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."