Central Valley

Cost caps on Hmong dowry tradition debated

The price of a Hmong bride appears to be dropping -- at least among the younger generation of Central Valley Hmong Americans.

In Hmong tradition, the families of the groom and bride negotiate a "dowry" or "wedding gift" paid to the bride's family, which can run from $5,000 to $10,000. The dowry is seen as a form of respect to the bride's family because she will join a new family and clan through marriage.

But in 2005, a national council representing the 18 Hmong clans said a bride's dowry should cost no more than $5,000.

Some families complained that they couldn't afford a dowry of $10,000 or more and that dowry costs were causing strife between families.

At Fresno's Hmong International New Year Sunday, young men seemed to favor the cost reduction, but their girlfriends and fiancées said it is still a tough sell with some parents.

"For us guys, it's better," said 24-year-old Cher Xiong of Tulare. "We don't have to work too hard to raise the money."

Nou Vue, Xiong's girlfriend, said $5,000 was fine with her. But Vue, 24, wearing a Hmong traditional dress with a black head covering, cautioned that her mother thinks Vue is a valuable bride and will probably ask for a few thousand dollars more.

Vue added, teasingly, that if Xiong doesn't pay what her mother wants, "I just won't cook for you."

Xiong and Vue met last year at Pov Pob, the ball-toss ritual where couples meet at the Hmong International New Year celebration. Since then, they have called each other once a week and talked for 10 hours at a time on the phone.

Vue lives in Oklahoma but traveled to Fresno to see Xiong at the celebration.

Dao Lee of Fresno said $10,000 is a lot to pay for a bride. Lee, 27, paid that sum to marry his wife in 2002. Lee said he respects the custom but prefers spending less for a bride.

"I have two sons. I'd rather pay $5,000," he said.

Lee said it's tough for the groom's family to spend as much as he did for a bride, but some families won't take $5,000 and will demand $10,000.

Peter Vang, 47, a refugee community liaison for Fresno County, said he didn't believe there should be any price for a bride.

"It should be based on how much the husband loves the family," Vang said.

Then he smiled and added: "There should be a price tag for the man too."

His fiancée, Tsong Lee, joked back: "He can't afford me."

But some younger Hmong Americans prefer a hefty price if they are "good girls" who respect their elders and are ambitious.

Mai Her, 21, of Fresno, said she wants a husband who will value her more, so she deserves a handsome dowry.

"I want more. It will make me feel more special. I'm looking for $15,000," Her said.