Visiting the Exhibit

Vinai: Hmong Refugee Experience is located in the Commerce Building at the Fresno Fairgrounds. The free exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (except Christmas Day) until Jan. 1.

Kaying Vang was 13 years old when her family fled Laos in 1975 and joined the “endless line of Hmong families,” trekking south, towards Vientiane and Mekong.

She and her three sisters walked, while her younger siblings had to be carried. She remembers their swollen and blistered feet and despair and being so tired they fell asleep on the side of the road.

Vang’s story includes details of the treacherous journey – traveling only at night to hide from the Laotian soldiers, extremely high temperatures and muddy roads; it rained so much. She remembers being caught in a gunfire as her family and hundreds of others sprinted across a bridge over the Hin Heup River, and how the “entire bridge was littered with sandals, mud and blood.”

More than 50,000 refugees were either killed or drowned trying to cross the Mekong River between 1975 and 1990. 

Kaying Vang’s story is one of the accounts of Hmong refugee experience on display in a multi-faceted exhibit presently going on in the Commerce Building at the Fresno Fairgrounds.  The free exhibit is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., except Christmas Day, until Jan. 1 — the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration.  

Exhibit details horrors of escaping persecution

The exhibit tells the story about how the Hmong people lost their land and the horrors they encountered during their journey to escape persecution.

“It tells the journey of Hmong people from the highlands, all the way to war, to crossing into Thailand and coming to America,” said documentary filmmaker, Lar Yang, who is the project director of the exhibit. “It’s about different aspects of experiences.” 

Lar Yang, a documentary filmmaker and project director of the Vinai: Hmong Refugee Experience. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez

Spread out over 25,000 square-feet of space in the Commerce building of the Fresno Fairgrounds, the “Vinai: Hmong Refugee Experience” exhibit features creative work, including art and writing inspired by the Hmong American or refugee experience, and previews the full exhibit coming in 2025, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Hmong odyssey which started in 1975 with the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Lar Yang narrated a woman’s story about her husband who had fought in the “American Secret War” and lost a limb, recalling his feeling of abandonment and betrayal. He, a once brave fighter who had been heavily involved in the war, felt lost when his family moved into the refugee camp and he became a nobody, and “then, you’re kind of a troublemaker, any kind of merits, titles, military ranking that you had in your country, you dissolve all of it, because now you’re entering another country illegally without any rights.”

That man’s experience is not isolated. “A lot of men would eventually develop diseases of the heart, dying in their sleep, from diseases of torn hearts and things like that,” Yang said. 

Then there is the story of Jerry Daniels,  the last CIA case officer who championed bringing the Hmong soldiers who had fought with the CIA to the U.S.  “About 3,000 people got to come (to the U.S.) in 1975, but they’re all through his signature,” Yang said. “That’s why he’s kind of visible, because he’s symbolic, and he’s legendary. He spent most of his adult life with the Hmongs, and when he died, his mom said, ‘Well, he belongs with the Hmongs’, so they did our traditional Hmong funeral.”

Part of everyday existence of the refugees is knowing that their host country did not want them. 

“Thailand is tired of so many refugees; they don’t want more refugees. And so they started a policy they call ‘humane deterrence’ – part of which involves never giving anyone enough food to eat, and making the conditions as uncomfortable as they can in the refugee camps so that more refugees will not want to come in.” 

Erica Hagen, former Hollywood actor, is featured prominently in the exhibit.   

She was just traveling through Southeast Asia and visited a refugee camp in the North of Thailand called Ban Vinai with about 30,000 Hmong refugees living there. 

“I fell in love with the Hmong people. I just moved into the camp with a Hmong family. 

We lived in our bamboo house with the grass roof, and there was no electricity and no running water. And I stayed there for a year and a half. I was teaching English and training teachers,” Hagen said in a video recording featured in the exhibit.

The guerrilla fighters in our secret army

The exhibit answers questions surrounding the Hmongs’ participation in the Laotian War, their flight from their homeland and eventual resettlement in America. 

Hagen, the American actress who lived in Ban Vinai, explained that the Hmongs became refugees, ”because they were America’s allies during our civil war in Laos.”

She explained that during the Vietnam War, “our government was conducting a secret war in Laos, and we didn’t want to send our troops there, so we went in and recruited the Hmongs and some of the other hill tribe people to be the guerrilla fighters in our secret army.”

From all accounts, the Hmongs fought bravely, holding off Viet North Vietnamese patrols that were coming down into Laos and lost tens of thousands of lives, Hagen said. 

“We promised them that if they would help us fight a war that we would help them afterwards, no matter what happened; we made a lot of commitments to them. And so when the United States pulled out of Southeast Asia in 1975 and Laos, the communists began a campaign to try to wipe out all of them,” she added.

“So they (Hmongs) had no choice because they were allies, except to flee; they had to leave the country, or they would be killed. They couldn’t stay in the refugee camps in Thailand; Thailand won’t let them stay, and so they had no choice but to go to a third country.”

The Hmong exodus started in 1975, shortly after the fall of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and the departure of Americans, who had used Hmongs as their surrogate army – fighting and preventing Communism from consuming the country of Laos.  

According to information in the exhibit, most trekked to Thailand and were accommodated in Ban Vinai, the oldest and largest refugee camp in Thailand.  It contained nine camps, and, at its peak, housed 42,000 Hmongs. 

“Thailand would become the largest international refugee crisis in the world, resulting in the largest resettlement of Southeast Asian, non-European refugees in U.S. history,” a banner in the exhibit states.

A Hmong story cloth – a story telling technique, similar to picture writing — allowed refugees to tell their horror of losing their homes and family, on display at Vinai: Hmong Refugee Experience. Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez

An immersive experience

“When you come in, we want you to feel like you’re part of the process,” Yang, who curated the exhibit, said. “So we thought about how we can create experiences that everybody can share collectively.”

A visitor’s first encounter is the Immersive Story Cloth experience – an animated version of a hand-woven story cloth – simulating a dark tunnel, complete with chirping insects and gunfire noise, recreating the flight of the refugees from their homeland. 

“This experience creates ambiences of what it’s like to cross the river at night, hearing the river or hearing the animals,” Yang explained. “So when you come into this tunnel, it’s simply symbolic of crossing the river; a lot of people drowned.”

The Refugee’s Interview Room displays copies of the piles of forms that each refugee, including children, had to complete.  This flows into Inside Refugee Home depicting the sparsely furnished space inhabited by refugees who made the furniture themselves – a bamboo bed and not much more. 

“You can’t get water anytime of the day; it is only allowed two hours in the morning, two hours in the evening time, and so, getting water was a huge part of the struggle,” Lar Yang explained the photo in Vinai: Hmong Refugee Experience, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez

Refugee Camp Mailroom featured communications amongst family members who were separated by the war and their hope and sometimes, despair, through audio cassettes.  

“Back in the late 70s to 80s, when phones were really expensive, the main courier of messages were audio cassettes,” Yang explained. “So families would kind of voice their concerns and their hardships and their stories and their struggles back and forth and how much they missed each other.”

Visa applications for Hmong refugees entering the U.S. Credit: Heather Halsey Martinez

The Leaving for America Room shows what it’s like for people to depart from a place that they’ve called home for years.

“When they left, a lot of times, people were afraid that they would never see each other, and it would be almost like a funeral,” Yang said. “So people felt the future was just bleak and black. And they didn’t know what America was like, and they never thought they would see their families again.”

“If you don’t have a history, you don’t have a soul”

Lar Yang, who has devoted his life to preserving and telling stories of the Hmong experience was born in Laos in 1974, a year before the war ended.  

“I came to the United States in 1980 at about six years old, but part of this whole experience was not knowing why we’re here in America,” he explained. He was determined to find out.

“At that time, our history was classified . . .there was hostility towards us and we did not understand why we were protected. We couldn’t ask or talk about our history. It wasn’t readily available. I think, kind of growing up, I had the natural interest to want to dig into my own personal history. Those questions just kind of led to all this stuff.”

But this (the exhibit) is just the starting point, Yang insists. He has the next few years of activities planned out.  

After the Vinai experience of 2022, the 2023 exhibit will be about the Hmong in America – history plus stories of Hmongs in America, 1975 to 2025 and beyond.  The events are scheduled in Fresno from December 2023 to the Hmong New Year of 2024.

In 2024, the focus will be the Secret War Experience, featuring history and stories of Hmong in the Secret War. The events are in Fresno scheduled from December 2024 to the Hmong New Year of 2025.

The grand event in 2025 will include the Legacy Exhibit and Conference. The events are scheduled in December 2025 at the Fresno Convention Center. 

“You can’t be a complete person without your history and understanding your history. I think it’s easy to be in America and to want to pursue your career and material things and all that stuff,” Yang said. 

“But if you don’t have a history, you don’t have a soul. It’s a tree without a root.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.

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