Lar Yang remembers the suffering and poverty he and his parents experienced after being forced out of their homeland 40 years ago as ethnic minorities.
Yang, who was born in Laos, focused on integrating into American culture after his family resettled in Fresno. After establishing a successful career as a graphic designer, Yang realized he needed to make sure his history lives on.
“My kids don’t understand this at all,” he said. “They don’t even speak Hmong.”
Saturday marks a day Yang has been looking forward to for nearly three years: the opening of Hmongstory 40.
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Yang founded the project, a multimedia exhibit commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Hmong refugee displacement, with a core team of 10 people and some 30 overall volunteers. It’s at the Fresno Fairgrounds and will run through the end of Hmong New Year, Jan 2.
Many Hmong in Fresno are survivors of the “secret war” following the 1975 collapse of the kingdom of Laos. The Hmong fought with the U.S. against communism in Indochina, making them targets for extermination after the Laotian communist government took over.
Most refugees fled to Thailand, where Yang and his parents spent six months before being resettled. Fresno now has the second-largest Hmong population in the country with more than 30,000 people.
The exhibit depicts the culture and history of Hmong in California through four stages: life in Laos; the secret war; Thailand refugee camps; and resettlement in California. Hmong people in Merced and Sacramento collaborated with Fresnans, some driving down nearly every weekend to plan.
I always tell people the best thing you can give someone is their own history.
Lar Yang, Fresnan, Laos native
Yang said the exhibit, which is free and open to the public, is also meant to celebrate Hmong accomplishments and educate the larger community about Hmong history. The 12,000-square-foot space holds written stories, recorded oral histories, photos, documents, artifacts and artworks. Project leaders raised $265,000 in grants and donations to pull it off.
“We’re actually redefining history,” he said. “Our personal history is two to three paragraphs in history books.”
The project garnered some 15,000 photos, including 1,000 refugee photos taken at the camps in Thailand. Residents loaned the keepsakes they carried with them to California – elaborate silver jewelry, traditional knives and full traditional dress, even Thai hospital paperwork and Continental Airlines boarding passes.
“I always tell people the best thing you can give someone is their own history,” he said.
Maykou Vang, 48, thought she knew her whole family history before deciding to volunteer for Hmongstory 40 as adviser and project manager. Her father was the first Hmong pilot trained by the U.S. But she never knew he saved a man during the war who had been lost for days. And she didn’t realize how jarring it was for him – a man who had walked miles to school every day – to learn to fly a plane.
Vang also found out her mother kept an embroidered sash, 100-year-old bracelet and necklace that belonged to her great-grandmother. The embroidery pattern showed her great-grandmother is from a different province, on the border of Laos and China.
Now Vang gets to pass these keepsakes and newfound history on to her children.
31,771Fresno’s Hmong population, second most in the U.S.
The project effort required thousands of hours of work as leaders essentially learned how to curate a museum-worthy collection. Yang was in charge of the branding, artistic presentation and curation. Others shot and edited video of oral histories, wrote grant submissions and built the display cases.
William Cha, 26, sorted through and edited photos as a volunteer. He was born and raised in Fresno by nontraditional Christian Hmong parents.
“I don’t really relate to those who came over as refugees,” he said. “I grew up thinking I was just one of everyone else. I thought I was just Asian in general.”
Cha said volunteering for the exhibit helped him discover who he is. Looking at photo after photo showed him the struggle that all refugees go through.
He recalled the saying about needing to know where you came from to know where you’re going.
“After being introduced to Hmongstory 40, it was a flashback like, wow, that’s what that quote meant,” Cha said.
The goal for project leaders is to one day become a nonprofit and permanent fixture of Hmong history. Vang said it was her dream in college to establish a Southeast Asian cultural center. That dream never died.
“After 20 years, it’s coming alive,” she said.
Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro will speak at Saturday’s opening and announce a proposed minor in Hmong studies, which is in the final stage of approval and could launch fall 2016. Fresno State officials say it would be the only university in the western United States and the fifth university in the nation to offer the option.
In May, Hmongstory 40 will be displayed in Merced. There are also plans to display the exhibit in Sacramento.
If you go
What: Hmongstory 40 exhibit
Where: Fresno Fairgrounds, 1121 S. Chance Ave. in the agricultural building
When: Saturday through Jan. 2
More info: www.hmongstory40.org
Contact: Lar Yang, 559-999-6570