The Hmong in Australia

By: Catherine Falk


The Hmong were an ethnic minority of approximately 300,000 people or one tenth of the population of Laos, to which they fled in the mid-nineteenth century from their original homeland in the mountains of southern China. The history of the Hmong in China can be dated to at least the 23rd century BC; it is one of constant rebellion against the Han Chinese more recent times, a Hmong uprising against Chinese rule began in 1855 and was finally repressed in 1881, resulting in a mass migration of some 10,000 families to North Vietnam, Laos and Thailand. The Hmong started to leave Laos in 1975 where, through social and political turmoil because of ongoing wars in that region of South-East Asia, they had suffered over twenty years of dislocation of their traditional life. Over l00,00 Hmong have been resettled in the West with the largest group in America. Australia has just over 1500 and 500 of them live in Melbourne.

The Hmong are frequently referred to as Miao or Meo, a term the Hmong reject. The Hmong differentiate themselves by various characteristics including the sharing of clan names, aspects of women's dress, some dialect differences and the different rituals that they performed.

To understand the effects of resettlement in Australia, it is necessary to know what being a Hmong implies. The Hmong way of life was centred around agriculture in mountainous areas. Their language has mutually intelligible dialects, and they believe in ancestor worship and animism. The Hmong social structure is based on kinship ties through patrilineage and clan systems, a patrivirilocal pattern of residence, and the division of labour according to family membership and sex. They share a strong sense of economic and political self sufficiency and a long tradition of being stateless, without a written language and in a minority relationship with a dominant culture.

Dr Pao Saykao, one of the leader of the Melbourne Hmong community, points out that the Ho Chi Minh trail, the umbilcal cord connecting the North Vietnam and South Vietnam during the Vietnam war, ran literally through Hmong backyards. Most Hmong were drawn into the Vietnam war by default. Some help the Americans who wanted to cut the supply trail. The Vietcong, on the other side, also use the Hmong to help them to keep the trail operating. At the end of the war, the Americans lost the war and those Hmong who sided with the US were left at the mercy of the communist Government. By 1976, the victorious Communist leaders endorsed that the Hmong must be eradicated if there were to be peace in Laos. The new government wasted no time to get rid of the Hmong, using various means, including chemical warfare known as " Yellow Rain ". This is the reason that over 100,000 Hmong flee the country to become refugees.

The Hmong seek freedom not for the individual but for their kin and clan group as this is central to Hmomg ethnicity. Due to the remoteness of the northern Thai refugee camps combined with the Australian immigration policy, most Hmong refugees, fearing being stranded in Thailand, seek resettlement elsewhere. As a consequence, the Hmong families in Melbourne are separated from family members who have resettled in other distant countries.

Jacques Lemoine, sees the whole Hmong history as an effort to save Hmong ethnicity:

Hmong refugees are faithful to their ethnic past. Since the dawn of their history, as part of the Miao group of peoples in China, they managed to escape the fate of assimilation. This is the key to explain their political attitudes in Indochina since they fled and settled there in the mid-nineteenth century. Their involvement in the two Indochinese wars, their early upsurge against the French colonial system in the l920s, as well as their latest resistance to (the) Vietnamese and Communist Laotians ....even their political mistakes, have been dictated by the same collective urge to preserve Hmong ethnicity... they did not come to our countries only to save their lives, they rather came to save their selves, that is, their Hlmong ethnicity. (Lemoine 986:337).

A Hmong cannot exist without his kinship group and knowledge of its ritual system. Hmong social groupings are the product of kinship organization and its manifestation through the rituals of ancestor worship.

The fortune of an individual or a family depends on close observation of ancestral reverence, geomancy and kinship networks. A Hmong's religion cannot be divorced from his social grouping, and his relations with other people are meaningful mostly in terms of his ancestral rites. (Lee l981 :59).

Hmong social structures are organized around the family or household circle, the family or lineage, the subclan and the clan. They are concerned mostly with ritual activities in regular agricultural under takings, in times of crises, at New Year, at weddings and, most importantly, when there is a funeral.

The household is the basic unit of economic life and consists of the male head of the household, his wife, his sons by birth or adoption and their wives and children and their sons and wives and children. Marriage is clan exogamous and unmarried daughters are referred to as 'other people's women', as they will eventually marry and leave the household to live in another( clan.

A lineage can be distinguished from a subclan or a clan by the number of common ancestors worshipped by various households. All dead members of a consanguinal group are invoked by name during ceremonies such as the New Year, name giving after birth, or harvest. Offerings are also extended to all local spirits, both wild and tame, and to the lost souls of people who died without being discovered. Women join the lineage of their husband on marriage and cannot return lo their father's lineage even if widowed or divorced Mutual dependence exists between the living through their common ancestors; between the dead and their living descendants through the bond of blood relationships across the generations; and between the current generation and those yet to be born.

The clan groupings divide the Hmong under various clan names. It is a focus of group identification. It unites people into kinship groups and provides assistance in times of crisis. Upon meeting, Hmong men will establish other's clan by exchanging names; they will then establish if there are further kinship link by inquiring about their wife's clan. If they share a common surname, they will need to establish if they share a common subclan. Subclans can be differentiated by the number of plates in which portions of offered meat are placed. For example. in the ox spirit ceremony which an ox is sacrificed as an offering to the dead parents of a household head, the meat may be distributed in 10 large bowls and 5 small bowls; or 30 large and 3 small; or 33 large and 3 small bowls. Similarly, differences of distribution are found in the door spirit ceremony in which a piglet is offered to the household door to ask for protection for domestic animals. Prescribed variations in different combinations for the distribution of the offerings determines subclans. Two men can determine a common subclan if they share the same manner for the construction of graves. Some subclans have taboos. The Yang, for example, cannot eat animal hearts, the Lee cannot eat pancreas. One Thao clan prohibit the women to touch any fire, including electricity for a period 5 to 7 days after birth of a baby.

Lee (1981) cites the names of 12 major clans in Laos and Thailand; Catlin (no date) gives 20 clan names. In 1984 there were seven clans present in Australia. The Lee had 19 families with 5 lineages; the Yang had 16 families with 4 lineages; the Vang had 13 families and 3 lineages; the Thao had 10 families with 3 lineages, the Xiong and Vue each had 3 families and 1 lineage, and the Moua had 2 families from one lineage.

The strong sense of identity a Hmong gains from his membership of the household circle, lineage, subclan and clan is clearly threatened by two aspects of resettlement: first, the conflicting claims of the new country and second, the immigration requirements of the new country. Families are usually young and small in number because of the Government policy of admitting a household with at least one skilled or educated member, who are generally ignorant of religious practices. Older people who come to Australia are transplanted from an existence where they fulfilled a vital economic and leadership role working in the fields, foraging or cooking and educating the younger generation. In their new environment they tend to stay at home alone all day.

Many do not speak English and also tend to be non-literate in the Hmong language. Not only do they loserespect in the eyes of the younger generation but they are also out of touch generally with the interest of the rest of the household, particularly when it comes to watching television.

Dr Pao Saykao reports that the older Hmong are both happy and sad: happy and proud that their grandchildren are gaining an education and that materially the family is successful, but sad that it is so difficult to maintain a belief system through regular ceremony and ritual. Pao says that the true feelings of the Hmong can be found in the cassette tapes of songs which are sent back to relatives in the camps in Thailand. The songs on the tapes express the people's feeling and, as Pao comments, 'Asians don't talk about their feelings but songs are unrestricted.' Amy Catlin, former director for the Center for Hmong Lore at the Park Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, has translated the following song by a 68-year old Hmong, Chia Chu Kue.

Our country fell and belongs to the others now
But we still feel that we have relatives left behind
For this reason we cannot swallow food or water,
Nothing will go down in to our bodies
Why does this year seem different than other years
Because we all escaped from our countries
We had to prepare the three sheafs of rice before leaving
We wanted to escape and now we have thrown our country away
Leaving it to be cultivated by the others
We left the war behind and no longer hear the sound of the battles
We came to live in this country so we must be friendly with the neighbours in the city
Then they will give us land so that we can again work in the fields
My love, my sweetheart, the methods of the people here are great
The people in this country have many great ideas
That is why we have come here
Their knowledge is more and more, great and great
But we cannot talk
In our minds we think that we cannot learn all their methods
We feel angry
And we wish that we could change into a bird or an insect
Flying and singing in the mountain forests
Then we could fly back to visit our old villages and homes.

It is perhaps not surprising that much of the literature emanating from the USA about the Hmong concernsissues such as " Guidelines for Mental Health Professionals to Help Hmong Clients Seek Traditional Help';'Hmong Perception of Illness and Traditional Ways of Healing'; 'Sleep Disturbances and Sudden Death of Hmong Refugees'; 'Processes of Identity Maintenance in Hmong Society' and 'Autopsy and its Effect on the Hmong' .

Between 1976 and 1978 about a dozen Hmong families came to Australia, joining the vanguard of people who had come to Australia to study in the 1960 and early 70s under the Colombo Plan. Some specific problems arose which led to the establishment in August 1978 of the Hmong Australia Society (HMAS). It had five main objectives:

1. to assist Hmong refugees in their settlement in Australia,
2. to foster mutual acceptance between Hmong and other ethnic groups,
3. to uphold Hmong cultural traditions,
4. to safeguard Hmong interests in general,
5. to be a centre in which Hmong around the world can contact each other.

The HMAS supplemented its work with specific committees for welfare, education, culture, religion, public relations and fund raising, and it also publishes a newsletter, mostly in transcribed Hmong, but with some articles in English. As Gary Lee, who was the first Hmong person to gain a PhD in Australia, points out:

faced with only a residual social structure among its members, the HMAS tries to promote mutual support across clan boundaries by insisting that Hmong refugees assist each other on the basis of their common ethnic background rather than membership of a lineage or clan . . . it is clear that most of the concerns (of the committees) reflect a conscious attempt to put Hmong culture values into practice in a new environment in the virtual absence of kinship networks which traditionally oversee these activities. The HMAS, thus, replaces the social structure by being a focal point for members to fall back on in time of celebration or crisis. (Lee l984:18)

In 1981 the leaders of the Hmong community is Australia presented a case in verbal evidence to the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defece. Include in their submission were various reasons why there was such a low level of acceptance and intake of Hmong into Australia. Those reasons were:

1 . that the Hmong are a primitive and illiterate people and may not be able to adapt to
urbanised Australia
2. that Australia has no historical ties with the Hmong, as compared to the Vietnamese,
3. that the Hmong are a low pressure group
4. that the Hmong have a poor settlement record in America, and thus they may be like wise in Australia

Point 4 is an issue of particular contention. There is a fundamental difference of policy between Australia and the United States. Australia has a policy of multiculturalism, where as America 's policy is one of assimilation, which depends entirely on church and community sponsorship. The new arrivals come into early contact with systems which cause them to doubt the relevance of their traditional beliefs. In Australia, the policy of multiculturalism with strong government support services encourages ethnic groups to maintain their cultures 'without prejudice or disadvantage', 'to embrace other cultures' and to acknowledge 'common values which give all citizens a sense of being Australian'. (Report of Post-Arrival Programs and Services for Migrants [the Galbally Report], Migrant Services, Aust. Govt. Printing, Canberra, 1978, p.4).

The Hmong have conscientiously attempted to implement this policy and to consider themselves as Australian Hmong, with a unique contribution to make to their country of settlement. Many have taken Australian citizenship. Not only are they successful materially- an indication of their self-sufficiency- in terms of ownership of homes and cars, but also they are sufficiently confident to carry out some religious ceremonies, such as 'soul calling', 'wrist stinging', shamanic trance and the playing of reed pipes at New Year celebrations and during funeral rites.

Dr Pao Saykao says that one cannot die as a Hmong without the khaen the reed pipes, being played to instruct the soul on its journey to join the ancestors in the world beyond. This instrument is the symbol of Hmong ethnicity. When a Hmong youth was asked to draw about his arrival in Australia, he produced a picture showing a kangaroo playing the khaen against a background of the Sydney Harbour Bridge; neatly and intuitively combining three symbols of two cultural backgrounds.

The Hmong in Australia face a number of specific problems, for example, the small size and relative youth of their community. They accepted before coming to Australia that because of the exogamous clan rule that marriage to non-Hmong was inevitable. A further problem is the scarcity of people skilled in the arts of healing, soul calling, ritual, funeral incantation, and the playing of the reed pipes, which are essential to the feeling of being Hmong. Finally, the conduct of the funeral ceremony has had to be modified in many ways in order to accommodate Australian law and customs, for example, it is not appropriate to sacrifice an ox in a housing commission flat. Hmong solution to these problems in their new country will be discussed in other articles on this Resource Page.


Copyright 1994 Catherine Falk
This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. Request and inquiries concerning reproduction rights should be directed to Catherine Falk Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

Full references available on request from: Cathy_Falk.MUSIC@mac.unimelb.edu.au


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