For thousands of years, the Hmong have been a migratory people, moving from places to places, spreading over the Northeastern and Southwestern part of China. They once had their kingdoms on a swath of territory that straddled present-day Guangxi, Hunan, Hubei, and Henan provinces. As population growth as well as the resulting scarcity of resources and economic conflicts increased, problems with Imperial China also rose. Military clashes became inevitable. By the end of the nineteenth century, the Hmong began to migrate and settle in the highlands of today’s Southeast Asia, notably Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and Myanmar. This journey southward from China to Southeast Asia was difficult, dangerous, and long, and the Hmong experienced tremendous hardships, including starvation and death. Still, some Hmong chose to remain in China, mostly in the highlands of Yunan and Guizhou, where they were commonly known as “Miao” in Chinese.
In 1893, the Kingdom of Laos became a “protectorate,”or colony, of France, which began to send explorers to investigate the highlands, where they encountered Hmong villages. As the French began to intrude farther and farther into the interior of Laos, the Hmong found that freedom was restricted and they were heavily taxed by the new colonial government. It was not long before the French and the Hmong collided. The Hmong of Laos rebelled against the French in 1896. In this struggle, a charismatic and messianic Hmong leader named Pa Chay Vue organized his people for a hard-fought resistance, and it took the French almost four years to end the conflict. Although the French defeated Pa Chay, the Hmong had demonstrated their resilience and power. The French thus believed that they had better to have the Hmong as an ally than an enemy. Meanwhile, the cooperation of Hmong proved critical for the success of the French colonial enterprise’s narcotics trade until the Pacific War.
After World War II, the Hmong renewed their rebellion, and this time the French packed up and left the region. The decade after the war was an unstable and chaotic time in Southeast Asia. As the communists in North Vietnam began to attack South Vietnam, the Hmong who now resided in Laos, became involved in this conflict. America’s conduct of the war in Vietnam in the early 1960s involved training local people to defend themselves from attacks by communists, and in Laos these communists were called the Pathet Lao. The U.S. government employed its Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to gather important information, which began to make friends with Southeast Asians who might be helpful, and many of these friends were Hmong. The Hmong were also highly skilled at the rescue of American pilots shot down by North Vietnamese and Pathet Lao soldiers, as well as in the protection of American radar sites inside Laos.
From 1960 to 1975, this struggle continued, and a Hmong leader named Vang Pao emerged. As the Vietnam War accelerated, Hmong villages were invaded, burned, and abandoned, while all males of fighting age—some as young as twelve or thirteen—were forced to join the fighting. In this way, thirty thousand Hmong men lost their lives.
Hmong women and children were affected, too, for these and the elderly were uprooted from their villages and resettled in “safety zones” in lowland cities; strange places to them in which they had never before lived. The change of climate and the loss of a familiar setting were a source of unhappiness, yet Hmong families were forced to move from one settlement site to another, always in conditions of fear and danger.
In 1973, the last American soldiers returned home from the war in Southeast Asia, and, in 1975, the communists took over all of Vietnam and Laos. The Hmong who supported the Americans were now without supplies, support, or protection. Some of the Hmong, the lucky ones, had already been provided refuge in the United States, and had begun making new homes and new lives. Others were left behind to take care of themselves.
Many chose to flee although the journey was a frightening and dangerous one; through dense jungles filled with mosquitoes and other insect pests, poisonous snakes, and wild animals. Still, thousands of Hmong fled Laos in 1975 in an effort to become refugees in Thailand. At last, those who had successfully arrived at the border of Laos with Thailand were confronted by the broad expanse of the Mekong River. This was yet another problem, for most Hmong did not know how to swim. Many Hmong arrived at the river where there were no boats, and so they built bamboo rafts, while others tied bamboo logs under their arms to help them float. Many drowned.
From 1960 to 1975, this struggle continued, and a Hmong leader named Vang Pao emerged. As the Vietnam War accelerated, Hmong villages were invaded, burned, and abandoned, while all males of fighting age—some as young as twelve or thirteen—were forced to join the fighting. In this way, thirty thousand Hmong men lost their lives. Hmong women and children were affected, too, for these and the elderly were uprooted from their villages and resettled in “safety zones” in lowland cities; strange places to them in which they had never before lived. The change of climate and the loss of a familiar setting were a source of unhappiness, yet Hmong families were forced to move from one settlement site to another, always in conditions of fear and danger.
In the end, those who were able to finish the journey arrived in Thailand, where refugee camps awaited them. These Hmong arrivals were placed in seven towns: Nong Khai, Nam Phong, Ban Na Yao, Ban Vinai, Chieng Kham, Ban Napho, and Pha Nanikhong. These refugee camps were not at all comfortable. Yet, if the Hmong went back to Laos they might be arrested and put in prison, or killed. There was no choice but to stay: although these camps were crowded and there was no way to make money, there were no schools, and there was nothing very much to do. Yet, the Hmong slowly began to adapt. Schools were built and handicrafts became a source of income.
Eventually the American government stepped in, and agreed to permit those living in the refugee camps of Thailand to make a new life in the United States. Thus, in 1976, thousands of Hmong began to emigrate to the U.S., as well as to France, Canada, Australia, Argentina, French Guyana, and Germany. Today, the Hmong live all over the world; some in China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, others in the United States, Canada, French Guyana, Argentina, Australia, France, and Germany. Of the nations of the West, the United States has the largest Hmong population, estimated to be three hundred thousand. The three states which are home to the largest Hmong populations are California, with approximately seventy to ninety-five thousand; Minnesota, with about fifty to seventy thousand; and Wisconsin, which is now home to around fifty thousand Hmong. North Carolina has the fourth largest Hmong population, at approximately ten to twelve thousand, while Michigan ranks fifth with seven thousand. Other states are home to anywhere from one thousand to five thousand Hmong.
Cha, Dia, Mai Zong Vue, and Steve Carmen. Field Guide to Hmong Culture. Madison, WI: Madison Children Museum, 2004.
Quincy, Keith. “From War to Settlement: How Hmong Have Become Americans” in Vincent K. Her & Mary Louise Buley-Meissner, eds., Hmong and Americans: From Refugees to Citizens (St Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2012), pp.59-77.