View slideshow Hmong community pays tribute to esteemed general
Residents honors Pao's leadership with traditional, local ceremony
At the funeral of General Vang Pao, held over Feb. 4-9 at the Fresno Convention Center, servicemen sit in the stands to observe the memorial. The event drew thousands of Hmong to pay respect to Pao.
When General Vang Pao ("Phagna Norapamok," in Laosian) died on Jan. 7, the Hmong community wept.
To honor his contributions, a funeral was held locally at the Fresno Convention Center over Feb. 4-9. Thousands of Hmong turned out to see their general a final time.
Pao's historic legacy
Pao is remembered for leading as a Hmong-French, Hmong-Laotian and Hmong-American general. One of his most distinguished accomplishments is directing the Secret Army during the Vietnam War.
The Hmong participation in the Vietnam War started with the encouragement of the CIA, which helped the Hmong begin their training, eventually making them into guerrilla soldiers who defended against Vietnam.
Originally, when the CIA asked Pao to help America during the war, he accepted the alliance on the condition that Hmong refugees would have the opportunity to flee to America if the war was lost. So when America lost the war, hundreds of thousands of Hmong people began fleeing to the U.S.
Many Hmong-Americans today think of Pao's contract with the CIA as a huge contribution to the possibilities Hmong are given in America. While in Laos, a third-world country, a majority of the Hmong were racially prohibited from educational opportunities.
So, because of Pao, thousands of Hmong people reside in America today, my parents being two of them.
According to Congressman Jim Costa, D-CA, the vision Pao originally dreamed of has come to be a reality.
"This vision for the freedom of his people who came to America is alive," Costa said during the funeral. "His vision lives within all of us -- his scream for human rights and human dignities. Gen. Vang Pao's dream is alive. His life was well-lived and we must keep this spirit alive by continuing to live history, our dream, the American Dream."
Traditional funeral honors general
At the funeral service, parking lots were filled with attendees and large photos of Pao were set up in the lobby of the building. White funeral flowers were placed in front of all doors leading into the auditorium and behind the center stage.
In the auditorium, rows of chairs reached all the way to the center stage. A "red carpet" paved the way for speakers. The sound and view of the stage was inadequate for the capacity of people there, and huge screens were needed to help display speakers; a sound system was also available for hearing-impaired guests. Throughout the entire event, many news stations stayed to record the funeral.
During the first day of the procession, Pao's coffin was kept closed until the Hmong rituals, which would begin in the late afternoon.
To honor the General, Mayor Ashley Swearengin, back-right, gives a speech at his funeral. In addition to Swearengin, King Tiao Sauryavong Savang of Laos, Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong and Congressman Jeff Denham turned out to speak at the funeral.
Hmong rituals continued every night and early morning every day after the first. The process of the cultural spirit release ceremony was set up, and qeej instruments were played in mournful song as the now-lessened mass of Hmong visitors gathered around to watch. Though a 24-hour program, many people remained at the funeral through the night.
Distinctive guests attend memorial, reminisce
During the funeral procession, some of the most important Hmong figures showed up. These included King Tiao Sauryavong Savang of Laos and Fresno City Council member Blong Xiong.
The turnout also included Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Congressman Jeff Denham, R-CA, and a number of former CIA personnel.
Xiong said the impact the general has made on the Hmong people will continue on through future generations and that those who attended the funeral help to benefit the future of the Hmong community.
"To my colleagues, the mayor, elected officials, [to everyone] across the country: it is this type of support that the general has worked hard to build," Xiong said at the funeral. "Your friendship and support have been a tremendous help as our community transitions more. General Vang Pao is gone from this earth, but his spirit remains in the hearts and minds of his people."
Many different Hmong organizations, including the Miss Hmong Pageant, turned out to help at the funeral. Adorned in the cultural clothing style, Kasia Yang, a Miss Hmong Pageant participant, gave out free water bottles to the attendees all day.
"The goal is to come out and help the Hmong community," Yang said. "I feel really good. I feel like the Hmong community, in times of trouble, can come back together to love, care for and carry [each other]."
"His legacy will be everlasting. It reflects his leadership and his accomplishments. Most of all, it reflects his service to the country and the community." --Congressman Jeff Denham
A fellow soldier of Pao, Boua Hue Vang, who served from 1960 to 1975, says he will always remember pleasant memories he shared with the general.
"We've served since 1960 and we still today [figuratively]," Vang said. "We are here to honor and watch over this funeral."
Though the memorial had a sorrowful atmosphere, I sensed the great feeling of hope that Pao left behind for the Hmong community. In Lieutenant Colonel Tong Chumeng's speech about Pao, he spoke of the hope of another Hmong leader to live up to Pao's legacy.
"Beyond language, beyond culture and beyond time, we are here today because of Vang Pao," Tong said. "We will not see another like him for a long time."
In addition, Denham said this funeral showcased the appreciation and devotion the Hmong community had toward their general; they still remember his ability to lead, to encourage and to bring hope to all.
"His legacy will be everlasting," Denham said in his address. "It reflects his leadership and his accomplishments. Most of all, it reflects his service to the country and the community. Gen. Vang Pao is more than an iconic figure, he's a hero to those who fight for democracy."
For more information on the funeral procession, visit the memorial daily program or watch it on Hmong TV Network. For more coverage of the Hmong culture, read the Jan. 13 article, Hmong New Year celebrates culture.