Minnesotans’ penchant for farmer’s markets surges to the surface each spring. This year, thousands of Minnesotans will flock to Hmongtown Marketplace, a growing mix of stalls and pickup trucks vending Asian foods (prepared and otherwise), cooking utensils, wearing apparel, entertainment and trinkets. Rising phoenix-like from an abandoned lumber yard in St. Paul’s Frogtown, Hmongtown Marketplace is the first Hmong-owned and operated market in the Midwest. Over 200 vendors of unique Asian produce and products tempt the palates of thousands of shoppers – and fill the purses of some 600 workers, more than 99 percent of whom are of Hmong ancestry.
The power behind Hmongtown Marketplace is Toua Xiong, named recently by the Minnesota-Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association as the 2010 Immigrant of Distinction. His eyes sparkle as he offers a rapid-fire description of his plans for Hmongtown Marketplace – a vision of indoor stalls for year-round goods and services, expanded dining facilities, a welcome presence that enhances the Frogtown community as well as the livelihoods of the scores of vendors.
Xiong’s history is both typical and difficult. He fled persecution in Laos, then spent seven years in a refugee camps in Thailand, arriving in the United States as a teen, a husband, and father of two. In spite of little or no English, Xiong earned degrees in business and accounting. After struggling with inadequate pay and layoffs Xiong stepped into the world of self-employment, beginning with a small grocery store, then a larger restaurant/market, then a Hmong flea market which morphed into a community meeting place frequented by members of the Asian American community. Next came International Marketplace which, in March 2009, emerged from an abandoned lumberyard in Frogtown as today’s Hmongtown Marketplace.
Along the way there are high points and blows, financial and personal, that would have derailed most mortals. There are villains and there are heroes, one of whom, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, is prominently featured in full Gaelic regalia on Xiong’s office wall. Xiong speaks lovingly of his extended family who came to his aid in tough times. His scrapbooks tell the story not only of his business history but of his family’s past and their migration from Laos to the jungle to Thailand and then to St. Paul’s Frogtown.
Today Xiong and his wife Nou somehow manage to keep a business beehive on an even keel. Two of their five children, both college graduates, are on the staff at Hmongtown Marketplace. Somehow husband and wife both find time to welcome a visitor, to share their stories and their dreams reflected in stories, scrapbooks and mountains of photos. Xiong uses a mammoth Hmong embroidered tapestry to illustrate their personal journey. And then he produces countless posters that feature his vision for expansion of the Marketplace and realization of his dreams.
Hmongtown Marketplace is one of many of Xiong’s interests. He is, first and foremost, the father, son, cousin and family leader. As Xiong , the immigrant leader, he hosts Hmong festivals and tournaments. He founded Hmongtown Connections, a nonprofit organization that sponsors cultural exchanges and is working on a Hmong museum to preserve and promote Hmong culture. He’s also involved with the economic development of the Frogtown Community and remains an inveterate proponent for education and learning, mindful that it is education and learning that have opened doors and given him tools and strengths in times of struggle.
Hmongtown Marketplace, by its very presence, plays a role in preserving Hmong culture and in educating the mainstream community about Hmong cuisine and interests. Fresh food tops the menu. Hmongtown offers an array of fruit unfamiliar to most locals, who are left to respond that it “tastes like…” when they first sample pomelo or mangosteen or longan. Visitors to the market smell the pervasive aroma of vegetables and herbs in the ubiquitous soup kettle.
An interesting challenge to Minnesota cooks – unlike immigrants from Eastern Europe, Italy, Ireland or Scandinavia, Hmong grandmas didn’t have much the ingredients, much less the leisure to record their recipes, not to mention the fact that until quite recently Hmong was an oral language. Xiong, the immigrant entrepreneur, is working on that, too. He will probably publish an entire library of Hmong cooking tips and recipes – in digital format with YouTube demos and print editions available at grocery and book stores or at the library. Just wait!