Hmong Story 40 Exhibit brings History and Heroics to Merced

In recognition of the forty year connection between the Hmong and California, a new exhibit celebrates the living history of an important American ally.

 A wall full of individual Hmong community members seen near the beginning of the Hmongstory 40 exhibit at the Merced County Fairgrounds.  Photo by Steve Newvine

In recent years, many have sought out their family history in an effort to learn more about past generations.  Whether it’s a genealogy search, connecting through social media, or coming across an old letter a family member kept stored away for decades, the search for meaning behind who we are seems universal.

That may explain the hundreds upon hundreds of people with a connection to the Hmong communities in California are seeing the exhibit Hmong Story 40. 

The interactive exhibit has been touring select cities in the Central Valley including Merced where it will continue to inform and inspire the community through May 15.  The exhibit is being held at the Merced County Fairgrounds daily. 

There is no cost to attend. 

The title reflects the forty-year history of the Hmong, who were allies of American troops in the Vietnam era.  Forced away from their homeland in Laos, many families became refugees and settled in the U.S.; many in California.

 Paintings by Hmong artists depicting life in California.  Photo by Steve Newvine

When Hmong families began settling in California, Merced welcomed some of these early citizens.  The first three Hmong families to settle in California resided in Merced.  

Event Director Wa Chong Yang says the exhibition is intended to preserve the relatively short history of the Hmong in the Central Valley.  “It’s human nature to question one’s identity,” he said.  “We hope this exhibit encourages more people to look to their past.”

A display of clothing worn by the Hmong.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The exhibit breaks down the history of the Hmong/U.S. connection into four stages: life in Laos, the Secret War, refugee camps, and life in California.

On the day I attended, a school class from Sacramento participated in a presentation on Hmong life, followed by a guided tour of the exhibit areas.  

“We knew this exhibit would be well received in the Hmong community,” Project Director Lar Yang told me.  “But it also connects with other communities as the search for identity is universal.”

The Life in Laos portion of the exhibit explains the genesis of the bond between the U.S. military and the Hmong.  In the Vietnam War era, Laos was considered by the Geneva Accord to be a neutral country.  This meant that by international agreement, the sending of troops was not allowed. 

Although the U.S. was supposed to have no official involvement in the affairs of Laos, the CIA served as consultants or advisers for the Hmong soldiers.   The U.S. promised it would help the Hmong get to America or to refugee camps if they lost the war. The Hmong lost, but the U.S. was able to get about 5,000 people out.

 The Life in California portion of the Hmong Story 40 exhibit.  Judge Paul Lo of Merced is pictured in the lower right hand corner.   Photo by Steve Newvine

The Life in California portion of the exhibit includes artwork depicting experiences for the first Hmong refugees.  There’s also a section on Hmong citizens who have been elected to political office or appointed to judicial posts.  In this section, there is a photograph of Judge Paul Lo of Merced, California’s first Judge of Hmong descent.

Perhaps the most touching tribute in the exhibit is an area near the end of the displays honoring Peter Chou Vang of Merced County. Mr. Vang passed away in early May.  He was a highly regarded military and community leader.  A card introducing the tribute calls Mr. Vang one of several fallen heroes who put their lives on the line for freedom.  

Portion of the Hmong Story 40 exhibit honoring the life of Peter Chou Vang of Merced.  Photo by Steve Newvine

The Hmong Story 40 exhibit started in Fresno and will head to Sacramento after the Merced stop.  Approximately 45,000 people attended in Fresno, and organizers expect attendance in Merced to reach 5,000 to 10,000.

Organizers hope that the exhibit will extend interest in the Hmong story.  A website Hmongstory40.org  allows a visitor to read about the specific elements of the exhibit, view videos on different aspects of Hmong life, and even upload photographs and videos.  

As universal as the desire to learn more about past generations may be, it still requires work to turn that desire into action.  Hmong Story 40 hopes to make it a lot easier for anyone interested in making that connection.

Steve Newvine lives in Merced