A Hmong War Story Unfolds


On See Lee's quilt, there are soldiers embroidered in black. The fighting men, bayonets raised, chase terrified people through a forest dotted with skeletons.

Lower, in another part of her work, people cross a wide river on rubber rafts into a camp filled with bunkers. And lower still on the panel, they line up to board airplanes en route to a new world.

Lee's pictures tell the story of the Hmong, a tribe of Laotian mountain dwellers who supported the United States in the Vietnam War and thereby suffered at the hands of the North Vietnamese. Persecuted and often killed, many Hmong escaped to refugee camps in Thailand, and from there, ultimately, to new lives in America.

Her pictures also tell the story of Lee herself, a 48-year-old Hmong who learned needlework from her mother beginning at age 5. She, like many other Hmong women, used the skill in her years in Thailand to document the tragedy that befell her family and her people.

Some of her works will be displayed at the Homeland Neighborhood Cultural Center in Long Beach from Sept. 2 to Oct. 29 as part of the Los Angeles Festival.

"Old people know the stories, but young people do not," Lee says of the personal and cultural saga depicted in her work. "When I tell my children the stories of Laos, sometimes I cry."

Her tears began in 1970 when her husband, a pilot fighting the North Vietnamese, was shot down and killed. She had two young sons at the time. One day, while she and her boys were in a neighboring city selling personal goods to survive, Vietnamese soldiers came to her house. "They burned everything," she says. "My house, my clothing--everything was on fire. We were very poor."

Three years later, she married again, this time to an infantryman who also opposed the North Vietnamese invasion. When he was wounded, the family decided enough was enough.

Hiding in the mountains by day and walking by night through enemy-occupied villages, they slowly made their way to Lao City, a trip that ordinarily took 12 hours by bus.

Eventually, she says, the family escaped to Thailand, where they spent four years in a refugee camp living amid "lots of mosquitoes, like people in jail."

There, working by candlelight, Lee began weaving her stories into cloth.

Once there was a time, she says, when all Hmong women practiced the needleworker's art, called pandau. For hundreds of years, she says, Hmong women had used it to create clothes ranging from the practical (shirts and pants) to the ceremonial (elaborate wedding and burial gowns decorated in characteristic flowery patterns of black, red, green, yellow, blue and white). They also used it occasionally to create wall hangings and story quilts depicting religious myths and legends.

During the refugee camp years, however, the focus of the Hmong handcraft changed. It was a time when news of political events in Southeast Asia was a valuable commodity, often distorted or repressed to serve political leaders' needs.

To ensure that their stories would not be forgotten, many Hmong needleworkers began weaving to capture recent events. "It's an important record," says Judith Luther, executive director of the Los Angeles Festival and an expert on Southeast Asian art. "Because the Hmong people have no written language, this could be the only record they have of their history."

While some efforts are being made to encourage master Hmong needleworkers such as Lee to pass their skills on to the next generation, the efforts have met with limited success, experts say.

"When you live in the mountains or a camp, the time is endless and needlework is a very meditative way of passing (it)," says Josine Ianco-Starrels, the festival's visual arts curator. "I don't think the kids have that kind of patience any more."

Luther observes: "Hmong young people have found new ways of buying clothes and making a living. They can make more money working at Jack in the Box."

In 1979, Lee's family finally made it to America--to Long Beach, where she and her husband share a large two-story house with their seven children, ranging in age from 9 to 22.

Here she has continued her work. But, like many other Hmong needleworkers, she has shifted toward using muted colors and practical designs that she believes will appeal more to Americans.

And because she has, to some extent, gotten caught up in the stress-filled life of her adopted country, Lee says, she often works in the wee hours when the children sleep and the house is quiet.

She, among other things, teaches pandau workshops in Los Angeles County schools and has a piece on display at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum. She also has received grants from arts groups and has had her work shown at community colleges.

Next month's exhibition at the homeland center will be a family affair. The "Hmong Family Exhibition" will feature heirloom tapestries and story quilts not only by Lee but also by her mother, grandmother and sister. There will be photographs, traditional Hmong musical instruments, recordings of the Lee women singing traditional Hmong songs, and, on Oct. 14 at the nearby FHP Hippodrome Gallery, a performance by Lee family musicians and dancers.

On display will be one quilt by a younger artist: Kalia Her, 18. She is Lee's daughter, an All-American high school student who has been in this country since age 5.

Kalia's quilt, produced under the tutelage of her mother courtesy of a grant from the California Arts Council, begins where Lee's leaves off--with a group of refugees, presumably the Lee family, arriving with their luggage at a U.S. airport.

Later in the panel, they are shown standing in long lines at the local welfare office; dealing with a policeman imparting unfamiliar rules; leaving paths of pebbles en route to the market so they can find their way home; waving goodby to children departing in yellow school buses; and, finally, succeeding as doctors, plumbers, lawyers, accountants and models.

"It's what their dreams are," Kalia explains, referring to the vision of her parents. "At the end, there's us--my brothers and sisters. They are dreaming of us becoming higher, educated people and hopefully that will come true."

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