We Try To Be Strong

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Hmong people resettled in Philadelphia in the late 1970s: some 3,000+ refugees began to create a vital and vibrant community. Now only 140-some Hmong people remain. Over the past 28 years here, Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, who co-curated this exhibition, has used traditional needlework to support and sustain Hmong community life. The work of 40 women are featured in this show, a brief reflection of local Hmong history and arts.


“We came to this country very sad. We try to be strong here. We try to be an example. When we came here, many people thought Hmong people didn’t know how to do anything. Many people hated us. They thought we come here for welfare but it is not true. The Hmong people are very, very smart and not stingy or lazy. We open our hearts to help people do what they want to do. When we came here, we tried to learn. We have very strong hearts.”—Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun

In the late 1970s, more than 20,000 refugees from Southeast Asia were resettled in urban Philadelphia. Among them were some 3,000 Hmong people, an ethnic minority from the mountains of Laos. Recruited by the CIA into a clandestine army, Hmong people fought and died for US government interests during the years of the Vietnam War. Refugees arriving here had seen French and American wars destroy their villages and way of life. Hundreds of thousands died; no one was untouched. People made terrifying escapes to refugee camps in Thailand, and were now facing uncertain futures. Philadelphia was not especially hospitable. Anti-Asian violence, especially in West Philadelphia and against Hmong, took a huge toll. Young people were harassed in school, elders attacked, houses shot at and stoned. Many Hmong families moved away. The brutal beating of Seng Vang in 1984 in Powelton was a final blow; more people left and the Hmong community dwindled to 600. Now only about 140 Hmong, five extended families or clans, remain.

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun is among those who chose to stay. From her very arrival in 1979, she has used folk arts and cultural traditions to advance cross-cultural understanding and Hmong peoples’ well-being. The needlework displayed here comes from or through Pang: treasured family heirlooms, work made purposely to teach and “keep” Hmong culture, pieces made for gifts, others made to sell. A tiny sampling, these works suggest the continuing creativity, skill and resourcefulness of 40 Hmong women (including Pang) and the changing meanings and uses of paj ntaub (“flower cloth”) needlework. Over the past 28 years here, Pang has distinguished herself as a teacher, organizer, collector, entrepreneur and advocate for Hmong peoples’ cultural heritage. But the many issues that Pang has taken on are matters that all of the women included here have faced: What will any of us pass on to our children? How will they know who they are? What can we give them that will endure, and help them through the hard times? What roles will folk arts and cultural heritage play?


Related Community Kitchens

Honoring Pang Xiong: Hmong Sauce Sampler

This edition of Community Kitchens is part of our program, Honoring Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, where we partner with her family and the Hmong community of greater Philadelphia to celebrate the life and contributions ofvPang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, a paj ntaub (Hmong textile/embroidery) artist, chef, and Hmong culture bearer, who passed away due to COVID19 in 2020. We dedicate this segment to a trio of her sought after Hmong sauces (sweet chili, peanut, and hot chili) prepared by her son and professional chef, Chakawarn Sirirathasuk. The sauces are accompanied by virtual interpretive programming around the recipes (podcast, YouTube videos, and web publications), and included in the gift box of sauces are Hmong handicrafts made by Pang prior to her passing.