Exodus

As a Child, Cy Thao Crossed the Mekong from Laos to a New World. Now His Paintings Are Taking the Hmong People Home.

There are many versions of the folktale about how the Hmong lost their language. One of them goes like this: In ancient times, a Hmong rebel was fleeing through a bamboo forest from soldiers of the Chinese emperor. The rebel carried with him scrolls of Hmong writing. He came to a river, the legend goes, and there saw a water bug dancing across the surface. Thinking that he could do the same, and same, and thus escape his pursuers, the man tied pieces of bamboo to his feet and leapt into the water. As he drowned, he swallowed the scrolls he'd been protecting. So the written words were lost; in time they were forgotten.

This is how Cy Thao tells the story, anyway. We're sitting in his office at the state Capitol on a quiet Tuesday afternoon. When the Legislature is in session, the whole building has the becalmed air of power being discreetly exercised. Conversations aggregate into a low thrum that sounds like oiled loafers swooshing over carpet.

Thao continues: "In China, the emperor started encroaching on the Hmong country. The Hmong fought back. But those that did were conquered. And the emperor outlawed the Hmong language, throughout history. Thousands of years.

"So the Hmong found the way to communicate with each other was through pattern and design. They would make designs to sew on their clothes to communicate when and how we're going to attack which garrison. They would walk from village to village and communicate with everyone without the emperor and his soldiers detecting what they were saying. Throughout the ages, many people lost the meanings of those designs. But we still kept the designs on our clothes."

Thao is a sturdily built man, not quite plump, but compact and thick-limbed: a former wrestler's physique. His face is round and unlined, though a neat goatee and scant hair make him look somewhat older than he, in fact, is. Although still in his freshman term as a state representative, Thao has something of a veteran politician's gift for easy rapport, the ability to make stories he's told a hundred times sound improvised. If this eloquence seems slightly practiced, that's only because, at age 32, Thao has already spent years as an emissary of Hmong culture.

As a politician, Thao is the public face of a large Hmong constituency in St. Paul's Frogtown; as an artist, his ambition is even greater. This week at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Thao will unveil "The Hmong Migration," an epic cycle of 50 oil paintings that tracks the 5,000-year Hmong journey, from the creation of the universe, to the refugee camps in Thailand where Thao spent his early childhood, to the Hmong diaspora he now represents in the state Legislature.

"People always say, boy, somebody should be doing this," Thao says of the project, which preoccupied him for three years and took him to three countries. "Somebody should tell our story. So one day I just said, 'You know what? I'm not going to wait for that somebody anymore. It's just as much my responsibility-- it's a huge responsibility--to tell that story."

Thao gravitates toward a Hmong quilt hanging on his office wall. In a few vivid scenes, it tells the story of the Hmong exodus from Laos: A line of refugees winds through the jungle, starving women dig for roots, soldiers rake the crowd with machine-gun fire, and men drown as they try to swim across the Mekong. On the other side of the river is a teeming camp where blond American aid workers parcel out fate. As is common in Hmong tapestries, called paj ntaub, different events are depicted as simultaneous, so that the same figures seem to be tramping through the jungle and waiting in the camps. Everything seems to be happening in the present tense. This image of refugees crossing the Mekong, Thao explains, is universal in Hmong culture--a shared memory as traumatic as the biblical Exodus or the middle passage.

"That river is the border between Laos and Thailand," Thao explains. "If you made it across the river into Thailand, the Thai government, they won't kill you. Instead of killing you, they throw you into a refugee camp. It was sort of a safe haven to the Hmong community. On the way, many people drowned. Before they got to the river, many were shot and killed. Some Thai officials would send them back into Laos; others would take their valuables first, then send them to the camps."

One of the first scenes Thao painted for "The Hmong Migration" was of the river crossing. The panel, done in bright, primary colors, looks very much like a paj ntaub quilt: The figures are simplified and identical, and the scene is painted in nonlinear perspective, so that there is no background or foreground. The style is direct, almost naively simple. The subject, however, is anything but: On one bank of the serenely blue Mekong, a Laotian soldier fires his gun at fleeing Hmong. On the other, Thai soldiers, also with guns, confront the refugees. In one corner of the picture, a Thai ferryman has intentionally capsized his boat and drowned his passengers, including an infant. Elsewhere, desperate refugees build a raft, or use blown- up plastic bags to try to float across the river. Some of the figures are even clinging to cut pieces of bamboo, seemingly recreating the tragic legend of the lost Hmong language.

 

Thao's studio is in a small upstairs room of the pretty blue house he shares with his wife, performer and playwright Lee Vang, and a three-year-old daughter, Cyanne. "We've got another one on the way," Thao smiles broadly as he passes a tidy accumulation of toys and a petite pink jacket on the porch. Inside, the walls are decorated with Thao's paintings, including one of his first, a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene of Christian missionaries converting Hmong refugees.

Sitting on an easel upstairs is his current work-in-progress, a portrait of the late Paul Wellstone, which he's painting for a friend. Nearby on the studio wall, opposite a small collection of Japanese robots, is a photo of Thao's family taken shortly after they arrived in America: five brothers and four sisters awkwardly bundled in thick winter jackets and knit hats.

"You know that cereal commercial: 'An open box is an empty box'?" he says, again with a squinty grin. "In our family, any box was an empty box. Food was a big deal with us. Whenever we ate, it was a big feast."

Thao and his family came from a village renowned for the sweet mountain water in its well. His father was a provincial governor, which meant he acted as both a judge and the commander of a National Guard-like militia. By the time Thao was born, Laos was already in chaos. In the 1960s, America had used the Hmong as its proxy army in a covert war against the Communist insurgency of the Pathet Lao. But the Americans had fled, and, by the early '70s, the Pathet Lao had begun to purge Hmong who had fought for the U.S. Many of those who did not go into exile were sent to jungle gulags euphemistically called "seminar camps."

Later, the purge turned into wholesale genocide: Uncounted thousands of Hmong were killed by Communist bombs or chemical weapons. Because of his political position, Thao's father knew his family would be in grave danger if they were to remain in Laos. "The Communists visited my father twice," Thao says. "His family told him, 'You have to leave. The third time, they'll come to take you.' We left in the middle of the night. My uncles, my father's sisters, they got scared and went back to the village."

Thao's family crossed the Mekong in 1975, when he was about three years old. In order to reach the river, they'd disguised themselves as servants. His father had hired smugglers to ferry the family across to safety. On the first night, Thao's older brother and sister made the crossing. Then, in the early hours of the morning, Thao was put into another boat alone. After reaching the far shore, he was taken to a house on stilts, he remembers, where he spent the afternoon playing with the ferryman's son. From there, a bus took the family to a refugee camp. Only a week later did they reunite with Thao's father.

Though safer than Laos, the Thai refugee camps were far from a sanctuary. According to Thao, a family of seven would share a makeshift hut little larger than his Capitol office. The food supplied by international relief organizations was barely sufficient, and the rice was often filled with stones and rat droppings. Thai guards were accused of raping Hmong girls. Health care was virtually nonexistent. Death was everywhere. It is the custom during Hmong funerals to sing and play a large drum and a bamboo flute called a qeej. This dirge, called qhuab kev or "showing the way," is intended to help the dead journey to their ancestral homes. At night in the camps, Thao recalls, there were always many drums beating, guiding spirits back across the Mekong.

Some years ago, a Chinese ethnologist used the qhuab kev to trace the southward Hmong exodus across Asia. In each village, he found, the people directed the souls of the dead north. Finally, near Beijing, he found a Hmong community that didn't send its souls anywhere. This, he reasoned, was the ancestral homeland of the Hmong.

For Thao's family and other refugees in the Thai camps, their final destination was far from clear. "There was an overwhelming feeling that the U.S. government was going to take care of them," Thao says. "And that wasn't necessarily the case. The U.S. packed up and left. But they had no choice but to resettle people. For sure, everyone felt abandoned or used." In order to be allowed to emigrate to America, refugees were forced to take a "test": Only by identifying a series of U.S. military commanders could you prove that you'd fought with American forces.

In 1980, after five years spent in a series of refugee camps, Thao's family arrived in Minnesota. He recalls: "The first morning, we got up, opened the back door. There was snow out there. We didn't know what it was. Everyone was trying to figure out what it was. They convinced me to find out. So I, being the brave one, ran upstairs and got a spoon, and took a spoonful of the snow and ate it. And as I ate it, I told them it was just ice. So that was our first introduction to America, to Minnesota: eating dirty snow."

Minnesota's welcome was frosty in other ways, too. Thao's family was part of the first wave of Hmong immigrants to the state, and, with wounds from the Vietnam War still raw, the racism they faced was both virulent and omnipresent. Thao remembers his school days as being punctuated by playground fistfights: "One: We looked different. Two: We were poor. Three: We didn't speak English. So you had two choices: You could take it, or you could fight back. Every now and then, I'd fight back."

Thao's paintings reflect this painful adjustment. In one, a Minneapolis housing project is represented as a lawless free-fire zone, with gangsters shooting it out in the streets and anti-Hmong graffiti defacing parked cars.

Thao's description of his childhood follows the outline of a classic, first-generation immigrant narrative. At home, he was a dutiful son helping to raise his younger brothers; at school, he was a scrapper and an Eagle Scout. But Thao wasn't the only one making a hard transition. Thao's father, once a governor in Laos, took two jobs, working on an assembly line during the day and as a library janitor at night. Thao and his brothers would often pitch in to help with the latter. That his father was able to swallow his pride and do what was needed to support his family made a profound impression on Thao. Many other Hmong leaders and veterans found such work too much of an indignity to bear.

"As a young guy, my dad and I talked a lot about issues important to the community," says Thao. "I understood the importance of public service from him--that sense of responsibility to the community around you."

At the University of Minnesota in Morris, Thao studied political science. But, after an internship at the state Capitol left him somewhat soured on politics, he began taking art classes as well. After graduating, he worked with a variety of community arts organizations, including the Hmong theater group Pom Siab Hmoob. Thao started with the troupe as a scenic designer, but eventually found himself acting in productions as well. It was while on tour with Pom Siab Hmoob that Thao met his wife.

Thao likes to say that politics drove him to art, and art drove him back to politics. He already had experience as a fundraiser for Pom Siab Hmoob. Running for public office, he reasoned, would be a kind of trial run, a way to engage the community in the political process. During his first bid, in 2000, Thao achieved limited local celebrity with his homemade "Cy the Cleaner" television spots, in which he chased prostitutes down University Avenue while waving a broom. "You have to create something crazy to catch people's attention," he says with a slightly sheepish grin.

Thao lost that first election, though by a closer margin than anyone had expected. Two years later, he ran again and won, becoming only the second Hmong politician to take a seat in an American legislature.

 

While still in college, Thao happened across Tragic Mountains, journalist Jane Hamilton-Merritt's account of the Hmong genocide. He was affected, in particular, by one of the book's illustrations, a sketch of Pathet Lao soldiers raping and decapitating Hmong villagers. This unspeakably brutal scene is actually eyewitness testimony, described by an illiterate Hmong survivor of the massacre. Printed neatly beneath the tableaux of torture and murder are the names of the victims.

The drawing immediately reminded Thao of a Hmong story quilt. It was in the refugee camps that Hmong women first began stitching images of the war, he explains. Traditionally, paj ntaub embroidery had been decorative, a vocabulary of colorful geometric patterns woven into Hmong clothing. After the exodus from Laos, Hmong women, having no language in which to write what they'd seen, used the old art of the "flowering cloth" to record their recent history.

At first, they were encouraged to sew scenes from the war as a kind of therapy; later, when those images proved too gruesome for the Western aid workers who bought the tapestries, the women turned instead to producing pastoral scenes of village life. "They think, 'What can I do to sell?'" Thao says. "In the camps there's no other way to get money, so they just do what they have to to survive."

Thao's first paintings were heavily influenced by these quilts. One, a scene of Communist soldiers burning a village and murdering Hmong children, even borrows elements from the drawings in Tragic Mountains. Though Thao's family left Laos relatively early, before the worst of the atrocities, he was able to reconstruct key events both from his own memories and from those of the survivors he interviewed. What emerges in "The Hmong Migration" is a collective memory of the war.

Although Thao began by painting scenes from the conflict--the Gordian knot that binds the Hmong diaspora--his ambition eventually widened. "I started off with the stuff about the war in Laos, but as I tell one piece of the story, I feel the need for two more pieces to connect with it. It's like a puzzle."

In 1996, Thao spent five months in China studying Hmong history and folklore. Then, in 2000, he received a Bush Artist Fellowship that allowed him to spend a year working exclusively on his magnum opus.

"The Hmong Migration" begins, in fact, not with an image of death, but with the Hmong creation myth, about a butterfly who lays eggs. From these hatch all the creatures of the world. Thao illustrates the story with disarming directness. The narrative's episodes are laid out in a clockwise circle: the butterfly falling in love with its own reflection in the river, the hatching of the tiger, and, finally, the birth of the Hmong people.

Some of Thao's paintings are impressionistic rather than strictly narrative. There is, for instance, one rather lovely picture of a Hmong woman standing shoulder-deep in a yellow- green field that stretches toward distant mountains. Even this serene image, however, reflects a complicated history: In French colonial days, Thao explains, Hmong farmers were forced to grow poppies to supply the flourishing French opium trade.

As Thao's project grew, he decided to include scenes from contemporary Hmong life. He painted a tableau of factory workers, inspired, he says, by the assembly line where his parents worked when they first arrived in Minnesota. At the back of the factory is a small door leading to a cool green landscape--the promise of an easier future, Thao says. There is a darker side to American life, as well: an image of a drive-by shooting, and a picture of body bags being removed from a family home. "There's a lot of medical needs," Thao sighs. "Suicide. Depression. Trauma from the war, or from being in a refugee camp for 10 or 15 years. It's a big social issue. People just get so lost in this system."

 

In 2001, after he finished "The Hmong Migration," Thao rented a big tent and held an informal exhibition in the parking lot of a University Avenue supermarket. He saw one man studying his painting of the infamous 1975 massacre near the bridge at Hin Heup, where government forces murdered many evacuating Hmong civilians. In Thao's painting, a haggard line of refugees in traditional Hmong dress winds out of the green mountains. As soldiers open fire, some of them flee into the woods; others leap into the river or fall dead in the road. The man at the opening, Thao recalls, pointed out the exact spot where his wife and children had been standing, and where they ran when the shooting started.

Later on, Thao noticed a different man staring silently at another of his paintings. "I went over to see him--not saying I was the artist or anything--and asked him, 'Of all these, what one is the hardest to look at?'" The man pointed to the scene of the burning village.

"I think the older generation appreciated the fact that someone else went through what they went through," Thao says. "And maybe this will be an opportunity to share with their kids, so the kids get to see the stories of what their parents went through. For me, when my parents talk about crossing the river, I was there so I can understand what they're saying. This is a way for younger kids to visualize their parents' stories."

He continues, "When I paint, the ultimate goal is to connect all these dots and then share that with the Hmong community. See, the young people here don't really know what happened to the Hmong in China, and the Hmong in Laos don't know what happened in China, and the Hmong in China don't know what happened to us here in America."

Thao even harbors hope that his paintings might eventually find their way to China, so the Hmong there will finally know where the long road ended.

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