Interview with Ka Zoua Kong-Thao

Ka Zoua Kong-Thao

St. Paul, Minnesota is now recognized as the American city with the largest concentration of Hmong people. The influx of Hmong has fundamentally transformed the region socially, politically, economically, and demographically. For example, Minnesota elected the first Hmong state legislator in the country. The areas of Frogtown and the Lake Phalen corridor have become thriving centers of Hmong American economic development and history.  Hmong New Year festivals, soccer tournaments, and other events are attended by tens of thousands of Hmong every year, usually while the rest of St. Paul goes about its everyday routine. While some inroads have been made, the vast majority of non-Hmong, and even many US-born Hmong, don’t know the story of the Secret War that brought them here, and as a result, St. Paul remains a city often unnecessarily divided. This project hopes to encourage an understanding and appreciation of the forces that led to the US’s involvement in Southeast Asia, the CIA’s recruitment of the Hmong, the events that forced the Hmong out of Laos and into refugee camps in Thailand, and the reasons why about 60,000 Hmong people now live in St. Paul.

 

The current generation of Hmong youth has served as human bridges between American culture and their elders. They have served a vital role that, unfortunately, has also created distance, even alienation between themselves and their elders. At the same time, they are pressured to do well in school, and to work to help support themselves and their families. They have often heard fragments of stories about their elders' lives in Laos and Thailand, but the busyness of attending school, working, dating, having a social life, coping with being "different," etc. makes it difficult to act on any potential desire or interest they may have to explore their cultural heritage or their new American heritage. Their story in Laos and Thailand is inextricably linked to their story in the Twin Cities, because so many Hmong people live here—currently about 60,000. Nonetheless, the Hmong are still an "alien" and “unsettling" presence to many non-Hmong in St. Paul. This has been exacerbated by an incident in Wisconsin in November 2004, when Chai Soua Vang, under circumstances that will remain a mystery, shot eight hunters, six of whom died. A key to both the reclamation of Hmong culture and identity by the Hmong youth of St. Paul, as well as a more realistic and healthy understanding between the Hmong and non-Hmong members of the Twin Cities community, is a familiarity with the events and policies that led to the Hmong's recruitment by the United States to serve as an insurgency force in Laos, the Hmong contributions to the war effort, the US's pull-out from Southeast Asia, that departure's effect on the Hmong people, the reasons for their presence in St. Paul, and the successes they have enjoyed, as well as the challenges they have experienced in their new home.