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