Hmong culture in La Crosse faced a crossroads in 2003.
The building on Ward Avenue and Mormon Coulee Road that the Hmong community had been renting for special events, including traditional funeral services, was about to be sold. There wasn’t a suitable space elsewhere in La Crosse.
ChongCher Lee, then board president of the local Hmong Mutual Assistance Association, consulted with clan representatives, elders and community advisers.
“We felt the Hmong community had to come together to buy the building,” said Lee, 54, of La Crosse, who organized a fundraising plan for the building that now houses the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency.
He was recognized for his leadership at a national gathering of the Hmong community earlier this spring.
The Hmong believe in reincarnation. Having a space to hold their funerals doesn’t just keep Hmong culture alive, Lee said, it was a necessary practice to ensure the success of future generations.
“There’s a process, when we die, our souls have to go back to Laos,” Lee said. “That’s where we originated.”
Without proper funeral rites, the souls of the deceased would wander, trapped between reincarnation cycles, Lee said. They could even bring bad omens on family members who failed to help them find their way home.
The Hmong community pooled their resources to take out a mortgage, Lee said. Additional grants and fundraising supported the building and its activities.
Since then, the center has become a cultural hub for the Hmong. It’s a place to gather for celebrations, weddings, educational programs and funerals.
Hmong funerals are large, elaborate affairs. Family, extended family and friends come from far and wide to pay their respects to the deceased. It’s not unusual for a couple hundred people to attend a funeral, Lee said.
The service can span two to three days, with guests coming in and out. Family members prepare food for everyone, Lee said, which is why a large space with a kitchen is needed.
During the funeral service, a special ritual guides the soul of the departed back to his or her ancestral homeland.
A person leading the ritual “points the way” through an oral history that links the deceased person from La Crosse to Laos, Lee said. Music played on the qeej, a reed instrument, helps the dead communicate with the living.
The Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency not only hosts funerals, it also trains cultural practitioners to conduct funerals and play the qeej, Lee said. There are also programs that provides job development, health care, translation, and immigration services.
A big focus now is creating social opportunities for elders who feel isolated by language and cultural barriers, both at home and in the wider community, Lee said.
Lee was one of five Hmong individuals recognized at the annual Hmong National Development Conference in April.
He was nominated by Tony Yang, president of the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency.
“When we heard that he got (the award), we were very happy, very proud,” Yang said. “Because of (Lee’s) leadership, because of what he has done, we think that he deserves the recognition. He never gave up, he always wants the best for the Hmong community, the La Crosse community.
The recognition also means a lot to the local Hmong community, Yang said, because it “puts the city of La Crosse on the map” for people outside the Wisconsin area.
The award doesn’t belong to him alone, Lee said.
The Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency would not have been possible without support from the Hmong community, the wider La Crosse community, and local and state organizations, Lee said. “It represents the cohesiveness of the community coming together.”
Jennifer Lu is the La Crosse Tribune environmental reporter. You can reach her by phone at 608-791-8217 and by email firstname.lastname@example.org.