning of ritual chants and performances by interested young people and individuals through classes sponsored by Hmong organisations;
Encouraging the practices of modified religious and funeral rituals acceptable to the new societies they now live in, and conversion to Christianity.
Making and consuming large numbers of music videos, feature films and video documentaries depicting “real” heritage items and traditions from the homeland;
Setting up websites to discuss and display information on Hmong history, culture, and other issues of concern;
Recomposing and disseminating cultural information through books, and other communication media such as television and radio broadcasts, and newspapers;
Visiting the homeland in Laos, Thailand or China to get a taste of “real” Hmong” people, their culture and everyday life; and
Selling traditional herbal medicine, hand-made embroideries and ethnic costumes from the homeland, and publications on the Hmong in the diaspora through shops and personal outlets to those interested in preserving or learning about their “Hmongness”.
The production and commercial distribution of videos and CDs have been especially successful and pervasive as a method to make available visual images and oral information on different aspects of Hmong cultural heritage for learning or vicarious entertainment both in the homeland and in the diaspora. Each year, many of these media products are issued in America by enterprising Hmong individuals and media companies. The categories produced range from rock music and songs to kungfu-style action and war movies, and documentaries on rural Hmong life in Thailand, Laos or China. Thai, Korean, Indian and Chinese films have also been dubbed in the Hmong language for Hmong viewers, thus helping to expand their cultural horizons and external influences.
The Hmong culture has undergone much change during the last 30 years. Costumes that were unique as markers of their separate ethnicity are now a mixture of colours and designs borrowed from other cultures and Hmong sub-groups, and are no longer worn as everyday attires. The Hmong language has also been affected. Many young people living in Western countries or the homeland are no longer fluent in their mother tongue. While some have tried different ways to maintain their culture, others want to embrace modernity and have actively promoted change by adopting ideas and practices from other cultures they live with – such as music, fashion and religion.
Some scholars see these changes and differences as a blessing rather than a curse, because they reflect the Hmong’s ability for flexibility with their culture and identity. Schein (2004), for example, argues that these seeming contradictions and disagreements allow the Hmong opportunities to engage in “identity exchange” 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 nor have they customs and myths pointing to a similar origin and culture with the Hmong. Despite this, the Hmong visitors usually identify themselves as Miao with their hosts. When Miao from China visit the Hmong in America, they also identify themselves as Hmong (Schein 1998). This identity switch is based not on a common culture and language, but on a “general notion of fraternity as well as more particularized bonds of kinship and marriage alliance”, leading to mutual obligation (Schein 2004: 278). This identity exchange is done for economic and political motives: each side hopes that economic opportunities and political unity will ensue from the encounters.
In this context, there are few cultural attributes involved and no enduring “authentic” culture on which identity can be solely based. Since culture is dynamic and often changes, its components will eventually diverge and differ when people move from one another to different locations. Although rooted in the past, identity is dynamic and can be seen as “production” (Hall 1989:68) involving “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 1996:4)
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 how they want to represent themselves rather than simply agreeing to how the mainstream cultures have represented them. This attempt at “identity production” arises out of social, economic and political expediency, carved from “not only linguistic and cultural dimensions, but also political and economic strategies…a multidimensional and potent transnationality that is constructed precisely out of the entangling of the cultural with the economic and the political.” (Schein 2004: 274).
Whether the changing Hmong culture and new identity are “authentic” or not is not important since culture is constantly changing. What counts is the ongoing search, the process, the continuing efforts to recover cultural heritage, to explore cultural options and identity possibilities, and to experiment with different versions, to mix them from a variety of source countries in the hope of finding the best possible model – as Hmong women have done with their costumes. Erikson (1960: 47-48) notes that transmigration, like all catastrophes and crises, demands "the sudden assumption of new and often transitory identities…. Adoption of new cultural features in reaction to the new environments is a reconquest of subjective centrality and omnipotence… in a world which has made the person a mere number in a dislocated mass.”
For the Hmong, exposure to a bewildering diversity of cultures and identities not only within the global Hmong community but also with other groups of people, has made this diversity a positive force by allowing them to borrow desirable cultural features from these groups, to recuperate and reinterpret their own cultural heritage. A more acute level of shared national consciousness has been developed, a globalised identity has been forged based on the bringing together, and the adoption, of Hmong cultural items and the practices of the various countries of residence. This has helped create a new transnational and dynamic culture among the Hmong world-wide, largely made possible by modern communications, the Internet, intra-ethnic video consumption and ease of travel.
This paper has looked at how the Hmong have tried to forge a new transnational identity, based partly on the sharing of cultural attributes for those in the West and in Laos, and on political or economic dimensions between those in the diaspora and China, the original homeland. Despite this effort, it is still too soon to know if it has helped the Hmong in the diaspora to recover from the effects of 20 years of war in Laos, from the loss of their power base and place of birth to the enemy, the fragmentation of families, kinship networks and clans in the rush to escape Laos and find asylum in other countries.
As in the past, the Hmong’s future is an unknown landscape and is largely dependent on their ability to maintain their social unity, their strong kinship and mutual support system within the existing clan relations (Keown-Bomar2004). As shown by Rojo and Paez (2000), cultural heritage recovery can be a social cohesion strategy, if it is done formally as a way to generate and preserve social relations between social groups.
Schein (2004: 286) puts this well for the Hmong when she says that “the coalescence of interests that impels the Hmong/Miao forging of transnationality has permitted the elaboration of common identity despite communication barriers and cultural disjunctions. As minorities in all the states in which they reside, the choice to travel what Appadurai (1993) has called the "post national," trans local route seems one of their best hopes. An identification forged out of cultural production and what I have called identity exchanges could be for both Hmong and Miao a means not only to reconnect but simultaneously to circumvent marginalisation within their respective states.”
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