Monday's Hmong Day is a cultural showcase and community get-together
ST. PAUL - How do you say "State Fair" in the Hmong language? Same way everybody else says it: State Fair."We're Minnesotans, so we participate in all sorts of Minnesota events, like anyone else," says Tou Ger Bennett Xiong of Woodbury, founder o...
ST. PAUL - How do you say "State Fair" in the Hmong language? Same way everybody else says it: State Fair.
"We're Minnesotans, so we participate in all sorts of Minnesota events, like anyone else," says Tou Ger Bennett Xiong of Woodbury, founder of the annual Hmong Minnesota Day at the Fair - which is Monday, Sept. 4. Now 44, Bennett Xiong says he has been going to the Great Minnesota Get-Together for more than two decades.
Early Southeast Asian immigrants to Minnesota, which Bennett Xiong dubs "the Hmong capital of the United States," may not always have been able to afford to go to the Fair. But the longer the state's 80,000 Hmong have been here, the more likely they are to attend, says Bennett Xiong, who organized the first Hmong Day in 2015 to honor the 40th anniversary of Hmong people coming to Minnesota.
"We'll showcase a variety of cultural and contemporary Hmong-inspired art forms for Minnesota fairgoers. And it's not just for the Hmong community. This is also a day to show greater Minnesota that we are here and this is our story," Bennett Xiong says. Booths near the event's Dan Patch Stage will provide information about Hmong culture and crafts, as well as educational materials about the day's theme, "We Can Do It: Celebrating Hmong Women."
A comedian, motivational speaker and - when he slips into his shiny pantsuit - the Hmong James Brown, Bennett Xiong will get up offa that thing to emcee Hmong Day, including a variety show from 11 a.m to 2 p.m., which will touch on many aspects of his culture. All day, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., the Dan Patch Stage will feature a cast of about 150 Hmong performers: martial artists, spoken-word artists, beauty queens, musicians and dancing grandmas.
"I call them the Dancing Hmong Mothers. That's a Hmong translation," jokes Bennett Xiong, who's organizing Hmong Day with the help of 400 volunteers. "They're in full costume and they do Hmong-style line dancing."
The Hmong answer to the electric slide, the line dance is likely to extend into the crowd, says Bennett Xiong, because the Dancing Hmong Mothers not only dance their achy breaky hearts out, they also demand audience participation.
On the other hand, powerlifter James Vang will be doing a demonstration that's strictly don't-try-this-at-home. At about 150 pounds, Vang can dead-lift four times his own weight, which Bennett Xiong says makes Vang "the strongest man in Minnesota, pound-for-pound."
Tsab Mim Xyooj won't be doing any heavy lifting, but the singer, known as "the Hmong Celine Dion" for her international reputation and decades-long career, is one of two headliners in the late afternoon. The other is Kassie Chang, an up-and-coming Hmong hip-hop artist.
Bennett Xiong says he expects about 10,000 Hmong to come to the Dan Patch Stage for all or part of the day.
That would be a significant portion of the state's Hmong population but, he says, "We say to our community, 'If you're going to go to the Fair anyway, come on that day in honor of your cultural heritage.' "
It's a pretty easy sell, says the comedian, because Hmong love a festival.
"In Southeast Asia, in the refugee camps, we had the water festival, Boun Nam. It's kind of like a national Water Balloon Day, where you can sprinkle water on people as a blessing, for good fortune," Bennett Xiong says. "All day, you can't really get mad if you're wet because it's Water Day. As a kid in the camp in Thailand, I remember it going for a week or two, actually, and there would be carnival rides and a midway. So that's the first fair I remember seeing."
Similar activities are featured at Minnesota State Fair, of course, which is one reason Bennett Xiong believes the Hmong community has embraced it.
In fact, a single-day attendance record was set on the first Hmong Day in 2015. It was eclipsed the next year but, while it held, you could argue that it was Minnesota's Hmong population that helped put attendance over the top.