Hmong Embroidery & Culture in Luang Prabang

Posted by Emi Weir on

  
Bai Lee has been making products and teaching embroidery classes with Ma Té  Sai for four years now. These classes help supplement income for the family. Extended families live together and relatives often visit those living in town, so there are always many mouths to feed. She started sewing when she was about four years old. Extra income, for many Hmong families, is earned by the women selling handicrafts at the night market in Luang Prabang. 

Hmong Origins: 
The Hmong or Miao, as they are known, in China, moved down from Southern China to Laos over many years, the largest early migration know was during the late 18th century where under suppression from the Manchu government they fled to Laos, Vietnam and eventually northern Thailand. In Laos, they fought against the French colonialists in the early 1918 until in 1921 the French appointed Hmong Chiefs (in place of Thai or Lao) to rule over the Hmong areas as delegates of French authority. 

Hmong Sub-Categories & Clans: 
are three groups of Hmong; White Hmong, Blue Hmong (sometimes known as Green Hmong) and Striped Hmong (also know as Flower Hmong or Armband Hmong). These three names originally come from their costume, particularly worn at Hmong New Year. In Luang Prabang, the majority are White Hmong, however a Hmong friend told me that now at New Year they now are wearing the costume of the Blue Hmong, as it is more decorative, so it is harder to determine the group by clothing.  Blue Hmong, generally speaking, are located in northeastern Laos and Vietnam, White Hmong in Laos and Striped Hmong in Northern Thailand. 

Groups are organized in patrilineal clans. Spiritual leadership is under the guidance of the eldest surviving male, although many clans are spatially dispersed, and the eldest male of the household is the decision maker of each household. Women marry into the male family and will respect the ancestor spirits of that household and clan, however her clan and family of origin will still play a role in her life. 
Interview with Bai Lee our artisan and teacher:

What is the difference between Hmong family life in the city and that in the countryside villages?
There is changing a lots in the daily life to the Hmong family in the countryside as Hmong in the country side are always do farming and raising livestock; such as chicken, pigs, horse, and oxen. Most Hmong in the city work and the women do more in embroidery, sewing to sell at the night market.

What is the most important festival in the Hmong community in Luang Prabang?  And what is it all about?  
Hmong New Year is the most important festival in the Hmong community in Luang Prabang. Hmong New Year which falls in December or January. We can say in Hmong word "Nor pe chao” it means to celebrate and eat 30 things. After working throughout the year, it is the time to celebrate what Hmong people have done in the year. This festival is also the best opportunity to for Hmong people to choose their son or daughter in law. All boys and girls from different villages come to join the New Year festivities and celebrate together. They will stand in a row and throw a love ball to each other, at the same time getting to know each other during this game and festival. We celebrate up to 7 days. After that many couples have decided to marry.

Many Hmong women embroider and sew, are these traditions still viable today?  Do they sew products for the family as well?  What are they?
Yes, all these traditions of Hmong embroidery and sewing are still viable today. As we can see many Hmong embroidery and sewing products selling at the night market in Luang Prabang and not only for the night market, they also make product for their families as well, such as clothes for their children.

Are there any foods that are particular to Hmong?  

Yes, the Hmong smoked pork ribs soup with green vegetables is popular and particularly to Hmong people.

Ancestors are important to Hmong people, how does the story telling and ancestor spirits play in modern life? 
Most Hmong people believe in animism or ancestors spirit as they believe that when someone passed away their souls has to go to their ancestors and reborn to be a human. Hmong people they have special funeral for people who pass away. And this traditional funeral is still practice in the USA.

I see in the night market many cloths with people shapes and circles, do these represent ancestors or family, and are there patterns that have stories?
Most of the Hmong embroidery and sew designs are from ancestors, Hmong life and many of the patterns are represent to the nature, environment such as: shells, snails, ferns, flowers, and some of the patterns are just sewn on to make the piece colourful and beautiful.

Over time the Hmong have moved around, from China down into Thailand, Vietnam and Laos and many expatriated to America. Does a typical Hmong person in Luang Prabang have family in different places?  Where are some of your family?
The Hmong originally came from China and moved throughout, to Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. Many Hmong people in Laos have moved to Thailand during the war. And some of Hmong people have moved to USA, Australia, and France. And now one of my mother sisters is in California, USA and other one is in Toulouse, France.

You can learn Hmong reverse embroidery any morning or afternoon at our shop, classes are organised on demand and are $28 for one person, $20 per person when 2 people, and discounts offered for groups. Bai Lee now has three children so sometimes one of her family come to teach.

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