Hmong Diaspora Placemaking as Cultural Refuge

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Places provide a common sense of territorial identity for migrants, refugees, and diaspora communities despite these groups having roots elsewhere. The activities of these communities question how we think about place and the fixity of boundaries of ‘here’ and ‘there’, and what it means to dwell in place. A central theme of these experiences is a longing for homeland, while the specific site for placemaking is the actual home, dwelling, or geographical community.

Diasporas have an innate tie to territory due to associations with cultural identity, including its construction and maintenance. This territorial basis includes relationships between sending and receiving regions, as well as processes of deterritorialization and reterritorialization of people and places for different purposes. The term “translocal placemaking” captures this dynamic, considering the role of both local and extralocal policies and actions in shaping the character of places. Territorialization processes are important inasmuch as they register the relationship between people, place, and identity.

 

The Hmong Diaspora

Historically, Hmong refugee diasporas were territorialized in the United States through macro-level planning policies shaping resettlement patterns. The initial waves of Hmong refugees entering the United States were administered under the Immigration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1975 and the Refugee Act of 1980, both policies implementing the dispersal policy to limit the number of Hmong in any one city. The dispersal policy was justified as an attempt to increase the rapidity of acculturation, lessen the burden of refugee services on any single municipality, and avoid the formation of ethnic enclaves (Miyares 1998). However, the Hmong’s strong clan structure has served as a deterrent against the U.S. government’s dispersal policy that scattered members of newly arrived refugee groups across the United States. Resisting this policy, Hmong refugees left their host families and original locations, engaging in secondary migrations to reconnect with other Hmong, especially where there existed a strong migration infrastructure of organizations, social welfare benefits, and refugee services. Correspondingly, a constellation of territorial communities emerged in California and Minnesota, and on smaller scales, a few locations elsewhere.

Perhaps reflective of the Hmong’s diasporic history, their seminomadic villages, and the importance of their strong kinship structure, the Hmong word for home—tsev— does not refer to a geographic location but one’srelationship to family and clan leadership (Miyares 1997, 216). The Hmong kinship structure has, and continues to be in diaspora, ordered through exogamous patrilineal clan affiliation. The clan structure provides a system of social reproduction, “fostering a sense of group unity as a value” (Hein 2006, 69). Some scholars argue that the Hmong clan system acts as a “space challenging mechanism,” allowing for homogenous clan communities across long distances and borders, “acting against locality and nation”, while organizing local social and economic relations (Trapp 2010, 210).

The Hmong’s unique clan structure has enabled place-to-place relations, which has further strengthened translocal ties through a few placemaking practices as a form of cultural refuge. One example is a weekly farmers market in Sacramento, California, which facilitates economic and cultural reproduction of the Hmong through localized and emplaced practices. A self-described “Asian Market” on the site of an abandoned gas station, operating at the boundaries of local codes and regulations, has become a regular event where the Hmong have interpreted, for their own purposes, site-specific conditions and norms of the ubiquitous farmer’s market. Another example of translocal placemaking is an annual New Year’s celebration, which serves as a site of exchange among the larger diaspora community and is a vital component of Hmong-specific community and economic development, despite the absence of policymakers in helping to facilitate this ongoing event. Moreover, it is the social and cultural reproduction of the Hmong through ritualized and emplaced practices such as courtship, pageants, and sporting events that serve as the basis for maintaining economic relations. Both events rely on the Hmong’s translocal circuits to facilitate the flow of knowledge and practices, but these circuits have also built the capacity of the Sacramento Hmong community as a whole.

 

Placemaking Practices and Circuits of Solidarity

In Sacramento, California, a weekly farmer’s market that has been operating for more than twenty-five years illustrates that translocal circuits come together as an assemblage of emplaced practices in a site. Known as the Asian Market, it is within a block’s distance from the former Central Market, Sacramento’s largest weekly farmers market that took place under the I-50 freeway until the early 2020s. In addition to providing a viable income for many Hmong families, the Asian Market serves a social purpose, especially for Hmong elders that visit weekly with one another. Early Sunday morning, the market’s flow of commerce begins with the manager selling live chickens from his truck, followed by approximately twenty Hmong vendors that set up tables under portable tents to sell Asian produce ranging from Thai basil and peppers to eggplants, melons, and Chinese squash. What later came to be known as the Asian Market began operating in the mid-1980s as an informal market without any permits. In 2005, an off-duty health inspector noticed the selling of slaughtered chickens and subsequently notified the city to bring the market into conformance with local land use ordinances. Since then, the market has been classified as a Mobile Food Facility rather than a certified market, which enables Hmong vendors to sell what is grown from a farm, a backyard, or produce bought elsewhere, as well as live chickens. Because of the growing popularity of the Asian Market, a number of safety concerns were also raised about the use of the adjacent street, leading to further negotiations between the then city planning commissioner, vendors, and city staff to hire off-duty police officers to close the street, thus expanding the market space beyond the confines of the property.

The site of the Asian Market is an abandoned gas station, which is transformed into a crowded and lively market space on Sunday mornings.

Farming in the United States is often described by Hmong as a link to their past, a link to Asia and their fellow coethnics there, and important to the reproduction of a Hmong way of life in diaspora. The dream and opportunity to farm has been a significant component of the first-generation Hmong refugee American experience. The cultivation of land has been established by Hmong that find it difficult to assimilate into American culture and seek familiarity of a life they left behind in parts of Laos and Vietnam. Small-scale farming and the Asian Market reproduce a Hmong way of life in diaspora while adapting it to the context of relocation and place.

What makes the Asian Market unique is the blend of formality and informality, and the market’s material andsymbolic status as a place where a Hmong way of life is combined with American Hmong way of lifeassembled through placemaking practices that circulate translocally. The dual nature of translocal placemaking as being both an adaptation to the local and extralocal circumstances, as well as a desiredpractice is evident. In this case, translocal placemaking was, in part, necessitated by land insecurity and poor integration with wholesale operations, further implicated by lax land-use regulations but also the desire by Hmong farmers and consumers from across the region to have a market (place) of their own. The site is a place where the Hmong de-territorialized what is perceived as an abandoned, unsafe, and blighted gasstation, appropriate the space for their own purposes in the form of an ephemeral marketplace, and where the Hmong are re-territorialized by the practices of American land tenure relations and commodity farming.

Another example of the Hmong’s placemaking practices, incorporating material and symbolic elements to reproduce a Hmong way of life, is the Hmong New Year’s celebration. The New Year’s celebration has been, and continues to be, the most important annual event to the Hmong. Both traditionally, and in the United States, the celebration serves as a site of de-territorialization and re-territorialization through circuits of cultural, commodity, and solidarity exchange, and reproduction between Hmong generations, families, clans, and spatially dispersed Hmong communities. Major components of the celebration in Asia were the opportunity to arrange marriages, exchange gifts, honor clan leaders and elders, and interact with distant relatives (Miyares 1997). The celebration would bring together spatially separated villages, with a host village inviting Hmong from other villages to participate. Thus, many Hmong would not only take part in their own village’s celebration, but often travel to others as the Hmong New Year runs roughly from November to December, corresponding to the lunar calendar. Circuits of solidarity facilitated attendance. These celebrations transformed villages into sites of translocal placemaking as networking, forging alliances, and cultivating channels of reciprocity were vital outcomes of the celebration, which are sites for the development of social capital and the dissemination of information, custom, and material culture. The Hmong have continued to hold this celebration in the United States, in some respects adapting its tradition yet remaining true to its ethos of building and sustaining Hmong community across space.

The first Hmong New Year celebration in Sacramento was held in 1980. The event draws Hmong from across California and the larger United States, from both smaller and larger enclaves alike. In California, there are nine separate Hmong New Year celebrations each year. As in Asia, circuits of solidarity facilitate external participation and attendance, with a reciprocity that not only extends to Hmong attendees but also event organizers, volunteers, and vendors as well. In early 2013, the Hmong New Year Council formed as a body composed of representatives from each of California’s nine celebrations to improve and market the state’s celebrations through increased information and exchange of best practices.

The Sacramento event also serves as a circuit between Hmong communities in Asia and the United States, providing a market for rare goods imported from Asia. Each year, nearly three hundred vendors operate at the Sacramento event. According to one of the members of the organizing committee, non-Sacramento vendors come from not only California but also nationwide to take part in the celebration, with approximately 20 percent of the nonlocal vendors traveling from out of state. Non-Sacramento Hmong vendors use kin and clan relations to assist with lodging and to better understand which services are needed at each event.

Typically beginning on Thanksgiving each year, the four-day event occupies a portion of Cal Expo’s vast fairground. Most of the event takes place outside and is organized around a main stage with several smaller stages. Vendors selling food, traditional herbal medicines, nontraditional medicines produced in Thailand, Hmong clothing, music, videos, and other goods form a perimeter around the main stage.

Many Hmong maintain translocal relationships through visual objects such as photographs showing imagined landscapes of homeland.

Equally important to translocally reproducing economic relations of the Hmong, the celebration also serves as a means of bridging and reproducing culture and custom, as young and old wear traditional Hmong clothing. A beauty pageant, traditional and contemporary dancing, and other forms of social activities and entertainment structure each day of the event. Photo booths allow people to get their pictures taken in front of Southeast Asian landscapes of karst mountains, forest, and rivers. Other scenes depict images of past struggles and events. One de-territorializing scene shows a reverent General Vang Pao leading the Hmong out of the highland regions of Laos, Vietnam, and Thailand via military aircraft to the United States. The General, often referred to as the “Hmong King,” was the most important individual that organized the Hmong military to support the U.S. during the Vietnam War and was considered the leader of Hmong Americans spanning clans and communities.  These and other scenes illustrate how translocality is imagined given that many Hmong have not returned to their historical homeland since relocation and, in some cases, have never set foot there. However, it is the ritual placemaking practices enacted through the New Year’s event that facilitates social, cultural, and economic reproduction.

The experience of the Hmong challenge conceptions of place and community, the global and local, sanctioned and unsanctioned refugee diaspora practices. Hmong placemaking exemplify how struggles over place materialize the intersection of global, national, and local forces, along with contests over past, present, and future imaginaries. Settlement policies, the regulation of farming, zoning codes, and permits are some examples of how both the extralocal and local state shapes the material struggles and spatial practices of diaspora groups and migrant communities more broadly. At the same time, social, economic, and cultural survival necessitate insubordinate practices outside of state control. The experiences of diaspora communities are multiple, responding to a host of signifiers from ‘home’ and abroad when considering how different places shape identity and create cultural refuge. The ‘space challenging’ nature of diaspora underscores how conceptions of territory, place, and location continue to evolve and underscores the vitality of practices defined by solidarity and resilience.

 

 

References

Hein, J. 2006. Ethnic Origins: The Adaptation of Cambodian and Hmong Refugees in Four American Cities. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Miyares, I. 1997. “Changing Perceptions of Space and Place as Measures of Hmong Acculturation.” Professional Geographer 49 (2): 214–24.

Miyares, I. 1998. The Hmong Refugee Experience in the United States: Crossing the River. New York: Garland.

Trapp, N. 2010. The Impossibility of Self: An Essay on the Hmong Diaspora. Berlin: LIT. 

Portions of this article were adapted from a co-authored article with Joshua Watkins titled, “Beyond Place: Translocal Placemaking of the Hmong Diaspora” in the Journal of Planning Education and Research (2015).   

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