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Thousands attend separate Hmong New Year celebrations. But it meant the same for all

They were miles apart, but thousands of Hmong residents in Fresno celebrated the start of the Hmong New Year on Tuesday with a shared goal – to be with each other.

There have been competing events in Fresno for years, but this year there’s a new group running the event at the Fresno Fairgrounds. For nearly 20 years, it’s been the Hmong International New Year Foundation. But Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration won the fairgrounds contract, and Hmong International New Year moved to Granite Park in east-central Fresno.

The spirit of celebration was strong at both places Tuesday. Both events run through Jan. 1.

It’s a time to remember the reason why many Hmong people live in the United States, said Nhia Kao Thao, president of the Hmong International New Year Foundation. He offered praise to Gen. Vang Pao during a speech and thanked him for being the reason Hmong people have grown in the 42 years they’ve called the U.S. home. The general died in 2011.

“Even though he is not here, (the new year celebrations) will be forever in his name,” Thao said.

Thao estimated that at least 5,000 people attended the event at Granite Park on Tuesday. That number was small compared to the amount of people who went to the fairgrounds in southeast Fresno. At that event, Bee Thao, event coordinator, said about 50,000 people were expected to attend the festivities on Tuesday – the number was to stay the same, if not grow, for the remainder of the celebration.

A new outdoor setting was designed this year to help the large crowds witness the singing and dancing events typically held, Thao said. Last year the special guests and the beauty and dance competitions were held indoors and viewing space was limited.

The thousands dressed in their traditional clothing gave little wiggle room for a parade making its way toward the main event stage at the fairgrounds. Among those groups were the 18 Hmong clans of different surnames, like Yang, Thao and Vue. The groups of mostly younger Hmongs walked together and one person held a sign showing the clan name.

For the younger Hmongs who took part in festive dancing and dressed in cultural attire, the Hmong New Year celebration helps them learn about a culture created by their ancestors. Kyle Yang, 13, an eighth-grader at Sequoia Middle School in southeast Fresno, swayed back and forth while kicking with one foot as he spun during a group dance in front of all who could see. He played a flute-styled instrument called a “qeej.” And while he might not understand the full meaning of the dance or of the clothes he wore, it still teaches him a few things about being Hmong, he said.

“I learned a little bit of more patience and how to get stronger,” he said.

Ciera Lee, 21, who came from Sacramento with her family, wore a Thai dress because she and her friends were going to perform a rhythmic Thai dance. Before that, she had asked her father to give her a new year’s blessing using a white string that is tied around her wrist. Like many at the event, Lee took the chance to make the celebration and rituals worth her time.

“I asked him to bless me for a good year and for good health,” she said.

Cresencio Rodriguez-Delgado: 559-441-6304, @cres_guez

Hmong New Year

Two celebrations run through Jan. 1 in Fresno

Hmong International New Year

Where: Granite Park, 4000 Cedar Ave.

Admission: $4, and children age 6 and under are free, along with senior citizens, military, people using wheelchairs and Fresno County employees

Details: www.hinyf.com

Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration

Where: Fresno Fairgrounds

Admission: $5, children under age 5 are free along with senior citizens and military

Details: www.hmongcultural.org

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