Friday, November 09, 2007

Hmong Voices oral history videos online

Videos are now online from Hmong Voices, a project by the Center for Multicultural Cooperation to collect and disseminate Hmong oral history. From the website:
Since 2004, a variety of partners have made it possible to develop the Hmong Voices Project, which brings together Hmong youth and elders to record oral histories and create digital stories documenting the history of the Secret War in Laos, the Thai refugee camps, immigration to the Central Valley, and integration into American life.
There are several episodes, only a few of which are available online at the moment. (I assume you can contact them to purchase hard copies of the video). I was able to view the DVD this fall and was impressed by scope the material. For example, one episode features an emotional interview with Gen. Vang Pao (hopefully to be included among the online videos soon.) In the meantime, you can view them at the CMC website, or find them via search at the Internet Archive. Episode 2 (embedded below) is a particularly effective narrative about the Secret War and its aftermath told in Hmong and English by people who experienced it firsthand:

Other episodes focus on the passage of California State Assembly Bill (AB) 78 (the impetus for the project) and individual oral histories of the Secret War. I am especially pleased to see the CMC take advantage of the Internet Archive for distribution of the videos, as opposed to YouTube (although, I notice that they also uploaded them to Google Video.) The Internet Archive is a non-profit, online library that allows for the free distribution of digital media without generating ad revenue for corporations. It supports embedding and multiple formats making it competitive with other online video services. (It's where I've placed my videos online--although, I've also tried out GV and YT). Of course, uploading to sites like Google Video and YouTube (which is now owned by Google) means more views and a wider audience--so perhaps is makes sense to utilize both: generating interest on the commercial sites and redirecting viewers to the non-commercial sources for the rest of the content. Both CMC and Hmong Voices are on MySpace, another great place way to reach a young and diverse audience (although it too is full of ads).

New developments on the Internet make digital distribution of rich media cheap and easy and it is exciting to see educators, researchers, filmmakers, artists, etc. take advantage of these new channels of communication. At the same time, we need to think hard about where our content goes and who benefits from it. Is free distribution worth supplying YouTube with free content and ad revenue? What is the security, dependability, and scalability of these resources? For instance, it appears that the Hmong Cultural Center has begun relying on YouTube alone for the online archiving and distribution of their excellent videos. Another problem with with resources is that they provide no standard way to organize the materials. There is no reference librarian to properly archive the content, and it's up to the users to provide meaningful organization (something lacking from the Hmong voices videos on the Internet Archive). These are issues that will hopefully correct themselves (e.g. social taxonomies) as people become more familiar with new Web interfaces and applications, but they should be addressed upfront in any planning for future projects.

In the meantime, here are some good old fashioned non-ad-supported collections of Hmong oral history online:

Monday, October 22, 2007

Upcoming Hmong research presentations

The Society for Ethnomusicology annual meeting is in Columbus this year. I'll be presenting the early results from my recent field research in a paper at the pre-conference symposium on cognitive ethnomusicology and in a poster during the conference.

Wed., Oct. 24
The Role of Pitch in the Processing of Tonal Languages: New Evidence on the Connection between Language and Music

Thurs., Oct. 25
Pitch Processing in Speech Surrogates and Tonal Languages: a Link between Language and Music

On Sat., I'm presenting some material from my Masters thesis at the OSU Ethnomusicology Lab showcase, as well. Since its my home turf, I'm busy taking care of the behind-the-scenes details. When things have settled down in a couple of weeks, I have some upgrades planned for the website (including a new section about Hmong speech surrogates).

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Hmong language and music research

As of Monday, 20 August, I'll be traveling through Wisconsin and Minnesota conducting linguistic experiments with speakers of the Hmong language. The results of these experiments will shed light on how Hmong musicians are able to communicate words through instrumental music. The experiments are part of a larger, cross-cultural study that will contribute to a better understanding of how tonal languages are processed. Below, you will find a recruitment letter that explains the research in greater detail. Please feel free to pass it along to anyone who might be interested. You can contact me with questions (or better yet, volunteer to take the test) via the e-mail address listed on my website.


How do Hmong musicians communicate words through music? How do speakers of the Hmong language (and other tonal languages) use tone to understand spoken words? Do speakers of Hmong process language differently from speakers of other tonal languages?

These questions will be investigated in a set of linguistic experiments and your help is needed in finding participants. The data gathered from these experiments will be used to better understand how skilled Hmong musicians are able to communicate words through music (on instruments like the raj, qeej, and nplooj) -- a phenomenon never before studied with experimental methods. The data will also be used to study how lexical tone is processed not only by speakers of the Hmong language, but of tonal languages in general. The success of this research will be largely dependent on the number of participants, and if you have an interest in the study of Hmong language and music, we encourage you to consider joining us.

-Native speakers of Hmoob Dawb with normal hearing (speakers of Moob Leeg who are fluent in Hmoob Dawb may also participate. See "Other information" for details)
-Above 18 years-old
-We are especially interested in testing older speakers who have experience playing or listening to raj, ncas, qeej, etc.
-Younger people are welcome to take the test, but if possible, we encourage you to seek out older relatives and friends who might be interested in participating, as well

There are 2 tests that will be run (each subject will only take 1 test)
1) Listen to syllables and decide if they are words in Hmoob Dawb or if they are not words (i.e., nonsense sounds). Responses are recorded by pressing a button on a computer.
2) Listen to syllables and repeat them aloud into a microphone.

Participants who are familiar with the raj and qeej are invited to take a brief follow-up test:
3) Listen to short phrases from performances on the raj and speak aloud the words that are played.

Tests 1 and 2 last between 30 to 45 minutes and test 3 lasts only 5 minutes. The total time for the experiment should be less than an hour (including set up time, a practice sessions, and breaks).

-Testing can be done at any location of your choosing, including the home of the subject
-The first round of testing will take place in Wisconsin and Minnesota (see below for more details). Later testing will take place in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

-scheduling is very flexible and can be done at your convenience

Testing will be available in the following locations at the dates listed:
-Madison, WI: 20 - 27 August
-Eau Claire, WI and the Twin Cities, MN: August 28 - Sept. 7
-Locations in Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are available after Sept. 7

How you can help:
- set up a time to take the test yourself
- help us to find other people who might be interested in taking the test
- pass along this message to other people who might be able to spread the word about this research

Other information:
The experiment is overseen by Dr. Udo Will of the Ohio State University and testing will be administered by Nicholas Poss (a PhD candidate from Ohio State). A Hmong language interpreter is available upon request. Unfortunately, we are not able to offer any monetary compensation for participation. However, the issues we are investigating have never been studied before, and there is significant potential for increased understanding about both Hmong language and music as well as tonal language in general. We hope this is at least a small incentive for volunteers. The names of the participants are only recorded on a consent form and no personally identifiable information about the subjects will ever be made public.

Please be aware that the experimental materials for this research consists of words in the Hmoob Dawb dialect. Due to constraints of time, we could not produce a version in both dialects. Native speakers of Moob Leeg who are fluent in Hmoob Dawb should be able to take the test with little difficulty.

We welcome your questions and comments about the research. Mr. Poss's contact information can be found at

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Authentic Hmong food

This month's issue of Saveur magazine (proprietor of "authentic cuisine") has a feature article about a Hmong farmer from Fresno, his family, and the food they eat. The magazine tends toward pretension, but compared to other food magazines, it digs deeply into the stories of people and places. "Taking root " (by Andrea Nguyen) contextualizes some interesting recipes within the daily life John Xiong's family (lots of great pictures, too). Xiong favors hard work over chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and the article emphasizes the importance of freshness in his produce and cooking. Recipes include: zaub ntsuab hau xyaw nqaij npuas sawv (Chinese mustard green soup), xwbkuab kib xyaw nqaij nyug (stir-fried angle luffa with beef), and good-looking recipe for a chili sauce with onion and cilantro (kua txob tuav xyaw dos). If anything, the article is a useful resource when wondering what to do with those unfamiliar vegetables you see at the farmers' market.

The article does raise the question: what is "authentic Hmong food?" Is it food that is unique to Hmong culture? Is it just food that Hmong people eat? Is it food that Hmong people used to eat but don't anymore? Is it daily food or food for special occasion's? Many Hmong Americans identify with foods like fawm kauv (stuffed rice crêpes, aka. noodle wraps), tuav qaub (green papaya salad), and kab yob (egg rolls). These foods are enjoyed by a wide range or Asian Americans. Does that make them any less "Hmong"? The other side of Hmong cooking has been described to me as "rice, vegetables, and water." This is the food that comes out the experience of subsisting in high, mountain farms. Does that make it more "authentic"?

Food, like music, is one of the crucial ways we define ourselves. For me, eating a plateful of deep-fried, beer-battered cheese curds manifests my Wisconsin-ness (as does constantly pointing out to Ohioans how sadly empty their lives are for not eating them). "Authenticity" is found in "doing." That doesn't mean that we shouldn't recognize the diverse history of our cultural practices, but that history cannot be used to deny the status of other practices.

What is it that Hmong Americans "do" with food? A lot of things, but many dishes seem to favor simple combinations of vegetables (with small amounts of meat) accompanied by searing hot dash of chili. But there are also foot-long sausages at New Year Festivals, tapioca pearls soaked in sweetened coconut milk, and mango in fish sauce with chili. I would not be eager to exclude any of it from "Hmong cuisine."

For those interested in Hmong recipes, you can find more information at:
  • Cooking from the heart: Hmong cooking in a America - only contains a few recipes (and hasn't been updated in a while), but it does a have a recipe at the extreme end of the "rice, vegetable, and water" spectrum: rice porridge (mov kua tsuag) - basically rice cooked with too much water.
  • Hmong Recipe Cookbook (Kathy Finkle) - available as a .pdf from the REN Bookshelf. Contains a great deal of information about a variety of food practices, vegetables, and following recipe for some "nostalgic food":
"Sy Xiong Vang's fresh Hmong corn bread/cake

Ears of fresh tender sweet corn are scraped to remove corn kernels, juice, and tender fiber next to corn cob. In Laos, Hmong cooks wrapped each 3 T. of the corn mixture in a banana leaf. In America, they use foil.

The wrapped corn bread (like a small American pancake) is steamed for 45 min. or baked in an oven at low temperature - 250 degrees - for an hour. On special occasions the corn bread is eaten plain with the main meal.

NOTE: This bread/cake is a nostalgic food for older Hmong people."

I couldn't write a post about Hmong food without mentioning at least a couple of my favorite Hmong restaurants. Eau Claire, Wisconsin has two great restaurants: Egg Roll Plus (outstanding coconut curry soups) and Pang Cher Vue's Hmong Noodle Wrap (get the ginger, chicken stir fry) where each meal is cooked fresh when you order. In Madison, I always save room for the buffet at Mai Zong Vue's Taste of Asia (be sure to go for the dinner buffet to get some stuffed chicken wings).

Follow-up: As I finished writing the post, the following article popped into my news reader - "Variety and spice: cooks faithful to authenticity of Asian fare." It features an interview with a Hmong chef who will be preparing food for the Colorado Dragon Boat Festival this weekend (28-29 July). Souzana Vang efficiently sums up the diverse history of Hmong food and its specialness for Hmong people:
"Typical Hmong food takes a little from Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese foods. It has similar ingredients, but the way we use spices makes it distinct from the other tastes. ... It's as important as the language, and it's unique to eat something other people don't know about."
There are also two recipes which sound really good whether they're "authentic" or not:
7.30.07 Udpate:

Sami Scripter, from the Cooking from the heart website wrote to inform me that the cookbook she is co-authoring with Sheng Yang is forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press. In her words:
We hope that our book will be an honest, positive look into Hmong culture, from the vantage point of the kitchen (something most people can relate to).
The book will also contain poetry and prose from Hmong writers and Sami promises that they too will tackle the question: "What exactly is Hmong cooking?"

2.09.09 Update: New Cookbooks Available

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The real "Hmong Idol"

Yes, I know that "Hmong Idol" was over a year ago, but a recent YouTube clip got me thinking about it again. It's a Hmong dub version of "American Idol" featuring the talentless crowd-favorite, Sanjaya, singing the Lee Pao classic, "Ntuj no tuaj lawm." (I've written previously about this song and its myriad interpretations on YouTube, and I hope to write more soon.)

Of course, the real winner of the 2005 "Hmong Idol USA" contest was, Pagnia Xiong - a talented young singer whose performances can also be found on YouTube, including this classy rendition of "Plaub sab phab ntsa." (Brief interview of Xiong from Asian Wisconzine).

With it's wide vocal range and sustained phrase endings (providing ample opportunity for extensive R&B obbligati), "Ntuj no" actually wouldn't be a bad choice for an "American Idol" audition. A girl from Pagnia Xiong's hometown (Sarah Krueger of Eau Claire, WI) actually made it to Hollywood Week this year, and it doesn't seem improbable that someone like Pagnia couldn't make it there, too. Whoever it is, I just hope they're a Melinda, not a Sanjaya. (If Melinda doesn't win this season, there is no justice in the world.)

Friday, May 11, 2007

Wang Li and two-way transnationalism

[Update: a follow-up to this post with more information about the performer and the lyrics to the song is available.]

Wang Li is a self-described Chinese Hmong (Hmoob Suav) singer whose performances transcend boundaries of geography and culture in ways different from previously discussed artists like Song Zuying and Ayouduo identity in performance - appearing in traditional outfits, surrounded by icons of . In the media, Song tends to be represented as Chinese or else as Miao, and this comes across in her music (which of late has focused on classic Chinese pop songs). Ayouduo on the other hand capitalizes on her MiaoMiao culture, singing lyrics about the idyllic life in the countryside. Many Hmong people in the West have come across these performers and identified them as "Hmong," although neither one claims that identity for themselves. This form of transnationalism has complex roots, but it is related to various processes of globalization (economic and cultural) as well as the rethinking of history and homeland within the Hmong diaspora. But transnationalism (reimagining cultural, economic, and social relationships beyond the boundaries of the nation) is a two-way street, and the music of Wang Li demonstrates the interactive nature of this process.

[Cautionary note: what follows is basically armchair anthropology (or more euphemistically: digital ethnography). The analysis is based on the interpretation of online sources in one language I barely understand (Hmong) and one language I cannot even read (Chinese). So, I reserve the right to be totally wrong. I hope that by posting these ideas here, others might be able to contribute their knowledge (or at least tell me I'm dead wrong.)]

Who is Wang Li? Internet searches turn up two albums (Wang Li Vol. 1 and Vol. 2) and a number of links to .mp3s of her recordings. Nothing about her biography is available. If we trust a karaoke video of her song "Kuv nyob rooj kuj," however, the evidence would suggest that she is a Hmong person living in China. I came across the video in one of my periodic searches of Chinese YouTube clones (fairly comprehensive list here). The long-term availability of videos on these sites is pretty inconsistent, but at the time of posting, the video can still be viewed on (If not, you can listen to the stream of the .mp3.) Clues to the location include a pagoda-type monument with artwork depicting scenes from what could be construed as Miao history. Wang is also dressed in style of clothing that Hmong people have described to me as being "Chinese": a round, beaded hat with a flat top. More to the point, in the song she refers to herself as: "Zoo siab tias kuv yog ib tug ntxhais Hmoob suav" (happy because I am a Hmong Chinese girl.)

If this is the case, she distinguishes herself from similar performers (like Song and Ayouduo) by singing in Hmoob Dawb (White Hmong) rather than Chinese. This could mean a couple of things: 1) she is really a Hmong person from Thailand playing the role of a Hmoob Suav for the song, or 2) that her music is much more narrowly focused in terms of audience. Her lyrics, however, speak to the whole of the global Hmong community:

Txawm tias koj nyob rau mis kais
los yog koj nyob rau fab kis
Txhob hnov qab peb yob Hmoob ib yam
Peb lub qub teb qab chaw twb yog roob kuj

[Even if you live in America
Or if you live in France,
Don't forget, the the Hmong are all one people.
Our old homeland is still the mountain.]

The song isn't simply about an imagined unity between all Hmong people, she also suggests a course of action:

Vim tias peb yog Hmoob ib yam
Peb yuav tsum sib hlub sib pab
Txawm tias peb ib leeg nyob rau ib qhov
Tiam sis peb yuav sum nco nroov peb Hmoob txoj kev cai

[Because we Hmong are all the same
We must love each other and help each other
Even though we one people live in one place (unsure of translation)
We still must remember our Hmong traditions]

This is not a unique sentiment in Hmong popular music. In fact Hmoob hlub Hmoob ("Hmong love Hmong") is fairly common theme. The context of this video, however, provides a different take on how this "love" and "help" can be realized. The video was posted to under the title "苗家少女情 (my translation: Miaozu Minority Girl's Feelings/Song) by the user 蚩尤后裔 (more videos available on the page). It is interesting to note that the subdomain in the url points to /miaozu - the Chinese name for the Miao nationality. The user appears to be connected with (warning: slow-loading, requires IE): a Chinese/Hmong/English website that bills itself as the "China Hmong shopping and tourism network." It features an online store where Hmong/Miao handicrafts are sold as well as several articles (some in English) about the excellent opportunities for travel in southern China. There are also several articles about economic development in the region, suggesting the potential for future investment. In this way, trade, travel, money, and culture move across borders - reinforcing and reinventing connections in the diasporic space.

It is important to note that these types of exchanges are not entirely novel. Cultural and economic exchanges have always been occurring outside the authority of the nation state - especially in places like southern China and Souteast Asia where ethnic identity tends to be plural and malleable. Hmong people have already been making journeys inside and outside China for centuries. What is different about this transnational movement? The distances covered, the technology of communication, and the scale of the political and economic consequences of these exchanges (which have not yet been fully realized.)

Performers like Ayouduo work closely with regional tourism officials and her music certainly has a promotional element in it. I'm not sure yet if Wang Li is selling anything or not. The music itself is appealing. It is orchestrated in the same bombastic style of other Chinese pop songs, but it lacks the high production values of Song or Ayouduo. Still, Wang is a talented singer and this song (and others) are well-crafted, within interesting melodies and sometimes surprising harmonic twists. I look forward to learning more about her and her music (although, I still have not been able to find her music for sale online.)

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Passing of Joe Bee Xiong (1961-2007)

The news came yesterday that Joe Bee Xiong passed away (obituary). While he perhaps best known for being the first Hmong person elected to public office in Wisconsin (from 1996-2000 he served on the Eau Claire City Council), his legacy extends far beyond politics.

After spending a short time in Philadelphia and Chicago, Mr. Xiong moved to Eau Claire in 1980 where he entered 10th grade without knowing how to speak English. Within a few years, he graduated from Chippewa Valley Technical College with a degree in computer science and went on to study criminal justice at Mount Senario College. He worked in various positions - reserve officer for the E.C. Police Department, social worker, director of the E.C. Hmong Mutual Assistance Association - but his focus was always on advocating for the emerging Hmong community. He quickly became a sought after spokesperson - able to explain the history and culture of Hmong people to a diverse audience. Chief among his many talents was his outstanding musical ability which included not only mastery of Hmong instruments like qeej and raj, but also Lao and Chinese instruments.

By the time I met Mr. Xiong in 2001, he was passing on his role as a cultural liaison to other members of the community. I interviewed him several times for the video "Speaking Musically," and he introduced me to his cousin Ger Xiong who contributed most of the performances for the project. Despite his busy schedule, Joe Bee was always patient and generous with his time. Sadly, there was no opportunity to record him playing music himself, although some good recordings do existing. One of my favorites is from a 1992 interview recorded by folklorist Jim Leary in which Mr. Xiong talks about his early life (including his harrowing escape from Laos) and describes how he learned to play qeej. At the end, Mr. Xiong sings the story of rooster and the nine suns and then plays it on the qeej.

While new leaders will rise to take his place in the national Hmong community, the accomplishments of Joe Bee Xiong's too-brief life will be remembered for generations. His was a life of service - to family, community, and country. In many ways, he is responsible for my interest in the study of Hmong music, language, and culture, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to know him and learn from his experience.


Joe Bee Xiong's pages at the Wisconsin Folks website

Pictures of Joe Bee Xiong performing at the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Monday, March 12, 2007 - free, online White Hmong dictionary and text reader

[Update: The Lomation website has moved in a new direction, but the White Hmong Text Reader and Dictionary is still available here. For a more recent information about online Hmong language and dictionary resources, check out this post.]

Inspired by the need for Hmong language learning resources, Koua Lor and his wife, Pa Houa, began developing the framework for what would become - home to a free, online White Hmong dictionary and text reader. Their goal - use computer technology to make language learning fun and simple. Work on the project began in 2000, but stopped a year later when it appeared that there wasn't a strong demand for Hmong educational materials. When Koua was asked by his brother, Dr. Bee Lo of UW-La Crosse, to develop software for a Hmong language course he taught, the project was resumed. The course was a success and since then, Koua and Pa have continued to work on the software. In May of 2006, they released a version of the dictionary and reader on the web, and in early March of 2007, they released a major update.

The Hmong Text Reader with integrated Dictionary (HTRiD) presents the user with a text box into which White Hmong in RPA can be entered. Clicking the "Read" button processes the text - resulting in a word-by-word spoken rendition based on sound files recorded by Pa. (Around 1,800 words have been recorded so far.) By placing the mouse cursor over the words of the text, a small window appears with English definitions and example uses of the selected word. (The home page of the website also features a box where single words can be entered to find English definitions.) The mouse over feature is limited to analyzing the text word-by-word, but often the examples offered with the English definition include common uses in expressions. While the dictionary is not exhaustive, for a quick, easy-to-use, FREE online tool - the results are impressive.

Dedicated to preserving the Hmong language, Koua and Pa continue to improve the HTRiD as a labor of love, and it looks like they might be posting more frequently to the blog-like home page of the website (including a recent post on what syllables are possible in the Hmong language). Their generosity is a great service to all of us who hope to learn more about Hmong language and culture.

Friday, March 09, 2007

The qeej in America - a new article about tradition in practice

Thao, Yer J. (2006). “Culture and Knowledge of the Sacred Instrument Qeej in the Mong-American Community.” Asian Folklore Studies 65(2): 249-267.

This study aims to describe the importance of the oral tradition of the sacred instrument Qeej to Mong culture. It is an attempt to help preserve Mong oral traditions and facilitate the continuing practice of traditional funeral rites, in which the Qeej plays a central role by guiding the soul of the deceased to the realm of the ancestors. The Mong who live the United States are faced with a pressing dilemma--how to maintain oral traditions and culture in a society that privileges literacy-based learning. The Qeej provides an important case study as it is crucial to the Mong culture and its traditions cannot be translated into print. Recently, younger Mong have started playing the Qeej for amusement in secular contexts, a practice that threatens traditional customs. The Mong Cultural Program in Long Beach, California, makes a noteworthy effort at preserving the oral traditions of the Qeej.

In 2000, when I interviewed Joe Bee Xiong (a Hmong community leader in Eau Claire, WI), he felt that within a couple of decades qeej playing would pass out of practice in the Hmong-American community. Just 7 years later, that prediction has been derailed by the efforts of Hmong cultural associations across the country. It is interesting that most of these qeej education programs are still based on oral instruction - a continuation of traditional educational methods. Now a qeej master teaches a classroom full of young students rather than a single apprentice, but notation has yet to be widely accepted. That isn't to say that many forms of qeej notation have not been developed. In fact, a qeej class I attended at UW-Madison made extensive use of a novel notation system using numbers and diacritics. The teacher was younger than the typical master and it could be that this style of teaching will become more prominent as the next generation of educators takes over.

Thao's ethnographic study offers an insider's look at one of these programs where traditional knowledge is communicated in traditional channels despite the new context. It is also a hopeful work that documents an emerging group of young musicians who will one day become experts in a demanding art form. Thao details the process of demonstration and imitation that takes place in the classroom - which includes not only patterns of fingerings and sounds, but also movements of the entire body. While the information and vocabulary Thao presents is not necessarily new, it is good to see it applied in the context of performance and learning rather than a general description of qeej. Thao also draws together several of the divergent origin myths of the qeej in one section of the article including a new one that he collected. His assertion that comparing these stories can lead to an accurate theory of qeej origin isn't borne out by his methods, however.

Throughout the paper, Thao insists that historically the qeej was used only in funeral rituals and that the performance of the qeej in non-ritual settings is a recent development. He goes on to suggest that this is because "young Mong are acculturating to the dominant culture and slowly abandoning their own culture." This critical stance against the use of qeej for "entertainment" is at odds with existing literature on the qeej, much of which Thao cites. These other authors give examples of the qeej being performed at New Year celebrations, births, and other festivals. There is also a longstanding tradition among many qeej players that the instrument used to be played at weddings, but that this body of ritual music has been lost. It is clear that Thao takes his cue from the experts he interviewed, who seem to associate the performance of qeej in non-funeral rituals as being tied to Chinese and Lao practices of performing cultural practices for the entertainment of government officials - something that denigrates the seriousness of qeej performance in the funeral ritual. Yet, the use of the qeej in multiple contexts has gone on for as long as people can remember and the sanctity of the funeral ritual remains intact. Perhaps such sentiments are a reaction against the popularization of qeej performances that feature choreographed dance moves rather than musical skill, as often seen at New Year celebrations.

The paper is notable as one of the first scholarly articles on Hmong music published by a Hmong author - or more appropriately, Mong author. Thao uses only the Mong ethnonym throughout the article - reflecting both the Blue Mong (Moob Leeg) community he studied and a point of view that the entire ethnic group should be referred to as Mong. Thao does not problematize this tricky issue of nomenclature, but rather states it as a fact. It will be interesting to see how such ideas influence the work of other scholars.

Thao mentions in passing that only males can learning to play the qeej, an issue that deserves more scrutiny. I have spoken with other qeej players who suggest that women aren't forbidden to learn, but that it isn't that common. I have even met young women who hope to one day learn to play the instrument themselves. The issue of gender in the performance of Hmong/Mong music remains sorely overlooked. I also have to take issue with Thao's reliance on Keith Quincy's History of People in the section of the paper devoted to Hmong history. While it makes for an exciting read, History is anything but a reliable source of information, as has been well documented in a variety of sources. It is sad to see this book cited so frequently in discussions of Hmong history and even in scholarly writing.
(For a recent debunking of Quincy, see: Entenmann, Robert. The Myth of Sonom, the Hmong King. Hmong Studies Journal 6 (2005). 2 October, 2006 .)

Still, the article is an important contribution to the study of Hmong/Mong-American music and refreshing look at tradition from the standpoint of practice rather than theory.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Song Zuying and Hmong/Miao Transnationalism

"Hmong Singer Receives Grammy Nomination" was the tantalizing headline at Hmong Today online. The article is actually more of a press release about the Chinese singer, Song Zuying, who has indeed been nominated for a Grammy in the category of "Best Classical Crossover Album." Song has been a major figure in Chinese music since the early 1990s and has been developing an international following of late. Still, I've never heard to referred to as Hmong, or as the article in Hmong Today describes her: "Hmong Chinese." She is a member of the Miao ethnic group - one of the 56 recognized ethnic "nationalities" in China - and is recognized for her interpretations of "folksongs" (more on that next time). But as discussed in my previous entries about Ayouduo, being Miao and Hmong isn't necessarily the same thing, although there is a growing trend for using the terms interchangeably. As is noted by authors such as Nicholas Tapp, Louisa Schein, and Jacques Lemoine, it is both Hmong in the West, as well as Miao in China, who are adopting this language. The reasons are too numerous to give in detail here, but often Hmong Americans, uncomfortable with the word Miao (and its negative connotations in Southeas Asia) use Hmong when referring the entirety of the Miao group, which includes not only Hmong, but also Hmu, Kho Xiong, and A Hmao people. Offended by the imposition of a non-native, Chinese term over a group of seemingly related people, Hmong in the West end up imposing their own terminology over the same group. At the same time, there is evidence that some Miao people in China have willingly adopted the nomenclature - perhaps in part due to the more fluid nature of ethnic identity in region. In other instances, becoming "Hmong" can have positive economic advantages when trying to engage in international business deals.

There is more to say, but what I'm most interested in here is the use of "Hmong Chinese" in the context of this article, which more closely resembles an advertisement (or at least a press release). Is it an example of a crafty businessperson trying to capitalize on the growing interest in Chinese music among Hmong Americans? Or is it someone who feels a close affiliation with their coethnics in China? Someone who is proud of the accomplishment achieved by one of their own? I don't know who wrote the article (or why), but a little digging on the internet shows that "Hmong" was probably tacked on to pre-existing material about Song Zuying.

The opening paragraph is copied from the Grammy press release, while the end of the article appears to be drawn from the article about her on All Music Guide (written by David Lewis). The key second paragraph that cites her ethnicity seems to be taken from an online article that is now only accessible through the Google cache of the page. The article, "Folk Singer Song Zuying: From Miao Village to the World Stage" is dated Dec. 21, 2006 and appeared on the website (it appears to be offline at the moment). According to notes at the bottom of article, it is the English translation of material drawn from two Chinese news sources: and The original paragraph reads:
Among this year's nominees was the celebrated Chinese folk singer, Song Zuying. Her CD "The Diva Goes to the Movies: A Centennial Celebration of Chinese Film Song" received a Grammy nomination for "Best Classical Crossover Album."
This is identical to the article in Hmong Today, except that in transition the "celebrated Chinese folk singer" has become the "celebrated Hmong Chinese folk singer."

So to review - Song Zuying is described variously as Chinese, Miao, and Hmong. Such multiple identifications are not unusual for people from places like southern China - where ethnic identity is not so fixed as in West. But is she Hmong in the sense of "Hmong and Miao are all the same people" or Hmong in the sense of "a person of the Miao nationality who self-identifies in her home as Hmong." I'm not sure, but I would suggest that it is the former. As the womenofchina article states, she was born in Hunan in a stockade village. While several ethnic groups build communities in this style, I had never heard of Hmong people doing this. Also, looking at the costumes of people from similar villages - they appear to be more similar to Hmu outfits than Hmong. But, I could be totally wrong and in the end, it isn't that important. There are no definite answers to questions of identity and it certainly has no bearing on the quality of her work (which is outstanding [see recently sold out the Kennedy Center]). It is interesting to follow the lines of influence in redefining identity, however, and to ask why these changes take place.

Her music is certainly worth talking about and makes for an interesting comparison with Ayoudou. I'll try to get around to that next time. Until then, you can find her videos on YouTube or check out her fan website (in Chinese - works best in IE - no media files that I can find.)