Thursday, April 16, 2009
Frangchi Fangchia Vue, who acts as a marriage mediator and facilitator to American Hmong couples, says many younger Hmong disdain traditional resolutions.
After correctional officer Steve Lo was shot to death in his garage last October, his affair with another man's wife became the business of the justice system investigating the killing.
But in the months since, elders in the Hmong community have asked this question: Could the death have been avoided with the intervention of traditional Hmong justice?
Lo's mistress had been married to sheriff's Deputy Chu Vue for 16 years. A month before the shooting, she filed for divorce.
Now Vue, who maintains his innocence, awaits trial on murder charges along with two of his brothers, with the affair cited by law enforcement as a potential motive.
For centuries Hmong clan leaders and village chiefs have brought troubled couples together in mediation, levying fines and extracting apologies along with promises to end affairs and return to spouses.
That tradition continues in California, where some Hmong couples in crisis still go to clan leaders to mediate disputes. Sometimes it works; sometimes the affair persists and the couples get divorces.
But traditional Hmong justice never was sought in the case of Deputy Chu Vue and Steve Lo, according to clan leaders, others familiar with the two Hmong families and Lo's widow, Sia Vang.
"All of this was never brought to the table," she said. "If it was, he wouldn't be dead today."
Hmong mediation on wane
There are 18 Hmong clans identified by their family names, including Vang, Vue, Lo and Ly. Not all Vues are related – in Sacramento, there are three distinct Vue sub-clans from different parts of Laos.
Any mediation would have had to start with Chu Vue and his clan leaders, said Hmong elders, who would have contacted clan leaders for Steve Lo and Chia Vue.
The clan leaders for the wronged spouse "go to his wife's clan and the boyfriend's clan for a three-way talk … and decide who started it," Pa Xiong Vue, a Hmong shaman and the leader of Chu Vue's clan, said through an interpreter.
"We would find exactly the starting point before a match turned into a grass fire."
Pa Xiong Vue has mediated at least 100 troubled marriages in Laos, Thailand and Sacramento. He noted that the more educated Hmong don't often rely on clan leaders anymore.
Chu Vue is the son of a shaman and speaks Hmong, said Pa Xiong Vue, 61. But his family came to the United States from the Laotian city of Luang Prabang much earlier than Pa Xiong Vue and are better educated than those who came later.
Professionals like Chu Vue and Steve Lo believe "I have a lawyer, I have money, I don't depend on elders any more," Pa Xiong Vue continued. "I was willing to help if they asked, but in this country there's nothing we can do if they don't."
Chu Vue, he said, never asked.
Dowry helped solidify vows
For thousands of years, the foundation of Hmong marriage has been the dowry, or bride price – a sort of insurance policy the groom pays his wife's family to guarantee the couple's success. It's also the foundation of marital mediation.
The dowry, negotiated by elders from each clan, is to ensure "you have to stay together and not cheat on each other," Pa Xiong Vue said.
"If the dowry is $6,000 and the wife cheats on the husband, she will have to pay $3,000 back and the other man will have to pay at least the other half to the wronged husband," Vue said.
Unlike Western marriage counseling, which is based on the philosophy that blaming goes nowhere, who starts the affair is key to Hmong justice.
If "the young lady starts the affair, she will be fined double," Vue said. If a married man initiates an affair with a married woman, "there would be a much heavier penalty – he would have to pay back the whole bride price because he violated it three ways: his wife, the other husband and the other wife."
Along with fines, the lovers also have to publicly apologize. "It makes them better people," Vue said.
If the other man doesn't agree to the clan leaders' ruling, the wronged husband has a right to seek justice himself, Vue said, including asking the lover to pay back the dowry.
The husband can tell the lover, he said, "take my wife, pay what I paid before, or I might have to take you down."
T.T. Vang, another Sacramento Hmong leader, said that violence rarely ensues: "Ninety-nine percent will agree to pay the penalty."
Western influence blamed
Among local Hmong leaders, the question of why affairs and divorce are more common here is a matter of much debate, with many pointing fingers at the influence of the West.
Marital problems increased in the 1960s, when the Hmong were recruited by the CIA to fight against communists in Laos during the Vietnam War, according to Pa Xiong Vue. Then, he said, "the husband was at the front and the wife is cheating at home."
Even then, the majority of those who violated marriage law by starting affairs were men, Vue said, But, he added, in this country the wife often starts it.
Frangchi Fangchia Vue, a shaman and math teacher from Luang Prabang, attributed the low divorce rate back in Laos to a more insular life.
In Laos, "a couple goes to work on a farm and they don't have the chance to meet different people the way they do here in America," he said.
Other clan leaders said American women entering the work force was a turning point.
"Here in America, women have to go to work and many spend more time at work than at home," said Koby Vang, director of Sacramento Lao Family. Vang noted that Sacramento clan leaders mediate more than 10 marital conflicts a year.
Chu Vue's wife, Chia Ly Vue, worked with Lo at the Correctional Medical Facility in Vacaville. She has told investigators she was having an affair with Lo, but she declined to talk to The Bee last week.
Lo's widow, Sia Vang, said she didn't know how the affair got started or who initiated it.
"I know my husband has a good head on his shoulders and if he knew she was already married and had kids, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and say he didn't make the first approach," she said.
She and her husband "didn't argue, we didn't fight, but we worked different shifts – he would work the morning shift and I would work the swing shift. Other than that we didn't have any problems."
Younger Hmong use courts
Whether the prescriptions of traditional mediation stick in America is a matter of some debate among local Hmong leaders.
Tong Pao Lo, a Sacramento expert on Hmong culture, said mediation generally works for Hmong over age 30.
However, Koby Vang, 56, said clan intervention doesn't always work. He himself is divorced after a traditional mediation failed, he said. Even after the clan leaders get involved, he estimated more than half of their cases end in divorce a year or two later.
He blamed Hmong men, who he said tell the women they are having affairs with: "Here in America there is freedom, you can do what you want to do."
As a shaman, Frangchi Fangchia Vue has helped negotiate dowries for dozens of weddings in this country and knows of many American Hmong couples with marital problems.
He's mediated some of those martial disputes, too.
"I act like a judge: Let's do it, solve it and make it end," he said. "But younger people usually go to court and don't care about traditional Hmong resolution."
Though he's not related to Chu Vue, Frangchi Fangchia Vue's daughter, Khou Vue, is one of eight Vues arrested in connection with the alleged plot to kill Lo. She is out on bail, accused of aiding and concealing Chu Vue's brothers, who hid out on a piece of property linked to her.
Even though he's seen success with mediation, Frangchi Fangchia Vue is skeptical that Hmong justice would have helped in Chu Vue's case.
"Things got out of hand here," he said. "I don't think the Hmong culture would have been able to resolve this."
Clan edicts not enforceable
One of the problems Hmong elders have encountered in this country is there is no way to enforce their remedies, either culturally or legally.
Clan leaders "can't make you do something you don't want to do," said attorney Jerry Chong, who represented a Mien man who found his wife cheating with a Hmong man "and asked for an intervention from the Hmong elders.
"He wanted the Hmong guy to apologize publicly. … He said, 'This is a small community, everybody knows and I have no respect and I've got to do something about it.' "
The clan leaders organized a meeting "and everybody was waiting but the Hmong guy didn't show up," Chong said. "He refused to apologize and continued to humiliate him so the Mien guy hired a hit man who turned out to be an undercover police officer," Chong said.
Koua Lor Franz, executive director of the Hmong Women's Heritage Association, says Western justice could help bolster Hmong justice.
She suggests that Hmong agencies and Sacramento courts certify the Hmong clan mediators so their rulings "have some teeth so we can work together to enforce them instead of waiting until someone commits a crime."
Case splits families
The stakes in the Chu Vue case extend beyond the two couples directly involved, and Steve Lo's widow fears it could turn future romances between their clans into Romeo-and-Juliet scenarios.
More than 100 Hmong came to court for Vue's arraignment March 30. Most were members of the Lo and Vue clans and each clan kept largely to itself.
"Right now, the Lo and Vue families are not happy with each other," said Sacramento Hmong leader Zong Chou Vang.
Clan mediation would have extended into the legal system in Laos, Vang said, giving a measure of justice to both sides.
There, Vang said, Chu Vue would have had to divorce his wife "if she didn't listen to the clan leaders." But, he said, they also would have "deducted five to 10 years from his prison sentence" if he were convicted in Lo's death, because Lo was guilty of adultery, too.
The hard feelings are "going to be an ongoing issue," according to Sia Vang, Lo's widow.
"If a Lo kid falls for a Vue kid, people will try to break them up and if the marriage is allowed to go forward, they will raise the dowry," she said.
"It's going to be a forever issue and it's really sad and pathetic."