Saying goodbye to 2016’s misfortunes and welcoming in 2017, Hmong New Year kicked off Friday at the Merced County Fairgrounds in a day filled with dance, culture and food.
The three-day celebration has been held at the fairgrounds for more than 20 years, and other locations before that, and marks an important time for the Hmong people. It’s organized every year by Merced Lao Family Community Inc.
The new year celebration is the most important event in Hmong culture, and a time when people look to shake off any bad luck before hoping for a prosperous future, according to Keith Vang, the president of the Merced nonprofit.
“This is the main event we celebrate throughout the world,” he said.
He also welcomed a number of dignitaries at the opening ceremonies, asking them to return Saturday and Sunday with their families and children. He noted the Saturday celebration takes on a party atmosphere.
The day started with a ceremony under an arch that read “Nyob Zoo Xyoo Tshiab” – the Hmong words for “Happy New Year.” Chong Vang, son of lauded Hmong Gen. Vang Pao, shared words of encouragement with Merced Mayor-elect Mike Murphy before officially marking the opening of the celebration.
“The contributions of the Hmong community to our city are abundant and they enrich all of our lives,” Murphy said in his speech. “Merced simply wouldn’t be as great without you.”
An estimated 6,000 to 8,000 Hmong call Merced home, according to Hmong leaders, which makes it the third-largest Hmong population center in the state, behind Sacramento and Fresno.
This year has been considered the 40th anniversary of the Hmong migration to the U.S., a marker noted earlier this year by the Hmongstory 40 exhibit, which also was housed at the fairgrounds.
The Hmong people originally are from the mountains of Laos, China, Vietnam and Thailand. They were recruited by the CIA to fight during the Vietnam War, and many emigrated as war refugees after the U.S. left the region and communists took over Laos in the 1970s.
Hmong came to the Merced area as refugees and their descendants have been able to prosper, according to Hub Walsh, a Merced County supervisor.
“Today we have supervisors from the Hmong community,” he said. “We have city council members, doctors, lawyers, judges, all from the Hmong community.”
The festival is full of cultural games, food, dances and more through the weekend. Lucy Chang, 17, of Merced was there Friday, decked out in Hmong clothing covered in brightly colored stitching and jangling coins.
She said food and family were the best part of the celebration.
Standing next to her in a circular head dress outfitted in dangling green gems was Tina Moua, another 17-year-old from Merced. She said family would be coming from Minnesota and Oregon to celebrate.
“I get to meet my friends. My family is coming from another state,” she said. “I get to keep in touch.”
Hmong New Year
When: Saturday and Sunday
Where: Merced County Fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way
Cost: $4 for admission; $5 to park