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New Year, Old Customs : 3-Day Hmong Festivities Usher In Good Fortune, Celebrate Culture’s Traditions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 800 people from Southern California’s Hmong community joined in a rare New Year’s celebration Thursday that included food, folk dancing and music.

“For people like us,” said event organizer Chong Ge Vang, “we don’t have our own town, a city or a place. We need to keep these celebrations alive so that our children can appreciate our past.”

Vang said the Hmong are proud of their new home here and kicked off the event by playing the national anthem as the large audience rose to its feet and then played the Laotian anthem as people remained standing.

Cutting symbolic ribbons to officially begin three days of festivities at Rancho Santiago College was Ly Tou Pao, 60, a former colonel in the Laotian royal army who now lives in Fountain Valley.

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Pao, who exhorted Hmong youth to “attain their best by continuing their education,” is regarded as Orange County’s recognized Hmong leader.

It is the first time in nearly a decade that Orange County’s Hmong community has sponsored the celebration. Vang said Hmong people usually travel with their families to Fresno, San Diego or Long Beach, where larger celebrations are held.

Of the 6,000 Hmong who emigrated to the United States with the first wave of Vietnamese and settled in Orange County, only about 2,000 remain. Many have moved on to farming communities in the state’s Central Valley.

Most, like Pao, emigrated after the collapse of the Laotian government, when they feared retribution for aiding the CIA during the Vietnam War.

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The Hmong, originally from China, are part of an ancient culture. A nomadic people, they settled in a number of places, including Laos and Myanmar (formerly Burma). They found that in remote hills and mountains they could preserve their traditions. They lived essentially cut off from others and only recently adopted a written language.

At the festivities, young women showed off finely crafted hand-embroidered clothing, heavy with silver coins and plastic beads.

In their homeland, the Hmong celebrate the new year at the end of November or early in December. They have adjusted the date to coincide with the U.S. holiday season and mark the event by honoring deceased elders and discarding the year’s misfortunes so the new year will be prosperous.

On Thursday, many young men and women took turns tossing a ball to each other. It traditionally is a form of courtship, said the Rev. Nao Chu Mouanoutua, from the Lao Evangelical Church in Santa Ana.

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“In the Hmong culture, tossing the ball helps to start communication with another person,” the minister said. “If you see someone you like, you might also exchange a gift. In that way, you are starting off the new year by meeting someone different.”

But among the younger generation, such as Maikou Lee, 16, of Long Beach, tossing the ball was just a way of making friends or saying hello to strangers. She was garbed in traditional, hand-embroidered dress laden with coins that her mother had sewn. Coins, apart from their beauty and jangling sound when the women walk, also were a sign of wealth in Laos, Maikou said.

“We don’t have that many holidays,” she said, “so for us, New Year’s is like Thanksgiving and Christmas all at once.”

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State Assemblyman Jim Morrissey (R-Santa Ana), who attended and remained to playfully toss the ball, said he found the celebration fascinating and “an education.”

“This has been delightful,” Morrissey said. “I was thinking about the Asians that have come here and work hard to make a living. It’s kind of what Thanksgiving is all about.”

Santa Ana Police Lt. Bill Tegeler, who represented Chief Paul M. Walters and the department, said he found the event’s traditional theme inspiring.

“I also liked the good mix of having the young and the old mingle together and [Pao’s] message about school to the younger Hmong children,” Tegeler said.

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Ko Vang, 24, of Santa Ana, brought her three children, including her youngest, 5-month-old August.

“This is the first time we’ve had a celebration in Orange County in a long time and I’m glad,” she said. “You know, tradition calls for us to celebrate by cooking chickens or a pig at home. But no way am I going to do that.

“We enjoy the new year because it gives us a chance to get rid of sickness, bad situations and bad things from the previous year and only look forward to good fortune.”

The event continues with folk dancing and food booths today and Saturday at Rancho Santiago College amphitheater from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The event is free.

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