As we wrap up 2023 by gathering with friends and family, members of the Hmong community across Fresno are gearing up to welcome 2024 with the annual Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration.
By Trong Yang
Home to California’s largest population of Hmong people, Fresno hosts the largest Hmong New Year’s event in the United States. It will run Thursday through Sunday (Dec. 31) at the Fresno Fairgrounds.
Everyone is welcome to enjoy four days of activities, entertainment and — of course — the delicious array of traditional Hmong food.
“I love the Hmong New Year. I always take my mom and my two sisters every year,” said Chue Vang, a former Hmong dancer and regular attendee at the Hmong New Year Celebration. “I go to the other ones, like in Merced, too, but Fresno is the best.”
The Hmong community in California dates back to the era of the Vietnam War, when the ethnic Hmong of Laos and Thailand, who joined the United States’s effort to fight communists, ended up fleeing repression in Southeast Asia. Drawn by the agriculture in California’s central San Joaquin Valley, many settled in and around Fresno.
After establishing themselves locally and finally finding peace, many set a goal to preserve Hmong culture and traditions. Thus, the Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration began in America.
Originally celebrated in Laos and Thailand, the annual event takes place once the harvest season ends, usually from November to December. The end of harvesting work allowed Hmong people to travel from their villages to gather in celebration for the end of the year and bless the new year to come.
Hmong New Year Is a Celebratory Feast
Hmong New Year is also referred to as Noj Peb Caug, pronounced “noh pay chow,” which translates to “Eat 30” — a reference to the celebratory feast and the end of the year’s final month. (Would you like to learn Hmong? Courses are offered at Fresno State.)
The celebration includes string tying, known as Khi Teb, pronounced “key thay,” when a parent or elder ties a red or white blessing string around a child’s wrist or ankle while reciting wishes of good fortune. Khi Teb is followed by several ceremonial steps, typically performed by families in their homes, including honoring one’s ancestors with offerings of traditional foods. In the United States, celebrations have evolved into public events that include displays of pageantry, singing and dancing, traditional activities such as ball-tossing, and athletic games.
While Hmong communities are spread throughout the United States, members stay in close touch with one another and travel to attend local celebrations. In California, Hmong New Year gatherings begin in October in smaller cities like Oroville and Stockton, with each drawing hundreds of visitors each year. Celebrations run through the end of December with the final event in Fresno, which is expected to draw thousands from around the nation.
The traditional foods available at the celebration include the famous Hmong sausages, sticky rice, papaya salad and more. Vendors will offer traditional clothing and crafts representing the many different styles and patterns found in Hmong culture.
The Hmong Inc. Takes Over New Year Celebrations in Fresno
Planning such a major celebration usually takes a full year. This year, however, organizers had only a few months to pull everything together.
The event has, for years, been organized by a series of local groups. But this year, the contract to run the celebration was open for bidding. Leaders of the Fresno County Fairgrounds, where the celebration takes place, oversaw the bidding process and, in June, they awarded the contract to a new operator, the nonprofit group The Hmong Inc.
Under terms of the deal, The Hmong Inc. agreed to pay $109,755 per day to host this year’s four-day event, which generates revenue from attendance tickets and vendors. The group will have the opportunity to extend the contract through 2027.
“The award was made back in June. We barely have time to get things rolling,” said Toulu Thao, the CEO and president of The Hmong, Inc. “Six months is very difficult to run a big event, but I am pleased that I have my team.”
Thao said The Hmong Inc.’s team of community members, ranging in age from 20 to 65, has been working nonstop to make sure that this year’s celebration will be a success.
Thao, who recently retired from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said he was inspired to take on the responsibility as a way of giving back to the community.
“Approaching my retirement age,” Thao told Fresnoland, “I found that it was a good time to go back to doing what I love, which is helping people.”
A native of Laos, Thao was 16 in 1982 when he arrived in Fresno, where he saw all of the opportunities and doors opened for Hmong people. Unfortunately, he said, he also saw injustices and the exploitations of his people, which motivated him to dedicate his work to keeping the community safe and strong.
“I saw a lot of Hmong struggle here facing injustices so I decided to advocate for the Hmong people,” he said.
Thao earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, becoming among the first Hmong refugees — if not the first — to do so, he said. He went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration and leadership from Pacific University and a doctorate in education from UC Davis/Fresno State.
“I hesitated to work with HUD but I went so I could accumulate more knowledge and help more people,” he said. “I ended up staying there for almost 25 years.”
Thao says this year’s celebration will be one of the biggest for the Hmong community and the country. The event has drawn a lot of interest from vendors and performers, Thao said, with many continuing to reach out to him even as the date of the celebration draws near.
A Strong Focus on Event Security
One of the top priorities on Thao’s list is ensuring the safety of everyone participating in or attending the celebration. Previous years have seen incidents of unruly groups disturbing vendors.
“I am working closely with the police department and will have cameras and security all over the camp,” Thao said. “I’m going to hold everyone who causes problems accountable.”
Organizers, he said, will ensure that this year’s celebration remains focused on family and culture.
“There is love in the Hmong culture; we need to show this more,” Thao said. “Peb Hmoob zoo zoo,” he said. “We are good people.”
Details on the 2023 Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration in Fresno are being posted on The Hmong Inc.’s Facebook page.
Fresnoland is a nonprofit news organization dedicated to making policy public.