Saturday, December 18, 2010
With just over a week to go before dueling Hmong New Year celebrations face off Dec. 26 in Fresno, organizers of both events say they expect crowds of 100,000.
That would essentially double the size of what has long been the biggest Hmong celebration in the Valley -- an event that draws visitors from around the world and creates an opportunity for far-flung families and friends to reunite.
But it's hard to tell whether the fight will result in two well-attended events six miles away from each other, or if one of the events will fizzle.
Organizers of the Hmong International New Year event -- which has called the Fresno Fairgrounds home for more than a decade -- insist it will be business as usual for them. Their rivals say it will be anything but.
"This year is a test," said Thomas Herr, deputy executive director of the Lao Family Community of Fresno, a nonprofit social-services agency that will march in the parade at the fairgrounds event.
Regardless of what happens, Herr said, he expects the community eventually to return to one event because of the cost and limited number of attendees.
The rival celebration in southwest Fresno was organized by community members upset about how money from the existing event was handled. They said the profits were misspent on trips abroad and not on the community, such as on a Hmong community center.
The organizers of Hmong International New Year deny that claim, saying they make plenty of donations to the community. They are going ahead with their celebration at the fairgrounds and say they don't expect the competing event to have any effect at all.
About 120,000 people attended the event last year, and organizers expect the same number this year.
Gen. Vang Pao, a leader in the Hmong community who fought communists in Southeast Asia, is scheduled to attend the opening ceremonies at the fairgrounds.
Organizers of the second event invited him in the second week of December, but haven't heard back yet.
Even so, organizers of the rival event say they are gearing up for about 100,000 visitors at the Fresno Regional Sports Complex near Jensen and West avenues, according to Nelson Vang, executive director of the 18 Clan Council.
That group has representatives from each of the 18 Hmong family clans and is planning the event with United Hmong International.
Along with offering similar crowd predictions, the two events also claim to have signed up matching numbers of vendors.
The fairgrounds event has signed up 440 vendors -- more than last year, said Charlie Vang, executive director of the Hmong International New Year Foundation Inc.
He is not related to Nelson Vang, who says his event has 400 vendors scheduled to work -- including vendors who once worked at the fairgrounds event.
On the surface, the two events seem similar. The admission price of both celebrations is the same: $3, with seniors and young children getting in free. Each will have a parade and a Miss Hmong competition.
And both feature sports. The fairgrounds event will use Mosqueda Park across the street for soccer, volleyball and kator, a sport similar to volleyball in which the ball is kicked across a net.
But the 110-acre sports complex has more room for kator, flag football, soccer, volleyball and top spin, a sport in which tops are flung across a field with poles. A fishing tournament will be held at the complex's lake.
Nelson Vang said recent Hmong radio and TV shows asked people to call in and say which event they were going to attend. The majority said they planned to attend the event at the sports complex, he said.
Nelson Vang said he expects many younger people to attend his event.
"They want to see change," he said.
That change comes not so much in the event itself, but from how the profits are to be spent, he said.
"We're going to tell people up front how much we make and how we spent," he said.
Money will be spent on college scholarships and a Hmong cultural center envisioned as a meeting place and a way to preserve Hmong history, he said.
Nelson Vang said no trips will be taken abroad to other New Year celebrations. The Hmong International New Year Foundation, in contrast, said previously it represents the American Hmong community at Thai, Laotian and Chinese New Year celebrations.
The two events have caused confusion among some within the community, said Charles Torr, a linguist and freelance translator who moved to Fresno 18 months ago.
"People are saying, 'Well, who makes sense here? Which direction should we follow?' " he said.
"Some people are not making their mind clear yet in which way we should support."
Herr, of the Lao Family Community, said having two events is healthy because people can now assess how the celebrations are handled and choose one.
Herr's organization has collaborated with the fairgrounds' New Year celebration in past years. It is not involved in planning this year but will march in that celebration's parade.
But Herr said he would prefer to have the Hmong community unified around one event.
Wangyee Vang, president of the Fresno Lao Veterans of America Institute, agreed.
"Two is too much in the same city," he said. "If they could agree and get together and form only one New Year, it might be better."