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Hmongs and Jews: 2 Far-Flung Cultures Celebrate Similarities

Times Staff Writer

It was a study in contrasts.

One table at the rear of the auditorium offered a lunch of rice and wheat with a coconut desert called “Namvan.” Another table featured lox and bagels. In the lobby gallery, a sale of colorful Laotian needlework vied for attention with a silver menorah and a ram’s horn.

Onstage, a group of Jewish kindergartners sang songs in Hebrew, followed by a woman dressed in traditional Laotian garb who sang a song in her native tongue. The lyrics told of her people’s oppression and ultimate flight from their homeland after it was overun by communists.

That was where the contrasts at the Long Beach Community Center began fading into commonality.

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Similar to Flight From Germany

“It’s something like what we went through,” said Lotte Schwarz, a native of Germany who arrived in the United States as a refugee in 1948. “Their country was overrun by communists and mine was overrun by Hitler.”

And so two seemingly disparate cultures came together in celebration, not only of their differences, but of their similarities. In a dramatic departure from tradition, the center--part of a movement founded near the turn of the century to help Jewish immigrants assimilate into American society--had rolled out its welcome mat Sunday to one of America’s newest immigrant groups: the Hmongs of Laos, an agrarian mountain tribe that supported the United States during the Vietnam war and subsequently had to flee.

According to Lynne Rosenstein, program director for the Jewish Community Center and one of the event’s organizers, the gathering--attended by some 250 people, including about 40 Hmongs--had at least two purposes. One was to create a bridge of understanding between the newly arrived group and the group that had begun arriving nearly 100 years before. Another was to begin a working relationship with the Hmong community of Long Beach--here since the mid-1970s and now numbering about 1,200--to offer it the benefits of the earlier group’s experience.

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Offered as a Role Model

“The Jewish community is very effectively organized after only four generations,” said Rosenstein. “We would like them to use us as a role model if they want to.”

Said Ter Fong Yang, president of the Hmong Assn. of Long Beach which is attempting to do for the Hmong people what the early Jewish Community Centers did for the Jews: “It is very important to get together to learn from each other’s cultures. This is a new society and we can learn from this group how they survived.”

But there was a more immediate purpose to the gathering, and it had to do with art and commerce--specifically with the creation of a forum in which local Hmong artisans and craftsmen may showcase and sell their native art.

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“It’s gorgeous,” said Doris Jacobson, the center’s adult staff worker, of the intricate needlework called “pandau” traditionally created by Hmong women.

It was this and other crafts, in fact, that first brought the Long Beach Hmong people to the attention of the Jewish Community Center earlier this year during an exhibit and sale of their work at the Long Beach Museum of Art.

“They were selling their treasures,” recalled Rosenstein. “It reminded us of when Jews came to this country and sold ritual items like menorahs and candlesticks for next to nothing just to feed their families.”

Exhibit to End Nov. 7

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Concerned that history would repeat itself, a group of local art patrons--including one member of the Jewish Community Center--began working with the Hmong women to establish fair market prices for their works and to encourage them to keep family heirlooms while producing other items specifically for sale. One outcome was the exhibit at the center--which ends Nov. 7--featuring an array of colorful pieces including pillow covers, wall hangings, bedspreads, aprons, tablecloths and bookmarks priced from $4 to $750. Some of them depict, in picture form, the flight of the Hmong people from their homeland with bombers in hot pursuit.

Although so far the work seems to have retained most of its native ethnic quality, said Claudia Wishnow, there is some danger that it could eventually be corrupted by purely commercial interests. “My personal concern is that they really need to be trained how to market their own work so that they aren’t exploited, so nobody comes in and turns it into some kind of folk art industry,” said Wishnow, a docent of the Museum of Art as well as member of the Jewish Community Center’s art committee.

Already, she said, she had noticed that some of the local Hmong works were beginning to lose their original brilliant colors in favor of the more muted blues and beiges which, she believes, the artists had been told Americans prefer. As an antidote to such commercial corruption, she said, Hmong works should be displayed only in a cultural context such as that created at the center so that those seeing them will appreciate their origins.

Sellers Got Full Value

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Although the center took its usual 25% commission from sale of the works in its gallery, according to Rosenstein, the commission was tacked onto the price asked by the artisans so that the Hmong women would get full value for their work. This week’s sale and cultural sharing, she said, were intended to be the first of many such contacts between two cultures that, besides their immigrant pasts, share many characteristics including an interest in education and strong family ties.

Both sides saw the development as positive.

“We haven’t seen them before,” said Chueyi Yang, 13, describing her previous relationship to the Jewish community.

Perhaps now, added the local 7th-grader, all that would change.

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Said Rosenstein: “There is a need for all of the ethnic communities in Long Beach to work together. It’s real important that people understand each other so that they can live together.”


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