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Ringing in the Hmong New Year

One of Merced’s biggest cultural occasions of the year, the Hmong New Year Celebration, takes place Dec. 18-19 at the Merced County Fairgrounds, keeping alive the heritage of Southeast Asian residents who moved here 40 years ago.

Paul Thao, executive director of the Merced Lao Family Community Inc., says about 7,000 people of all ages attend the Hmong New Year events spread out across the fairgrounds. Executive director for two years, he has been attending the celebrations for more than 20 years.

Thao said those attending come from all over California and other states. Events run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day and between 3,000 and 4,000 people take part. The admission charge is $4 per person. 

The celebration features a culture show with performers, along with singing of Hmong traditional folk songs. There is the traditional ball-tossing event, which strengthens the bonds between young boys and girls. Soccer, volleyball and tossing of the kator ball are featured. Participants use only their head and feet to move the ball since they are not allowed to touch it. 

“This event is pretty good for our culture. It celebrates the cultures from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and China. We want to make sure younger generations are aware of their ancestry. It’s our only event during the year and this is a big event,” Thao said.

There was no event in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Visitors to the celebration will have a chance to buy clothing, shoes, jewelry and decorative items like quilts. Typically, about 50 vendors offer their wares along with another 20 providing traditional Southeast Asian food dishes.

Bee Lor is chairman of this year’s Hmong New Year Celebration. He has been going to the annual events since 1982. He says he enjoys the ball culture, along with the clothing, food and sporting events. 

“We welcome everybody in the community to join our celebration for the 2022 year,” Lor said.

Thao said sponsors are being sought to put on the event. In previous years close to two dozen sponsors have supported the events.

Merced Lao Family Community Inc. was established in 1981 when thousands of Hmong moved into California expecting to farm. After its inception the organization began to host the New Year celebration for its community. 

From 1981 to 1984 the New Year celebrations were simple. They were held at a park or on school grounds. Hmong living in Merced contributed $5 per family for the cost of the celebration.

Since 1995 things have been changed. Safety and costs were important issues for the celebration, with costs rising more than the community’s families could handle. The celebration would have to be held at a higher secured location and fund-raising activities established.

The New Year planning committee chose to move the event to the fairgrounds for safety purposes and developed a strategic plan to cover the costs. The community suggested additional activities such as a pageant contest, singing contest and a traditional dance contest. 

Today more than 100 individuals, businesses, organizations and agencies support and sponsor the Merced Hmong New Year Celebration. More than 200 people have volunteered and over 3,000 people have attended the celebration for three days. 

This year the traditional pageant for women ages 18 and up will not be held. In past years 6 to 10 women have competed in that event.

Keith Vang, chairman of the 2019 event, said his has been an end-of-the-year celebration for the Hmong people for more than 100 years.

“It is a time for family and friends to reunite after 365 days of hard work. It is to reflect on the past year and welcome the upcoming New Year,” Vang said.

Vang said this promises to be a wonderful and most memorable event of the year.

“We will be overloaded for the next days with rousing speeches, exciting performances delicious foods, beautiful clothes and chances to meet friends and people from all over the country,” Vang said.