First it was delayed by the pandemic. Then white supremacist vandalism on its boarded-up front windows forced another postponement in September. Finally, this week the Hmong Cultural Center is celebrating the opening of a 1,200-square-foot museum on W. University Avenue in St. Paul.
"I feel very grateful because it has taken a long time for us to make it this far," said executive director Txong Pao Lee.
The windows are still boarded up, but replacements are on their way — a gift from 3M — along with new security gates, thanks to $20,000 from the St. Paul Foundation.
The museum quietly opened in early November for a soft launch after the sign damaged in the vandalism was replaced, but on Thursday, the new storefront space will officially welcome visitors to see exhibitions about Hmong culture, history, arts and identity, and to check out the small theater with a large flat-screen for showing documentaries. Due to COVID restrictions, the museum can accommodate only 15 people at a time.
The exhibition "Hmong Minnesota: Yesterday and Today" tells the story of the diasporic community. A 21-panel exhibit created by Museology includes new panels about Hmong food, Hmong New Year and Hmong sports and games, along with ones about the "Secret War," when the U.S. government recruited Hmong men to fight Laotian and Vietnamese Communists during the Vietnam War.
The Hmong began arriving in Minnesota in 1975 after the destruction of their homelands in Laos. Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States. Currently the statewide community is at more than 66,000 people.
An interactive exhibit focuses on Hmong folk arts, including such instruments as the Qeej, a six-pipe mouth organ that plays a role in funeral ceremonies and weddings, the Ncas (a mouth harp) and a two-string violin. Visitors can scan QR codes to learn more, or swipe through iPads to get guided explanations.
Upstairs, where the original Hmong Cultural Center was located, a library boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of Hmong scholarly literature in North America, including 400 dissertations on topics ranging from intergenerational trauma to views on aging from Hmong and Chinese elders.
It was the elders who created the center, noted Lee.
"They knew that the youth who were born and raised in this country will forget who they are, and that's why the center started doing music and Hmong art forms," he said. "And then we added education and the museum, to show the young people that we have a history, that you can learn where you come from."
Plans for the downstairs museum space have been in the works for seven years or so. But it took a series of grants to make the expansion possible — $50,000 from the LUCE Foundation, $50,000 from Google Community Grants Fund (in response to the rise of Asian hate crimes), another $50K from Arts Midwest, and a two-year Legacy Fund grant of $76,955 from the Minnesota Humanities Center.
The Hmong Cultural Center turns 30 next June, and Lee and Mark Pfeifer, director of programs, have been around since the early years.
Chao Lee, who now works in U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum's office, filed the initial paperwork for the Hmong Cultural Center's nonprofit status back in 1992, when he was at Hamline University.
"We wanted to preserve the Hmong heritage," said Lee (who is not closely related to the executive director, but is in the Lee clan). "I am a little bit surprised and amazed and proud that the Hmong Cultural Center has survived."
For younger Hmong people — the so-called 1.5 generation, brought to the United States as refugees when they were 8 or younger — the Cultural Center feels that much more important.
Artist Sieng Lee (also a member of the Lee clan) thinks about questions of immigration and diaspora as part of the bigger picture.
"Like [other] immigrant communities, there is always a question of: 'Have they arrived?' " said Lee, who has an advisory role at the center. "And I don't think we have arrived, or are even close. It's that non-polished version of who we are."
Hmong Cultural Center
Where: 375 W. University Av., St. Paul.
When: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., weekends by appointment.
Info: 651-917-9937 or hmongcc.org.