As the largest annual Hmong gathering in the world, the Hmong Freedom Celebration in St. Paul is a homecoming, holiday -- and this year, a historic occasion.
From Thailand to France, an estimated 50,000 people trekked to Minnesota from all over the world to attend the event -- the largest crowd, organizers say, since it started as a small Harriet Island picnic 32 years ago.
"It's a like a family reunion," said Amee Xiong, executive director of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota, which puts on the annual festival.
The two-day event, known as J4 because it's held each year on July 4th weekend, boasts of being the biggest Asian-American sporting event in the nation. But for the first time this year, organizers tried to appeal to younger families, adding a teen beauty pageant, boosting entertainment and partnering with mainstream media radio station KDWB.
"This year it's really geared toward family," Xiong said. "We want to make sure all families in Minnesota come."
And the world.
The growing event created to unite Hmong refugees in St. Paul has since gained an international reputation, now uniting Hmong from all over the globe.
Its prominence, Xiong said, is in part because Minnesota has the second-largest Hmong community in the nation. With an estimated 63,000 residents, Hmong make up the largest group of Asian residents in the state.
"A lot of people look to the Hmong in Minnesota to be a leader in the [global] Hmong community," she said.
As some 300 vendors filled the hillsides overlooking Como Park's McMurray Field, athletes competed below in everything from soccer and flag football to top spin, a game that originated in Laos. On the sidelines, a colorful collage of umbrellas shaded spectators from the sweltering 90-degree heat Saturday. Overlooking them, a portrait of legendary Gen. Vang Pao sat between American and Laotian flags.
For the Hmong community, Xiong said, "this is like the Super Bowl."
Bi Lor hasn't missed the annual event in six years, traveling from his Denver home not only to test his top spin skills at the national level, but also because the festival is "the home of the Hmong community," he said, with Xiong translating.
It's grown so much that this year, organizers had to hire an event coordinator to help with the yearlong planning. For the first time, athletic events were broadened to more age groups.
Even Xiong is making history. The St. Paul 28-year-old attended the festival countless times growing up, she said, and is now its first female executive director.
"May the odds be ever in your favor," she said, quoting from "The Hunger Games" to a group of male athletes before a top spin game, adding that she hopes the traditional, typically male-dominated sport gains popularity in younger generations -- and someday, even women. "It's changing."
Kelly Smith • 612-673-4141; Twitter: @kellystrib