As we approach the end of the year, many different people of all different cultures use the shifting of the seasons to celebrate the year and welcome in the coming year. That was the focus on the weekend of Nov. 5-6 at the Alliant Energy Center as members and friends of the Hmong community gathered to celebrate the Hmong New Year. The event was very successful in drawing the interest of the community with about 9,330 attendees throughout the two days and about 2,500 attendees for the Night Party to end the celebrations.
G Thao, chair of the New Year Committee tasked with organizing this year’s affairs, was proud of the accomplishments across all aspects of the event and was simply happy they were able to fit everything in over the two days.
“We finished on time, which was our ultimate goal this year,” Thao told Madison365. “In the past, we’ve always ran over time or didn’t run according to schedule, so we were happy that we did run on time. All the competitions were grade A when it comes to the level of competition. All of the winners were crowned and awarded, so all of that went very well. We had, at one point in time, approximately a little bit over 4,000 people as far as headcount.
“Not as much as Saturday, but we had a fairly good amount on a Sunday,” Thao continues. “For our vendors, a few sold out on Saturday, and they just didn’t have any more inventory. So we were down a few vendors for good reason.”
Food vendors set up shop along the side of the Alliant Energy Center’s Exhibition Hall and people were eager to try out the selection of culturally inspired foods and beverages. The hall was completely opened with plenty of seating and a large space in the back that goods and services vendors occupied along with many different organizations and entities such as Freedom Inc. and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Many attendees were dressed in traditional Hmong clothing and partook in traditional cultural activities through dance, performance, or games. The excitement in the room could be felt as the process of reflection on the year and hope for the year to come spoke to the historical and cultural significance of the Hmong New Year.
“The New Year has really surfaced around, from a timing perspective, an end to the harvest season, so we celebrate the closing of the harvest season and honor our ancestors,” explained Thao. “Back in our country, it was a time for friends, families, and communities to get together, and it was a time for courtship. People would come during the New Year to showcase talent.
“Obviously our generation and the younger generation haven’t really all adopted the traditional singing, but we’ve adopted the ball tossing,” Thao continued. “We really opened up the New Year with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. We did the ribbon-cutting ceremony outside where the floral gates were at the entry. We had the Hmong 18 council president show up to help us open it alongside Brenda Yang [who serves on the Dane County Board of Supervisors]. They both opened it up by cutting away the old ribbon, and then opening up the doors with the new ribbon. What that means is that we’re cutting away the previous years mishaps, and anything bad we want to be cleansed, we’re cleansing it away. And then we’re going to welcome in the new year with a free clean slate.”
The appreciation of elders is also an important aspect of the reflections done through the new year celebrations. Thao spoke to the importance of recognizing elders who have worked in positions such as religious leaders, community supporters, and keepers of culture while also working to find spaces of compromise and understanding between those elders and the younger generations in the Hmong community.
“One interesting statistic that I was able to pull out not long ago is that the average age of the Hmong community is approximately about 19 years old,” said Thao. “We are young. Our community is young…They are the future of our community. It’s so critical now how we pave the way for this upcoming youth. That, to me, was very interesting, and the growth overall in Wisconsin over the last decade. The Hmong community and population has experienced a 40% growth over the last decade.”
Due to the growth in the Hmong community, Thao was especially concerned with facilitating an increase in the presence of the community within Wisconsin at large as Madison and Dane County’s Hmong communities are some of many throughout the state. Members of the Hmong community present at the New Year such as the principals of Lakeview Elementary and DeForest High School, Nkauj Nou Vang-Vue and Pheng Lee, respectively, represent the presence already had throughout the Madison community at large. With the New Years Celebration reflecting a fresh perspective on leadership, helping the Hmong community connect with each other and community resources is one of the services Thao was hopeful can be continued.
“I’m just speaking from my experience, and this is taking a look from my lens,” Thao said. “A lot of our leadership in the past in our community has created some gaps, because a lot of our leaders serve, but they also are looking to be served. I think that that’s where some of the breakdowns happen, especially for the youth. That’s where things get broken down. They don’t understand all the little finite details that go into the services that are provided by the elders, and then there’s a breakdown in the expectations from the youth and those types of things. From my perspective, I lead with the idea that I’m not looking to be served, I’m looking to be of service.”
Due to the Hmong New Year being one of, if not the only traditional Hmong holidays, it was imperative to Thao that the event was designed to be enjoyed by all. Activities such as a rock-climbing wall as well as the toys sold by vendors kept many of the younger children occupied while older participants enjoyed community activities and making connections. Importantly, all attendees had the opportunity to see for themselves what kind of businesses and organizations have come from the Hmong community itself to carry on supporting them after the event.
“We traditionally never really went out and had any intentions for building partnerships with the local, small Hmong businesses in town,” said Thao. “This year, our intention was to say, ‘Hey, come show our community that you guys have a business and how we can support you as a community.’ So this year, we allowed them to all have free tables at our New Year. We understand you’re a small business, and we don’t want to burden you with additional fees and things like that just to showcase what you want to do. We don’t want to add another wall for you to have to climb over to just get exposure. We want you to come in and get exposure free and clear. Not only that, we’re going to build behavioral activities that will drive people to your booths, so that they will want to come there and interact with you.”
Thao was sure that the benefits from connecting people to goods and services within the Hmong community itself were good for everyone involved. With such a young population looking to only grow more in Wisconsin in both presence and representation, it is important that there is an awareness of the Hmong community along with their wants and needs. This is especially important for the big businesses or entities that are looking to welcome in the Hmong community as consumers, creators, and participants across diverse fields.
“For me, we have a growing population, and essentially, they’re going to use some of your services,” Thao assured. “Not now, and maybe not five years from now. Maybe 10 years from now, or maybe 12 years from now. How early do you want to show them that you are part of their lives? How early do you want to show them that you’re part of their community? How early do you want to build your relationships with these individuals that are essentially going to be future customers of yours? How do you give back so that you are investing in the right things that will help propel your charitable giving goals and endeavors? We can work around those types of things. Big corporations all have good intentions, and that’s my baseline from all the big corporations and big donors. For me, it’s always, how do we get you in early and build the right branding around our community?”
Being seen in the community and as part of the community reflects in the availability of services, goods, and experiences that are culturally relevant. Events such as this year’s Hmong New Year celebration demonstrate why these conversations will continue to be important as the Hmong community in Madison and across Wisconsin continues to grow and showcase why they deserve to be acknowledged. G Thao’s lasting words were ones of hope and conviction after what turned out to be an amazing and successful New Year celebration.
“I would like to give a message to our Hmong community,” said Thao. “When I say our Hmong community, I’m including every one of any ethnicity that has any ties to our Hmong community. It could be a friend, a brother, a husband, or a wife, or anything of that sort that has any connection to the Hmong community. I want to let them know that we hear you. We will continue to advocate for your needs, we will continue to be of service to you, and we will help connect the dots so that our community continues to be resilient and thriving.”
To learn more information and see some of the performances for the 2022-2023 Hmong New Year in Madison, check out their Facebook page here.