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My Block: Preserving Hmong culture in Milwaukee

"They are losing touch of the community, and some aren’t even able to speak Hmong [any] more..." Yengtha Vue said.
Posted: 9:28 AM, Aug 18, 2022
Updated: 2022-08-18 15:33:28-04

MILWAUKEE — A Hmong teenager dressed in colorful formal clothes dances while playing a lusheng, a long woodwind instrument. During a Hmong wedding, the groom and his groomsmen dressed in a white button down and black baggy pants bow in front of the bride's family to show respect. An elder in the Hmong community sits back in lawn chair in his backyard and looks off into the distance as he reflects on his life since coming to the U.S. as a refugee.

These are three examples that capture part of the Hmong experience in Milwaukee.

Some members of the Hmong community say their culture is changing. As Hmong in Milwaukee continue to assimilate into American culture, the traditional culture and customs, like wedding practices and dance techniques, are being lost.

Yeng Tha Vue
Yeng Tha Vue works for the Hmong American Friendship Association, and took TMJ4 to a Hmong dance performance, Hmong wedding, and to meet his uncle.

"They are losing touch of the community, and some aren’t even able to speak Hmong [any] more, so it's really hard for them to connect back to their roots," Yengtha Vue said.

Yengtha Vue is a community organizer in Milwaukee. He works for theHmong American Friendship Association as its youth coordinator. He's the one that took us around the Greater Milwaukee area to give us a glimpse into what life is like in the Milwaukee Hmong community.

This edition of the My Block series was filmed over the course of multiple months. We followed Yengtha Vue, who also goes by the name Cloud, to a dance recital in Merton, a wedding on Milwaukee's south side, and to his neighborhood on the city's northwest side. The goal was to document the Hmong community in Milwaukee. What we talked about and who we met was all up to him.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but as the Hmong population grows, some traditional cultural practices are being lost. According to the Applied Population Lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, the Hmong population has continuously grown since they began coming here as refugees in the late 1970's. There are currently 52,233 Hmong-American citizens in Wisconsin according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2019 American Community Survey. That has the most recent information that breaks populations down by ethnicity. There are an additional 5,382 non-citizens in the state. Despite the population growth, the culture is fading.

Preserving the Arts

"Hmong culture is getting very left in the past because new generations are growing and new generations aren't learning about the past," Analiya Xiong said.

Xiong is one of the dancers who went to Merton in Waukesha County to give a performance to the Waukesha County 4-H club. She came with a group of young dancers of various ages to perform and share their culture with the crowd. After the performances, the crowd was invited to participate in a group dance.

That individual night's goal was to offer a cross-cultural exchange between these two groups. But Xiong isn't just dancing to perform. She and her friends are dancing to preserve the choreography, the clothes, and the instruments.

Lusheng performance
Hmong teengers from Milwaukee play the lusheng for the Waukesha County 4-h Club.

"Not as much people do the lusheng any more, so I want to preserve it, and help it grow," Peng Sue Yang said.

A lusheng is a woodwind instrument that has multiple different bamboo pipes that help generate sound.

Peng Sue Yang and about 10 other teenage boys played the lusheng while donning traditional Hmong clothes. Their vests were covered in dozens of coins individually attached to strings.

"The coins on here are basically to tell how much money you have," he said. "It's spiritual richness because not many of us are rich like that."

They clink and clatter as they dance to add a percussive element alongside the lusheng.

A group of young Hmong dancers before they perform for the 4-h Club of Waukesha County.

"Not as much people in our Hmong community (play the lusheng) nowadays, and it's dying off, and I want to help it grow back to where us Hmong people can blow it again," he said.

"The culture is very very pretty and the clothes especially it looks so complex, and it's just so pretty," Analiya Xiong said.

4-h Club
The 4-h Club of Waukesha County poses for a photo with Hmong dance groups from Milwaukee.

For her, she not only feels like she is promoting her culture, but Xiong is connecting with it in an intimate way that only art can allow.

"Dancing for me - Hmong dancing makes me feel a little more closer to my culture."

When the performances were done, the 4-H Club and the dancers all shared a traditional Hmong meal including fried rice, chicken, and egg rolls.

Traditional Wedding Practices

The next place that Yengtha Vue took us was a wedding on Milwaukee's south side.

"And Hmong weddings are declining because young Hmong people are assimilating in America, and I think it's very important to preserve this piece of our culture," he said.

Hmong weddings are full of tradition and gestures. The actual celebration can last for an entire weekend, and that may just be for one side of the family. If the families are from far apart cities, they may do two celebrations: one for the bride's side and one for the groom's side.

Lang Xiong
Lang Xiong is the father of the bride.

One of the most time-intensive traditions is when the groom and his groomsmen pay respect to the family of the bride. A family elder will stand in front of the groom and his friend. The groom and groomsmen repeatedly bow to show reverence to the bride's family. In the case of the wedding we were brought to, the elder said, "we're here to do the wedding and pay respects to the nam ntxawm txiv ntxawm."

The untranslated part is equivalent to the elder saying, 'you are paying respects to my younger brothers and their wives.' There is no direct English translation for these terms.

Other members they will pay respect to are the sister and brother-in-law - puj nyaaj txiv kwj yij or the uncles - puj laug yawm laug. Lang Xiong, the father of the bride, helped with the translations.

Hmong Wedding
The groom (right) and one of his groomsmen (left) bow to show respect to the bride's family.

The groom and groomsmen get up and repeat the process multiple time for each person they are paying respect to.

During the wedding there are many ceremonial gestures too, like the giving of cigarettes. They are always given in twos, which represents the new union of the bride and groom.

"And so let's say I don’t smoke, but he gave me two cigarettes. I have to accept it, and then I can give it back, or I can give it to somebody else who smokes. That’s fine too. But that's the tradition," Xiong, the father of the bride, said.

Also, small portions of beer are poured into shot glasses. At various times throughout the ceremony, all those in the wedding party will drink their cup. Another common practice is the giving of a chicken. It's a symbol of good fortune that is placed at the table of the wedding party.

It is customary at Hmong weddings to give a chicken to members of the wedding party as a symbol of good fortune.

"You have the chicken as one of the animals that can predict what’s happening. Let's say if the feet looks good, the eye looks good, no damage no nothing at all, the feet are turned a certain way. So it's just (part of the) culture," Xiong said.

These are the types of traditions and customs that some are trying to preserve. However, as younger generations are separated farther and farther away from their ancestral roots, there is less of an emphasis placed on maintaining certain traditions.

"More and more Hmong youths are adopting to Christianity and American weddings," Yengtha Vue said.

Understanding the Past

While it's important to understand where the culture is going, it's equally important to understand its past.

"We're a group of refugees that came from Laos to Thailand in the 1980s from the early 2000s, and we settled in Wisconsin," Yengtha Vue said.

According to the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee, the states with the largest Hmong populations are California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. They came to the U.S. as political refugees after the Vietnam War. According the Hmong American Center, the Hmong helped the U.S. government fight during the war. Afterward, the Hmong sought asylum in western Europe and the United States due to fears of retaliation from the Laos and Vietnamese governments.

Many of those refugees who originally came to the U.S. during the 80's are now getting older. That's one of the reasons some of the culture is beginning to disappear. That direct link to their home, customs, and culture is beginning to fade.

"I believe it's very important to raise awareness of our community. We’ve been in America for the last 40 to 50 years, and I believe its time to raise awareness of our culture, and let others know of our existence in Milwaukee," Yengtha Vue said.

Hane Xayboury
Hane Xayboury came to the United States as a refugee in the 1980's.

That's why he introduced us to his uncle, Hane Xayboury. He was a political refugee that came to the U.S. He didn't know the language, but Xayboury took the gamble to come to Wisconsin.

"Why’d you want to come to the United States?" TMJ4 News reporter James Groh asked him.

"The new government, when they took over, because I don’t know anything about it, all I know when they took over I see they killed a lot of people. They hang them to the tree," he said.

Xayboury came from a refugee camp in Ubon, Thailand. When he arrived in the United States he immediately began taking English lessons. While things were obviously difficult, Xayboury made the most of it and was able to raise a family, own property, and live his version of the American Dream.

"Pretty much I got everything I like except an airplane," he joked.

During our interview, he got to cross off one more item off his American bucket list.

"I'm on the news. Everybody I'm on the news. Can you see me? I'm on the news," he said during the interview.

Going Forward

Hmong culture is changing. Some are opting to practice more American customs. However, others are holding on to their past as to preserve it. Some decide to mix the two. Neither is right nor wrong. That's what happens as generations of people are are removed from their home country.

Without a doubt though, the Hmong community in Milwaukee and Wisconsin is strong.

I had one last question for Yengtha Vue.

"Is there anything else you'd like to say about the Hmong community in Milwaukee?"

"I think the Hmong community in Milwaukee is very prideful in a positive context, and we are very strong together."

To be part of the My Block series, email James Groh at You can nominate someone to be part of the series or suggest your neighborhood for a feature.

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