Hmong celebrate the new year in Merced

MERCED — On a cold, foggy day, thousands of Hmong gathered at the Merced County Fairgrounds to celebrate the Hmong new year.

About 3,000 people were on the grounds by noon Friday, according to officials. The event concludes today at the fairgrounds, 900 Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Near the 11th Street entrance to the fairgrounds, Nou Her, 19, of Livingston and Za Yang, 23, of Merced were tossing a ball back and forth.

Her said tossing a ball, or pov pob, is a way for young people to get to know each other.

"It's just for fun. It helps us meet new people," Her said.

The new year celebration is popular in towns where a large population of Hmong live. There are about 8,000 Hmong in Merced County.

During the new year's festivities, traditional clothing is worn and food that is native to Hmong culture is made and shared.

Thou Vang of Merced has been cooking for the Hmong new year since 1992, when he was just a boy. Vang's family was cooking slabs of pork on big barbecues Friday.

"The new year celebration is important because it's our culture," Vang said. "It's a chance to get rid of the bad luck."

Hmong costumes were everywhere Friday, with toddlers jingling in clothing adorned with faux coins, and older people wearing sequins and intricately sewn garments.

The guest of honor at Friday's celebration was Gen. Vang Pao. He is a former major general in the Royal Lao Army and a leader of the Hmong community in the United States.

The general was arrested in 2007, accused of plotting to overthrow the communist government of Laos. The federal government dropped all charges against Vang in September.

The general spoke to a rapt audience, many of whom taped his speech. He was surrounded by security.

Another speaker Friday was Col. Bill Lair. He was with the Thai Border Patrol Police, sent to Laos by the CIA during the Vietnam War.

"We knew the Hmong would fight the communists," Lair said. "The Hmong have always lived free, in the mountains, and they fought to keep their life the same."

Lair said being asked to the Hmong new year celebration in Merced was an honor. He said he took the invitation to attend seriously.

"The Hmong still believe I am one person who helped them through a terrible time," Lair said.