The sounds are more jangling coins than jingle bells, the colors more brilliant and varied than basic red and green, the community deeper than a single family picking out a tree. Of all the sensory blowouts at St. Paul’s RiverCentre during the course of the year—from the St. Paul Ice Fishing and Winter Sports Show to the Minnesota Roller Girls to the Arcade Fire to the Saintly City Cat Show—none reflects the versatility of the venue as genuinely as the massive multigenerational Hmong New Year celebration, which took place November 26 – 28.
Each year tens of thousands of Hmong Americans attend the festivities, which are a mixture of pageants and competitions, traditional rituals and games, shopping and socializing. The New Year is a celebration of the end of the harvest season, as well as a time of courtship. RiverCentre’s open exhibition hall was filled with lines of couples, friends, and family of all generations tossing soft, multicolored balls back and forth in games of pov pob.
And although it was adorable to witness lines of traditionally dressed adults and seniors playfully underhand tossing symbols of flirtation, the celebration belonged to the kids. Groups of teenagers hooked arms and chatted through the corridors of vendors, eyeing each other, flirting, and shyly retreating. Some wore traditional Hmong dress; others looked like they had just stepped out of American Eagle. A few creative teens mixed their nontraditional clothes—strapless dresses, logo t-shirts—with heavy, decorative Hmong chokers and vibrant, flowing skirts.
The vendors, hawking everything from DVDs to virginity soap, didn’t seem to draw too much attention from the younger set. The many stalls, which resemble the Hmongtown Marketplace in St. Paul, attracted mostly older shoppers, selecting traditional clothes for family members. Many of the wares reflected a variety of American and international popular culture influences, creating an amalgamation of cultures that both resembled and seemed completely distant from the crush of shopping that was simultaneously occurring in Bloomington during Black Friday.
Although this year’s festivities were marred briefly by fights and arrests on Saturday night, the mood of the Hmong New Year celebration remained joyous and community-driven. The huge variety of activities, foods, sounds, colors, and people at the River Center remains a testament to how much the Hmong community has grown and prospered in the Twin Cities for over 30 years.