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 Tuduo.com. (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 Tuduo.com 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 http://hi-hmoob.com/ (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.)