Hundreds honor Twin Cities artist and activist Tou Ger Xiong at Woodbury vigil

A crowd of people bow their heads solemly.
A candlelight service for Tou Ger Xiong is held in Woodbury, Minn. on Saturday. Attendees from the Hmong community bow their heads in prayer to mourn the loss of Tou Ger Xiong.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

Hundreds of people mourned and celebrated the life of Hmong activist and comedian Tou Ger Xiong on Saturday.

Xiong was kidnapped and killed while vacationing in northern Colombia earlier this month. According to Colombian authorities, Xiong went to meet up with a friend in Medellín on Dec. 10 and was taken hostage. Hours later, he called a friend in the United States to tell him his captors were demanding $2,000 ransom.

He was later found dead in a wooded area of the city.

At East Ridge High School in Woodbury, family, friends and members of the community spoke about Xiong, while many of those in attendance dabbed at tears or broke out in smiles as speakers recalled his life.

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“He was someone who was just this bright, incredible light,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told MPR News.

In a short speech remembering Xiong, Klobuchar recalled the advice Xiong’s mother offered him: “All the money in the world can not replace the ideas and the passion in your belly.”

Xiong took that to heart, Klobuchar said, working to help elect Mee Moua, the first Hmong-American to win a state legislative seat in the U.S., entertain and inspire people with his comedy, and speak out against societal wrongs.

“It's not because he was well connected, not because he was born into money.” Klobuchar said, “Rather, it was because of his mind, which was so full of ideas. His heart, which was so full of passion. His soul, so driven by a desire to do right by fellow human beings. Driven by that passion, he made the most of his short time on earth.”

Xiong, 50, was born in Laos and grew up in St. Paul. He was valedictorian of his class at Humboldt High School and was a performer and activist. In multiple interviews with MPR News over the years, he spoke out about social and criminal justice issues, including the death of Fong Lee, a 19-year-old who was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in 2006.

After a federal jury exonerated the officer who shot and killed Fong, Xiong was not persuaded.

“This does nothing more than to reaffirm the fact that we should fear police and members of law enforcement. Because it is saying to us, ‘Watch out, if a cop thinks you pose a threat, you will be killed, you will shot, you will be killed.’”

Xiong was in the courtroom every day of the civil trial.

Two people hug while mourning
Alyson Nelson (left) and Alton Bennett mourn the loss of Tou Ger Xiong. Nelson’s sister was married to Tou Ger Xiong and Bennett was his father-in-law. “I just hope he’s in peace,” said Bennett.
Judy Griesedieck for MPR News

In 2008, Xiong told a reporter about auditioning for a role in Gran Torino, a movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

“I think we heard two words: Clint Eastwood and a Hmong movie,” Xiong said. “What? Clint Eastwood and a Hmong movie? You know, Clint Eastwood isn’t going to be low budget.”

Xiong wasn’t cast in the film, but he respected Eastwood for casting Hmong actors in the movie.

“They could have walked down Hollywood and found Chinese or Korean actors,” he said. “But they said no, we want real speaking Hmong actors.”

On stage, his rap Go Hmong Boy was especially popular.

I fled my country at the age of four

All because of the Vietnam War

My family was moving from place to place

Running from the guns at a very fast pace

My people were dying here and there

Dead women, children everywhere

- An excerpt of 'Go Hmong Boy' by Tou Ger Xiong