J4: Hmongland in St. Paul


The first things you notice at the July 4 Soccer Tournaments, or J4 for short, are the posters. They’re everywhere, from outside the Como Park main entrances to fences to tent coverings to walls and even port-a-potties. They advertise new artists, new releases from established artists, movies, other festivals throughout the country.

There were no posters, however, for major Hollywood movies or top-40 American artists (although it’s a sure thing that a lot of the tournament’s younger visitors know many of these songs by heart). This detail actually gets at the heart of my first time attending J4, which is now in its 29th year and second only to New Year celebrations as the most important Hmong events.

Having grown up in Milwaukee and attended the many “ethnic” festivals (Polish, Italian, Mexican, German, Irish, African, and on and on the diversity pantheon), festivals that generally tip outwardly instead of inwardly in terms of audience, it was a different kind of experience to visit a specifically-themed group event that wasn’t actively bringing in outsiders. There were no cultural displays or explanations, no demonstrations of dance or music like you would find at an event like World Refugee Day. If you didn’t speak Hmong, you could easily get lost.

While Lao Family’s ChuPheng Lee, the head of the tournament this year, told me before the weekend that J4 was becoming much more of a “mainstream” event, that certainly wasn’t represented in the make-up of its attendees. I could count on my fingers and toes how many other non-Hmong people I saw—excepting those playing on the various sports teams, which are open to all. At no time, however, did I feel that I was unwelcome or unwanted, or that this was somehow a “Hmong-only” event.

I anticipated some kind of organized schedule of events detailing when things would be happening, but none was to be found, either online or in person. This lack of schedule meant I missed important events, but it also made me much more apt to wander. Wandering led me to be at the right place at the right time on more than one occasion. I saw Vang Pao—the much-revered and maligned general who led Hmong soldiers fighting for the CIA in Laos and then led them to America—not once but twice. The first time was outside the entertainment stage (one of the most important venues at the festival for Hmong performers of all types) and the second at a Top Spin match.

The crowds for Top Spin (a surprisingly exciting sport) and the other sports matches were literally right on the side and end lines. While watching various flag football, soccer, volleyball, kato and top spin competitions, I saw more than one fan take a ball—and sometimes a whole player—to the face. (At one point during a soccer match, the throw-ins had to be done from behind the crowd.) Perhaps even better than watching the men’s and women’s flag football teams, though, was admiring their team names. Here’s a partial list: Murda Squad, MN Warriors, Plazaboyz, X-Conz, Blaze, Kangsmen, Aftermath, LBU, Lady Bombsquad, Valkyries, Sirens, Redrum, Lady X, Nemesis, Demons, Underdogs (complete with jerseys styled after the Minnesota Vikings), Lights Out, Predators, Showtime, and perennial powerhouse IDK.

Top Spin

Overlooking the sports fields were the impressively long line of food booths. I wish I could tell you more about the food at J4, but being a vegetarian, I didn’t find much to eat. Most of the 50+ booths that lined the south end of Como Park had the same types of food: various meats and rice (including the interest-piquing “Bird and Rice” for $8.00), papaya salad, tri-color desserts, sticky rice, bubble tea, and smoothies. One lone booth, perhaps in a nod to the State Fair grounds just up the road, offered roasted corn. (Another thought-provoking moment came when I was walking along the booths: one of the vendors, acting simultaneously as cook and busker, called out to me “Try something new,” assuming me a novice when it comes to Hmong food.)

The vendor area, its own completely separate area on the north side of the park, was a cacophonous maze, a part of the Tournament equal to, if not more important than the actual tournaments.

Numerous visuals and sounds competed for my attention, all accompanied, it seemed, by the ever-present sound and smell of gasoline generators.

The hundreds of booths—incredibly, vendor participation was down by 50% this year—sold a host of different items, nearly everything you could imagine, yet much like the food booths, the vendors sold many of the same products. There was clothing, “traditional” or otherwise, herbs and roots spread on tables and on the ground, jewelry, ever-present cups of mango, bettas and turtles, numerous toy guns, knockoff Barbie dolls, and DVDs.

So many DVDs. Everywhere I turned there was some kind of audio-video production company, their tables filled with plastic bins and coolers of DVDs from around the world. There were also various political movements, from both DFL and Republican booths—in what seemed emblematic of their own ideological divide, the DFL had “Nyob Zoo” on their tent, while the GOP had a sign on “Liberalism 202”—to the indigenous Hmong ChaoFa movement, fighting for autonomy in northern Laos.

A complaint heard more and more within recent years, including comments in the Daily Planet’s Reporter’s Notebook) is that Lao Family is putting greed and profits over serving the Hmong population of Minnesota (and America generally). While such a topic provides endless fodder for discussion, I was interested in how people acted in the face of perceived greed on the part of Lao Family. Numerous artists balked at the high cost of an official booth and took to hustling CDs from their backpacks to folks throughout the park. I walked around with a number of different groups and learned some of their tricks to getting people to buy a CD: if a woman is selling it and a guy asks for a phone number in exchange for buying the CD, give a fake number; offer it at a supposed “half-price” discount; if it’s a friend, mildly guilt them by reminding how you’ve supported them in the past; or just jump out in front of them and don’t let ’em go until they wheel about and run the other away or you leave with one less CD and a few more bills in your pocket. (For this particular group, the DFL booth purchased a CD, while the Republicans didn’t.)

By the end of the weekend, I had heard Hmong, Hmonglish, English, and various accented versions of all three, via the accents picked up from whatever place the speaker settled. (One of the many Hmong rap CDs I picked up had a fascinating Southern-inflected drawl to it, which made the raps that much more interesting, even if I couldn’t understand any of the lyrics.) While J4 was certainly addressed to the Hmong, this plethora of languages and accents reveals the great variation and difference within Hmong living throughout the world, and the numerous ways they have been shaped by their multiple homes. With no true “homeland,” J4 seemed about as close to Hmongland as you can get.

Justin Schell (612to651@gmail.com) is a freelance writer and grad student in Minneapolis, working on a book and documentary about immigrant, refugee, and diasporic hip-hop here in the Twin Cities. For more on the project, see 612to651.com.

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