Thousands of people remembered the "mother" and leader of the Hmong community on Thursday during opening day of dueling Hmong New Year celebrations in Fresno.
May Song Vang became the face of the Hmong community after the 2011 death of her husband, Gen. Vang Pao. Then in August, Song Vang died after a long fight with cancer. This marks the first year that Hmong New Year has been celebrated without her.
The remembrance of her passing rekindled talk Thursday about who will fill the leadership void in the Hmong community at both the Hmong International New Year at the Fresno Fairgrounds and the Hmong New Year at Calwa Park.
Gen. Vang Pao's youngest son, who attended the event at the fairgrounds, said despite the celebration of the new year, this was a "sad occasion" compared to the times when the general or his widow was there to greet the crowd.
"Those shoes are very big shoes to fill," Chi Neng Vang said. "To be of that stature, it's going to be tough."
Opening day at the fairgrounds started with a ribbon-cutting event and remarks by several officials, including Col. Youa True Vang, founder of Hmong International New Year. This celebration draws about 100,000 people from all over the world during its weeklong run.
Vang urged unity, calling for all individuals to come together and celebrate as one. "We must not divide; in order to be successful we must come together as one," he said.
Yet there was a clear division as the United Hmong Council held an admission-free celebration that drew an estimated 1,500 people just a few miles south of the fairgrounds at Calwa Park, on Church Avenue between Maple and Cedar avenues.
Sara Thao, director of the Calwa New Year celebration, said she hopes one day both events can unite but doesn't think it will actually happen.
"In a way it does break the unity, but it's because United Hmong Council believes in traditions and celebrations," Thao said. The council's event, she said, is not run as a business. Thao added that free admission was the organization's goal, and it intends to keep it that way.
Despite the groups' differences, visitors said they see both events as a way for the community to welcome the New Year, to celebrate a successful year of farming, and to allow Hmong youths to make friends and meet potential spouses during ball-tossing lines.
Both events had vendors offering everything from juices and food to traditional Hmong clothing and movies.
Sally Hang, 20, of Grants Pass, Ore., wore a traditional dress while ball tossing with her friend at the fairgrounds. She said the ball toss allows her to meet new people who share her culture and gives her a chance to learn more about her own culture.
"This event allows me to practice my tradition, and it's definitely something I look forward to," she said. "It's just a fun event."
But a common theme among many young people attending either event was a desire for the rift between the groups to be healed.
"It will be much better if both events unite," said Elizabeth Vang, 29, of Stockton, who was attending the Calwa event with her mother. "That way, everyone gets closer and the community is not split."
If you go:
Hmong International New Year
When: 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday to Jan. 1
Where: Fresno Fairgrounds
Cost: $4 general admission; seniors, veterans and children younger than 4 are free.
Information: (559) 487-1012
Hmong New Year
When: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday to Jan. 1
Where: Calwa Park, Chestnut Avenue between Maple and Cedar avenues.
Cost: Free admission and parking
Information: (559) 251-0008
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6659, firstname.lastname@example.org or @DianaT_Aguilera.