It’s a Thursday evening at Tso Siab Adult Daycare Center in north St. Paul and six young women are lining up in a corner of an open space, wearing plain shirts, traditional Hmong skirts and five-inch heels. Photos of Hmong elders line the walls of the room.
The group of women are practicing their walks for the Miss Hmong Minnesota pageant, which is held every year during the Hmong New Year celebrations in St. Paul. This year it will be held on Nov. 25 and 26. And they have a little over a week until competition day.
Kaitlyn Yang, one of the contestants, is training in a cross-stitched, pleated skirt with pink, black, yellow and green colors. She says it symbolizes her family’s dialect.
“I actually got this skirt, I believe, from Hmong Village,” said Yang, 19. “We are Hmong Leng so we have these skirts where they make at a boutique and hand-make all the skirts.”
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The women have spent three months working on their outfits, walks, interviewing skills and Hmong pronunciation in preparation for the pageant, which has been at the core of the Twin Cities Hmong tradition for decades.
This year marks the 37th annual pageant and the 43rd anniversary of the New Year events in St. Paul. More than 35,000 people are anticipated to attend the New Year festivities this weekend at St. Paul RiverCentre.
Since it started in 1980, St. Paul’s Hmong New Year celebration has grown to be one of the biggest Hmong events in the U.S. It trails behind the New Year celebrations in Fresno, Calif., which Fresno said drew 44,000 people over four days in 2022.
“This time is harvest time,” said Ly Teng, who helped establish St. Paul’s Hmong New Year festival in 1980. “Most families would have harvested all their food. Because this is our holiday, we would take three days off to stay home with our family and spend time attending the festival together in the village so that we can reunite from the year’s laborious work on the fields and rest.”
It’s also traditionally the only major holiday for the Hmong people in Laos, according to Teng, who is originally from northern Laos. He said the New Year festival has been a time for families to come together and for young people to find prospects for marriage.
The Miss Hmong Minnesota pageant became a staple program of St. Paul’s New Year events in 1984. Teng, who served as a military colonel in Laos for the Hmong forces during the Vietnam War, said the idea for the St. Paul pageant came from his time at a military base called Long Cheng, where he judged pageants.
Back then, the Hmong sided with the U.S. to fight the spread of communism in the region. Thousands of Hmong people died during the war.
“The pageant was really important during wartime,” said Teng. “It provided entertainment when family members were losing friends and family in the battlefield and offered hope and a sense of happiness during wartime. It was something that people looked forward to ever since it started.”
Pageant competitions started in Long Cheng during the war as part of the Hmong New Year celebrations. A stage was set up in the fields where hundreds of people would gather to watch the pageant contests, according to Teng.
The war eventually came to an end when the U.S. military withdrew from Laos in the early ‘70s, displacing hundreds of thousands of Hmong and Laotian people by 1975. Many fled to the U.S. and settled in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California.
In 1980 when St. Paul’s Hmong New Year celebration was created, Minnesota’s population of Hmong people was around 2,000, according to a 1984 University of Minnesota study. Today, the state is home to over 94,000 Hmong people, according to Wilder Researcher’s Minnesota Compass.
Maintaining tradition in Minnesota after Vietnam War
Teng moved to Minnesota in 1978 and worked with the nonprofit Lao Family Community of Minnesota to organize the first Hmong New Year festivities in St. Paul.
“We created the Hmong New Year celebration in 1980 because the Hmong New Year is something that has always been a celebration and a part of our tradition when we lived in Laos,” said Teng, who is now 82. “We wanted to incorporate that in our lives here as new Americans to maintain our traditions.”
By 1984, the Miss Hmong Minnesota pageant was added to the New Year celebrations.
“The reason why I added pageantry to the Hmong New Year was because in Laos, we also offered the same type of competitions,” said Teng. “And because I was a judge, I remembered the procedures for a pageant contest and wanted to incorporate the same sense of belonging and same sense of enjoyment for spectators with our Minnesota Hmong New Year.”
Since the ‘80s, hundreds of Hmong women in the Twin Cities area have competed in the pageant and have made it a staple of St. Paul’s Hmong New Year event, which is now run by United Hmong Family.
Creating sisterhood in Miss Hmong Minnesota crown title
Khou Yang, secretary of the board of United Hmong Family, competed in 2017 and was first runner-up.
The age range had just expanded, making her eligible to compete at 26 years old — and she ended up being the oldest in the competition that year. Yang said she initially expected to make relationships with her fellow contestants.
“It was very competitive,” said Yang, who now serves as a mentor to the Hmong pageant program. “Very much everyone wanting to keep the type of outfits they’re wearing very behind closed doors until the final reveal on the first day of competition or what kind of music were you were using, people weren’t sharing the type of music they were using because they wanted it to be a surprise.”
After competition day in 2017, her pageant court — made up of the pageant winner, Yang and the second runner-up — saw an opportunity to change pageant culture. They wanted to create more of a sisterhood in the pageant process.
Traditionally, the crown title of Miss Hmong Minnesota meant a lot of responsibility and community work for the pageant winner.
“The title holder kind of gets the opportunity to do a lot of her projects and she really shines, but but we wanted to create more of a support system and a community because we noticed over the years, all the pressure that's been put on this title holder to kind of uphold this name,” said Yang, who is 32.
And they thought, “Why don’t we utilize all three because they’re all given a title and it would be an equal opportunity for them to share the workload and be able to also build themselves and develop skills, teamwork that they wouldn't otherwise have.”
Since 2018, Miss Hmong Minnesota’s crown title has included three women instead of just one. And Yang said they’ve built toward a sense of sisterhood for the contestants.
“What we’ve done to really build that is just really introducing the idea that yes, we understand this is a competition. But the biggest competition for all these contestants is themselves,” said Yang.
In 2020 and 2021, the pageant and New Year celebrations were put on pause because of the pandemic but returned in 2022. Attendance soared to 39,000 that year compared to under 30,000 in previous years, and organizers are hoping they can continue to attract people to the event.
Pazoo Moua, 22, is one of the pageant contestants this year and said she appreciates the opportunity to build her confidence, learn more about the Hmong community and meet other women during the process.
“My favorite part of pageant so far would be getting to know my contestant sisters,” Moua said. “It’s been an amazing journey getting to know about each and every single one of them. They have become good friends of mine that I cherish a lot.”
Although the pageant has evolved over the years, Teng, one of the founders of the original celebration, said it’s still kept to the tradition of showing the strength and beauty of Hmong Minnesotans.
“The Hmong pageantry is no longer just something new,” said Teng. “But it’s more of offering an opportunity to see the vibrance, the confidence, the change, the progressiveness of the Hmong community,” said Teng. “It is more of a competition of strength and achievement because each young woman comes and shows her skill sets on the stage.”
Details: Minnesota Hmong New Year. 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25 and 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 26. St. Paul RiverCentre, 175 Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul. Tickets available online or at the door for $12 cash or $12.45 card. Free admission for people 65 and older and kids under 42 inches tall.