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Anthropological Field Work Among the Hmong in Thailand in the 1970’s: Reflections on Drawbacks and Advantages

By Gary Yia Lee, Ph.D., December 2016

Keynote address given at the 4th Hmong Studies Consortium International Conference on “Memories, Networks and Identities of Transnational Hmong”, January 4 - 5, 2017. Revised July 2019.



  1. Abstract

  2. Introduction

  3. How It All Began

  4. The Search for a Research Site

  5. Logistics and Equipment: Differences Then and Now

  6. The Field Work

  7. Native Anthropology Investigation: Advantages and Drawbacks

  8. Conclusion

  9. References

  10. Footnotes


Although my research project was primarily to obtain data to use for my Ph.D dissertation, my supervisor, Prof. W. R. Geddes of Sydney University, Australia, also involved me in training a Thai research assistant who would specialise in the Hmong for the Tribal Research Centre. He helped establish the Centre, and wished to promote its growth. His keen interest in opium eradication greatly influenced the focus of my research. Opium was still the prevalent cash crop in the hills of Northern Thailand at the time. For that reason, I chose a White Hmong village in the Doi Inthanon area where the UN Programme for Drug Abuse Control (UNPDAC) had an extension project going. The UNPDAC’s American project manager was also keen for me to help informally, given my Hmong background and my community development training. 


In this key note presentation, I will discuss:

  1. The problem of using outdated and bulky equipment compared to what is available today;

  2. The logistics of travelling on foot and transporting provisions on horseback when there was no road;

  3. Issues in training an assistant and dealing with UN field workers;

  4. The nature of data required and the methodology used to collect them; and

  5. The difficulty of having to navigate between the two official organisations I was working with.  


The paper will conclude with some reflections on the advantages and drawbacks for an “emic” insider researcher working among his own people in the face of intrusion from “etic” outsider officials. The field work affected me greatly, at both personal and social levels. More than just collecting information for my dissertation, it was a journey of self-discovery and growth. It made me a “born-again” Hmong and consolidated my true Hmong identity. It broadened my social relationships, helping me acquire many friends and relatives to this day. More importantly, it also made me very sceptical about the UN and its development activities with the poor around the world.


The main lesson learned from this experience is that it is difficult but still beneficial to do fieldwork, mixed with other undertakings such as training a research assistant and acting as an unofficial adviser on a community project, even if you are likely to get entangled in side activities, accountability conflicts and administrative restrictions on your primary task of purely researching.


Keywords: anthropological research, White Hmong, opium cultivation and suppression, agricultural extension, Hmong culture and farming, United Nations.


  • NYOB ZOO kwv tij neej tsa, cov tub txawj ntxhais ntse, thiab tej phooj ywg sawv daws.

  • Sawad-dee, than phumikiet, pheuanfung, nak vijai lae nak vijakarhn thuk khonh

  • Greetings to all distinguished guests, friends of Hmong studies, students, academics, researchers and all conference participants.

  • Bien venue a tout le monde.

I would like to thank Dr. Ian Baird, Dr Prasit Leepricha and other participants for your hard work in organising this 4th Hmong Studies Consortium Conference. I thank you for your kind invitation to join the conference, and also Chiangmai University for hosting this very important event for us.


It is good to be with you today. It is nice to see not only some old friends like Dr. Michaud and Dr. Yang Dao, but also many other scholars, both Hmong and non-Hmong, from the USA, China, Vietnam, Laos and of course, here in Thailand – too many to mention by name. We are here because of our keen support for Hmong studies. It is most pleasing to see so much interest.


It is with great honour that I stand in front of you this morning. I welcome the opportunity to talk at the beginning of the conference when you are still all keen, wide-awake and full of expectations.


Today, I have been asked to look at my Ph.D anthropology fieldwork in Northern Thailand nearly 40 years ago, and to see what are the advantages and drawbacks, what lessons can be learned from it. Forty years seem a long time – almost half a century. The technical and intellectual advancement has been so huge that we seem now to be living in two different worlds.


How did I end up doing field work in a Hmong village at the foot of Doi Inthanon in Chiangmai province? The journey not only gave me the information I needed for my Ph.D dissertation but also changed me profoundly as a person. I had put this deep personal impact in fiction form in my novel “Dust of Life” (2004), so I will not go into it here today.

How It All Began

It would be very boring if I just give you a blow-by-blow description of what happened during my 16 months in Thailand in 1977-78. Instead, I will put my talk into the theoretical framework of insider-outsider, emic vs etic and native vs foreign perspective. This will be much more interesting and relevant to anthropology discourse.


For those of us who are not familiar with this jargon, the insider, emic and native perspective means that the person doing the research comes from inside the community he or she is researching. He or she may not live in that community, but belongs to the same language and ethnic background, and can thus provide “an authentic insider’s view” (Narayan, 1993: 682). The assumption is that this insider investigator who speaks the same language as the research subjects can communicate more easily with them, and should already possess enough cultural skills to be more involved, to observe and to collect information at a deeper level than the outsider, etic or foreign researcher, although the later may have the advantage of being more detached and hence, more objective (Forster, 2012; Jones, 1970; Kuwayama, T. 2004; Mughal, 2015; Narayan, 1993; and Ranco, 2006).


My own introduction to anthropology came about as a result of these insider-outsider representation issues. In 1975, I had objected to what I considered as unflattering descriptions of Hmong people in Thailand by the late Prof. William Geddes of the Department of Anthropology, Sydney University, Australia [1]. I was 26, young and eager to defend the Hmong at any opportunity. Prof. Geddes responded by inviting me to do a Ph.D degree with him, so that I could write about the Hmong from a Hmong viewpoint. This sort of put me between a rock and a hard place. I was a graduate student on a Colombo Plan scholarship from Laos in Australia at the time. I had just finished my Master’s degree in community development when Laos changed political regime in May 1975. My family had escaped to Thailand, so I decided not to return to Laos. Reluctantly, I accepted the offer by Prof. Geddes. After a year of intensive training, I was ready to face the challenges of fieldwork in a Hmong village. In Laos, I had always been a city boy and had not been living in a Hmong village since I was 6. As Prof. Geddes (1967: 553-581) had helped to establish the Tribal Research Centre in Chiangmai University in 1974 he wanted to place me at the Centre. His reasons were that: (1) they needed someone to train a research officer specialising in the Hmong; and (2) I would be with an official body that would provide me with advice, library resources and support.


Based on my interest in Hmong economic development, I chose a research topic that would let me assess the impact of a government-sponsored agricultural project on a Hmong village. There were many such projects in Thailand at that time. My supervisor also wanted me to look at the impact on the social and cultural aspects of the villagers, not just their economy. Supported by my Ph.D. fellowship, a Greenwell Bequest from the University of Sydney and a small research grant from the Werner-Gren Foundation in New York, I marched off to the sunset to do my field work.

The Search for a Research Site


I arrived in Thailand on 19 November 1976 [2]. After a week to obtain visa and research approval from the National Research Council of Thailand in Bangkok, I came up to Chiangmai where I was introduced to the Tribal Research Centre (TRC) and its staff, about 40 of them – all very friendly and helpful. I did not look for a research site immediately. The TRC Director, the late Khun Wanat Bruksasri, wanted me to become familiar with various government policies and projects among the hill tribes first, before deciding on which location to select for my fieldwork. After two few weeks of reading and orientation, I visited 3 Hmong villages, but found them unsuitable. I then spent two weeks visiting relatives in the new Ban Vinai refugee camp in Loei, where I married my wife.


In mid-January 1977, I met by chance a Burmese Church of Christ missionary, Mr Peter Sutjaibun. He had learned that I was a Hmong from Australia, and he sought my advice on how to set up a hostel in Chiangmai city for Hmong students. He wanted me to write letters to Hmong people in Australia to get financial support. I asked him if he knew any Hmong village with a government development project that I could study.  He told me about Khun Wang where one of his colleagues, a missionary from New Zealand by the name of Patricia Lewis was stationed. He said I should go and see if it was what I wanted. He gave me direction on how to get there, and which bus to take.


On 22 January, I left Chiangmai city to travel to Chomtong where I met Mr Blia Sa Xiong and another elderly Hmong at the market. Blia Sa operated a “rot song-taeo” utility taxi that ran between Chomtong and Khun Klang. After he learned my clan name, he told me that his older brother was married to a Lee woman. Straight away, he started to call me “brother-in-law” (dab laug) and I did the same with him (yawm yij). I was amazed to be so quickly accepted into his kinship circle, after only a short conversation.


From Khun Klang, I went on foot with Blia Sa’s family to their village, Khun Wang. There was no road between these two settlements in those days. From the top of the hill overlooking the village, you could see all the crop experiment terraces developed by the UNPDAC next to the Hmong houses. The UN staff compound was separated from the village by a long wooden fence. I went to stay in the house of the headman, as advised by Yij Blia Sa. I soon found that the headman was related to me through having the same sets of ancestral rituals as my father-in-law. He was busy getting ready for a visit by the late Thai King and the Queen the following day. The place was abuzz with activities, full of soldiers and policemen. I decided that Khun Wang would indeed be the ideal research site for me. The settlement had a population of about 250 people living in 3 villages: Upper Khun Wang with 5 households, Small Khun Wang with 4 households and Main Khun Wang with 21 households (Lee, 1981: 30).


I returned to Chiangmai city to seek permission to do fieldwork at Khun Wang from Mr Richard Mann, the local UNPDAC project manager. He readily agreed, and even advised me about the danger of local food (Diary, 31/01/77). The TRC Director also was happy but asked me to wait another week before going to Khun Wang, as the research officer I was to train for him, still had not arrived from Bangkok.

I am telling all this, not to bore you to tears, but only to show that the search for a research site is often not easy, even with help from many people. In the end, it was a chance meeting with a Burmese missionary that gave me what I was looking for.

Logistics and Equipment: Differences Then and Now

For survival in the field, I bought some rice and boxes of canned meat and vegetables – but only enough to last a few weeks for easy transport. I would have to travel by bus and “song-taeo” taxi to Khun Klang, then use horses to carry my supplies for the rest of the way to Khun Wang.


As for equipment, I had with me an old Pentax 35 mm SLR camera and a big reel-to-reel tape recorder which weighed about 5 kilograms or 10 pounds on loan from the university. I would have to get my own supply of reels and film negatives. I would also need a backpack, and a long measuring tape to measure gardens and farms. Even before starting field work, I found that the tape recorder had decided to pack up. It would play back but not record. I decided to use my own money to buy a smaller and lighter cassette recorder with a radio tuner to listen to my favourite Thai music.


In regard to the old camera, it would work when it wanted to, but would also choose to ruin many photos I took with blurred images or blank shots. Of course, in those days, you did not have digital cameras or smart phones that let you view your images immediately after you take them. You had to have exposed film developed, and it took days before you got the prints back from the photo shop in the city. Only then, would you know if your shots were successful or not. If they were no good, you could not retake again straight away – like you can with today’s more advanced cameras.


For labour assistance in the village, I hired a cook for the first 5 months (at B1,000 per month = B5,000) when my wife was there not with me. A research assistant to help me carry my equipment and do simple survey tasks was also employed (Nai from 19/9/77, then Kua from 5/11/77 to 8 February 1978) also for 5 months. I paid a total of B10,000 for their wages. With housing, my father-in-law came from Ban Vinai and, with the help of some relatives in the village, helped me repair a small vacant house that was given to me by the headman’s younger brother on my first visit to Khun Wang.


Communications were a complex matter when there was no landline or mobile telephones (not yet invented) in Khun Wang, unlike today. The UNPDAC project staff communicated by walky-talky. All written communications were done by snail mail and had to be posted at the nearest town.  There were no personal computers, no emails, no Skype or Facebook Messenger to converse with anyone free at the click of a mouse. All verbal messages were sent through the Hmong language program of the Thai National Public Radio station based in Chiangmai city. I often used this radio station to send messages to the villagers or to my wife. The Hmong staff there were always helpful and friendly, announcers such as Toua Yang, Yeng Lee and Va Xiong. Some even duplicated their Hmong music and songs for me. I am very thankful to them.          

The Field Work

While waiting for my TRC Thai trainee/counterpart, Khun Chupinit, to come from Bangkok, I went with the TRC Director, Mr John McKinnon (the TRC foreign adviser from New Zealand) and other TRC staff to the Mae Taman Tribal Development Centre. There, I had the honour to be presented to the late King Bhumipol Adul-yadeth. I was bestowed a handshake from His Majesty and would always remember this great moment in my life. I finally left Chiangmai city with my wife and Khun Chupinit for Khun Klang on 19 March. We took our food supplies and other necessities on horseback from Khun Klang to Khun Wang, hiring four horses.

One of the basic aims of anthropology is the study of the overall way of life of a people, which should be based as much as possible on the “point of view of the people i.e. the inside view” (Jones, 1970: 252). Being a Hmong studying his own people, I started my field work with very a low-key approach. I did not call a village meeting to avoid causing alarm, like an official. I only told the headman and other clan leaders in personal conversations that I had been away studying in a Western country (Australia) for more than 10 years and had forgotten most of my Hmong culture – which was very true. I wanted to learn to be Hmong again by living and studying with them. I informed them of my desire to see Hmong people having a better life by adopting new ideas, and I wanted to see if the UNPDAC project had made any difference for them. I then began my research, starting with those families who were related to me and who would feel more comfortable answering my questions: the Yang clan (related to my wife) and the Lee (related to myself). This small group was then expanded gradually to all 30 households in the village complex.

I and my Thai counterpart began our research on 21 March 1977, and completed it on 8 February 1978 - a total of 13 months. My counterpart investigated Hmong herbal medicine, from March to October 1977. After October, I asked him to do a second project, a study of government agencies and their outreach activities in Khun Wang. A report was to be submitted on the outcomes of each topic, but only the second report was completed. Due to the lack of housing, he and his wife stayed at the UN staff compound. We arranged to meet weekly to discuss his progress, but we ended up meeting less because he often had to go back to Chiangmai city to do other works at the TRC.

For my part, I focused on “researching everything” as advised by Prof. Geddes, my university supervisor. This “everything” included:

  • Surveying village demography and household compositions.

  • Collecting life histories and drawing up kinship charts for each household.

  • Making daily records of: meals and farm work activities - very intense.

  • Census on domestic animals, household goods, tools, personal possessions.

  • Measuring farms/houses, and counting crops and fruit trees, including those introduced by the UN project.

  • Collecting information on cultural traditions, religious practices and rituals.

  • Studying and making participant-observation of all weddings and funerals. 

  • Taking photos of almost every event, everything and everyone.

In addition, I had to keep a detailed dairy on what happened each day, adding much stress for me. I did not research my topics in any chronological order, because I could only see informants at their convenience. Regardless, after getting to know the village people well I became rather intrusive and would drop in to ask questions of a family every 2-3 days. By April, I managed to complete the village demographic and household surveys. Counting crops in the fields and gardens, and measuring the size of all farms were undertaken in August-September, often with the help of my Hmong research assistant who could do some of this census work on his own.

For methodologies, I used mostly interviews, and a type-written questionnaire to get consistent data. I only recorded on tape cultural and religious information, and life histories. With daily family activities, I only took notes. I attended weddings and funerals for interviews but mostly for observation and to gain hands-on experience. Although I learned many things as I progressed, I did not use much reflexivity as a research method. This only came later when I processed the data in Australia and wrote up my thesis and articles based on the project. Data were collected in both qualitative and quantitative forms, which were used to great benefit in my dissertation. There was no video recording, as video recorders were not yet invented.

Now and then, I took a break to go on visit to my relatives and in-laws in Ban Vinai refugee camp and to get supplies from Chiangmai city. At the end of the project and in true anthropology tradition, I bought a big steer from one of the villagers, and held a feast on 11 January 1978 to thank everyone for their help. I had grown very close to most of the village people, and I addressed everyone with Hmong kinship terms such as uncle, aunt, nephew and niece. The elderly members of the Yang clan called me “son-in-law” and treated me as a close member of the group. Overall, I had not only collected the information I needed, but also made friends and acquired many relatives. I had learned to perform some simple Hmong animist rituals. I became a born-again animist, fully committed to preserving the Hmong culture. Before that, I used to be a Bahai and a Christian.

After the farewell feast, I spent the last 4 days (12 – 15 January 1978) taking photos of every family dressed in their best Hmong costumes – not only for me to keep as souvenir but also for them to remember me and my wife by. I had the photos developed and printed in Chiangmai city and sent them back to the village through my Hmong research assistant who came to see me off. I then went with my wife to Ban Vinai refugee camp to say goodbye to relatives there. I spent my last two weeks back in Chiangmai to tidy up loose ends and to thank the TRC and the UNPDAC staff before returning home to Australia on 1 Mach 1978. Excluding my return airfares (about A$3,000) paid by the University of Sydney, my wedding costs (B12,000) and money gifts to refugee relatives (B6,000), the expenses for my field work totalled B108,935.00 or A$4,190.00 (at the current exchange rate of A1 = B26), or US $3,058 - which looks rather cheap by today’s standard.

Native Anthropology Investigation: Advantages and Drawbacks

Fieldwork outcomes depend on many factors such as: the skills and experiences of the researcher, the methodologies used to collect data, the amount and quality of data, and the resources available for support in terms of time, money and equipment. As an insider researcher, I believe that I had many advantages that assisted in my fieldwork, including:


  1. Using Hmong kinship system to open doors: I already mentioned this approach, which I call the “kinship affinity index” used to make acquaintance and to open doors with Hmong people. When two Hmong persons meet, the first thing they do is to find down how they are related (sib txheeb) at the level of the clan (sharing the same surname or xeem), the sub-clan (sharing the same set of ancestral rituals or dab qhuas) and the lineage (sharing a known ancestor or poj yawm txiv txoob) [3]. The more they have in common, the closer they are related and feel obligated to each other. It happened that my wife was related to the village headman at the first two levels, and I was close to a Lee family in the village in a similar way. This kinship affinity made these families welcome us, and this welcome extended to other families in their group.

  2. Hmong language and cultural competence: speaking the same language as my informants, belonging to the same branch of Hmong (White) and having some basic cultural skills, had allowed trust and rapport to be built quickly. It took no time for me to feel that I was part of the community I was studying. I could communicate with ease, so that the people readily shared with me the information I was after, allowing me access to their houses and farms for surveying.

  3. Education and foreign language skills: having education allowed me to understand things more quickly and easily. My fluency in three foreign languages (Thai, English and French) further added to this ease of communication, and gave me a measure of respect among the village people and UN project staff, especially the foreign managers and consultants. These skills increased my workload, but also helped open doors for me.

  4. Opportunities to be useful to informants and UN project staff by helping them in meetings and activities of mutual benefits: I assisted much with the UN cattle project from April to December 1977 under the Australian consultant, Mr Trevor Gibson who loaned the Hmong 43 cattle. I translated the project contract into Hmong. I interpreted in meetings and smoothed out disagreements. I also interpreted for meetings between villagers and the UN management (Mr S. Mann and Mr I. Williams), US students from Washington University (13/1/78), a missionary from NZ, a health survey team from Chulalongkorn University, Thai adult education officials doing promotion (22/1/78), and an all-day meeting for the Nai Ampher coming to preside over the village headman elections (25/6/77).

  5. Getting assistance from the TRC and the UNPDAC staff: by assisting UN project personnel, I also received help in return from them informally with transport of food supplies by helicopter through Khun Pravit of UNPDAC (7/4/77), obtaining reports and access to photocopying from the TRC to duplicate my village survey schedules/questionnaires (8-9/4/77). The TRC also assisted me on visa matters with Thai Immigration officials.

  6. Resolving family conflicts and dealing with money, gifts and personal issues of informants: I was asked to sort out family disagreements. I made occasional donations and financial loans to those in need – loans that were never repaid. I bought farm goods from villagers. At one time, my house was full of bags of chestnuts bought from local Karen opium addicts. I read and wrote letters for the village young women and their love interests. I also became the village photographer, and spent much money on this luxury. In return, the villagers gave small gifts of vegetables and animal meats such as porcupines, wild pigs and deer from their hunting trips.  

  7. Long-term relationships: I have benefited much from keeping long-tern contacts with my informants. My wife, my children and I have gone back to visit Khun Wang after my field work. After the mobile phone was introduced in the 1990’s, we were able to contact each other more easily when there were emergency situations. Since the first visit back in October 1998, other visits had followed in 2005 and 2008. Phone calls, gifts and financial donations to help with funerals, emergencies and imprisonment, have been made. Our children have also taken great pride in being Hmong in a Western country, after visiting with Australian friends and receiving warm welcome “out of this world”.



Fieldwork experience will be different for each anthropologist, as each comes to know a community from his or her particular perspective (Kumar, 1992: 6). Some many think that I should have just concentrated on my research and not got involved in any side activities that only served to distract and delay. In a sense, this was true. Among the major issues or disadvantages I had to face were:


  1. Old-fashioned approach to fieldwork using classic ethnography: my Ph.D. supervisor was from the old school of English social anthropology which did fieldwork by immersing and living for long periods in a native village, then collecting and recording data on everything that happened there. This took up a lot of time. Although that taught me a lot about the Hmong, I later found that much of what I collected as data (e.g. participant observation on shaman sessions, courtship, weddings and funerals; or recording kinship charts and daily meals) were not relevant to my dissertation on socio-economic change. I should have been more free to select what to focus on, what to omit. A researcher will not be able to reach all sectors of the community (Narayan, 1993: 676). Some individuals or families will feel isolated or turned off.

  2. Too many distractions: (i) helped set up Hmong student hostel in both donations and advice; (ii) duped into giving a confidential report to the UNPDAC program manager in Bangkok who then distributed it for all to see; (iii) frequent requests from young girls to take photos and record traditional courting love songs; (iv) acting as go-between for UNPDAC management and village people; (v) helped with health survey for a UN medical team (3-5 April 1977); (vi) too many visitors coming to gossip/chat with my wife, sometimes 5 persons a day; (vii) took official visitors to see villagers e.g. doctors and adult education inspectors (9/5/77); (viii) arranged interviews for passing two local researchers interested in Christian conversion (23-24/8/77). These activities sometimes made me spread myself too thinly.

  3. Multiple identities: some native anthropologists have found themselves at a disadvantage when one’s education and “academic training complicates” one’s native status – altering class and power relations, and making one increasingly “alien” to one’s native community (Forster 2012: 17). These personal and social differences often make a native researcher assume a “multiplex” identity or a “hybridity” roles combining “being native” with other “personal and professional identities” (Narayan, op.cit.: 681). I faced this issue on many times when government agencies asked for my help not as a villager but an educated Hmong from Australia.

  4. Lack of trust from people in authority: on 25 April 1977, I was hastily recalled to Chiangmai city to face accusation by the TRC Director that I engaged in anti-government activities. A few weeks earlier, the village assistant headman had gone to Ban Vinai refugee camp with me and brought back a refugee visitor to teach Pahaw Hmong alphabet in Khun Wang. No one knew that teaching Hmong to read and write in their own language was seen as anti-government. Although I had nothing to do with it, I was reported to be the ring leader – “hua na”. I had to sign a statement denying the allegation. I was very upset and wrote a strong letter to Prof. Geddes who visited me to sort out the problem with the TRC in June 1977. It was a drawback being a Hmong. I was from Australia but people had little trust in me – just another “Meo” hilltribe person. It may be better for Western “Farang” in Asia. They get more respect.

  5. Cultural sensitivity and political awareness: cultural differences sometimes caused misunderstanding with my counterpart and UN local staff. A carefree laid-back attitude to work and deadline was difficult for me to understand. I was also politically naïve: CPT Hmong insurgents were operating in the area, but I did not know. Village people sometimes told me they had seen some “ghosts” (dab) in the jungle, but I only took that to be a joke, not insurgents until one day I heard a battle in the forest while walking from Khun Klang. During my research, the Thai Border Patrol Police visited Khun Wang twice and the commander came once to ask me questions about my work but they kept themselves very aloof from the Hmong. It only dawned on me how politically sensitive the area was mid-way into fieldwork and no Hmong villagers would obviously dare telling me about insurgents.

  6. Self-survival and political correctness: the UNPDAC started in 1972 and was funded through foreign governments, namely the USA. It had a budget of less than US $1 million a year and must show that it was able to reduce opium growing in Thailand. By 1975, it claimed that “50% of land formerly under opium” were producing alternative cash crops (Lee, 1981: 236). After I actually counted and measured all the opium fields (totalling 49.8 hectares) for the 30 households in Khun Wang, I found little or no change. How the UN came to this 50% estimate was not known, most likely by a foreign consultant standing in the middle of the village and looking at the surroundings through binoculars [4]. I wrote a report with all my facts and figures, and sent it to the UN [5]. I also sent them a copy of my thesis with tables and comments by the villagers and local extension workers. I never heard from them. In 2006, I met Mr Ronald Renard in the USA. He was paid by the UN to write a book on 30 years of opium reduction in Thailand [6]. He apologised for not using my data, but said he hoped I would understand. His book claims that “people won and opium lost” (p.x.). That is true, but guns and soldiers had to be used. This experience shows me that UN agencies are prepared to gloss over things to ensure their own survival. This is another major drawback: political correctness and the use of manipulated statistics in place real facts and figures from actual field work.

  7. Social Distance: being Hmong is fine if you can establish kinship ties with a local Hmong group. If not, you can be seen as an outsider, a Lao Hmong or an American Hmong, depending on where you come from. There will always be some social distance. For an educated Hmong from a Western country, this social distance can be quite obvious in the highlands of Thailand: you dress differently, and you miss the comfort of city life (electricity, tap water, hot shower or toilet). These facilities now exist in Hmong villages, but not during my fieldwork. You took villagers to a movie in town, but they slept through it. You bathed regularly in the cold stream near the village, but you were the only one. These little differences could make life challenging.

  8. Discrimination: when I went to the city with a group of Hmong dressed in their full traditional costumes, shop-keepers (mostly Chinese) made fun of us. They stared, pointed fingers and made racist comments. What would you do? Distance yourself from the Hmong and pretend you are not one of them? Should you feel “up close and personal” and get irritated/emotional (emic), or do you try to be more detached and say it is not your problem (etic)? This is a major dilemma for a native fieldworker. When you do research in the margins of society, you become marginalised like your informants (Gupta and Ferguson, 1997: 25). The question is how much of the insider-outsider researcher you should be: one or the other, or a mixture of both (Narayan, 1993: 679). You have to decide: no one can answer for you.

Regardless of these drawbacks, I had a lot fun doing anthropological field work in Khun Wang in the 1970’s. Among the many important lessons I learned from this experience is the fact that you can research while also being engaged in other undertakings that would benefit your informants such as acting as unofficial adviser to a government community project and helping with other official activities. These non-research distractions may cause disruptions, accountability conflicts and administrative restrictions. But I consider them to be the little things I could do to repay the huge debt I owed to the villagers and the country that let me in to do my research.

Anthropology has been mostly a hobby for me. I had made me well known among students of the Hmong in many countries, but I had not tried to make a living from it. The Khun Wang fieldwork was the beginning of a long journey of exploration and adventures, a journey of hard work and rewards. Since 2000, I have put all my publications in my website, making them freely available to students and anyone interested in the Hmong. There is no point in having your writings hidden in obscure journals or inaccessible books. I am gratified to see that my website has attracted an average of 15 hits a day. It is particularly popular among students and academics in China and the USA. In addition to the website, I have continued to help in other small ways whenever I can: answering emails to give information, arranging research trips and interviews for anyone or group who needs help with their research projects, or commenting on manuscripts if at all possible to ensure correct interpretation and to encourage more publications on the Hmong.

My dream as a native anthropologist was realised in 2008 when I was awarded an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from Concordia University – St Paul for my writings. This together with my own Ph.D completed my long journey that began at Khun Wang. I did not write for financial rewards, but to tell the truth so that Hmong and non-Hmong who read my writings know it is real Hmong people I am talking about. What a native anthropologist writes has to have benefits and meaning for his or her own people as well as for readers and other researchers (Medicine, 2001: xxiv). My aim with my writings is to bring understanding, appreciation and acceptance of the Hmong. I hope I have achieved most of my goals over the years. After the field work, how much contact to maintain with your research subjects is a matter for each researcher: long-term vs “hit and run” (Narayan, 1993: 677). For me, I am forever hooked on Khun Wang and will keep in touch with my former informants, my Hmong relatives, for as long as I live.


I want to reiterate my debt to the Hmong people by quoting from my acceptance speech given at the banquet hosted by the Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University – St Paul, MN, USA, on 11 March 2006 when I was given the Eagle Award for lifetime contributions to Hmong studies:

“The Hmong do not hold back once they know that I am one of them. They always open their doors to me. Even though many are poor, they insist on sharing their meals with me just as I am excited to record their memories and knowledge down on tapes or on paper, to taste their kindness and to return their generosity. In my search for knowledge from them over the years, I have learned one important lesson: the Hmong never ask for anything in return for the time and the information they share with me, but I also try never to just take from them. I always give as well…” [7].


This is a tribute to my Hmong informants, and it is true everywhere I go. As I have retired, this presentation today may be a swan song or farewell note for me. I am glad I have come to this conference. I am also happy to see we now have many younger scholars on the Hmong, especially in the USA. Some of you have already introduced critical Hmong studies into courses in American universities (8). This will help lay the foundation for changes in Hmong society, but any changes must be related to the present and the past. They must encourage our students and young people “to see the validity and importance” in the wisdom of their tribal traditions (9). Critical studies must build bridge between our future and our own history, not something foreign borrowed from other cultures. That is why I went back to practising animism long ago. Khun Wang had given me the opportunity to witness, to experience the essence and the profound meaning of Hmong religion: the need to live in harmony with nature, the benevolent dependence between the living and the dead in one’s kinship group, the promotion of personal mental health and physical well-being through ritual performances which also serve to strengthen community bonding and mutual support.  How can I be Hmong if I reject such significant Hmong traditions? It is no good to anyone if you resent or are embarrassed about your ethnic identity. You should find out the truth and take pride. If the truth is not something you like, do something to change it.


Older scholars who have retired like myself, Dr Yang Dao and Dr Kou Yang (both of whom we are lucky to have with us here today), have done our share to lead the way. I hope younger educated Hmong will follow our path and be even more successful. Above all, keep writing and sharing your thoughts and your research results. An American Indian activist, the late Vine Deloria Jr (1999), once said that “the white man has ideas, the Indian has visions…”. The Hmong must try to have both – ideas as well as visions, big or small. The voice and perspective of the “subaltern”, those who live under more powerful people, must not be silenced. I hope that our younger scholars will be active not only in your research but also in empowering the oppressed, especially our young and our women. A very important sign of success in life is to be able to give of yourself, to be generous with your time and energy to help others. There is no point having an education if you do not give of yourself to others in their hours of need. Work hard, but don’t forget to enjoy yourself; and if possible, try to make some money along the way so you will have a comfortable life.


Finally, I find it ironic that we talk about Hmong things to Hmong people at a Hmong conference, but we do it only in English. I am the first to admit my guilt in this process, because my writings are also all in English, even my name. We want to promote understanding and a vibrant Hmong culture, but we do not do it in our native tongue. We may get the message across to our English-speaking friends. But what about our people? Our educated people have been so educated in the ways of those in power that we risk becoming irrelevant to our own community. Some of us even deny that they are Hmong. The submissive “subaltern” mentality dominates our thinking and our activities. The struggle for emancipation will have to keep going. For this shameful failure, I want to apologise to those members of our audience today who may not understand what I have been saying in this address – in English.


Before closing, I want to thank my wife, May Lee, for her love and constant support – especially during the Khun Wang fieldwork. Marrying her in Ban Vinai refugee camp after only three days of meeting was the best stroke of luck for me. We used our time at Khun Wang to get to know each other. I would not have achieved what I have, if not for her devotion. As she once said, she has “a small body but a large brain” and, I may add, a big heart – as can be attested by many of you who have visited us in Australia.


To the Hmong of Khun Wang and all the people who helped me during my fieldwork such as the staff of the now defunct TRC and the UNPDAC, especially my good friend, Trevor Gibson, the Australian cattle expert, I will forever remember your kind assistance. You had given me so much: your hospitality, your wisdom and information, and the honour and fame you had made it possible for me achieve. All these precious gifts I will never be able to repay, and I would like to thank everyone “ua tsaug ntau ntau dua thiab” once again from the depth of my heart.


I thank you all this morning for your patience and for listening to me, and I wish everyone much success in the future. I look forward to reading many more publications on the Hmong from you. Ua tsaug sawv daws tuaj mloog kuv hais lus hnub no, thiab thov txim uas kuv tsis tau hais ua lus Hmoob.



  • Deloria Jr, V. 1999. Quotes in . Accessed 25 December 2016.

  • Forster, A. 2012. “We Are All Insider-Outsiders: a Review of Debates Surrounding Native Anthropology”, Student Anthropologist, 3 (1):  13-26.

  • Geddes, W.R. 1967. “The Tribal Research Centre, Thailand: an Account of Plans and Activities”, in Kunstadter, P. ed. Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities and Nations. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Volume 2.

  • ______  1970. “Opium and the Miao: a Study in Ecological Adjustment”, Oceania, September, 41 (1): 1–11.

  • ______  1976. Migrants of the Mountains: the Cultural Ecology of the Blue Miao (Hmong Njua) of Thailand . Oxford: Clarendon Press.

  • Gupta, A. and Ferguson, J. 1997. “Discipline and Practice: “The Field” as Site, Method and Location in Anthropology”, in Gupta, A. and Ferguson, J. eds. Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Jones, D. J. 1970. “Towards a Native Anthropology”, Human Organization, Winter, 29(4): 251-259.

  • Kumar, N. 1992. Friends, Brothers and Informants: Fieldwork Memoirs of Banaras. Berkeley: University of California Press.

  • Kuwayama, T. 2004. Native Anthropology: The Japanese Challenge to Western Academic Hegemony. Melbourne: Trans Pacific Press.

  • Lee, G. Y. 1981. The Effects of Development Measures on the Socio-economy of the White Hmong. Department of Anthropology, University of Sydney, Ph.D. Dissertation.

  • ______  1994-95. “The Religious Presentation of Social Relationships: Hmong World View and Social Structure”. Lao Studies Review, Issue No.2: 44- 60. Available at Accessed 22 December 2016.

  • ______  2006. “Eagle Award Acceptance Speech”, First International Hmong Conference Banquet, 10-11 March. Available at

  • Medicine, B. 2001. Learning to be an Anthropologist and Remaining “Native”: Selected Writings. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

  • Mughal, M. A. Z. 2015. “Being and Becoming Native: a methodological enquiry into doing anthropology at home”, Anthropology Notebooks,  21(1): 121-132.

  • Narayan, K. 1993. “How Native is a ‘Native’ Anthropologist?”, American Anthropologist. September, 5(3): 671-686

  • Ranco, D. 2006. “Toward a Native Anthropology: Hermeneutics, Hunting Stories and Theorizing from Within”, Wicazo SA Review, Fall, pp. 61-78.

  • Renard, R. 2001. Opium Reduction in Thailand 1970-200: A Thirty-Year Journey. Chiangmai: UNDCP/Silkworm Books.

  • Smith, L. T. 2012. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research ad Indigenous Peoples. Dunedin:  Otago University Press.

  • Wilcox, H., Schein, L., Vang, P.D., Chiu, M., Pegues, J. H. and Vang, M. “Displacing and Disrupting: a Dialogue on Hmong Studies and Asian American Studies”, Hmong Studies Journal, Vol. 16: 1-24.


  1. I told the story in more detail in my acceptance speech, 11 March 2006, when I received the Eagle Award for outstanding commitment and contribution to the field of Hmong studies, by the Center for Hmong Studies, Concordia University – St. Paul, Minnesota, USA.

  2. I was advised by Prof. Geddes to keep detailed diaries on all my field activities. This paper is based on 3 volumes of these diary records spanning from 18 November 1976 to 1 March 1978, a total of 16 months.

  3. See Lee (1994-95).

  4. There were similar examples told to me by Thai extension workers. See Lee (1981) for details.

  5. See Lee (1978) “Tribal Socio-economic Change: Dream and Reality” at

  6. See in Reference list.

  7. Lee (2006), p. 4.

  8. See Wilcox et. al. (2015). The need for a good grasp of the real meanings of Hmong traditions is crucial for any critical study. The observation in this discussion regarding the meaning of the chicken blessing or Lwm Qaib ceremony for a new bride before she enters the house of the groom as being a ritual to “obliterate” her clan identity, is most disturbing. All the ceremony does, is to bless the bride and welcome her into the spiritual domain of the groom.

  9. See “Vine Deloria Jr.”, in New World Encyclopedia at,_Jr.

How It All Began
The Search for a Research Site
Logistics and Equipment
The Field Work
Native Anthropology
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