The war for J4—and why there are no winners in Minnesota Hmong community

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The flyers were posted early in March 2012. It announced that there would be a Hmong sports festival held during the Fourth of July weekend—and as usual the event was hosted by Lao Family.

But upon closer inspection, this flyer was quite different from years’ past.

For one thing, this tournament was going to be held at the Dakota County Fairgrounds, a 45-minute drive from Como Park in St. Paul where the J4 Festival has traditionally been held for the past 30 years. For another, this was not Lao Family Community of Minnesota (LFC), but instead it was a newly formed organization named, “Lao Family Social Services.”

So now there are two organizations called Lao Family and both are hosting similar events at the exact same time. This scenario sounds very similar to the nightmare that occurred in Fresno last year when two competing agencies held separate Hmong New Year events. The result was failure for both events with low attendance and growing resentment being shown by the general public towards the Hmong New Year in Fresno. Even today, six months later, the two organizations continue their vitriolic battle in a courtroom over the control of the Hmong New Year with no resolution in sight.

In St. Paul, the situation is equally as distressing, but add allegations of tampering, spying and arson into the mix and what remains is a bitter pill for the Hmong community to swallow because at risk is the possibility of losing J4 altogether.

Adding to the confusion—and intrigue—is the fact that some of the key organizers of the new Lao Family are in fact former board members of the original Lao Family. According to Secretary of State records, the president of this new Lao Family is Tou Xiong, the same Tou Xiong who held the board presidency of the original Lao Family for most of 2011.

After an ugly legal battle that ripped the Hmong community apart, Judge Dale Lindman of Ramsey County District Courts denied Xiong’s claims and reinstated ChuPheng Lee as board president of LFC in October 2011.

One month after he was discharged from LFC, Xiong and his supporters formed the new Lao Family, locating their office one block away on University Ave from the LFC building.

By the time this new Lao Family emerged, the damage was already done. The feud between Xiong and Lee would eventually cost LFC more than an estimated $60,000 in legal fees, which nearly broke the organization. According to sources, LFC was stuck having to pay for both sides.

Already scrutinized by the Attorney General’s office for a variety of prior infractions, the highly publicized black-eye sank Lao Family’s reputation to the lowest point in it its 35 years of existence.

Being thrust into the middle of this mess was Amee Xiong, who was hired in January as the interim executive director of LFC.

“Contacting funders and gaining their trust was the first thing I did when I was originally hired,” explained Amee. “It was a struggle, but I am confident we are moving in the right direction.”

Amee’s hiring caused a stir of sorts when she became the first female executive director to lead the organization since it was founded in 1977. When her hiring was publicly announced, a group of protestors lead by Zong Khang Yang and James Vue hoisted signs in front of the Lao Family building which portrayed the organization to be fraudulent and corrupt.

They also passed out packets which contained photocopies of classified and revealing information written with Lao Family Community letterhead. The information suggested that LFC board members were given compensation illegally and that there was a pot of money unaccounted for.

According to James Vue, the information was provided by a disgruntled employee of LFC in the hopes of “revealing the truth about Lao Family’s corruption.”

(Although he didn’t reveal it back in January, it would be confirmed via their own website that James Vue was the executive director of the opposing Lao Family group.)

Although none of the complaints were directed at Amee Xiong, the political battle from detractors becomes yet another hurdle she will need to overcome if she is to bring Lao Family back into the graces of the community and the funders.

As the first Hmong social services organization in the state, LFC was crucial to the growing number of Hmong refugees who relied on the organization for virtually all aspects of assimilating into this new land.

In the organization’s glory years, mayors and congressmen turned to LFC when they needed a Hmong ally. Lao Family’s influence on the community helped to shape public housing, education and public assistance policy in Minnesota.

According to George Latimer, former mayor of St. Paul during the crucial years of Hmong immigration into the city (1976-1990), it was a relationship that he and his late wife Nancy (with the Saint Paul Foundation) built with Lao Family’s first executive director Vang Xang that helped to forge policy that would “open the door to Hmong immigrants who were looking for a new home.”

30 plus years later, St. Paul is home to the largest urban population of Hmong in the world.

To most people, however, Lao Family is not known for its social services programs. For the tens of thousands of visitors to Minnesota each summer, Lao Family is best known as the organization behind J4 – the single largest gathering of Hmong people in the world.

Although it is called a sports festival and the championship titles are considered to be the most prestigious prizes in the Hmong community, J4 has become much more than just sports.

For one hectic weekend, entire families from all across the land converge in Minnesota’s capital city to swarm into restaurants, filling area hotels, attending concerts, nightclubs and family reunions.

The impact that J4 has on the local economy cannot be understated. It could be argued that J4 brings in more out-of-state visitors than any other annual event held in the state of Minnesota.

In short, J4 is a big, big deal and gaining control of it has been a driving force behind the power struggle for Lao Family over the years. In the past, such conversations were not publicly announced, but with the emergence of this new Lao Family and their aggressive effort to directly compete against LFC, the stakes have been heightened and political lines clearly drawn.

The battle has spilled over to the public scene as well, giving non-Hmong dignitaries a first-hand glimpse into the ugly infighting that is occurring in the community.

On May 8, 2012, St. Paul’s District 5 Council hosted a public meeting to discuss the J4 event in St. Paul. Board members from LFC along with representatives from the City of St. Paul Parks and Police Department were in attendance to address questions and concerns from area neighbors.

Also in attendance were the same group of men who participated in the January demonstration. They used their allotted time to voice negative opinions and calls to cancel the event in St. Paul.

Koua Xiong identified himself as a neighbor in the area and was concerned with the extra traffic that occurs during the J4 event.

“All the traffic, all the people crossing make it very difficult for this area,” Koua Xiong testified. “I don’t think it is a very good idea to hold the festival here.”

Zong Khang Yang introduced himself as a human rights leader of the Hmong people representing a group called “Hmong Community Committee”. However, before Yang could make any statement, Commander Steve Frazer interrupted Yang to remind him that the meeting would not discuss the “ongoing dispute between Lao Family and these other groups” and would only talk about neighborhood concerns involving the J4 event.”

To Koua Xiong, Frazer confirmed that the J4 event in St. Paul “is going to happen no matter what” and that similar traffic issues happen at other city events and that the planning for J4 has vastly improved over the years.

“There were only 3 total police calls last year at J4, and most of those calls were minor,” Commander Frazer pointed out. “We anticipate similar results this year. I’ve been involved in helping to plan this event for the past 15 years or so and I can say that things have really improved over the years.”

The meddling and tampering appears to also occur behind closed doors. It was confirmed by City Parks Maintenance Supervisor Karin Misiewicz that a man had briefly showed up unexpectedly at her office in April claiming to be Gen. Vang Pao’s son asking for the city to deny LFC a permit to use Como Park this year.

“I didn’t even let him protest any further,” stated Misiewicz, the city staff person who is partnered with LFC to plan and oversee the operations of J4. “I didn’t know if he was really who he claimed to be, but it didn’t matter. He walked in without an appointment and I was busy. I was aware that there was an opposition group but I’m not concerned about that at all.”

The man was identified and was determined not to be a son of the late Gen. Vang Pao but was instead a man who was listed on the Dakota County sports festival poster as sport coordinator.

All attempts to reach the phone numbers listed on the poster have never been successful and messages left have never been returned.

There are however interviews conducted by Suab Hmong Broadcasting (www.shibc.com) in which Tou Xiong talks about the new Lao Family organization which he is listed as the president of that organization.

The host Richard Wanglue asked Xiong why they named the organization “Lao Family” instead of something like “Hmong Family”, which would better reflect the community it serves.

[These interviews have been translated from Hmong into English]

“We wanted to honor Gen. Vang Pao and the fact that most of us were born in Laos,” Xiong stated. “When Gen. Vang Pao founded Lao Family, he stressed how important it was to honor our past and so we decided that was important.”

The same interviewer asked Tou Lee Lor, chairman for the Dakota County sports festival, why they chose to create a competing tournament to be held at the exact same time.

“The other tournament has been around for 30 years and in that time we have not been able to accomplish anything significant. With all the money it has earned, the Hmong people should have its own field by now! In this country, we all know that competition is the key to improvement and so we created this new tournament to show that progress can happen. As for why it is being held during the same time, we honestly did not know that the other tournament was going to be held during the same time. Our flyers were out early this year, so it was a coincidence that they are happening at the same time.”

This is not the first time that a competing tournament has happened at the same time as the original J4, but it certainly is the first time an organization has gone as far as to call themselves Lao Family and to also use the same logo.

To community activist Dai Thao, the confusing message promoted by the new Lao Family shows division and a step backwards for the Hmong community.

“As a concerned Hmong American and community leader, I thought the people who created the competing J4 event were very intentional in their effort to confuse and further divide the Hmong American community during a time when we need to be united more than ever. I understand free enterprise and people have the right to create competition. However as you can see the competing organization were methodical in using similar name, logo, and theme to achieve their objectives. Their action only hurt the community at a time when the Hmong American community deserves better.”

Thao has worked closely with leaders from both Lao Families in the past and believes that the two groups should simply share ideas and cooperate efforts to create a better event for the entire community to enjoy.

“Creating the J4 event is complicated and also very expensive. It would work out for everyone If both groups were to pool their resources and talent, but I’m not sure that is realistic at this point.”

The confusion goes beyond the general public. According to sports director for LFC Neng Lee, a number of vendors and sponsors have grown confused by the two events. There have been incidences in which the products were scheduled to be delivered to an address registered for the new Lao Family but the billing was addressed to LFC.

“We have needed to investigate a number of orders which we did not originate. The problem is that many of the organizers of the new Lao Family have also worked on behalf of LFC in the past, so vendors can be easily misled.”

The confusion also impacts sponsorship opportunities, which has added up to thousands of dollars in lost revenue. With the downward economy, sponsorships have already suffered compared to year’s past, but LFC officials say that the political infighting has turned off even more potential sponsors this year.

LFC sponsorship coordinator Sang Moua expressed his frustration from all the negative feedback he received from potential sponsors, especially Hmong business owners.

“We heard from business owners that they decided not to sponsor anybody this year because they didn’t want to take sides. If they chose our event, they felt they were severing ties with leaders who they knew from the other organization. So to play it safe, they stayed away from sponsoring altogether.”

So while this event has come to be the largest gathering of Hmong in the world, the finances have not really added up. According to LFC’s tax statements between the years 2007 – 2010, LFC has lost a total of $152,000 (or roughly $38,000 per year) on J4 and its other annual event the Hmong New Year.

“It’s not about the money,” said former executive director of LFC Long Yang during a previous interview conducted in 2011. “It’s for Hmong people from all throughout the world to come together here in St. Paul. It’s for the legacy.”

Yang also confirmed that in previous years select members from the board of directors would collect the gate revenue at the end of each night to secretly count the earnings. He would not elaborate on where that money would end up, but was very clear to say that practice has discontinued.

The Attorney General’s office responded to say that they do look very carefully at the finances of LFC “and will continue to keep a close eye on the organization.”

If the financial losses continue to haunt LFC, one thing is clear: The tradition of J4 is at big risk to go extinct, primarily because it is uncertain that the city will be willing to partner with any other organization to operate J4. The 30+ years of building equity with the city has gone a long way which will be hard to replace.

And just like in Fresno, where the two organizations have done nothing but build negative results that have reverberated to all aspects of the Hmong community there, the J4 event is at greater risk to lose it all if this other organization has its way.

Perhaps it is said best by one of the leaders from the sporting world. Kong Vang has participated in J4 as the captain of one of the top flag-football teams, Plaza Boyz.

“I hope they can look at the Fresno New Year mess and see that all this does is bring down the Mecca of Hmong Events. At one point in time J4th was just about bringing together as many Hmong immigrants that have settled in the states together. Now it has become all about a power struggle. J4th now is being used to establish dominance and trying to push the other out of business. All that is caught up in the middle are the players and vendors. Hmong people have forgotten the roots of J4th.”

Like most major teams in football and soccer that we were able to contact, Plaza Boyz will be playing at the LFC tournament.

“This is like the Super Bowl for Hmong people,” Vang reiterated. “It’s all about tradition and playing in the ‘real’ J4. It doesn’t matter if the other tournament pays out more money for winning. It’s not about the money.”

With all the tradition, anticipation and economic potential that J4 has to offer, the thought of J4 disappearing from the Twin Cities landscape would be a hard reality for the Hmong community to handle.

However, if this continued bickering escalates to more courtroom battles, public squabbles and sabotage, that reality is closely upon us.

And it’s not just the J4 event in the Twin Cities and the Hmong New Years in Fresno that have been threatened by turmoil and power stuggles. In Wisconsin, there are fighting factions in Wausau and LaCrosse. In North Carolina there has been talk of turmoil as well.

Some have blamed the death of GVP for all this power reaching and infighting. His leadership of the Hmong people kept the balance for the past 35 years in America and without his guidance there is a vacuum that needs to be filled.

Perhaps GVP’s son Cha Vang said it best when he declared, “It’s time for the younger generation to step up” and take hold of the future.”