Ceremonial shots of whiskey and a ribbon-cutting kicked off the Hmong New Year celebration in Merced on Friday.
Mayor Stan Thurston and a revered Hmong leader’s son shared the ceremonial drink before dozens of leaders from Merced and several other California cities. Then everyone passed through an archway that read “Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab” – Hmong for “Happy New Year” – and made their way indoors, where beauty pageant contestants performed a dance number.
Chong Vang, the son of Gen. Vang Pao, shared a brief history of how so many of the Hmong people came to be Americans during his keynote address.
The Hmong people are originally from the mountains of Laos, China, Vietnam and Thailand. They were recruited by the CIA to fight during the Vietnam War, and many emigrated as war refugees after the United States left the area and the communists took over Laos in the 1970s.
A key U.S. ally during the Vietnam War revered as a father figure by many in the community, Vang Pao helped many Hmong people settle in America. He died in 2011.
“Most of our Hmong people have become citizens of the United States,” Chong Vang said. “As citizens, we have tried to be good citizens of the U.S.”
Thurston said he’s “proud of the rich heritage” the Hmong community brings to Merced.
“It’s an honor to be invited to this event every year,” Thurston said during his speech. “I know it’s just as much a family reunion as it is a celebration.”
Outside, vendors offered foreign language movies and music along with traditional clothing and jewelry.
The smell of grilled sausage – pork links stuffed with peppers, lemongrass and garlic – wafted through the fairgrounds. Vendors also cooked chicken, fish, pork ribs and noodles. Papaya salad, bubble tea and other edibles were also for sale.
Young people engaged in “pov pob,” throwing a ball back and forth in a custom during which young men and women interact.
Sheng Vang, 23, drove from Fresno with her brother Chue to check out Merced’s version of what she called the most important Hmong festival of the year.
Vang said it’s important to keep the culture and traditions alive. Within the Hmong culture are a number of tribes, which are most commonly identified by a color, she said.
Vang wore traditional clothing that she said she made herself. “It’s about representing yourself and your tribe,” she said of her outfit.
The festival continues through Sunday with soccer and volleyball matches and more traditional games. There will be “kator,” a game involving a net and a woven wooden ball, and “tuj lub,” in which players try to knock over competitors’ spinning tops.
Dance and talent shows are at 10a.m. today and continue through the afternoon. Also today is the annual beauty pageant.
A party atmosphere will be prevalent tonight as locals welcome out-of-town visitors, organizers said.
The competitions culminate Sunday.
There is a $3 fee to enter the fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.