Sheboygan Opens Hmong Sportsmen Club

Monday, August 30, 2010

Hmong Americans celebrate the birth of a club that's the first of it's kind in the nation. The Hmong Sportsmen Club in Sheboygan aims to promote understanding among hunters and fishermen of all races.

In the opening event of the new club, hunters geared up for the upcoming season Sunday. "All the people here today, they're all passionate about the sport," explains Cher Pao Van, Founder of the Hmong Sportsmen Club. "They're not too much about meat anymore. We're into the sport."

The club aims to help fix misconceptions and to promote understanding and awareness. "We had kind of a misunderstanding between our cultures. We're used to doing things now and the Hmong have their culture," says Lil Pipping, club member.

"Its like, oh there's a law against this? Because where I come from, there isn't. And just having that understanding between the two cultures. There is a rule we have to understand it, and that's what this club is here for," says Addison Lee, club member.

"Most of the communities around here are a traditional white sportsman's clubs so it took a little bit of cultural understanding to get comfortable with that," says Mark Pearce, Department of Natural Resources Warden for Sheboygan County.

After working together for six years, supporters agree there's still a lot left to accomplish, but things are looking up. "I think its great step, a great interaction with the community, a warm reaction by the people that have shown up," adds Pearce.

"This is basically a lifelong dream for the most part. it's a much needed club," says Lee. "It's been long overdue."



Wausau Woman Honored For Work Fighting Domestic Violence

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Wausau woman is being honored for her work in ending domestic violence, specifically in the Hmong culture. Mao Khang won $10,000 from The Sunshine Lady Foundation.

A Wausau advocate for Hmong victims of domestic violence and sexual assault has a piece of a one million dollar pie.

Mao Khang received $10,000 for her work with The Women's Community from a famous foundation.

It comes from the Sunshine Lady Foundation, created by Doris Buffet, billionaire Warren Buffet's sister.

For nine years Khang has dedicated her life to ending domestic violence, and though she's already won an award, she doesn't plan to stop anytime soon.

"Everybody touches my heart. They come in with their own uniqueness but everybody is a part of me and I help each of them, and I take each one close to my heart," she said.

In her culture, Khang says women don't always have a voice and are often afraid to get help.

"Growing up in it and seeing... the silence of Hmong women, that really caused me to want to fight this," she said.

Khang's work goes beyond The Women's Community. She's helped organize meetings with local Hmong leaders to begin an open dialogue about domestic violence, and how to prevent it.

"Last March we did a training of domestic violence and sexual assault 101, and it was so great we had, 160 people came," she said.

Half of the $10,000 award will go to the shelter, and half to her.

Khang says she isn't exactly sure what she'll do with the $5,000 she's received, but she is sure she'll donate it for the community's benefit.



Fresno Hmong New Year organizers split up

Thursday, August 26, 2010

A bitter community split has led to competing Hmong New Year celebrations, putting a cloud over a Fresno event that draws huge crowds and participants from around the world.

One will be held as usual from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 at the Fresno Fairground. The other is scheduled at the same time -- but about six miles across town.

The reason: A breakaway group has accused organizers of misspending money raised from the event, using funds meant for scholarships to travel abroad.

The Hmong International New Year Foundation Inc. -- a nonprofit group that has organized the event for 12 years -- denies the accusations.

But the split marks an end to years of cooperation and a return to conflict that was common in the 1990s.

Many in Fresno's Hmong community fear the split will hurt the event, said Bee Lee, host of the Hmong American Business Radio show on KBIF (AM 900).

Some have called his show to complain, he said.

"Right now they're very upset," Lee said. "They say we have to solve this problem."

A big occasion

The Fresno-based celebration is widely regarded as the largest of its kind in the country. Last year, about 120,000 attended, organizers said.

The central San Joaquin Valley has one of the largest Hmong populations in the country. Many Hmong settled here after fleeing Laos during the Vietnam War. The Hmong had fought alongside American soldiers.

Pao Fang, executive director of Lao Family Community of Fresno, said his group organized the first Hmong New Year celebration in Fresno in 1980. It became a national event in the mid-1980s.

By the mid-1990s, some members of the Hmong community were raising concerns about how money raised from the event was being spent.

In late 1995 and early 1996, the celebration was no longer unified. One event was held in Fresno, and another in Hanford.

The following two years, dueling Hmong New Year celebrations were held in Fresno -- one at the fairgrounds, another at the Sunnyside Swap Meet.

The divisions appeared to be resolved in late 1998, when the groups joined under the auspices of the Hmong International New Year Foundation. Both sides signed an agreement saying there would be no competition for 10 years, said Charlie Vang, the foundation's executive director.

Fang, of the private social-service organization Lao Family Community, said he is sorry to see the cooperation end.

"There's no need to ... divide the community," Fang said. "It's sad. It's just sad."

Organizers of the breakaway event announced their plans last week on KBIF.

Members of the 18 Clan Council -- an informal group with representatives from each of the 18 Hmong family clans -- confirmed that the second event is proposed for the same seven days at the city's Regional Sports Complex in southwest Fresno.

They referred questions about why a second event is planned to Cheng Lee, who did not return repeated calls seeking comment.

But Hmong community activist Mai Summer Vue said the rival event emerged from frustrations over how the foundation had spent funds.

A question of money

Last year, the Hmong International New Year celebration charged admission of up to $4 per person. In 2008, the most recent year for which IRS records are available, the nonprofit group took in $843,831 and had a $126,777 surplus after expenses.

But "so far ... we have not seen much contribution to the community as far as scholarships to students, significant contributions back to the community," said Vue, president of the Hmong Justice USA, a Fresno group that advocates for the rights of people in the Hmong community and is seeking nonprofit status.

Vue said the foundation charges steep fees to vendors and uses some of the money on personal trips overseas every year.

"The people complain to us. ... They feel that a lot of the money that was made was wrongfully spent," Vue said. "The Hmong International New Year is not willing to make changes."

When the foundation did not respond to complaints, Vue said, the 18 Clan group decided to organize its own event.

Vang counters that the organization pumps tens of thousands of dollars into the community.

He said the foundation donates about $30,000 in scholarships each year, including awards for the dance and Miss Hmong competitions at the new year celebration. It also sends six to eight students a year to educational conferences, costing between $500 and $2,000 each, he said.

The foundation buys flowers and bags of rice and makes a donation of $50 to $100 to families dealing with the death of family member.

The overseas trips are made by two board members each to the Thai, Laotian and Chinese New Year celebrations to represent the Hmong community, Vang said.

"That trip is for international business," he said. "Every year we have an invitation from overseas. ... We have to go because we are a cultural organization."

Money is not the only issue. Vue said community members also have complained to her that not enough education is done at the celebration to pass Hmong history along to young people.

Vang disagrees. He said education is a priority, and he points to the participation of Hmong clubs from Fresno State and Fresno City College, which host booths and perform.

"People can criticize, the truth is that we have been successful," he said. "We are a legitimate organization, and we have not done anything wrong."

Vang added that there is still debt left over from when the event was divided in the 1990s, and under the decade-long agreement, his foundation was supposed to continue holding the event until the debt was fully paid off. That hasn't happened yet, he said, although he declined to disclose the debt amount.

One of the most prominent members of the Hmong community in Fresno -- Council Member Blong Xiong -- is staying out of the dispute for now.

Xiong said he is waiting to see finalized plans before weighing in on the competing events.

"Until you see the plans and see a proposal and how the security issues are going to be addressed in some format," he said, "I won't get too involved."



Cultural barriers factor in Hmong cancer issue

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

MADISON (WPR) Wisconsin has the third largest Hmong population in the U.S. after California and Minnesota. Nationally, Hmong have higher rates of certain cancer and UW-Madison researchers are working with community leaders to change that.

The Hmong don't have a word for cancer, a disease many of them aren't aware they have until they feel ill. X-rays and other screening methods aren't part of traditional medicine. Brochures talking about cancer prevention are available in multiple languages, but that may not help says Viluck Kue, director of the Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Association , a group for southeast Asians.

Kue explains that many elders don’t speak or read much English, if any at all.

Western medicine is a last resort to many Hmong, who instead may rely on herbal treatments even if they have advanced cancer. With gastric and cervical cancer rates four times higher for the Hmong than whites, there's an effort to figure out how to best convey prevention information.

Tracy Schroepfer, an assistant professor of social work at UW-Madison has tried to assess how ready Wisconsin’s Hmong community is to address cancer, namely how open they are to acknowledging and discussing it.

Schroepfer says many Hmong are scared of chemotherapy and radiation and wary of young doctors (often found at teaching hospitals.) The hope is that more knowledge --provided through community leaders the Hmong trust-- could reduce the fear of cancer and help prevent it.

Information from Wisconsin Public Radio,



Seven missing after Vietnam landslide

Monday, August 23, 2010

Seven people are missing after a landslide buried them in mountainous northern Vietnam, state media reported on Monday.

The landslide destroyed five houses on Sunday in a village of Mu Cang Chai district, Yen Bai province, the Vietnam News said.

All of the victims were ethnic Hmong, it said, citing a local government department.

Officials in the remote area could not be immediately reached by AFP.

News reports said the landslide happened during clear weather, but there have been warnings of landslides during the current rainy season.

State media last week reported that almost 350,000 Vietnamese households need to be relocated over the next five years from areas vulnerable to flash floods and landslides.



Immigrant may need more than a translation

MADISON, Wis., Aug. 23 (UPI) -- Some immigrants in the United States may need more than translations to grasp what is involved in cancer treatment, researchers found.

Tracy Schroepfer of the University of Wisconsin-Madison said cancer educators may find it difficult to explain cancer detection and prevention to people who may not even have a word for cancer.

This was the case in the Hmong population -- members of a hill tribe in Laos that emigrated to the United States after the Vietnam war and number about 60,000 in Wisconsin today.

"Medical interventions fail if the intervention does not match the community's level of readiness to address the issue," Schroepfer said in a statement. "Hmong community members need to be the educators. They understand the belief system and can talk to people about it, reframe the experience of cancer."

The three-year study of the Hmong population in Wisconsin, published in Journal of Cancer Education, relied on community leaders to set the agenda.

"They own the data, and I have to obtain permission to use it," Schroepfer said. "It's a very different way to do research, and it takes a long time because the researcher must be committed to spending the time to build a relationship with community partners."



Lao refugee (HMONG) denied exit visa to Australia

So near, yet so far. Photo: Ben Doherty

An asylum seeker granted refugee status by Australia is being kept in limbo by both Laos and Thailand.

TOUA Vang Cheng (not his real name) has spent a lifetime fleeing persecution.

A Hmong tribesman from Laos, he lives every day like those before it, trapped in no-man’s land. He had believed his decades of uncertainty – of being arrested, jailed, and tortured, of paying smugglers to spirit him across borders – were over when he was granted a humanitarian visa to resettle in Australia in 2007. But since then he has languished in refugee camps, unable to move to Australia because neither Thailand nor Laos will grant him an exit visa.

Last December, to international outrage, Mr Cheng and another 150-odd UN-recognised refugees, as well as 4500 asylum seekers, were forcibly deported from Thailand by the Thai army, back into detention camps in Laos.

Australia was furious, saying it was working to resettle 47 of the deported group, and that Mr Cheng and 16 others had already been granted humanitarian visas to live in Australia.

But now, after months in a detention centre in a remote, mountainous, part of Laos, Mr Cheng has again escaped and is back in hiding, in an undisclosed location in central Thailand.

He has, in his words, “no future”. He cannot work in Thailand, and is fearful of leaving the tiny single-room apartment he shares with half a dozen others in daylight, for fear of being caught.

“There is no way out for me,” he told The Age, on condition his identity not be revealed. “Every day it is the same, I am afraid. If they catch me, they send me back. I cannot live in Laos. They will kill me.

“I am a human, too. I would like to live. I would be a good citizen.”

It is understood about 14 Hmong families, comprising more than 70 people, have fled Lao detention camps in recent months, most back into Thailand.

Several families hold visas to move to Australia, while others have permits to resettle in the US, Canada and the Netherlands.

The Hmong, historically a hill tribe from southern China, are an ethnic minority in Laos. They have been persecuted by the communist government there for decades, and Mr Cheng’s story mirrors that of thousands of Hmong.

His began during the Vietnam War, when his father, along with thousands of Hmong men, were trained as a secret army by the CIA, to fight alongside American troops against communist North Vietnam.

But after the war, when the communist Pathet Lao party came to power in Laos, Hmong were systematically driven from their land, had homes burned, and were attacked, raped and killed.

Mr Cheng is in his late 40s, or early 50s – he isn’t certain. He has spent almost all of his life on the run. He fled to China, but was captured, beaten and jailed, including being shackled in leg-irons for two years. He escaped and fled into Thailand.

In 2003, he gained access to the UN’s refugee agency for the first time, and was assessed as having a genuine fear of persecution and a legitimate claim to asylum.

In 2007, in a refugee camp in Nong Khai on Thailand’s border with Laos, he was interviewed by Australian immigration officials and offered resettlement as a refugee.

“I thought all my problems were solved. Finally I can be freely somewhere. I felt like I had a future. I felt I would be safe.

But Thailand refused to give him the exit permit to leave for Australia.

Plane tickets were booked, and abandoned, as pressure from Laos – anxious not to be seen internationally as a country riven with ethnic tensions – meant Thailand wouldn’t let him leave.

Then, in December last year, he was part of the group of asylum seekers deported in army trucks by soldiers.

The Thai army forcibly evicted the Hmong in secret, sealing off a 12-square-kilometre area around the camp, and scrambling mobile phone signals to the area.

Their actions drew international condemnation, including from Australia, which described the action as a breach of international obligations not to send refugees back to where they faced harm.

The Thai and Lao governments declined to comment. But Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn has said previously that Thailand regards all Hmong asylum seekers as illegal immigrants and that, if found, they would be sent back to Laos, regardless of UN or third country documentation.



New flair coming to Hmong fest

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

If you're going to the Hmong Arts and Music Festival this weekend, look for some fancy footwork from a group called the Rhinos.

Ten students who have been working during the summer with Augsburg College senior Pa Dao Yang will get the chance to perform dance and spoken-word poetry, as well as exhibit their creative writing and paj ntaub, or story cloths.

Yang, of Brooklyn Park, a recipient of a scholarship from the Jay and Rose Phillips Family Foundation that includes funding for community work over the summer, organized the group to help Hmong middle-schoolers express themselves through art.

She brought in artists from four disciplines — sewing, creative writing, spoken-word poetry and traditional Hmong dance/hip-hop — to work with students at New Millennium Academy in Minneapolis, a K-8 charter school that enrolls mostly Hmong students.

The school's mascot is the rhino, said seventh-grader Yi Leng Vang, and he made the animal a centerpiece of his paj ntaub, which he said was meant to show his love for his school.

Eighth-grader Ava Khang's paj ntaub includes stairs, a star, a pencil to symbolize education and a dollar sign representing a good job.

"You have to take certain steps to reach a part of life that you want to get to," Ava said. The cloth — cross-stitched with colored thread on black fabric — is "basically saying I want to reach my goal."

Ava said she's not nervous about showing off her dancing this weekend.

"We're basically done with all the moves and steps and stuff," she said. "I'm excited."
Doug Belden can be reached at 651-228-5136.


What: Ninth annual Hmong Arts and Music Festival

When: Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Where: Western Sculpture Park, Marion Street between I-94 and University Avenue in St. Paul.



Building a Bridge with Cross-Cultural Cancer Education

Newswise — Most cancers are easier to treat if detected early, so cancer educators emphasize the benefits of screening and prompt treatment. But for immigrants and other “medically underserved communities,” simply handing out a brochure on early detection — even if it’s been translated into the appropriate language — may not work.

“Medical interventions fail if the intervention does not match the community’s level of readiness to address the issue,” says Tracy Schroepfer, an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

After a three-year study of the Hmong population in Wisconsin, Schroepfer and collaborator Viluck Kue found that cancer educators were trying to explain cancer detection and prevention to people who don’t have a word for cancer — or a concept for preventing disease.

The Hmong, originally a hill tribe in Laos, emigrated to the United States after the Vietnam war; about 60,000 Hmong people now live in Wisconsin, says Kue, a Hmong who directs the Wisconsin United Coalition of Mutual Assistance Associations, which serves Southeast Asian immigrants across the state.

Previous efforts to educate Hmong people about preventing and treating cancer had fallen flat, says Kue. “A lot of Hmong were scared of chemotherapy and radiation, they saw people who were not helped, who passed away, and so they began to turn down chemo and radiation in favor of traditional herbal treatment. We want to make sure that people are not scared away from western medical treatment, want to show that these treatments can be helpful.”

To find out why the traditional approaches to medical education, which are often based on brochures and handouts, were ineffective, Schroepfer and Kue settled on a strategy called community-based participatory research, which relies on the community to set the agenda and to be a partner in carrying out the research.
In contrast to usual academic research, Schroepfer says, the process was governed by the Hmong themselves. “They own the data, and I have to obtain permission to use it. It’s a very different way to do research, and it takes a long time because the researcher must be committed to spending the time to build a relationship with community partners.”

For research published online in the Journal of Cancer Education, the researchers adapted a “community-readiness assessment” to ask leaders about the Wisconsin Hmong community’s efforts to address cancer. Other questions concerned knowledge, beliefs and traditions related to cancer, prevention and western medicine.

Kue identified eight statewide Hmong leaders, and a Hmong graduate student at UW-Madison performed the surveys.

The results revealed a radically different view of health care, says Schroepfer. “When researchers look at a problem, we look at it through our own eyes. It’s important to ask, ‘What do you see through your eyes?’”

Early detection had no relevance to the Hmong, Schroepfer says. “Some leaders told us there had been no need: ‘In Laos, we had no machines to see inside the body. We had to wait until something hurt.’”

Being treated by a young doctor at the hospital can be unnerving, Schroepfer says, because Hmong elders who were born in Asia had no knowledge about the role of a teaching hospital.

Hmong people tend to make decisions as groups, not as individuals, adds Kue. “If somebody in the family is sick, they will usually want the consent of the elders in a medical decision. If my uncle has a heart problem, the doctor may want to do bypass surgery. But if he discusses it with the family and a lot of people think it is dangerous, he’ll decide against it.”

Leaders interviewed for the study reported that to educate the Wisconsin Hmong, “Hmong community members need to be the educators,” Schroepfer says. “They understand the belief system and can talk to people about it, reframe the experience of cancer.”

One concept that arose repeatedly in the interviews was the need for a stronger connection between Hmong and American cultures, says Schroepfer. “The leaders are the ones who used the word ‘bridge,’ and that’s why we used it in the title of the article. They say, ‘We need to listen to each other. We want to understand your view of health and the health care system, but need you to understand ours.’”



Reason for concern – but not alarm over repatriated Hmong

Thursday, August 12, 2010

U.S. Senator Al Franken (DFL-MN) last Sunday invited press to his Drake Bank Building office to continue updating the progress on the approximately 4,500 forcibly repatriated Hmong in Laos. It was a timely meeting now that President Barack Obama has nominated Karen Brevard Stewart as the next United States Ambassador to the Lao People's Democratic Republic.

Franken noted that he had submitted an Ambassador nomination request for State Senator Mee Moua, who has taken an active role in several efforts related to the Hmong in Laos and Thailand - from the returnees, the oppressed and the grave desecration issue at the Wat Tham Krabok Buddhist monastery in Saraburi, Thailand.

He said the State Department replied that the process to consider Brevard Stewart, a career member of the Foreign Service with the rank of Minister-Counselor, was too far along to consider other applicants.

Franken added that Brevard Stewart, like her predecessor Ravic R. Huso, speaks fluent Lao and has considerable previous experience in Laos and Southeast Asia. He said Huso has done a wonderful job on the returnees issue and has high regards for Brevard Stewart.

Sen. Franken and his spouse, Franny, traveled to the Lao People's Democratic Republic in early July 2010, as part of a Congressional delegation to discuss environmental remediation of dioxin, the funding of medical disabilities services, education initiatives, labor issues, and trade relations in Vietnam.

The two departed from the delegation for two days to investigate the treatment of more than 4,500 Hmong who were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand last December. They traveled to the village of PhonKham in Borikhamxay province in central Laos to meet with a group of 150 returnees - and expressed disappointment at only meeting with selected returnees and for denied access to parts of the camp.

Franken said that he brought his concerns back to the Laos Capitol of Vientiane, where he said the younger Lao officials were more responsive than the old-guard military and civilian leaders that were likely in power since the War in Southeast Asia.

The Lao Deputy Prime Minister Dr. Thongloun Sisoulith, who is also the Laos Foreign Minister, was in Washington this July meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Sisoulith reportedly invited Secretary Clinton on an official visit to the Lao PDR.

Franken said he briefed the State Department on his observations and concerns for the Hmong, and requested that it be brought up in addition to the discussion on bilateral cooperation and common interests in Southeast Asia.

The approximately 4,500 repatriated Hmong, were living in Thai refugee camps until forcefully returned by the Thai government. Some are relatives of Hmong in Minnesota, and are considered to be at risk for their association with the Hmong CIA Army and the Royal Lao government prior to 1975. Approximately 158 of the reurnees were identified as "persons of interest" - and reportedly fled Laos for fear of the government - and are eligible for refugee status. Around 70 of the special group were referred to the U.S. State Department for resettlement. The remaining 88 individuals were referred for resettlement in Australia, Canada and the Netherlands.

Franken said that reports indicated that some of the repatriated Hmong have fled the camps and their whereabouts are as yet unknown.

Franken also said that he was provided with information that he is not at yet at liberty to share with public.

The Lao government has placed the returnees in two settlements: the village of Ban Pha Lak in southwest Kasi district in Vientiane province; and the village of Phonkham in Borikhamxay province.

Both sites are said to have permanent dwellings, farmland and irrigation systems for farming rice. There is running water, electricity, and even cell phone coverage. There is some concern for more adequate health facilities and schools - and documents that would allow the Hmong the same mobility as other Lao citizens.

Franken said that in addition to the Hmong issue in Laos, his visit was also to work on other priority concerns over the search for missing Americans from the Indochina War, the clearance of unexploded ordnance from the war, drug and human trafficking, and pandemic disease prevention.



Man freed after fatal Toyota crash 'tried everything' to stop car

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

CNN) -- A Minnesota man is grateful for his newfound freedom after three years in prison for a fatal car crash he says wasn't his fault. But Koua Fong Lee said on CNN's "American Morning" on Monday that he can't forget the tragic repercussions of the 2006 incident, which he says was caused by faulty Toyota brakes.

"Today, I'm free now. So, I feel really good to reunion with my family and to be with my family, but it's still in my mind this accident's cost to life. And even through I'm returned to my family, I'm free, but three people that died on that day cannot return to their families," Lee said.

On Thursday, Ramsey County, Minnesota, District Judge Joanne Smith ordered Lee's release from prison, pending a new trial related to the sudden-acceleration crash of his Toyota Camry that killed three people.

Judge frees man convicted in fatal Toyota crash

Ramsey County Prosecutor Susan Gaertner immediately said she would drop the charges and wouldn't retry Lee.

"Mr. Lee will be a free man," Gaertner said in a written statement.

A jury convicted Lee of criminal vehicular homicide in 2007, and he was sentenced to eight years in prison.

Lee had always maintained his innocence, saying the 1996 Camry accelerated uncontrollably before it crashed into two vehicles, killing a man, his 10-year-old son and a 6-year-old girl.

"I also want people to know that I'm not the one who caused the accident and I try everything I could to stop my car," Lee said on "American Morning" on Monday.

On Thursday, Lee asked the victims' family to forgive him and believe his story. In fact, the family of the victims had long ago become convinced of Lee's innocence and joined the effort to free him. They are suing Toyota.

"It's a bittersweet victory," Bridgette Trice, whose daughter died of injuries suffered in the crash, told CNN affiliate KARE-TV on Thursday. "I'm happy for the Lee family, that they're getting their justice. We want answers, and they're coming slowly but they're coming surely."

Mae Adams, whose nephews died in the accident, told KARE, "Our day is yet to come. ... We couldn't let this man sit in jail, no matter how much we wanted to know what happened."

Lee was driving home from Sunday services with his pregnant wife, father, daughter, brother and niece. He told investigators that he pumped the brakes as he exited Interstate 94 in St. Paul, Minnesota, and approached an intersection, said his new lawyer, Brent Schafer.

But Ramsey County prosecutors said at trial that Lee had his foot on the gas as he approached cars waiting at a red light. The car was moving at 70 to 90 mph when it struck the other vehicles.

Two mechanical engineers examined the car before trial on behalf of the state and the defense, Gaertner said earlier this year. Both concluded the brakes were operating and there were no problems with the acceleration, she said.

"Bottom line, two experts -- one for each side -- said there was nothing wrong with the car," she said.

But Schafer said on "American Morning" on Monday that other evidence was ignored or misstated during the 2007 trial, leading to Lee's conviction.

"We found out, actually, it was known back in 2006, not long after this accident occurred, that if you were to look at the brake filament, you would have been able to tell that the brake lamp was illuminated at the time of the impact, which basically was evidence in support of Koua's story that the car was out of control and that he did everything to stop it. So, in fact, his foot was on the brake. That evidence was known prior to the trial." Schafer added, "By looking at the filament, it was clear -- and I don't think any experts disagree with this -- that the brakes were on at the point of impact."

Schafer also said the prosecution had false information about the type of brakes in the Camry.

"In addition, there was evidence at trial that this car did not have ABS brakes, which was a big part of the state's case. Because there were no skid marks, they concluded Koua was not on the brakes, and that was simply false testimony and I think that was also a key issue that led to his conviction," he said.

The 1996 Camry is not a part of Toyota's recall. Lee's accident is among the first of a growing number of cases getting a second look since Toyota announced the recall, acknowledging that problems with sudden acceleration are more extensive than originally thought.

In testimony before Congress, company executives apologized for underestimating the problem. Toyota recalled more than 8 million vehicles, prompting Schafer to seek a re-examination of the vehicle in the 2006 accident.

"This never seemed right. A man with his family in the car -- his pregnant wife -- goes on a suicide mission? Then, the recalls started, and the complaints sounded just like what happened to Mr. Lee," Schafer said in March. "It sounds just like a case of unintended acceleration."

In the end, though, the conviction was vacated not only because of evidence of mechanical failure, but also because Judge Smith determined Lee's original attorney, Tracy Eichhorn-Hicks, had failed to defend him adequately at trial.

Eichhorn-Hicks had stated in court that Lee must have had his foot on the accelerator, even though Lee himself always maintained that he had pumped the brake to no avail.

"Compelling evidence was produced at Mr. Lee's evidentiary hearing on the issue of ineffective assistance of counsel," prosecutor Gaertner's statement said. "I wish Mr. Lee and his family the very best."



Entenza cultivating Hmong voters in St. Paul

On the East Side of St. Paul, Xai David Yang, a practitioner of the art of getting out the vote, was looking for fellow Hmong to vote for Matt Entenza.

How does he increase his chances of finding a Hmong home?
“We look at the cars, the gardens,” Yang said. “You see the Toyotas, Hondas. We look at the side of the homes to see gardens, looking for green onions, cilantro, pumpkins.”

He points out a home with a red cloth hanging in the top of the storm door. "That' keep out the spirits. A shaman will have those."
And he asks the first Hmong he finds to identify others living nearby.

Yang, a senior at St. Cloud State University, knocks on a door and a young woman answers. He explains in Hmong what he’s doing – occasional lapsing into English political idioms like “makes a difference” -- and hands her an Entenza flyer. The woman looks confused. Yang tells her the governor’s job is to represent the entire state.

Yang said he hoped to hit 120 Hmong homes on Saturday, pressing a message that Entenza is an ally to them in improving government aid for education and employment.

It is part of a broader Entenza strategy to make a special push to identify minority supporters and make sure they vote. While they comprise a small slice of the Minnesota electorate, Entenza believes they could make a big difference in an election where turnout is expected to be exceptionally low.

For Yang, that means focusing on fellow Hmong and encouraging those who seem receptive to Entenza to go to the polls or vote absentee before Tuesday.

Saturday on the East Side, his method of identification usually worked well. But not always.

At one home he saw both a Toyota and a garden, but when a girl answered the door, Yang said, “Oh, this is a Karen house,” referring to another ethnic group in Southeast Asia. “Sorry.”

“We’re targeting Hmong,” he told a reporter, saying it's the most efficient way for him to reach Entenza voters. “We’re using our time wisely.”



With Moua's sudden departure, wide-open DFL primary rages in Senate District 67

By Joe Kimball | Friday, Aug. 6, 2010
A political melee erupted in DFL circles on St. Paul's East Side when state Sen. Mee Moua abruptly announced in May that she wouldn't seek re-election to District 67 seat after nine years on the job.

She'd already been endorsed by local party officials, and it was too late, they decided, to restart the endorsement process to pick a new candidate. So the gates were thrown open, and nine DFL candidates jumped in the race.

Now, without an endorsement in a solid DFL district and party leaders divide among several candidates, it's considered a toss-up in an election where, given expectations of a very low turnout, 1,000 votes might be enough to win.

Because of the district's solid DFL history, Tuesday's winner should have an edge in the Nov. 2 general election, when he or she faces Republican candidate Krysia Weidell and Independence Party candidate Dino Guerin, a former St. Paul City Council member and Ramsey County commissioner.

Because Moua was the first Hmong elected to a state legislature in the nation, it's not surprising that four of the nine DFL candidates seeking her job are Hmong. With so many in the race though, there's a likelihood that votes from the large Hmong community will be split.

And even though Moua represented the district for nine years, the district can't be categorized as a Hmong stronghold, party officials say. The two incumbent state representatives in the district — both DFLers — are Tim Mahoney and Sheldon Johnson.

"I'd have trouble saying one previous incumbent creates a tradition," said J.P. Barone, the DFL's 4th Congressional District chair. "St. Paul's East Side has always been a multicultural neighborhood: the Swedes were in Swede Hollow, and when they moved out, in came the Italians and three or four other ethnic groups have been there to tell the American Dream story.

"The East Side has everything, and in this election, anything can happen."

The nine candidates, in alphabetical order, are:

• John M. Harrington
• Foung Hawj (Heu)
• Tom Hilber
• Chai Lee
• Vang T. Lor
• Jim McGowan
• Trayshana Thomas
• Avi Viswanathan
• Cha Yang

Unusual situation
With the late announcement that the seat was open, lots of hopefuls saw an opening, Barone said.

"They realized they wouldn't have the benefit of the party backing in the primary, but they also did not face the ethical dilemma of running against an endorsed candidate … It's unique, and kind of a strange situation," he said.

"And the party basically said: 'Go see who's best — we won't spend a penny on the primary, but we'll marshal our resources, and when it's over, if the winner is deserving of our support, that's who we'll put our resources behind.' "

Barone said DFL supporters in the area have lined up behind their favored candidates and now are working to drum up support from neighbors and friends. Without the party money — and with no candidates throwing money around — the leading candidates are working hard on the traditional door-knocking and phone-calling.

"It's been very interesting to watch," Barone said. "And for them, very exhausting."

Paul Sawyer, the new DFL District 67 chair, says he thinks it could take a few more than 1,000 votes to win the race. He thinks the winner might take 15 to 20 percent of the overall vote. "I'd be surprised if it's higher than 20 percent."

Turnout will be low. Barone wondered if only about 6,000 people go to the polls.

"It's going to be difficult to get people to the polls with the early August primary," Sawyer agreed. "People don't seem to have adjusted to the change [from the usual September primary]. Candidates are hearing that many voters aren't even aware that it's in August."

With that many candidates in the race, no one is expecting anything close to a majority of the vote. In theory, a winner could have only12 percent. But four of the candidates — Harrington, Hawj, Lor and Viswanathan — seem to be emerging as leaders in the race, say those watching closely.

Here's a look at the field:

The leaders
The Chief: Harrington spent his career as a St. Paul cop and just finished a six-year term as St. Paul's police chief. After stepping down, he made an unsuccessful run for the top cop job in New Orleans. He then stepped into the Senate race, saying he still has some years of public service left in him. With perhaps the best name recognition, he has to be considered a front-runner, although some say he hasn't been out on the street as much as some others. He's endorsed by the Minnesota Police and Peace Officers Association and the teachers union.

The Multimedia Man: Hawj has strong DFL roots in the area and has a multimedia firm called Digital Motion. He's been on the boards of the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the District 2 Community Council. Supporters include state Rep. Cy Thao, City Council Member Lee Helgen and School Board Member Kazoua Kong-Thao.

The Organizer: Lor is on the DFL's Affirmative Action Commission and works with TakeAction Minnesota's Hmong Organizing Program, helping to get Hmong geography and history incorporated into the curriculum of the St. Paul Public Schools. He's endorsed by TakeAction.

The Former Franken Staffer: Viswanathan had worked as a constituent services staffer for Sen. Al Franken but resigned to run for state office. He's also been political director for NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota. He was president of the Dayton's Bluff Community Council. Supporters include City Council President Kathy Lantry, School Board Member Vallay Varro and County Commissioner Rafael Ortega. He's endorsed by the DFL Stonewall Caucus and NARAL Pro-Choice Minnesota.

The other DFL candidates
• Hilber is a perennial candidate and political activist.

• Lee works as a constituent service representative in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's office. He's supported by former St. Paul Mayor Jim Scheibel and Pakou Hang, who ran Moua's 2002 campaign.

• McGowan is a small-business owner and advocate for people with diabetes.

• Thomas has worked in the office of U.S. Rep. Keith Eillison and had served as a legislative assistant to state Sen. Higgins. She lists both as supporters.

• Yang was Minnesota DFL Hmong Campaign Coordinator for John Kerry in 2004.

The general election picture
The DFL winner may face some competition from Guerin, well known from his City Council and County Board days. But he lost his county commissioner job in 2000, when he served 15 days in jail and was fined for writing $35,000 in bad checks.

A St. Paul firefighter, Guerin returned to the public eye last year when he was named a district fire chief.

Sawyer thinks the winning DFL nominee will have a unique challenge facing Guerin, who despite his problems, has strong name recognition in the district.

"[Guerin's] name is known, but I don't think it will be insurmountable for the DFL candidate. All nine have pledged to get behind whoever wins the primary, and that's going to give us great momentum," he said.

Joe Kimball reports on St. Paul City Hall, Ramsey County politic and other topics. He can be reached at jkimball [at] minnpost [dot] com.



After Moua's departure, a crowded DFL primary emerges in St. Paul

St. Paul, Minn. — A state Senate primary on St. Paul's East Side is shaping up to be a political battle royale.

Nine DFL candidates are competing for the chance to run for the District 67 seat being vacated by DFL Sen. Mee Moua.

Moua surprised everyone in May when she announced plans to retire from the office she has held since 2002. Her departure and the lack of a DFL endorsement left the field wide open.

The nine candidates competing for the DFL nomination to represent the culturally diverse Senate district include four Hmong, two Caucasian, one Indian-American and two African-American candidates - ranging in age from 23 to 66.

They are John Harrington, Foung Hawj, Tom Hilber, Chai Lee, Vang Lor, Jim McGowan, Trayshana Thomas, Avi Viswanathan and Cha Yang.

Of all the candidates, Harrington, the former St. Paul Police Chief, probably has the most name recognition.

Harrington, 54, said if he's elected he plans to continue working to improve public safety, but he said that won't be the only issue he focuses on.

"I think a job is probably the best crime prevention that you can get," he said. "So it's crime reduction, it is education and jobs that are really the three big points of my campaign."

Some have questioned Harrington's Democratic credentials because of his support for George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks, but he said he quickly changed his view about Bush and DFL voters have no reason to doubt him.

"If you look at the body of work and what I have worked on and the things that I have accomplished they all fit with the DFL," he said.

Trayshana Thomas, 33, is the only woman in the field. The single mom is on leave from Democratic U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison's office where she works as an executive assistant. She didn't return calls seeking comment, but she has said that unemployment is her biggest issue.

Candidate Jim McGowan, 51, has a background in health care advocacy, but said if he's elected he'll also focus on the economy. He said the state budget deficit is a top concern.

"It's affecting peoples' ability to have a job and to stay in their home and that's hitting the East Side hard," McGowan said. "So regardless of whatever other issues I would want to work on, that has got to be the focus."

McGowan said his years of experience working with state government make him most qualified to represent the district.

Avi Viswanathan, 28, has the backing of St. Paul City Council President Kathy Lantry and said he has a plan to help people open and grow businesses in the district.

"Lowering higher education costs and making sure that people have access to funds," he said. "I have helped people facing foreclosure, which is a big issue across the east side of St. Paul."

Viswanathan has worked for U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and the Dayton's Bluff Community Council.

Media producer Foung Hawj, 44, is one of the four Hmong candidates.

"There is a need for my God-given talent to bring people together so I might as well do it and serve the community and the neighborhood at the personal level and to serve the people," Hawj said.

Hmong Today Editor Wameng Moua said Hawj has earned a lot of respect among some Hmong community leaders.

"He has really been involved over the last 15 or 20 years," Wameng Moua said. "Of all the candidates there, all nine, he is actually the one that has been involved in all sorts of things from environmental issues to police issues."

He said that history might give him an edge over the other Hmong candidates, but with four in the race the vote is likely to split.

But another candidate, Vang Lor, is said to have support from many of the traditional Hmong clan leaders, each of whom has the potential to mobilize hundreds of voters on election day. Lor also has the endorsement of progressive group TakeAction Minnesota.

"This seat is not going to be my seat," Lor said. "This seat is our seat, it belongs to the people on the east side."

If elected, Lor said he plans to make education a central issue.

State Sen. Mee MouaSo far, Sen. Mee Moua has abstained from supporting any of the candidates. The first Hmong-American state legislator acknowledges her legacy, but said the winner doesn't have to be Hmong to represent Hmong residents on the East Side.

"The way that they conduct their representation should be such that the Hmong-American community does not feel the absence of that representation," she said.

Moua said she'll support whoever wins the primary and hopes the stiff competition will push the candidates to distinguish themselves between now and Tuesday.

"For the majority of the hardworking paycheck-to-paycheck people on the east side of St. Paul, they want to feel respected," she said. "My recommendation [to] the candidates [is] ... it's better to not rest on the endorsements, but to really roll up your sleeves and go out there and work hard for the vote of the people."

Whoever wins the DFL primary has the chance at a two-year term in November.



'I don't think people realize how much work you put into the field'

Mhonpaj, with her baby Evelyn, 4 months, visits her mother May at the family-operated organic produce stand at the St. Paul farmers market. - Photo by Paul Dols

Farmers market vendor specializes in organic veggies
by Julie Kink
Contributing Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010 12:38 PM CDT
STILLWATER — Since she was a young girl, the soil and the plants that grow from it have been a source of fascination, inspiration and just plain hard work for Mhonpaj Lee.

The 26-year-old St. Paul resident is passionate about sustainable agriculture and the health benefits of organic farming. Together with her family, she operates two small community supported agriculture (CSA) plots, three acres in Stillwater and two in Marine; sells organic produce at several farmers markets; and educates the public through classes and presentations on Hmong vegetables and cooking.

Locals may know her by the produce she sells at both the White Bear and Mahtomedi farmers markets and the eggrolls, fried rice and bubble tea she’s been peddling at Marketfest.

Lee grew up working on farmland cultivated by her parents May and Chue Lee, who emigrated from Laos via a Thai refugee camp in 1982. When they arrived in the U.S., the Lees rented land and grew cucumbers for pickles which they sold to a local company. “It was so laborious,” she said. “I was so annoyed by it, I told my mother I’m not going to ever farm again.”

But a volunteer position as youth coordinator at the Science Museum at age 14 helped her fine-tune her widely varied interests and brought her back to what she knew. “It was a phenomenal experience. Everything I learned there revolved around the weather, agriculture, everything engineering-wise with the soil and sediments,” she said. “As much as you want to stray away from it, it goes in a circle.”

Lee became interested in sustainability and its implications for community health, as well as politics. Before entering college, she raised money to go to Thailand to do personal hygiene education and see how people lived in refugee camps. Though she and five of her siblings were born in the U.S., two of her sisters and her parents had spent time at a refugee camp before emigrating. “It was an eye-opener for me,” she said. “I’m very grateful for what I have but I thought, how can I share it with them, what is it that I have to offer?”

At Gustavus Adolphus College, she majored in health education, health fitness and political science, working a number of jobs to get through school. After graduating, she took a close look at her goals and decided to return to her roots, literally. “I said, here are these skill sets that my parents are really good in. It’s a lifestyle for us to have to farm — that’s how we made it when we were younger.”

The death of her grandmother, who was somewhat of a “medicine woman,” right after Lee graduated from college inspired her to apply for a grant through the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program to study Hmong herbs and their medicinal uses. She persuaded Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC), where she works as a medical interpreter for Hmong patients, to let her grow a little herb garden so patients can request herbs that have been found beneficial for postpartum uses. Now North Hennepin is asking her to start a garden for them, she said.

“You never really consciously think about what you’re doing. I just keep going out of passion,” she said. For her, that means continuing her education by way of pursuing a Masters in Leadership at Augsburg College, which she attends Tuesday and Thursday evenings. She works at HCMC Monday through Thursday mornings, works in the garden in the evenings and, in addition to her White Bear Lake gig, sells produce at the Mill City and St. Paul farmers markets.

The first Hmong-owned certified organic CSA in Minnesota, her garden has more than 30 varieties of vegetables: cucumbers, chard, potatoes, green onions, cabbage, leeks, zucchini, fennel, radishes — “everything you’d find in the grocery store.” The CSA has about 15 members, and most of her family members help out, if they’re not away at college — she comes from a family of eight brothers and sisters. Though her parents are retired, they still help on the farm. The Lee family was named the 2009 Farm Family of the Year for Ramsey County by the University of Minnesota.

What isn’t purchased is donated to food shelves like Second Harvest or Neighborhood House, she said, which last year amounted to $10,000 worth of produce. “It’s still fresh because we just picked it the night before.”

Though her goal isn’t mass production, she would like to eventually purchase farmland (she now rents), and perhaps open a restaurant to serve traditional Hmong cuisine. She will be hosting a class for the Minnesota Horticultural Society in 2011 on how to cook with exotic greens. She’s excited about having an intern, a nutritionist, helping at the garden. And she would like to back away a bit, to be able to spend more time with her husband and their 4-month-old daughter. “I love being able to work for an institution and also work for myself and my family. I have the best of two worlds and I’m grateful for my experiences.

“We’re not advanced. We’re still using the rototiller, weeding by hand. It’s very rewarding at the end of the season to see everything you have,” she said. “I don’t think people realize how much work you put into the field.”



New Hmong Charter School Opens

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yav Pem Suab Academy Located In South Sacramento

A new school focusing on Hmong culture opened Monday in Sacramento.

Yav Pem Suab Academy, located at 7555 S. Land Park Drive, is the first such public charter school of its kind in California.

The campus is located at the former site of Lisbon Elementary School.

"I think it's going to be a school that will lead the way, chart its own way, trail blaze its own way for the community," principal Vince Xiong said.

He said his goal is to raise test scores among Hmong students.

Some classes will be taught in English, with Hmong language classes offered in the afternoon.

As of Friday, 231 students were enrolled. There is space during the first year for 300 pupils.



Franken Visits Laos To Check On Returned Hmong

Sen. Al Franken is talking about his recent trip to Laos and what it could mean for Minnesotans.

He went there to investigate the Lao Government's treatment of more than 4,500 Hmong who were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand last December.

Sunday afternoon in St. Paul, Franken talked about what he learned on the trip and the U.S. diplomatic actions since his return.

Franken said he is frustrated that the Lao government didn't allow him more access to the returnees.

"We do have cell phones of some of the people in the village. Just because I've expressed my concern about not getting full access, there's no reason to believe at all that there's been mistreatment. But we wanted the Laos government to know we have our eye on them, and we're not going to take our eye off," he said.

Minnesota has the second largest Hmong-American population in the United States.



Hmong General Visits Valley Veterans

Fresno – General Vang Pao is considered to be the longtime leader of the Hmong community.

Pao was in Fresno Sunday, rallying to pass a bill that would give Hmong veterans burial privileges.

"We lose 35,000 people to take American's place," said Pao, as he addressed his troops at an event in Southeast Fresno.

Hmong soldiers sacrificed not for their own country, but for America while fighting alongside American soldiers in the Vietnam War.

"The Hmong SGU worked with us for 15 years, and you lost in excess of 30,000 troops fighting for the United States, this is the least we can do to begin to pay you back for the service that you did," said Charlie Waters, a veteran's advocate.

Valley leaders are hoping to repay them by fighting for a bill, introduced by Congressman Jim Costa and 22 others.

It would recognize Hmong soldiers as American servicemen, giving them the right to be buried alongside American veterans in our national cemeteries.

Surviving veterans say they are grateful for the opportunity, to have such an honor.

"The most important thing we want to be recognized as American soldiers. We shed blood in the Vietnam war to protect the American country, please recognize that," said Hmong veteran, Bhou Vu with the help of a translator.

The bill was introduced last week. Congressman Costa expects it will pass, but in the meantime, he must garner more support among his fellow members of congress.

"But it's fitting and proper that the United States recognize those of you who are still here, with an appropriate honor for your service to our country," said Congressman Costa.

There are about 6,900 Hmong veterans alive today, that would be eligible for the burial benefits.



Guest post talk about the murders of the 6 kids

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In response to this. She wanted to remain anonymous and I respect her for that.

I had a really weird experience in my life that I never thought would happen to me but this was the story I wanted to share.

During that time of the year, my grandpa had passed away and it was really hard to try to understand why I had lost grandpa so soon when I was so young.

A few months after, I experience being possess with spirits. The story of the six of the young children came to me.

Actually the oldest son came to see me and told me he was really angry at what his mother did to them. He says if he knew she planned on killing each of them, he would tried to help all his other younger siblings. Besides being so angry at his mother he said to me, all of his younger siblings told me that it seemed like no one would respect them where they stayed at the cementary because of no name, no tombstone.

People would step all over them and that made them felt very lonely, especially no place to go to find peace. The oldest son even told me to come visit them as soon as I could get a chance, he even told me the formatted they were buried even though when I was posses.

I couldn't see where the exact location but I know it was a cementary somewhere some place in here in Saint Paul.

I know that by me telling you this story seemed unbelievable but believe me it was all real that this happened to me when I was younger. I just needed some closure for these kids and to be happy for them that they are in a better place. I hope.


General Vang Pao to Speak in Fresno on Bill

General Vang Pao will focus on a bill that's just been introduced into Congress.
It’s aimed at Hmong soldiers who supported the U.S. during the Vietnam War. If passed, those soldiers would have the right to be buried in national cemeteries.
General Vang Pao wants to personally deliver the news to his soldiers that they are one step closer to attaining some of the same rights as American Veterans of war.
During the Vietnam War there was a whole other secret war taking place in Southeast Asia. Hmong soldiers recruited by the CIA were putting their lives on the line to protect Americans.

How did the US government repay them?

Veteran Charlie Waters is a strong advocate in the Hmong community and close friend of General Vang Pao.

Waters says this bill, which was introduced by Valley Congressmen Jim Costa, Devin Nunes and George Radanovich holds huge significance.

In order for the bill to pass some of those Hmong soldiers will likely have to testify before Congress, which would be a new experience for them.

If given the right to be buried in a national cemetery Waters says it would lift a huge financial burden from the family members left behind.

If this bill passes it could take effect by the first of the year.



Poker king Yang is all in on Valley

Poker king Yang is all in on Valley Former Fresno resident Jerry “The Shadow” Yang enjoys his winnings from the World Series of Poker in 2007.
MERCED -- Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill becomes the Jerry Yang show on a crowded Friday night.

A tickled 3-year-old ducks into her mother's chest as sheets of flame burst over four open grills sizzling with steak, chicken, shrimp, scallops and lobster. Chefs and customers scream "Sake Bomb!" each time a patron pounds the counter, sending a shot of sake perched on chopsticks into a tumbler of beer.

The man in the black shirt and cap mopping down tables, cheering on customers and signing autographs in this Central Valley eatery isn't one of the bus boys. He's Jerry "The Shadow" Yang, the multimillionaire card shark who owns the joint.

Next to the sushi bar you'll see a poster of "The Shadow" raking in $8.3 million at the 2007 World Series of Poker.

The 42-year-old Hmong refugee from Laos has become a legend among Southeast Asians -- a champion of underdogs who has given away more than $2 million.

His long-shot victory has transformed the social worker and father of six into a genie for the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Ronald McDonald House. And his charity poker tournaments have raised $800,000 for Chinese disaster victims, California fire victims, Boys & Girls clubs, schools and hospitals.

He plans to bring the Jerry Yang show -- sushi, community service and all -- to Sacramento as soon as he finds the right chef.

So, how did a Hmong refugee who arrived here at age 11 with very little education grow up to be a poker genius and sushi impresario?

The pain of a constantly empty stomach, he says, was the driving force that taught him self-discipline and motivated him to do more than expected.

Yang was a poker novice when he went to Las Vegas in 2007 to compete against more than 6,000 others for a seat at the final table.

The good-natured refugee ambushed his competition by repeatedly going all in -- betting all his chips and pressuring his opponents into folding hand after hand. At the final table, he bluffed poker pro Lee Childs, who folded a pair of queens and gave Yang the $19.4 million pot.

On the final hand, Yang's pair of eights -- the famed "pocket 8s" -- came from behind against Vietnamese refugee Tuan Lam's pair of queens. Yang hit an inside straight on the last two cards to take his place in poker lore with Texas Dolly Brunson, Amarillo Slim and Johnny Chan.

Yang, who had been playing poker for just two years when he won his World Series seat, has been coming from behind all his life.

At age 7, he and his family were fleeing through the jungles of communist Laos when the Pathet Lao caught them and held an AK-47 to his head.

"My father and uncle threw themselves on the ground, pleading with them not to kill the kids," he said. "We were taken to another town after we promised not to escape again."

From 1962 until 1973, Yang's father served in the CIA's guerrilla army under legendary Gen. Vang Pao. Thanks to ESPN and YouTube, Yang is considered the second-most-famous Hmong behind the general.

But he almost didn't make it out of Laos. The night his family tried to cross the Mekong River into Thailand "was the longest night of my life," he said. "We must have had 23 people in a little wooden boat. Bullets were flying across between Thai and communist soldiers. I heard kids crying, mothers crying, kids drowning -- I still have nightmares about it."

His family spent four years in the Ban Vinai refugee camp, where he watched several cousins die of malnutrition. "When I heard my family was going to America, it was the happiest day of my life -- winning the World Series doesn't compare," he said.
They arrived at his uncle's place in Nashville in October 1979, and 48 people crammed into a four-bedroom apartment.

The family moved to Fresno, where he enrolled in Fresno Adventist Academy and graduated as valedictorian. To pay his tuition, he mopped floors and did odd jobs at a nursing home from 3 to 7 a.m. every day.

He attended Pacific Union College in Napa, where he earned a master's degree in health psychology. He spent the next eight years working with foster kids in Riverside County.

Yang said he stumbled across poker while channel surfing. After watching a few tournaments on TV, he figured, "I can do this," read a few poker books and started playing after work.

His background in psychology, he said, helps him read his opponents. "I take notes on them during bathroom breaks," he said.

The keys to great poker, he said: self-discipline, reading people and money management. A born-again Christian, he also believes God has plenty to do with it.

After winning the World Series, Yang quit his social work job but didn't lose his interest in helping kids. He and his wife regularly review requests for help.

Yang said he dreamed of owning a restaurant since he was a famished 10th-grader in Fresno.

"Being a refugee boy, I've always been hungry," he said, as customers poured in on a recent Friday. "My father was working for minimum wage, and we couldn't even afford apples -- I had this craving for apples."

Every six months, his aunts or uncles would take the family out for Chinese buffet. "I thought, if I have my own restaurant, I can eat whatever I want."

In poker lingo, many thought Yang was "drawing dead" by opening a high-end restaurant last September at the depths of the recession. When he anted up $540,000 to open Pocket 8's Sushi and Grill in Merced, "a lot of people made fun of me," he said.

But Yang didn't win the World Series by playing it safe. "Sometimes you have to take the initiative, do the opposite of what other people are doing," he said.

Pocket 8's draws customers from all over California, many of them Hmong. Three young Hmong from Fresno at the sushi bar on a recent Friday said they were there to support Yang because he gave $1,000 to Hmong Voices, an effort by teen filmmakers to preserve Hmong history by interviewing elders.

"Jerry gives out money to help youth everywhere," said Fresno City College student Thai Lee.