Hmong group calls for Dai Thao’s resignation over dialect dispute

Visitors view the newly unveiled Xiang Jiang pavilion in Phalen Regional Park on November 3, 2018. The structure is a gift from St. Paul’s sister city Changsha in China, and the first phase of a 1, 2 acres. In exchange, Changsha got several statues of Snoopy from St. Paul. (Deanna Weniger/Pioneer Press)

It started with Snoopy, Charlie Brown and Lucy in a colorful Hmong dress. But what began as a friendly effort to celebrate the South Asian community in Minnesota and China culminated in a St. Paul City Council member calling for an investigation, at least temporarily freezing efforts to expand a Chinese garden in Phalen Lake.

“It’s really kind of sad,” said Phalen Lake area resident William Zajicek, a former 3M industrial tape engineer and president of the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society.

The Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society has spent years raising money for a major gift exchange between St. Paul boosters and the capital’s sister city, Changsha, an ancestral home of the Hmong community in central China. . The project has grown over time, fueled in part by the legacy of Minneapolis-born cartoonist Charles Schulz.

In 2018, Changsha received five full-size statues based on characters from Schulz’s popular “Peanuts” comic strip, including a festive Lucy, as well as Snoopy dressed as Joe Cool. In return, St. Paul received a replica of the famous 18th-century Chinese Aiwan Pavilion, which now stands at Phalen Lake.

The exchange has special meaning for some residents of the Phalen region and the Asian-American community. For others, it has become a flashpoint in a simmering war of words between speakers of two traditional Hmong dialects known as “Hmong Green” or “Leng” and “Hmong White” or “Der/ Daw”, which is more common in the Twin. Cities.

LANGUAGE PROTEST

Last week, two dozen green-tongued Hmong elders involved in the “Mong Equality Committee” braved wind and rain to stand in front of St. Paul’s City Hall and demand that Dai Thao, the first member of the Hmong municipal council of St. Paul, resigns.

The Peanuts character Lucy in a Hmong dress.
The statue of Lucy Saint Paul sent to Changsha, China. (Courtesy of Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society)

It’s an unusual request, and just the latest entry in an evolving dispute over “Peanuts”, the pavilion and the letter “H”, which appears to be missing in a word inscribed on large stones near the base of the beautiful installation. of the park.

Speakers of the traditional Hmong Green dialect say the letter is missing for a good reason, and they have become increasingly vocal in their efforts to keep it that way.

The dispute, which had been simmering for months, was featured on Hmong news channels on YouTube and AM radio. It also exposed deep-rooted tensions within the community between some Hmong Green and Hmong White speakers, who are said to be about as different as British English and American English.

ZongKhang Yang, an actor and film producer who chairs the Mong Equality Committee, said the carvings added to two freestanding stones near the base of the pavilion are inscribed in the Hmong White dialect. In this script, which is most common in the Metro and the United States as a whole, a writer would call the Hmong people “Hmoob”.

Two other stones were inscribed last year in the Hmong Green dialect, in which the Hmong are called “Moob”, without “H”.

“We were just showing the cultural diversity of the Hmong community, thinking it was a precious thing,” said Zajicek, president of the Garden Society. “I think most of the community don’t understand why there would be controversy, but some people took offense.”

“ALL PEOPLE DO NOT AGREE ON THE CHOICES MADE”

Approached by concerned members of the Hmong community, Dai Thao, the city council member, took to Facebook last fall and asked why the Green Hmong dialect had appeared on the stone. A hornet’s nest of pushback immediately erupted on social media in all directions.

According to ZongKhang Yang, criticism of the spelling “Moob” also came from influential leaders of Hmong Council 18, a nonprofit veterans’ organization named after the CIA-backed special guerrilla unit during the Lao Civil War and owner of a Hmong AM radio. station.

An appeal to the Hmong Council 18 – the organization that claims to set standards and settle disputes between the 18 clans of the community – was not returned. But before retiring as longtime director of St. Paul Parks and Recreation in late February, Mike Hahm released a statement acknowledging the Moob/Hmoob debate.

The outgoing director of Parks and Rec has effectively apologized for not alerting the clans in advance to the missing “H”.

“It is clear to me that not everyone agrees with the choices made, but it is clear to me that these choices were made with good intentions and justification,” Hahm wrote. “Despite all the work and research done by this group and others to chart the best path forward for this project… some important voices in the community were unaware of the project work, and others were surprised by the end product. Specifically, the Hmong Council 18 feels that they were not fully aware of the work of the project to date, and I am obligated to improve this.

Unimpressed by efforts to quell the controversy and staunchly in favor of keeping the “H” out of the way, ZongKhang Yang and other protesters called on Dai Thao to resign from the elected councilor position he has held since November 2013.

“That’s why we’re here today,” ZongKhang Yang said Tuesday, flanked by about 20 rain-soaked supporters under a tent erected along Kellogg Boulevard in front of City Hall.

COUNCIL MEMBER SAYS HE RECEIVED THREATENING LETTER

St. Paul City Council member Dai Thao speaks during a City Council meeting Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in St. Paul.
Dai Thao, St. Paul City Council Member. (File Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

In response, the council member released a written statement the same day saying his Ward 1 office and Parks and Rec began receiving complaints from the community last September. As a board member, he invited members of the Hmong community to get involved in the project and recommended increased community engagement and transparency.

Since then, he said, he has received vicious physical threats in writing and accused officials of trying to organize a breakaway Hmong republic in Southeast Asia.

Dai Thao said members of the Mong Equality Committee are associated with longstanding efforts to create a new Hmong homeland outside of Laos, which has been a pipe dream in the eyes of many skeptics, who note that the country Communist has no reason to give up land for what would effectively amount to secession.

The council member, who did not respond to calls for comment, said in his written statement that the “H” dispute was a ruse to distract, and he publicly called out the Minnesota attorney general’s office and the FBI to investigate any use of public funds. . A reporter’s call to the FBI was not returned last week.

“A CULTURAL STATEMENT, NOT A POLITICAL”

“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Zajicek, the president of the Garden Society, said of Dai Thao. “It’s so self-destructive. It distracts us from what could truly be an amazing feature of St. Paul. But we are moving forward. The garden is a cultural statement, not a political one. We value diversity, even if some others don’t. Many young Hmong children cannot speak Hmong, let alone write it, and the idea was that this would be a touchstone of their culture.

Clare Cloyd, spokeswoman for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, said all funds received by the department went towards the design and construction of the project.

Although overshadowed by the “H” debate, Cloyd said the city is transitioning to next phase of Phalen China Garden Regional Park Projects and is looking forward to additional contributions from the community.

“Despite all the controversy over the Hmong dialect, it’s an exciting time,” said Zajicek, who hopes to expand an existing garden at Phalen Creek with additional trees, walkways, a picnic-friendly patio and suitable plantings. for a Chinese garden. “We are planning phase two right now.”

James C. Tibbs