Night Terrors: Can You Be Killed by a Nightmare?

Monday, October 31, 2011

Nightmares, Nocebos, and the Mind-Body Connection

by Shelley Adler

Rutgers University Press

They were all Southeast Asian immigrants, young and healthy -- and dying in their sleep.

Doctors were baffled by the cluster of deaths that began in 1977 and peaked in 1982. By the end of the decade, 117 Hmong tribesmen from Laos had died in the middle of the night without explanation.

Why were these men -- median age 33 and having lived in the US, on average, for 17 months -- mysteriously perishing? Bereft of answers, physicians dubbed the phenomenon Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome.

But a new book about the cases raises a chilling and provocative question: Can a dream scare you to death?

Drawing on professional literature and folklore, University of California-San Francisco medical anthropologist Shelley Adler, author of “Sleep Paralysis,” makes a compelling case that the deaths may have been triggered by the men’s belief in “dab tsog” -- a demon that visits in the night and smothers.

While the physical cause was likely a shared heart condition prevalent in Asian men, Adler concludes the trauma they suffered in dream-state encounters with a malicious spirit played a part.

One Laotian man described his encounter with the dab tsog to Adler: “A dark shape was coming to me. It came to the bed, over my feet, my legs. It was very heavy, like a heavy weight over my whole body, my legs, my chest. My chest was frozen like I was drowning.”

Adler found such night demons are ubiquitous across cultures and similar to the Western concept of “sleep paralysis” -- described as feelings of wakefulness coupled with intense feelings of fear and the inability to move or speak. It’s caused when the transition into, or from, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep is disrupted. Hallucinations occur during this not-quite-dream state.

“You’re paralyzed but your mind is still going. In some sense it’s like dreaming with your eyes open,” explained Harvard clinical psychologist Richard McNally.

Every culture has its own phrase for the sleep-paralysis “monster.” China refers to it as “bei guai chaak” (“being pressed upon by a ghost”), Estonia has “luupainaja” (“the one who presses your bones”), and Newfoundland dubbed it “Old Hag.” English speakers know incubus and succubus, images immortalized by the 1781 painting “The Nightmare” where a demon sits on a woman’s chest as she sleeps.

Eight percent of the general population experiences sleep paralysis (though some estimates are as high as 30%). Those with psychiatric conditions and PTSD have higher rates.

A 1999 study broke down sleep paralysis into three sub-types that occur cross-culturally: intruder, incubus and an out-of-body experience.

But while sleep paralysis is universally terrifying, can it hurt you?

Adler says yes. She points to the study of nocebos -- placebos’ ugly flip side, which translates to “I will harm” -- when a negative outcome is a consequence of a person’s belief.

Anthropological research on voodoo and hexes, she argues, show that adverse beliefs can harm and even kill. In one study, women who believed they were prone to heart disease were nearly four times as likely to die as women with the same risk factors but no negative beliefs.

“There is both ample scientific evidence and much lived experience that show that the human mind has as great a capacity to make us sick as it has to heal us,” Adler writes.

In the end, she concludes, the Hmong men likely died from a combination of the Brugada syndrome, a cardiac arrhythmia common to Southeast Asian men, and sleep paralysis.

“Although the overwhelming terror brought on by a nightmare attack appears to be a trigger,” she said, “it is the Brugada Syndrome that functions as the mechanism of death.”



Wrongs of the past, traditions are our ghost images

Mai Neng Moua read a draft of her memoirs about “bride price” at a recent Talkabout session at Homewood Studios. With Carolyn Holbrook and three other writers, they’ll present a reading on Nov. 8 at Homewood, with Roberts moderating. “That’s how we include the men,” she said. (Photo by Margo Ashmore )

By Margo Ashmore, North News
October 30, 2011
The readings may be called “Ghost Stories” but the rest of the title assures us it’s not Halloween fare. “Five Writers Read Works on Historical Trauma” at Homewood Studios Tuesday, Nov. 8, 7 p.m. tackles that which is “not talked about, but always prevalent, and still impacts us, like a ghost image.”

Impacts like the intense opposition Mai Neng Moua had to her future husband paying a bride price for her. “When I heard my mother’s story about bride price,” Moua was certain she did not want to observe that Hmong tradition. She said it took her a long time to write about it, and “I wouldn’t have been able to start without” the encouragement of the group that will do the readings.

The event announcement says, “African-American, Hmong, Japanese-American, Jewish and White Earth Anishinabe writers explore how the stories of their parents, grandparents and historical communities impact the writers’ own lives. From the ridiculous to the tragic, the writers examine the legacies of Holocaust, war, racism and genocide.”

Moua, who co-founded the Hmong literary journal Paj Ntaub Voice and edited Bamboo Among the Oaks, an anthology of contemporary writing by Hmong Americans, met “co-conspirator” Margie Newman at the Loft Literary Center. They received small grants to take their readings to four different venues in a variety of neighborhoods, and produce a chapbook. “I knew Carolyn [Holbrook] and Marcie [Rendon] and Margie knew Joan [Maeda Trygg].

They’ve had two readings so far, each with 50 to 60 people attending. “Our point is to use the arts, the writing, to promote healing,” Moua and Holbrook said in an interview. “We also need to hear from this community” of North Minneapolis. Moua lives in North Minneapolis and Holbrook in North Loop.

At the Wilder Center for Communities in Saint Paul, most listeners agreed that in order to know how to heal, one needs to know about the trauma. “How many generations does it take? One asked. We counted back; it took five generations to find an intact family,” Holbrook said. “Line up the symptoms of what’s called post traumatic slave syndrome and the symptoms are the same as PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.”

As is Moua, Holbrook is writing a memoir to “work through the dysfunction that happens, looking at how we all react. South Africa acknowledged apartheid. The U.S. hasn’t [acknowledged slavery]. There’s a black Holocaust. I get upset when I hear ‘the Holocaust’ because there’s been more than one. It would help to be healed if we’d acknowledge what happened.” They drew distinctions between recent African immigrants, and African Americans, some who descended from slaves, some not.

Holbrook’s piece about a bizarre trip to a cemetery demonstrates how socially normal it used to be, to equate black with bad. “It took me 20 years to write that story,” and for the founder of SASE: The Write Place, that says a lot.

Moua chimed in with, “when we came to the US, we thought all Americans were white. I was told, you see a black person coming toward you, cross the street.”

Holbrook: “Africans are told that. The people most surprised are the Africans, hearing stories about slavery.” There are two stereotyped concepts, “you’re either rich like Will Smith or like the guys you see on the news.”

Another previous reading was at the American Indian Center, and the final will be in February at the Jewish Community Center (JCC) in St. Paul. Preparing for the Homewood reading, they wondered aloud about the Japanese and Native American history in North Minneapolis.

Ghost Stories: Five Writers Read Works on Historical Trauma will be held Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011, 7 p.m. at Homewood Studios, 2400 Plymouth Ave N., Minneapolis.

The Readers: Carolyn Holbrook, Mai Neng Moua, Margie Newman, Marcie Rendon, Joan Maeda Trygg. Admission: $5 includes a chapbook containing work by the five writers. Light refreshments will be served.

The project was made possible, in part, with the support of Rimon: The Minnesota Jewish Arts Council, an initiative of the Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and with the support of the St. Paul JCC. This project is funded, in part, with “Legacy Amendment” money.

For further info contact: Mai Neng Moua,, 612-226-6046.



Protests mark election of Hmong community leader

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Voting began Tuesday for leadership of the Hmong Mutual Assistance Association amid protests and cries of fraud from one of the candidates and his supporters.

The election marks the end of a tumultuous two years for the 29-year-old organization founded to help refugees assimilate and build lives in La Crosse. The strife over control of the group has even split family members.

Not set to end until Saturday, voting Tuesday had already exceeded turnout in most of the organization’s previous 16 elections, said executive director Xong Xiong.

For the Hmong community, the elections are on par with the spring recall elections. And they’re getting just as complicated and nasty.

The accusationsMai Vue, one of two candidates for board president, denounced the election in a news release that accuses incumbent president Gina Yang and other officers of attempting to steal the election through manipulation of the rules. Vue also alleges the election was scheduled on short notice after the Sept. 24 date was abruptly canceled and then rescheduled nine days before early voting was to begin.

At the heart of Vue’s complaints is a last-minute decision to allow voting by non-Asian members and to expand voting to two Minnesota counties.

Yang did not return messages left Tuesday, but Xiong said HMAA membership is open to anyone who supports the organization’s mission. She said voting traditionally has been restricted to Hmong and other Southeast Asians, but according to the group’s bylaws there’s no ethnic restriction on voting.

There are about 3,000 people of Hmong origin in La Crosse County. HMAA membership is a little less than 500, Xiong said. She estimates non-Asians account for about 2 percent of membership.

Xiong said the board was simply following its bylaws, but Vue contends that announcing that interpretation just two weeks before the election was unfair.

The decision also surprised the head of the group’s election committee, who resigned her post over it.

Pang Moua said she worked for nearly a year to set up the election but heard only four days before voting was to begin that the board wanted it open to Minnesota residents and non-Asians.

“If HMAA had their own vision, how come they didn’t tell me when they appointed me?” she said. “I’m not a mind reader.”

Xiong said the board directed Moua to follow the bylaws and she interpreted them according to tradition. Moua says that’s untrue.

Moua said she asked for at least six weeks to reorganize an election but was told it had to be held in October. That prompted her resignation.

“They made it impossible for me to fulfill my duty,” she said.

Because of the election committee’s resignation, Xiong said the HMAA asked the League of Women Voters to conduct the election.

Vue did not return messages from the Tribune, but running mate Moua Lee said they do not object to non-Asians voting, only to the timing of the decision and rescheduling the election on short notice.

“We feel they purposely tried to cancel the election so they can win,” she said. “Anybody can vote if that’s what the board wants, but at least allow them some time to campaign to those people.”

‘Bad blood’The protests are the culmination of a period of change and strife for the group, say its members.

Vang, elected to a two-year term in 2009, is the first woman to head the organization and one of the first female Hmong leaders in the state.

In April 2010, longtime executive director Thai Vue was fired amid a struggle to pay off about $560,000 in debt for the acquisition of the Hmong Cultural and Community Center. Vue has since sued the agency claiming breach of contract and defamation.

The HMAA was also sued this spring by a group of members who say the organization broke its contract with them when it asked for more money to pay off the loan.

“I think there’s no secret that there’s a split in the Hmong community since Thai Vue was replaced. There’s a little bit of bad blood,” said John Medinger, the former La Crosse mayor and longtime advisor to the Hmong community who led the fundraising effort to renovate the community center.

“This election will not heal all the wounds. It is an honest election, but they need to feel that.”



Bill would extend burial benefits to Hmong vets

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Rep. Tom Petri, R-Sixth District, recently joined other members of Congress to introduce bipartisan legislation, H.R. 3192, honoring the service of Hmong veterans in Wisconsin and nationwide. The legislation would extend burial benefits in national cemeteries to Hmong veterans who fought alongside and supported U.S. forces during the Vietnam War era.

"Hmong troops were America's determined and reliable allies in Laos," Petri said. "These veterans fought and bled in our common struggle in Southeast Asia. Extending burial benefits to those who came to the United States following the Communist takeover of Laos recognizes their sacrifice and honors their service."

Hmong men from Laos were trained and led by officers from the CIA's Special Activities Division during the Vietnam War. Tens of thousands of these men performed direct missions against North Vietnamese troops and local Communist guerillas. Following the war, thousands of Hmong veterans resettled across the United States, including in Wisconsin. In 1975, President Gerald Ford signed legislation granting them refugee status.

Currently, burial benefits are available to veterans and members of the U.S. Armed Services, their spouses and dependents, reserve officers, Public Health Service officers, Merchant Mariners from World War II and members of the Philippine Armed Forces. This legislation would add Hmong veterans to the list of people eligible for interment in national cemeteries after they undergo a verification and documentation process by the Department of Veterans Affairs to certify their service. Hmong veterans must be American citizens or legal permanent residents to be eligible.

Approximately 6,900 Hmong veterans would currently be eligible for burial benefits.



Hmong refugee comes full circle with U program’s help

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Freshman Kaoxue Vang tutors through a program that helped her adjust when she immigrated to Minnesota.

University of Minnesota freshman Kaoxue Vang, left, helps Pao Lee, center, and Pao Xiong, right, with an assignment on dinosaurs. Vang tutors every Sunday night through the Sunday Tutoring Program hosted by the Minnesota Center for Neighborhood Organizing. Vang was tutored in the program when she was in grade school. Marisa Wojcik

When Kaoxue Vang arrived in Minnesota seven years ago, the only English words she knew were “I love you” — a common phrase in the Thai refugee camp where she was born and raised.

On the ride home from the airport, she was first introduced to streets with names and green grass where she was used to seeing dirt.

Soon after, she was also introduced to the challenge of navigating the education system without a full command of the English language or support at home.

But with the help of University of Minnesota-based programming and community support, Vang pored over her studies and overcame the odds.

Within seven years, she went from only knowing three words of English to applying and earning admission to the University where she is currently a freshman.

Heidi Barajas, associate dean at the University’s College of Education and Human Development and executive director of the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, has extensively researched issues of equity and access to education.

She has also observed Vang as part of a research project about Hmong student success.

Barajas said Vang quickly realized the key to educational success for any student.

“One thing I’ll say about anybody successful in education is that they’re able to seek out support,” she said. “In [Vang’s] case, she had a lot of support and knew where to go for help.”

‘A powerful message’

On Sunday evening, Vang stood over her 14-year-old sister Maixoua Vang’s shoulder at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs and helped guide her through her ninth grade advanced composition homework.

“This is really weird,” Maixoua Vang said, about her sister’s new role as a tutor. “We used to come for help together and now she’s the one helping.”

Kaoxue Vang said she probably never would have stepped foot on the University campus without help from Jay Clark and the University’s Center for Urban and Regional Affairs.

Vang said Hmong students were the victims of bullying and inadequate education standards in North Minneapolis schools.

She said she remembers sitting in classrooms where she didn’t learn anything because of her limited English and relying heavily upon Hmong classmates and relatives whenever she needed something.

“It was frustrating and boring,” she said. “We couldn’t do anything. We only left for school and came back.”

Clark said he encouraged them to seek enrollment elsewhere through the “Choice is Yours” program, which allows low-income students to enroll in suburban school districts where they would have access to more challenging academic environments that would encourage them to learn English faster.

Vang and her six younger siblings enrolled in Hopkins School District. They also became regulars at the Sunday Tutoring Program held at the Humphrey School when it began in 2008.

“That’s when my English really started to improve,” Vang said. “It helped so much.”

Each weekend, Clark and Yia Yiang, a CURA Hmong neighborhood community organizer, transport 15 to 30 Hmong students from their North Minneapolis homes to Humphrey for homework help, student support and activities.

University students typically volunteer as tutors for work-study jobs, service learning courses or through the Hmong Minnesota Student Association or Multicultural Center for Academic Excellence.

This semester, Vang became the first to make the transition from student to tutor.

“I’m really proud of her,” Maixoua Vang said, about her older sister. “I saw how much she went through to make it to University and maybe now she can help when it’s time for me to apply.”

Yiang said Kaoxue Vang’s success has had a positive impact on students in the program and helps achieve the secondary goal of the program — to make students believe they belong on university campuses.

“Kaoxue used to be in the very same van with them, now she’s walking around at the University. I think that really sends a powerful message,” he said. “It gets them thinking, ‘If Kaoxue can do this, I can do this.’”

‘Hard work’

Vang spends most of her time studying in her dorm room at Comstock Hall, where she is a member of the Hmong living-learning community. She said she works twice as hard as most of her classmates to keep pace as she continues to improve her language skills.

“If something takes them 30 minutes, it will probably take me an hour,” she said. “But I always challenge myself to learn more and do my best.”

Though she said college is hard work, she admits it’s a welcome break from home life.

Like most eldest daughters in Hmong families, Vang said she carried a lot of the burden of housework and caring for her younger siblings, but Yiang said that responsibility may have provided the discipline she is known for in the classroom.

“She doesn’t have the mindset that she’s only been here for six years,” he said. “It’s not easy being the oldest Hmong girl, and for her that experience transferred into her studies.”

Neither of Vang’s parents have a formal education. Vang said their primary source of income growing up was what little her mom made sewing Hmong clothing that was shipped to America and sold. Her father is a factory worker.

Though she said it is difficult for them to understand her University experience, she knows she’s “made them proud.”

Barajas said Vang earned admission to the University through the Trio Program, which provide federal support for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Though she attended workshops and asked for help, she completed most of the application process on her own.

Her college application essay was about all of the challenges she’s overcome since coming from Thailand.

Vang dreams of a future in medicine — possibly pharmacy.

In the meantime, her biggest challenges are finding a student job and tackling psychology, which she said is her most difficult course.

“Sometimes I feel jealous of students who don’t have to work hard to make good grades,” she said. “But I don’t like to think of that stuff. I just keep doing what I can and trying to be a good student.”



Hmong leader from Madison honored in DC for work against domestic violence

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Photo by TRUE THAO
Kabzuag Vaj speaks at the Capitol during a rally in the spring. On Thursday, she will be recognized at the White House for her work against domestic violence.

A local Hmong leader is being recognized at the White House on Thursday in honor of Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Kabzuag (pronounced Kaj-u-wa) Vaj is co-founder and co-executive director of Freedom Inc., a Madison nonprofit organization that works with poor and low-income communities of color focusing on the root causes of violence against women and children.

"It's kind of surreal because we don't know too many people who get this type of award," said Vaj, 37, Wednesday by phone as she arrived in Washington, D.C.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, will join Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on domestic violence, in hosting 14 leaders who are dedicating their professional lives to ending domestic violence on a local level.

At the event, part of Obama's Champions of Change program, participants will share their personal stories and discuss lessons they've learned.

Vaj was born in Laos and arrived in Madison in 1981 as a refugee with her mother and siblings. None of them spoke English.

She started doing domestic violence work in the Hmong community in 2000 with the Milwaukee-based Hmong American Women's Association Inc., but she was located in Madison. When the organization lost state funding, she started her own group.

Freedom Inc. was incorporated in 2003, but it is not a typical domestic violence services organization, Vaj said.

In order to eliminate violence, an organization needs to go beyond providing services, she said.

"There should be a more holistic approach looking at different forms of oppression that contribute to violence against women and children," she said.

Freedom Inc. provides a niche where women of color can come for services and also build leadership abilities, Vaj said.

True Thao, youth program coordinator for Freedom Inc., who has worked with Vaj for 10 years, calls her a mentor and credits Vaj for helping her turn her life around.

"She's an incredible woman. Her vision, the work she does, her energy," Thao said.



Hmong Fresh Traditions fashion show going strong in fifth year

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Photos By: Jeff Rutherford

Friends, family and fashion lovers filled McNamara Alumni Center Friday for the Center for Hmong Arts & Talent’s (CHAT) annual fundraising-fashion show, Fresh Traditions V.

The excitement generated by the fashion show could be felt within minutes of walking into Memorial Hall. Everything and everyone in the room seemed to be in constant motion, generating an atmosphere of energy and exhilaration. Audience members shifted and moved trying to find the most accessible spot to view the long, black runway in the center of the hall. Any noise produced by the audience was quickly enveloped by the DJ’s music.

The fifth annual event began with master of ceremonies, Katie Ka Vang, walking onto the runway, urging viewers to support CHAT in various ways–from direct support of buying drinks to free publicity of Fresh Traditions by photos from mobile phones.

“Take a picture and put them on Facebook,” she said. “This is not an event where you hold back.”

The show did anything but hold back. Female models came up and down the runway, each showcasing the work of the designers, in everything from gowns and pants to Christmas light head decorations.

According to CHAT’s website, it is their goal to nurture, explore and illuminate the Hmong American experience through artistic expressions. Fresh Traditions takes these ideas and links together Hmong community with the fashion industry by highlighting Hmong designers.

The five designers chosen this year for Fresh Traditions were Sai Chang from St. Paul; Marlena Thao from Minneapolis; Dokiang Thao from Madison, Wisconsin; Ashley Yang from St. Paul; and Kao Lee Thao from Savage, Minnesota.

Once chosen, designers were given artistic freedom but with the added challenge of making a garment that reflected the traditional Hmong fabrics: neon pink, neon green, blue satin, black satin, and black velvet.

For some of the designers this was their first show, while others were seasoned veterans, even studying design.

For Kao Lee Thao, who is not normally a designer, Friday was her first stab at sewing clothes. The artist said it was a good opportunity for her to try a new art medium. Thao’s elaborate collection, Once Upon a Time, combined Hmong colours and folktales.

“I am an artist,” Thao said. “I’ve never sewn a collection before. I see it as more of an art project.

Sai Chang studied Apparel Design and Development at University of Wisconsin Stout and assisted designer Chong Moua last year, but said this year was her first solo collection.

“This [year] was my first collection, so it was really special for me,” Chang said.



Fresh Traditions Hmong fashion show joins MNFashion Week

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

This Friday Fresh Traditions, the annual fashion-show fundraiser for the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT), joins MNFashion Week, offering the only runway show in the Twin Cities that features all Hmong designers.

The event began five years ago when a group of Hmong designers approached CHAT in hopes to create a platform to showcase their work. According to Oskar Lee, who does public relations for the organization, the decision to become a fashion designer is a bold one for someone from the Hmong community. "Our parents encourage us to have strong, successful careers, but fashion is rarely one of those visions," he says. Still, Hmong culture has a tradition of making intricate clothing from rich fabrics. "At a very young age, we are exposed to the arts and culture of paj ntaub, Hmong hand embroidery, often in forms of special-occasion garments worn at the Hmong New Year or for when we marry," says Lee, "but also in story cloths about our culture, history, and traditions."

For the Fresh Traditions show, designers have complete control over their collection's vision, styling, models (all Asian), and runway music, but are also challenged to create one outfit made of five traditional Hmong fabrics: a neon pink, neon green, black velvet, black satin, and a deep navy satin.
While the Fresh Traditions designers are all Hmong, they come from quite a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. Some have design degrees and training, others in art, and some are giving fashion a first try.

Marlena Thao is one of the more experienced designers being featured, having had six runway shows under her belt at venues such as Epic Nightclub, Taj Salon, and the U of M, among others. Thao has been sewing since middle school. She took sewing classes in high school, and was delighted when she found out you could major in fashion design. She enrolled in the U of M's apparel design program, but after two years she decided to transfer to something smaller, attending MCTC for a semester. She then decided that she wanted to branch off and do what she wanted to do: runway shows. She took a year off from school and focused on what she loved doing. Thao had a friend who did Fresh Traditions last year, which inspired and motivated her to apply for this year.

Her line is based on a 1940s pin-up theme. "I wanted to go for more sexiness and sassiness," she says. "I like to work with a lot of feminine clothes. I'm bringing in a lot of different pieces, to show how versatile I am."

For Shai Chang, this will be her first fashion show, although last year she was an assistant to designer Chong Moua. She studied fashion at UW Stout. Chang says that she is very drawn to black and white, so much of her designs will use those colors. "I love the contrast," she says, "even though there's two colors, you can do a lot. The possibilities are endless."

Chang says that aside from the one requirement to design a look using the five fabrics, the designers were pretty much given free reign to do what they wanted.

Chang enjoyed the challenge of creating an outfit out of the traditional fabrics, designing something new out of something old, "without making it look too literal and from the past," she says.

Chang watches Project Runway and America's Top Model in order to learn from what other folks in the field are doing. "I want to be a freelance designer," she says. "It gives me more of an opportunity to be creative. If you work for a company, you have to design for a specific target market. I don't want to be too restricted. I want to be able to step outside the box."

Eventually, Chang hopes to open up an online T-shirt company, because she finds that women's shirts tend to be not as interesting. "Many times the graphics for womens T-shirts are a little cheesy for me," she says. "They say, 'I love farmboys' or something like that. I'm always searching for graphic tees that have cool designs."

Chang is utilizing a number of graphic prints in her line this weekend, on T-shirts, as well as a dress. A lot of her graphics include skulls. "My line is kind of punk rock with an urban edge," she says.

Kao Lee Thao, whose background is in animation and painting, will also be participating for the first time as a designer, though in previous years she has exhibited her body art. This year, she received a Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grant, and had plans to have models go down the runway with her paintings of Hmong folktales. However, she decided that she wanted to bring the paintings to life, and has been giving herself a crash course in sewing in order to create her collections, called Once Upon a Time.

"I just decided to push myself," she says. "I have no fashion background. I'm just an artist using this as a medium." Thao went to the Art Institute (AI). She now runs her own 3D animation company, and paints as well. In the future, she says her dream job would be costume designing for Cirque de Soleil.

In Thao's collection, each of the folktales tells a different story, and she casts each of the models as a character. For example, in Hmong Cinderella, the main character turns into a tree, her kids get trapped in a beehive, and her husband becomes a bird. In the design, Thao turns the model into a black-and-white bumblebee, with an animated beehive hairdo. She uses visual prosthetics, as well in a number of other pieces.

Thao says her training in 3D animation helped her build the designs. "It's more like an art project for me. 3D does help me visualize -- it's basically trial and error."


6 p.m. Friday, October 7
McNamara Alumni Center
200 Oak St. SE.
$15/$20 at the door
For VIP tickets, email


History through textiles: Hmong textiles

I went to a very interesting exhibit at the Center for Hmong Studies. Lee Pao Xiong, executive director for the center told me that the exhibit is about looking at Hmong History through Textiles. He went on to say how the hand production of hemp cloth has been an integral part of traditional Hmong culture from birth to burial. While I was familiar with some of the finer elements of Hmong embroidery--including paj ntaub and story clothes (I did my college honors project on these) the exhibit got me thinking about how much what we wear says about us.

Examples of Hmong embroidery.

Detail of embroidery.

I have been known to knit, crochet, sew, embroider and once tate. It is a very worthwhile and calming experience and it is such a sense of accomplishment when you finish a project.

Hmong tradition dictates that a mother make 2 of these handmade skirts of each of their daughters--one to be married in and one to be buried in. If you factor in the process to make the cloth, dye the cloth (including some batik) and embroider it it can take 1 year or more to make one skirt. I wrote in an article about these pieces that they were a visible manifestation of a mother's love and devotion. While machine made clothes are faster and cheaper they loose the art, love and devotion required to produce these works of art.

I suggested that the Center host a 1 year challenge asking young people to come together and encourage each other in the process of learning an old art.

The really wonderful thing about art is once learned you can make it your own. Here is a picture of a couture evening dress on display at the Center. Using very traditional elements it becomes an all new art form. It has me thinking about projects I would like to work on this winter season. More to come.



Hmong 'killed' in forced return to Laos

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

An elderly Hmong man and his son were allegedly killed when the forced repatriation of several dozen hilltribe people to Laos last week turned violent, according to rights advocates in the US.

Yang Chao, 68, and his son Peng Chao, 21, were reportedly beaten by Lao officials because they tried to resist being put on boats to go back across the Mekong to Vientiane on September 28.

Witnesses rang Hmong advocates in the US to say that Yang Chao, who was handcuffed at the time, was knocked senseless, then allegedly dumped from one boat when it was halfway across the river.

They claim his son Peng Chao was also beaten unconscious in Nong Khai while arguing against being forcibly returned. His body was also allegedly thrown into the river, advocates said.