Before he wore a badge, Phillip Xiong worked a different beat.
These days, he roams the halls of Minneapolis’ Transition Plus Services as the school’s resource officer, shooing students back to class and breaking up the occasional fight. He goes by “Officer Phil.”
But it wasn’t that long ago that he was roaming musical stages from the Twin Cities to Southeast Asia as a member of a popular 1980s Hmong rock band called Koom Siab.
To this day, he gets recognized around town. “Some people, they saw me on YouTube and started asking questions,” Xiong said.
At its height, the band featured Xiong and another singer on vocals, two guitarists, a keyboardist, a bassist and a drummer. They played a mix of classics and original tunes such as “Rov Los Mam Hlub” (which roughly translates to “Come Back to Me”), a bittersweet ballad “that’s popular among Hmong people around the world,” Xiong said in a recent interview in his tidy school office.
Xiong, 50, smiled as the song’s music video flickered across a computer screen, watching a younger version of himself consumed by the memory of a lost love. “In the culture, the only way that people express love is through song,” he said.
With the demands of work and home life, he said, he hasn’t had the time to write new songs or venture into the studio to record another CD. Still, the band’s following has never faltered.
Every few months, he and some of the other founding members reunite for a gig, though their performances are now confined to an occasional club show or birthday party. In 2012, he performed in front of hundreds of people at the annual Hmong New Year celebration at the old Metrodome.
For Xiong, that moment was the culmination of a journey that began in a squalid Thai refugee camp more than three decades ago.
Ever since he and his family fled the Laotian civil war in the late 1970s, Xiong has regarded music as an escape from the harsh realities of his life.
Like thousands of other Hmong families who fled the Laotian war, his arrived at the Ban Vinai Refugee Camp by first crossing the Mekong River and hacking through miles of thick jungles. The journey proved treacherous. Xiong’s older brother was killed in an ambush by communist forces.
Life in the camp wasn’t much better.
“In the refugee camp, there’s no such thing as looking into the future, because it’s a bunch of people locked into a cage,” Xiong recalled. Poverty and disease were rampant. Every morning, he and his siblings would wait in line for hours to get water from a nearby well.
“I remember about three in the morning you had to get up and line up, otherwise you wouldn’t have water for the day,” he said.
Desperate for a distraction, Xiong and some of his friends formed a band, teaching themselves to play by listening to Michael Jackson and Madonna cassettes they scavenged from a nearby market. In the beginning, they mostly played to empty chairs. Eventually, word got around and their performances started drawing hundreds.
Their following grew even as some group members immigrated to Minnesota in the mid-1980s, including Xiong, who arrived in the Twin Cities in March 1987.
After settling in St. Paul, he graduated from Central High School, taking night classes to learn English.
He later enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, where he used to sit in the front row and tape-record all of his professors’ lectures, come home, and repeat the lessons to himself until they sunk in. Around that time, he recorded his first album in the States, whose title in Hmong is loosely translated as “I Wish It Were a Dream.”
After college, Xiong worked a variety of jobs before deciding to go into law enforcement. He joined the Minneapolis Police Department in 1997 and spent a decade in patrol — working in the First and Fifth precincts — before joining the department’s school resource officer unit, where he has been for the past nine years.
Nowadays, he is more likely to be recognized for the uniform he wears than for his crooning, especially in the halls at Transition Plus — an alternative school in the Powderhorn Park neighborhood for students with mental and emotional disabilities — where he has developed a rapport with the kids.
Xiong said he sees a little of himself in them, many of whom he says also come from difficult backgrounds.
Even after he left Thailand, he said he knew that he wanted to return someday and help those in similar straits.
That opportunity came in 2010, when he traveled to Laos to perform two benefit concerts to raise money for school supplies for needy children. He returned three years later for another fundraiser and plans to do more concerts in the future.
That passion for helping others with their problems also drove him to become a cop.
“It is good for the kids to know that police officers aren’t here to just arrest people,” he said. “I came here when I was 21, and I spoke limited English, and I fought my way through college. And here I am — not on top of the world, but I can support my family.”