In Laos, the celebration of the Hmong New Year spans up to 15 days. In La Crosse, the festivities last a weekend, but the food, clothing and sports retain the rich traditions of the deeply rooted event.
Coulee Region celebrants observed the Hmong New Year, held in the fall to mark the end of the harvest season in Laos, with a grand celebration Saturday, and the revelry continues today at Veterans Memorial Park. Hmong New Year has been celebrated in La Crosse for 43 years, beginning in 1975 with the immigration of Lao natives to the U.S. Hmong elders Wa Chong Vang and his wife, Niam Me, were this year’s guests of honor.
In Laos, the Hmong New Year takes place in November or December, when the last of the produce has been plucked from the garden and the year comes to a close. Stateside, Hmong New Year is held in early fall to accommodate outdoor recreation, and shortened in duration to accommodate the traditional work week. The festival weekend draws more than 5,000 people from three states each year.
“The reason why we want to hold Hmong New Year is to pass traditions on to the younger generations,” said Tony Yang, vice president of the Hmoob Cultural and Community Agency. “People are so busy they don’t have time, and this is an opportunity to talk about traditions and be with family.”
Traditionally, families celebrated Hmong New Year both privately and with members of their village, and many in the La Crosse area continue to have a house ceremony in mid-November to close out one year and welcome the next.
Yang enjoys the many customs highlighted during the weekend, with the singing of folk songs, traditional dances and music, and playing of popular sports bringing back memories. Tournaments featuring flag football, volleyball, top-spinning and Kato, a combination of volleyball and soccer played with a hollow ball made from woven bamboo, all went on while hundreds rotated between games of soccer.
While sports were not played in the mountains of Laos, soccer was popular in the city and introduced to those from farming regions at refugee camps. The game remains a mainstay in Hmong culture in the U.S.
Food was abundant at the festival, with chicken dishes, dozens of flavors of bubble tea and an assortment of fresh dragon fruit, mangoes and citrus. Many of the festival attendees were clothed in traditional garments, headpieces and jewelry, with a crowd trying on and purchasing outfits from Seng Thao, a designer and seamstress from Wausau.
Thao’s tent was filled to the brim with hundreds of brightly colored garments and accessories. She imports dresses from Thailand, Laos and China, and makes her own in the Green Hmong style. The process is time-consuming, requiring immaculate detail and stitching. She has perfected her skills during the past 18 years, and delights in the faces of the young girls who try one on for the first time, always offering them a special discount.
Illanya Lor, 9, of La Crosse proudly wore her “pretty” ensemble while taking part in pov pob, or ball toss, a game of courtship and flirtation in which a male and female toss a ball back and forth to observe each other’s disposition and agility. Often, the game is accompanied by singing songs called kwv txhiaj. While Lor was playing simply for fun, Yang says the game results in love connections for many.
“Relationships are always a big part of Hmong New Year,” Yang said. “In Laos, people are so busy working on the farms they don’t find time to meet. The ball toss I do think has people meet their (partner). Especially the young people.”
Sia Xiong, 35, of St. Paul is proof of the romantic powers of ball toss. Four years ago, she partook in a friendly match with a man named Shoua. Throwing the ball back and forth in the grass at Hmong New Year, she didn’t have an instant attraction, but the rules of game led to some quality time and ultimately sparks.
“He wasn’t cute at all, but he lost, and whoever loses buys lunch,” Xiong said. “We talked more and liked each other.”
The two later married, and yesterday Xiong played ball toss with her brother, Tobee, and friends in the same patch of grass were she met her match.
“It’s fun and makes me happy to see lots of relatives and old friends and meet people,” Xiong said.
Yang enjoys seeing the thousands of faces old and new each year, and encourages all to partake in the festivities and learn more about their Hmong neighbors.
“It is important for people to know Hmong people live in this community and they are also contributing to this community,” Yang said. “We are going to be here for a long time.”
Hmong New Year closed out Saturday night with a concert at the La Crosse Center, and the event continues today from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Park, N4668 County Road VP, West Salem. Admission is $15 per car.