Sunday, October 24

In Search of Hmong

Have you seen the movie The Gran Torino? Prince Charming and I watched it on DVD recently and it brought out a number of mixed emotions from me. Shock, disbelief, joy, and confusion. For those who haven't seen it before, it is about a grumpy old man (Clint Eastwood) living in a neighborhood in Detroit that has been taken over by the Hmong community. Shock and disbelief because of the economic implosion that has taken place in Detroit and the brutality of gang warfare. Joy because Clint's neighbors essentially win him over with scrumptious Hmong food. They talk about roast duck, chicken dumplings, soups, spring rolls, fresh basil and chili sauces. The food looks fantastic in the movie and I really wanted to try some.

I was confused because folks usually turn to me for answers on all things Asian and in this case all things South East Asian. So, when Prince Charming turned to me and said, "where are the Hmong from?" my answer was, "I don't have a clue..." Well, the characters in the movie inform us that they were mainly from Laos, Vietnam and some parts of China. Hey, I'm Singaporean, why had I not known about them before? Is this what neighboring Malaysians mean by Singaporeans being arrogant about our successes that we go around calling Singapore the Switzerland of the East and looking to the West while ignoring our own Asian brethren? Growing up in Singapore, if we did not go to India to visit relatives, we would fly to Australia, Europe or the States. We did go to Malaysia a couple of times and school mates did go to Thailand, but no one went to Laos nor Vietnam.

Thinking more about it, I realize now that it was because Laos and Vietnam are communist countries and there was a certain amount of filtering that took place in Singapore before any form of media reached the common man. Before I go any further, I have to declare that I am one of the biggest fans of Lee Kuan Yew and the PAP. When I first left for Cambridge almost 20 years ago, I had lofty dreams of returning to Singapore to work for the government and to join the PAP. I wanted to join the Monetary Authority of Singapore and be involved in policy making. My dissertation was on how the Central Provident Fund of Singapore formed the foundation of Singapore's success by enabling the investment of huge sums of capital funneled from forced savings of its people back into Singaporean industry and its infrastructure. In addition to developing the economy driving it from its third world status in the '60s, when it was at the same stage of development as Indonesia or the Philippines, to where it is now - a gleaming metropolis with flashy cars and shiny sky-scrapers. It is now the center for finance, health and education for South-East Asia. No easy feat for any developing nation. However, this was possible only because Lee Kuan Yew ruled with an iron fist. The communists in the 1960s were crushed and detainment without trial was used openly. Singapore was routinely featured in Amnesty International articles in the 1980s and there was always this underground whispering of human rights violations.

A few days after watching the movie, I had my annual medical exam. I was sent to the lab to have some blood drawn and the technician walked up to me. He looked Chinese and I looked at his name tag which was filled with THs, PHs, OAs, and NHs. I was excited! Could he be Hmong? Like the folks in the movie? I asked him what his ethnicity was as I hate asking people where they are from. He could have been born in California, right? He didn't understand my question and the guy sitting next to me piped in "she wants to know where you're from!" Laos. "Laos? Are you Hmong?" He wasn't. He explained to me that the Hmong are tribal people from the mountains and he was just from Laos. The conversation quickly turned to food and he explained to me that Lao food is very similar to Thai food, due, of course, to the proximity. He said it is also very spicy and chucked that it's the chili that keeps him skinny. I wanted to say that there are many fat Indians who eat very spicy food but felt that it wouldn't add much to the conversation. At that point, my fellow patient who was also having his blood drawn jumped into the conversation once again and asked when he moved to the States. His face twisted into tough memories and he told us that he moved here in 1979. He had to swim across the Mekong river in the dark of the night to escape to Thailand from the communists. He explained that when the communists said that wanted to meet the men of the family to discuss issues about the community, they would invite them into a room and shoot them in the head. He and his father were called one day, and that night they escaped. I reckon Lee Kuan Yew knew a thing or two about communists those days and I am thankful to him.

Anyway, I have been searching for Hmong recipes as I really want to try some. Do you know of a good recipe you'd like to share? There are quite a few out there on the World Wide Web. How about we use the next 10 days to try some out? I would love to hear from you about your thoughts on Hmong cuisine, Laos, or even Lee Kuan Yew.

Sincerely yours,


Vanessa said...

To add another geographical and political dimension to your post:- had your adopted country not fought their ideological war in Vietnam - never mind that they didn't win - the Communists would've marched unencumbered down the peninsula and life would've been very different for us Singaporeans. Almost impossible to imagine.

Did you read Mrs LKY's eulogies from her family and LKY in the Singapore press recently? They give in insight to the family and what they're like away from the political stage.

Cinnamon and Truffle said...

Dear Vanessa,

Thank you for your comment. You are right. In fact I had an entire paragraph that I did not get to write because of my self-imposed word count. My fellow patient also spoke about how his family in Boone (mountain region in NC) had sponsored a Lao family to move to the States in the 1970s. He explained that many families with military ties did so to help out Lao people in the 1970s as the Americans felt that the Lao had fought with them side by side in Vietnam and they were indebted to them. I continue to be impressed by the spirit of the American people.

After I read your comment, I looked up the eulogies. Very moving. What a woman. I remember seeing her with a grand kid or two at Cold Storage quite a few times, back in the old days. She always wore a smart cheong sam and always held her head high. Very impressive lady. Thanks for sharing, Vaness.


Anonymous said...

It's not easy for anyone who disagrees with the government's version of Singapore's history to express their views. Singapore retains provisions of colonial-era legislation in the Internal Security Act. The Internal Security Department (ISD) has listeners in educational institutions, community centres and any form of association, and the slightest whisper of dissent is picked up by them (this was told to me by a high ranking official). Thus, I post the following links in anonymity.

About "Cold Store", an operation in which political opponents were rounded up and detained shortly before an election.

A film about Dr Lim Hock Siew (one of the detainees in that operation), who was behind bars for almost two decades. Without charge. The film was banned in Singapore.

In words attributed to opposition politician J B Jeyaretnam: "once in a long while, there comes a man who achieves greatness without having to cause the suffering of others".

~Mama said...

Great post Cinnamon, you've hit upon one of my favourite things about America: you can find absolutely every sort of person there, and everybody fits in precisely because nobody does.

Cinnamon and Truffle said...

Cinnamon, you can use my trick if you want to avoid asking people about their ethnicity or origins. If I come across an interesting name, I usually say "That's a cool name. Where is it from?"




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