When Yia Vang got an e-mail from a television producer who wanted to put him on a TV show, he thought it was a scam.
“When I get e-mails like that, I’m always very suspicious. I’m like, ‘Is this a Nigerian prince scandal kind of thing?’ ” said the chef, who cooks Hmong cuisine inspired by his family at Union Kitchen, a pop-up, catering business and trailer parked outside Sociable Cider Werks (1500 NE. Fillmore St., Mpls., 612-758-0105, unionkitchenmn.com).
But the e-mail was legitimate, and this weekend, Vang will appear, along with his family and others from Minnesota’s Hmong community, on the Emmy Award-winning “United Shades of America” with comedian/host W. Kamau Bell. The show airs on CNN on Sunday at 9 p.m.
The episode was shot this past November, giving the host a chance to check out Hmong New Year festivities. After learning about how so many Hmong people came to settle in Minnesota, Bell samples a variety of dishes with Toua Xiong at his Hmongtown Marketplace (217 Como Av., St. Paul, 651-487-3700, hmongtownmarketplace.com), putting on his game face when he’s coaxed into popping some pig intestines into his mouth. The meal gets decidedly more serious when Xiong shares how he escaped Laos after the Vietnam War.
Bell also spends time with artists May Lee-Yang and Saymoukda Vongsay and talks politics with various Hmong-American community leaders at Golden Thyme Coffee & Cafe (921 Selby Av., St. Paul, 651-645-1340, goldenthymeonselby.com).
Then, Bell goes to Vang’s home for dinner.
“It was super-funny; my aunts and uncles who never really come visit me showed up ‘randomly’ there,” Vang said with a laugh.
According to Hmong hospitality rules, the guest always eats before the host. That made for an awkward encounter when the film crew of about a dozen crammed into the Vang home and wouldn’t take a bite. “My mom and dad were really uncomfortable with the fact that all these camera people and producers weren’t eating,” Vang said. “It was interesting to see the dynamic.”
The one-hour episode’s most emotional part occurs when Bell interviews Vang’s father, Nhia Lor Vang, who fought for the American side during the Vietnam War.
Hearing his father share his history with Bell was eye-opening for Vang. “I learned about my dad’s life,” he said. “I’m 34 and I never heard some of these things, and how he was a hero.”
Vang hasn’t seen the final cut, and is excited to see how Bell stitches together his time among St. Paul’s Hmong community.
“In his shows, he proposes a question in the beginning and then he kind of unravels and answers many dynamic pieces of the question. Then at the end he lets it sink inside of you, to have your own conclusion of what you think,” Vang said. “People think because he has a comedian background that he’s just making jokes; but no, he’s actually super-intellectual.”
Neal Justin contributed to this report.