Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Over a span of about seven years, filmmaker Christopher Woon documented how a love of hip-hop and break-dancing united Hmong American youth nationwide.
By Nalea J. Ko, Reporter
Published April 20, 2011
Christopher Woon first turned his camera lens on a Hmong community of break-dancers some seven years ago.
The fifth generation Chinese American filmmaker documented a group of Hmong American youth who were breaking, also known as break dancing or b-boying, in California.
Over the years the 30-year-old logged countless hours filming, interviewing and editing his documentary. As the years passed, Woon continually found himself fielding questions from others about his film’s release date.
“It’s something that I would get very defensive about it. Sometimes friends or family members would be like, ‘When are you going to finish already?’” Woon explained with a laugh. “I had to realize that this has been my learning process. A lot of people go to film school for this. I didn’t go to film school for this — this was my film school.”
Woon began capturing footage of the Hmong hip-hop breakers doing flares, windmills and more for a 2004 documentary short. The project was for Armed With A Camera, A Visual Communications fellowship program for emerging filmmakers.
Two years later, Woon received the Center For Asian American Media’s James T. Yee Fellowship and developed his film “Among B-Boys,” into a feature-length documentary.
The release of the film was delayed, Woon says, because he had been juggling finishing the documentary and studying in graduate school at the University of California, Los Angeles.
But now Woon finally has an answer about his film’s release date for any inquisitive friends and family members.
The film “Among B-Boys” will premiere May 4 at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which opens April 28.
For the b-boys featured in the film — who are now a few years older than they were when filming began — watching the documentary next month will be like opening a time capsule.
“It’s something to look back on,” said Shoua “Sukie” Lee, a 25-year-old b-boy who was featured in the documentary. “I saw the trailer and it was a lot of footage of me when I was younger and all the kids I danced with — my crew right now when they were younger.”
Being featured in a documentary was a chance for the Hmong b-boys like Lee to showcase their dancing skills and also raise awareness about their culture.
Most Hmong people trace their roots from China. But there is other conflicting research tracing their ancestry from Siberia.
During the Vietnam War the CIA recruited Hmong soldiers to fight in a “secret war” in Laos.
In 1975 when communists seized control of Laos, thousands of Hmong were killed and others fled to refugee camps in Thailand. Hmong refugees later settled in the United States.
“My family migrated to the United States after the Vietnam War since my father was a soldier in the secret war, helping the U.S. Army,” said Longka Michael “M-Pact” Lor, a 24-year-old b-boy and student at Cal State Long Beach. “Being Hmong to me means being able to live life freely. My people have a history of struggles to live as free people in this world.”
Lor has accumulated numerous awards for his dancing skills, including placing first place in the Temple O’Styles in 2006, a b-boying competition in France.
Despite his successes in b-boying, Lor’s parents were not immediately understanding of his b-boying endeavors.
“At first my parents didn’t even understand what we were doing. We would practice in the living room while my father would do his work,” Lor said, whose twin brother Longkue Steven “Villn” Lor is also a b-boy. “I think they saw the positive outcomes from this passion of ours. It kept us on track with school. It taught us how to be leaders at such an early age. It showed us how to organize and prioritize.”
Following the release of Woon’s short documentary, Hmong American youth put their organizational skills to use, creating a b-boy crew called “Among B-Boys.” The group is comprised of Hmong American dancers from California, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
“After ‘Among B-Boys’ it kind of got a lot of the Hmong community, the Hmong dancers, to communicate more,” Lee said, who now also works as a technician in the medical industry.“ Now we’re starting to do bigger things, to team up and go to bigger competitions and stuff. So we’re actually pretty busy.”
A love of b-boying united the Hmong American youth featured in Woon’s film. Breaking competitions were featured at the Merced Hmong New Year’s Festivals. Dancing gave the Hmong youth an outlet to educate others outside of the community about their heritage.
“Breaking has become a new activity that has united many youth in the Hmong community,” said Lor. “It gives a common ground to allow those who are interested to share, laugh, teach, struggle, lose, win, love and have fun … [in a] positive atmosphere with one another.”
To document Hmong b-boys, Woon traveled to Merced, Calif., Long Beach, Calif. and Tulsa, Okla. among other locales. Working with a small budget for the documentary, Woon often relied on the Hmong American b-boys for accommodations. Lee said he is appreciative that Woon is telling his story and the story of Hmong American youth.
Woon said he felt obligated to finish his film and tell the story of Hmong American youth.
“These are some life-long bonds that I feel like we’ve made. I feel like if it weren’t for them I might not have finished the film. They were a lot of my encouragement and inspiration,” Woon said. “Even though it took a long time, it all worked out in the end.”