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     Who knew words of welcome on a rock in a Chinese garden in St. Paul can spark testy debates and protests?


On April 17, the following paragraph appeared in an article in the Pioneer Press with the headline, “Dialect dispute has St. Paul Hmong group calling for Dai Thao to quit; he wants FBI probe:

“The exchange holds special meaning to some in the Phalen area and the Asian-American community. For others, it’s 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.”

“The exchange” referred to the gifts from the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society to St. Paul’s sister city, Changsha, in China’s Hunan Province, where many in the Hmong community claim as their ancestral home. 

The Hmong dialect controversy centers around the spelling of the term for Hmong engraved on some the art stones placed in the St. Paul-Changsha China Friendship Garden last fall.  That event was attended by a number of dignitaries, including a majority from the Hmong 18 Council (group that sets standards and settles disputes among the 18 Hmong clans) of 2020- 2022.  Of the nine art stones, some have Chinese, Dakota and Hmong engraved on them.

No one voiced any concern the day of the event.

However, concern was later brought to the attention of the St. Paul Parks and Rec and to Council Member Dai Thao over the use of “Moob” (rather than “Hmoob” or “Hmong”), which led to personal attacks, demonstrations outside St. Paul’s City Hall and calls for Thao’s resignation in April. 

The tension between the Green Hmong and the more dominant White Hmong is tribal and as old as the hills.  (A 2002 California bill using “Hmong” raised hackles within the Hmong community there.)

William Zajicek, president of the garden society said, “What a sorry situation this is.  Dai Thao and others involved in contesting the use of “Moob” have at other times been sincere supporters of the project. And to have this past support devolve over the use of the letter “H” is to me a very tragic turn of events.

“It is worth pointing out that not a day goes by where we don’t have someone in the Hmong Community thanking us for working to make the Hmong Plaza a reality. As to Council Member Thao’s call for investigations on how public money was used, he knows how the public money has been used and that each dollar is accounted for. In fact, he provided public money for the project himself in 2017/18 and it went directly to St. Paul’s Phalen China Garden Account, managed by the St. Paul Parks and Rec Department.”

Words do matter, but intentions behind the words also matter.  In this case, the use of both Green and White Hmong terms was intended to show inclusivity. 

The local Chinese community together with the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society have worked long and hard on this project.  They have raised funds tirelessly, spent inordinate number of hours providing manual labour in weeding and planting, consumed an exhaustive amount of time researching the finer points of Chinese garden design to get the garden to this point.  It would be most unfortunate to let a well-intentioned act of goodwill be misappropriated into a political battle.

Take a lesson from the California bill meant to strengthen Hmong heritage among Hmong youth.  The end result because of disagreement between the Green and White Hmong was a bill so watered down it “erased all reference to the Hmong community.”

Let not a Hmong dialect dispute derail a grand, collaborative Chinese-Hmong garden project.


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