Vang Pao vigil: A son's duty

  • Article by: ALLIE SHAH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 21, 2011 - 11:13 AM

In the weeks before Gen. Vang Pao's funeral, the son of the Hmong legend presides over mourning in St. Paul.

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Every day since his father died more than a week ago, Lu Vang has stood vigil at the elaborate shrine created for the late Gen. Vang Pao.

From 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., he takes his post inside the auditorium of the Lao Family Community of Minnesota offices on W. University Avenue in St. Paul, waiting to welcome the parade of clan elders, soldiers, politicians and ordinary folks.

The son has vowed to stay there for 12 hours every day for the next two weeks, until he must leave to attend his father's funeral in California.

So far, more than 1,000 people have stopped to pay their respects to the general, considered a hero for his role in the Vietnam War and in leading the first waves of Hmong refugees to the United States.

Lu Vang greets them with a handshake and a slight bow.

As the oldest son of Vang Pao's children living in Minnesota, "it's my job," he said.

A five-day funeral beginning Feb. 4 in Fresno, Calif., has been set for the general, who died of pneumonia Jan. 6 at age 81.

Originally, the plan was to keep the St. Paul shrine open to visitors only on the weekends leading up to the funeral. But the family pushed for a constant vigil.

"My father always committed to the Hmong community," Lu Vang said. "It's my duty to open it 12 hours a day until I leave."

The way he sees it, some maybe walk in at any time, and when they arrive, they should be received by a family member.

A man of small build, Lu Vang appears even smaller standing in front of the billboard-sized photo of his father at the center of the shrine.

"I talk to him all the time. I ask him for wisdom and ask him to help out and bring more people," Lu Vang says.

With the passing of the general, many Hmong elders feel rudderless.

"Right now the Hmong are still divided," Lu Vang said. "All leadership is gone. Right now, we're going to go through a stage of [people] challenging for leadership. I have to try to keep everyone together. I'm only a little guy, so it's going to be hard."

Each day begins with Lu Vang entering the room, lighting candles near the large shrine, then greeting his father.

"I tell him, 'Good morning, Dad, I'm here to reopen this room. Forgive me if I do something wrong. I ask you for the good wish for the Hmong people to come back together.'"

Then he makes a pot of coffee and places a cup at the shrine.

An auto mechanic, he's had no trouble taking time off from his job because he works for his nephew.

Weekends are the busiest time, when large groups of mourners show up.

Sunday was a day for many important guests, including the special guerrilla unit, made up of men who fought with Gen. Vang Pao in Laos against the Communists. They marched in wearing their khaki uniforms and saluting his photo.

As the afternoon wore on, more people arrived.

They brought gifts of incense and flowers -- and cash to help pay for funeral expenses.

Lu Vang greeted them all, directing them to sign their names in the guest book.

By 9 p.m. the auditorium was still humming, as clan leaders at one table toasted the general with whiskey shots. Soon after, trays once full of chicken and rice were empty.

Lu Vang joined a group of mourners praying before his father's photo.

He bowed deeply, talking to his father once more before calling it a night.

Allie Shah • 612-673-4488

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