Thursday, November 6, 2008
By Bethan Jinkinson
BBC's East Asia Today, in French Guiana
Txong Fong Moua was one of Cacao’s original settlers and a veteran who fought with both the French and the Americans against the Vietnamese.
"This is a picture of me with my gun. That is me, and that is my younger brother… We were very good fighters, and we killed a lot of Vietnamese."
Go to page to see more pictures
Asia's Hmong ethnic minority has been scattered by hardship and warfare for centuries, but one of its most unusual destinations was French Guiana in the Caribbean.
"The Hmong people have never had a country before," says Txong Fong Moua, one of the founding members of the Hmong village of Cacao, inland from the capital Cayenne.
"All we ever needed was a forest, somewhere to produce vegetables. We built everything from scratch, all our houses, our farms, everything, until it became our new home."
The French Guiana link goes back to the 1970s, after Hmong refugees were left behind when their US allies pulled out of South East Asia. Many fled to Thailand, and some were later resettled overseas by France and the US.
The first group of 45 Hmong arrived in Cayenne in 1977. They were transferred to a new plot of land in the Amazonian jungle, which they called Cacao. Since then, nearly 2,000 Hmong have settled in French Guiana.
Txong Fong Moua arrived with 13 members of his family.
Thanks to Hmong traditions of marrying young and having large families, he now has 84 living descendants.
He lives with his wife, his daughter and son-in-law, and their two children, in a traditional Laos-style wooden house.
Like most of Cacao's houses, it is sparsely furnished but also contains many hi-tech gadgets, like satellite dishes and a widescreen television - evidence that the Hmong in French Guiana have done extremely well for themselves.
Although they make up only 1% of the population of, they now control 70% of the country's agriculture.
"Before, in Laos, we grew food only for our own families to eat," said Joseph Toh, one of Txong Fong Moua's son-in-laws.
"But when we came here, we needed money to live, and to make enough to sell. So we moved from simple farming to more advanced farming technology," he said, demonstrating an irrigation system he had set up on his land.
Using these techniques, as well as pesticides and herbicides, the Hmong have managed to carve out pristine farms from the rainforest.
The Hmong sell a wide variety of fruit and vegetables at the weekly produce market in the capital, Cayenne, earning around $500-600 dollars per trip.
Although the fruits of their labour are well received by the local population - their tasty rambutans sell out quickly - people were initially wary of the Hmong.
Demonstrations were organised in the capital Cayenne prior to their arrival, as the locals were worried that the Hmong would steal their jobs.
But perhaps because the Hmong have largely kept themselves to themselves, the locals seem to have accepted their presence in the country.
This self-sufficiency and self-reliance has left them somewhat isolated from the wider community, and this can cause problems.
"Hmong men are very shy," says Vietnamese born Ly Ngoc Lan, who teaches creative arts at Cacao elementary school.
"They rarely marry outside the small community, and as a result many people are marrying people who are basically relatives, cousins or even aunts and uncles," she said.
Another problem that the community has is that the work ethic is so strong, education often takes second place.
"Because the parents work so hard on their farms, they are more focussed on that than their children's education. As a result, not many of them go on to higher education."
Perhaps because many of them had to leave everything behind when they fled Laos after the Americans pulled out of the war, the Hmong are very focussed on earning money.
The Hmong have been running all their lives", says Ly Dao Ly, Cacao's village baker. "Maybe they feel that even though they are citizens here, they might have to run again, and so money is their security."
Madame Ly is a strong believer in keeping Hmong traditions alive in Cacao. In between baking croissants and baguettes for the village, a trade she learnt in France, she teaches traditional Hmong dancing to the children.
"I am worried that if people work too hard, they won't have enough time to teach their children our ancient traditions," she said.
However, some Hmong traditions appear to be alive and well in Cacao.
Animals such as buffaloes are still regularly sacrificed for big celebrations like weddings, where traditional dress is worn by many guests.
Hmong handicrafts and embroidery sell well at the weekly Sunday market which attracts people from around the country.
Embroidered cushion covers depicting the Hmong exodus from Laos across the Mekong river into Thailand provide an example of how the Hmong's recent history is being preserved by the women of Cacao.
Religious beliefs, though, have shifted. Although traditionally animist, Christian missionaries have been active within the Hmong communities in French Guiana for years, and as a result, church attendance is extremely high.
Even the young people of the village attend two or even three times a week.
Although some of the elder people in the village said they would like to go back to Laos to visit, most of the younger generation seem to have less desire to find out where they have come from. They are more interested in travelling to America and France, both of which have sizeable Hmong communities.
"Laos is not stable," said one Hmong farmer in his twenties.
"If you are Hmong there, they can cut your head off. Here we have laws, we have liberty, democracy, we are free."