In 1980 Madison’s first Hmong New Year celebration was held at Meriter Hospital.
“Back then we had five Thaos, one Chou, two Yangs, one Cha and one Lee. This is how few there were,” says Vang Cha Xieng Thao, who attended that first celebration. Today, over two thousand people attend Madison’s annual Hmong New Year, now held at the Alliant Energy Center.
Currently holding the record for being the Hmong living in Madison the longest — 38 years — Vang Cha Xieng Thao came to Madison from Thailand in 1979. When it was time to celebrate the Hmong New Year, the few Hmong living in Madison invited Hmong families from neighboring towns to join them in the festivities. Thao says they invited Hmong living in Milwaukee, Appleton, Green Bay and Rockford, Illinois.
“When we had the New Year and invited people to come, we did it for free,” says Thao. “The first five years after that first New Year, we continued to do it for free… Everyone made their own food and shared it together. We didn’t have it like we have it now today.”
Madison’s current Hmong New Year celebrations consists of traditional clothing, music, food, entertainment, beauty pageants, and singing and dancing competitions. A Hmong New Year celebration wouldn’t be complete without the community’s iconic mingling activity, the Ball Tossing game pov pob. The game was traditionally a matchmaking activity, but today it’s just a fun way to mingle.
In the evenings, the New Year hosts a dance, typically referred to as the After Party. Hall D in the Alliant Energy Center holds traditional entertainment and music for the older generation, while another hall holds a DJ stand catered for the young adults and teenagers. In its early days in the early 1980s, Madison’s Hmong New Year did not have the resources to be celebrated to such a large scale.
Born in 1980, Madison resident Chondu Xiong says she remembers the new year being “held in the summertime, and it…was like a tournament sport, with the ball tossing.” Amund Reindahl Park “use to be the designated place (for the new year when I was in elementary school), and it was exciting because we’d have soccer, volleyball, and the traditional (Hmong kickball game).”
Wisconsin Hmong Association’s current Hmong New Year Chair, Chue Feing Thao, recalls that in the late 1990s several Hmong community leaders wanted to improve the new year celebration to “be more appropriate for the community.” They agreed to move the Hmong New Year celebration to the Alliant Energy Center within the following years.
The first few years of the Hmong New Year being at the Alliant Energy Center consisted of a single hall, two or three Hmong vendors, one food vendor, and even the attendance of General Vang Pao in 2003-04.
“I believe (the new year has always) been a public event ever since it’s (existence), but… before we moved to the Alliant Energy Center, it was kind of a small event, so many people (didn’t) know about it. And so they thought it was more personal,” says Thao. He estimates that the attendance of Madison locals at the Hmong New Year began increasing once the event shifted to the Alliant Energy center due to the advertisement at the center’s billboard.
Traditionally the Hmong New Year celebrates the end of harvest season. It comes from a time when most Hmong were located in Indochina, and it was a time for young Hmong adults to mingle, showcase their wealth and take a break from working on the hillside farms.
Today in Madison, the Hmong New Year is celebrated on Thanksgiving weekend, and mingling among the young adults is no longer the Hmong New Year’s priority. However it continues to give the youths “a chance to see their friends constantly for two days,” says Thao.
With Wisconsin Hmong Association undergoing new renovations within the organization, Thao shares that the upcoming new year celebration this November will also be getting an update of their own.
Thao describes that there will continue to be vendors, a food court, ball toss area, and a main stage with performances and pageants, however, he explains that the event space will be expanded by an additional hall in the Alliant Energy Center. Plans for this fall’s upcoming Hmong New Year to have more vendors, a larger food court and a secondary entertainment stage are already set in motion.
During his four-year term as Hmong New Year Chair, Thao and the Madison Hmong New Year Committee plan to have a specific educational and interactive theme at each New Year event. He states that this year, his first year, will be focused on Hmong life in the US, following Hmong life in Thailand, Hmong life in Laos, and ending his term in 2021 with Hmong life in China.
The committee hopes to be able to bring speakers from each country to share their experiences, and “update (the Hmong in Madison on the) status (of the Hmong living) between each of these countries,” however Thao is unsure if the budget for the Hmong New Year will allow the organization to host the speakers.
Thao emphasizes that participation at this year’s Hmong New Year is their main priority. “This year we invite everyone who wants to participate to participate,” says Thao, “(we want everyone) to be more interactive. And once they participate, we have (gifts) for them.”
Thao explains that there will be additional educational and interactive activities for all ages, and poses a possibility of a Hmong spelling bee. The Hmong New Year Committee will be awarding prizes worth up to one hundred dollars for people participating in the interactive activities, such as the Ball Tossing game.
“(As) part of the Hmong community as a group of people, we have to do something to be recognized throughout the city,” says Thao. “When we came to the US, we don’t wear… our (Hmong) clothes every day, but during the New Year we wear those (clothes)… that is sometimes a time where you can become a real Hmong… be who you are.
Thao states, “Everyday you want to wear those costumes, (and) at the New Year you can come and sing the Hmong traditional song, you can Ball Toss, you can (play) some Hmong instruments… and you (can) actually see a lot of Hmong people you can speak Hmong to! That is sometimes important. I think that is important for our children …(to be exposed) to the larger group of Hmong people.”
“It doesn’t matter who you are. (If) you are (from) a different clan, (or) belong to a different family, you can come and celebrate together,” says Thao. Even if you are not Hmong, Thao states “(It’s) for everyone. (The Hmong New Year is) pretty much for the whole community in Madison … the New Year is (a) traditional bridge (to bring)everybody together.”
I Am Madison is funded by Madison Community Foundation as part of its Year of Giving.