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Scenes Lost from Gran Torino: Hauntings of Hmong of Laos, by Bee Vang and Louisa Schein

Originally published in (Re)Collecting the Vietnam War, special issue of Asian American Literary Review 6.2 (Fall 2015): 293-304.

Scenes Lost from Gran Torino: Hauntings of Hmong of Laos

text by Bee Vang & Louisa Schein

visuals by Koua Mai Yang

This collection of vignettes and reflections emerges out of a six-year collaboration between actor-scholar Bee Vang and media activist-scholar Louisa Schein. Having traveled to multiple venues in the U.S. and China for screenings and workshops, and co-authored several works in scholarly publications, we embark here upon a recuperation of what about Hmong and the war in Laos was effaced from the Hollywood film Gran Torino, engaging a medley of other media along the journey. We speak both in a melded voice and from our respective positionalities, dialoguing also with other Hmong artists’ reflections in word and image.


Remembering Thao’s Father

Bee Vang: “I remember the French were still there. They were filthy,” my uncle recounted when I enjoined him to recall his birth year in Laos, as well as my grandmother’s and grandfather’s. Time and forgetting had clouded that early period when he was too young to record his grandfather’s face after his family was swept up by colonial forays. He could only estimate my grandparents’ birth to circa the 1920s. Birth dates were a luxury reserved for those who had been tutored in the measurement of time. My grandmother lives on to this day, presumably in her late eighties.

My uncle’s language was acutely self-aware, breathed with an air of assurance. His authority derived not only from his age, but from a past that was to garner deference. He, like so many other young men of his generation, had fought in the secret, CIA-backed militia against the burgeoning Communist insurgency. The more we spoke, the more I chided myself that I had come so close to letting the chance slip through my fingers to listen to him. I urged him on...

With pride, he popped in a videotape of a ceremony in Wisconsin at which Hmong veterans like himself were honored. The reunion memorialized the efforts of a special brigade. There they were, some fifty years later…The room became hushed with the slow eddying of bittersweet feelings. My uncle ruminated aloud, not directed at me, nor at anyone else present, “How time has gone by.” Observing his comrades diminishing, their debilitated bodies battered by age and illness, he mused: “It seems like only yesterday that we were in our youth, so strong and capable.” Then he qualified his lament with “kho-siab,” a word—no, a barely whispered sigh—heavy with all the world-historical shifts of his time, and with regret over his years squandered as a child-soldier struggling for a country that never belonged to him or his people.

Kho-siab. That word reverberated throughout me. Its forlorn mood had no English equivalent. My uncle’s utterance taunted me: I could not fully grasp the gravity of what he meant. Kho-siab, in English, would roughly and inadequately translate to “loneliness,” “nostalgia,” “yearning,” “melancholia,” “desolation,” or the more literal “bereft heart.” But bereft of what? I think back to my mother’s and uncle’s youth, to their family deprived of their father, to what was sanctioned by geopolitics and culminated in the near-decimation of the Hmong population in Southeast Asia.

Intervening history has sealed the disappearance of these men, so much so that in the Warner Brothers version of Hmong—Gran Torino (2008)the father of teens Sue and Thao Vang Lor is never seen or even spoken of. Hmong men should have been given space to make themselves visible on screen. Because they could not, Sue and Thao’s task fell hard upon their shoulders. They appeared alone, implicitly abandoned. With their father unshown, the teens themselves bore the burden of evincing what prior generations had dubbed kho-siab.

For me as actor, too, Thao’s character seemed unmoored, in ways that could not have been assuaged by the white surrogate-father, Walt Kowalski, played by Clint Eastwood. As Bee, who grew up around my father, my uncle, and many other veterans, I could never quite intuit the hapless Thao who, by the design of the script, was needy in his fatherlessness. I could not recognize or interpret him. My artisan selfhood seemed a specter as I was directed to “just be natural” while making credible a boy adrift, waiting for a white savior to show him the ways of manhood.1 Playing the role felt more like an assault on Hmong dignity than the thespian fashioning of a rich and troubled character.2 So to conjure Thao’s imputed loss, I drew upon my uncle’s kho-siab. I wonder if this feeling is akin to the spectrality suffered by the living Hmong veterans who hover in the long shadows of an as-yet barely told conflict…

Imaginary Land, by Koua Mai Yang. 60 inches x 48 inches, oil on drop cloth,
The Hmong American Experience 2010.3

Veterans Undead

Louisa Schein & Bee Vang: The void of the unknown Hmong soldiers, gaping wider in Gran Torino’s fiction, has been defiantly refused by Hmong pursuing civic American lives. On a steamy day in May of 1997, for instance, former soldiers and families congregated in Washington, DC, to cast their shadow across American forgetting. Delegates of veterans’ organizations from Hmong communities across the U.S. traveled, as they had for years, on chartered buses to an annual commemoration on the National Mall. There, dignified by military uniforms, they orated their pasts, saluted their General, Vang Pao,4 and invited their former CIA allies to commend them. Along the way, they briefly revivified their ranks, their commandership, their contribution. They ritually paid tribute at the Vietnam War Memorial, and then transferred to Arlington cemetery where, nestled in the grass, a laptop-sized headstone unobtrusively acknowledges Hmong and Lao martial endeavors. Photos and videos were captured for their comrades at home. Then, beleaguered, they traipsed the halls of Congress, pleading for a Hmong Veterans bill, which was finally passed only in 2000…two and a half decades after the diaspora began.5

Nowadays Hmong veterans still gather all over the country multiple times every year. Dwindling numbers of elderly men assemble, honor themselves, retrieve the glory of their erstwhile efforts. They still hold bitter vigil for the too many who were sacrificed on battlefields, on rescue missions for downed Americans, or under carpets of bombs. With the passing of the decades, they convene ever more quietly, but perdure in their campaign against the enemy that is amnesia.6

A Post-Gang Poster Boy?

BV: Gran Torino did not factor in grown Hmong men, but instead offered Hmong boys, flat and fatherless until incarcerated or saved thanks to retired auto worker Walt who flaunts a character deepened by traumas from the Korean War. Meanwhile, Gran Torino fashioned gangsterhood as such an essential driver of American Hmong-ness that, after the film’s release in 2008, it could seem natural for me to be invited—as the exemplar of the good, law-abiding Hmong boy, as Thao—to speak against gangs in a high-profile event in California. The multiply sponsored event was titled “The Real Gran Torino Story: Stockton’s Secret War on the Streets,” its avowed purpose “to leverage the film ‘Gran Torino’ and it’s Star Bee Vang…as the beginning point for bringing awareness to and addressing the key challenges faced by the Southeast Asian American community in Stockton, CA….With a total of approximately 9,000 gang members and associates in Stockton, street terrorism such as shootings and street robberies persist regularly.”

Yet even as I and other youth are recruited for the bootstraps role of anti-gang advocate, Teng Yang, twenty-something son of the mean streets of Milwaukee, vigilantly holds fast: “In the vastness of our experiences there must be little rooms, secret pockets that hold the scars of remembrance. Some are impossible to articulate, for whatever reasons. Others stay there, breeding upon the secrecy…they fill our minds enough to become an actual part of us. Memories shape us…

“I claim a past: the Secret War of Southeast Asia…”7

The Table, by Koua Mai Yang. 24 inches x 48 inches, mixed media on fabric, The Hmong American Experience 2011.8

Nong Het, 2007: Legacies of Anger

LS: An enraged wind wraps itself around our little chalet. It’s not howling: no, it’s more like growling. My traveling companion, Ka Ying, and I have turned out dim lights in a government guest house that backs up on the mountain slopes of the Lao-Vietnam borderlands. We had driven from Xieng Khouang that same day, and spent the remaining hours chatting and being warmly fed by friends and relatives of our respective contacts from all over the diaspora. No one in remote Nong Het is disconnected from Hmong in the West…

Tomorrow we will drive a few more kilometers to the lively market town that sits at the border. We will lay eyes upon the multi-storied structures and bright lights of the Vietnam side. In a flash, the geographic elisions by which Laos is so misrecognized, enfolded by Americans into “Vietnam” (and maybe Cambodia), will become starkly visible as a chilling disparity. For here on the far edges of Laos, the troubled ground that drew so many Hmong to lay down their lives as shields against Vietnamese incursions, things are sleepy, low-power, as if knocked flat by the years of battering by bombs. Through the window by my bed, I ponder the stars crowding the sky reminding visitors that there is little light, little vitality, and little development, here in Nong Het…

Just as I sink toward slumber, I feel my consciousness dragged back up to the liminal space just one step short of waking. The sound of the wind shifts, and for a moment I sense a massive flock of birds rushing up over and down the mountainside, flapping and cawing and heading toward our abode. Then the noise sharpens; it’s no longer avian. It has transmuted into a cacophony of human voices. They are cackling raucously—I know this sound. With a start, I recall that I discerned a similar din before sleep in the dark hours after the death of my paternal grandmother. As her soul took flight, she passed over where I slept, and for a few moments, I caught the sound of all the souls of her loved ones on the other side celebrating her in a clamor of elated welcomes.

But I perceive no elation in the voices of Nong Het. They are livid, and no less determined to register their outrage than in the days after their bodies had fallen in, say, 1969 or 1972. They clatter indignantly. They menace, and are unforgiving about being forsaken. They grudgingly demand remembrance. Even if they fought willingly, they know their deaths were wrongful.

It has become icy cold, the kind that penetrates skin and bone. Just as I begin to sense fear, my eyes fly open, and I shiver into wary awakeness, realizing I am now blocked from beholding Nong Het’s ghosts.

Hmong of Laos are often said to be far flung and on the move, to have lost their homeland, to be dismally severed and scattered. By contrast, these Hmong are tethered. A soul that has been taken unjustly, and out of time, cannot be freed to journey back to the originary land where all Hmong souls reunite. In Nong Het, they are consigned to reproachfully remind.

Surviving, to Remap

BV: Does surviving task us, as Hmong in the West, to overcome the invisible? Maybe becoming specters through a collective social death forces us to come to terms with having survived, and all that entails. A twenty-three-year-old Fresno-born Hmong American, I peer into our past to glean America’s war. Enshrouded in secrecy, abounding in myriad subtleties, at once hot and cold, propelled by anti-Communist panic…I confront its immensity on a digital map of the secret air war waged over the Lao mountains.9 A white line traces innocently over gray the skeletal outline of landlocked Laos and its provinces. Battling on that very ground were the guerilla foot soldiers of global conflict, conscripted as vanguards of America's domino defense of Laos. This violence was branded on their flesh, as both terror and discipline.

I watch aghast as bright dots begin to appear, multiplying exponentially on the land from which I’ve been irrevocably severed. Red indicates cluster munitions; green signifies bigger bombs. In 1:38 minutes, the years 1965-1973 are marked—to the ironic accompaniment of sentimental piano melodies—by the accretion of dots. 2.1 million tons of bombs unleashing destruction every eight minutes round the clock for nine years. Each point on this map enveloped the living in a macabre dance of mutilation or death. Each point conveyed the disproportionate devastation visited upon the hills and valleys of Laos. Each point renders those whose lives continued on, and their escape, more subject to caprice.

Every life consumed by the encroachment of empire stains a not-so-buried memory, challenging any justification of the means by the ends. Perversely, just when the extent of the bombings is unmasked, all I see is the survivors and the sacrificed still consigned to the sea of social death. I resolve never to sink below the waterline of my own pool of silence.

My father’s wet eyes escape
as far as the Sanger hills,
I often see his ghost
Wading through the drumbeats
As they pound from night to night…

…In a dream, I am unable
to outrun a dangerous man who said
he could take me to see my parents,
that all I had to do was jump
into that pond and beyond it
was all heaven. Instead, I drown him
and walk back over those Sanger hills,
holding my father’s hand.
—Khaty Xiong10

Hmong Americans live on to defy deathly muteness and make visible. We hold hands with ghosts. Like the drowning of the dangerous man, I resist those who would take me to the watery depths of annihilation inhabited by my kin.

So on a wintry day of 2013 in an American metropolis, I agreed to do a briefing in a large workplace with employees of multiple ages and backgrounds, to bear witness to the Hmong in America’s Indochina War. I flicked on the bombing map, and my audience watched, riveted and appalled, kindling remorse as the bright red and green flashes piled up, eclipsing the gray zones of peaceful existence. Stunned tears of guilt welled in eyes abruptly opened wide. These were tears that bespoke a First World unapologetic insularity. Precisely in their newfound proclamation of common humanity, they revealed themselves to be white tears.

Here, as in the ripping of air and the trembling of the earth from the bombs, is the introduction of chaos into the interstices of purported order. This white weeping, this sudden macabre apprehending and this fading bliss of ignorance, swallowed me whole. It is I who must labor to evoke a war that I inherit as its legatee, its progeny; it is my body bound to all the generations of the dead. And still, even as I stood before them, the magnitude of destruction and immiseration my people underwent was cast out as other in white eyes misty not only with renunciation but also with exoticism.

Back Piece #3, by Koua Mai Yang. 20 inches x 21 inches, mono print and xerox transfer,
The Hmong American Experience 2011.11

Beijing, 2012: Haunted by Empire

LS: A small classroom for twenty held an unusual crowd. Junior scholars from across China had assembled at Beijing University for a highly funded training in American ethnography in preparation for going to research the U.S. As an American scholar who had done ethnography in both China and the U.S., I was invited to give a series of workshops. I offered to screen a documentary that I had co-directed.12

We sweltered without air-conditioning in the close, late-July evening as the film rolled. It was a sequel: In The Best Place to Live (1981), we had documented the late-1970s resettlement of Hmong from Laos to Rhode Island. Twenty-five years later we had followed the original characters all over the U.S. to see what their lives had become, cutting together five of their stories to make Better Places (2011). The scholars watched dumbfounded as they viewed Hmong Americans in four-bedroom suburban homes, Hmong owning restaurants and real estate, Hmong journeying to the Lao hills now as pleasure-seeking tourists. Their benchmark was the putatively backward and impoverished Miao of southwest China who still cultivated terraced paddy fields with their hands, marginalized by Chinese modernization. They puzzled over how such people could survive in American cities.

But mountain peasants are not who the scholars encountered in that documentary hour. As the film wound to a close, questions emerged out of their incredulity at the Western lives these diasporics seemed to lead so effortlessly. How were they “adapting”? What cultural challenges did they face? And, in the voice of critique, they asked for more “ethnography,” by which they meant details about migrants’ quotidian experiences.

I attempted to explain that the documentary was made for an American audience nonplussed by daily life, who would be intrigued by the multifarious livelihood strategies and entrepreneurial ventures in which Hmong Americans had engaged since their involuntary arrival. We wanted to show, I continued, that these were not the stereotypical welfare dependent, non-English-speaking new arrivals daunted by U.S. residence and burdening the American economy.

Why, though, they countered, were refugees portrayed as so successful? Why hadn’t we shown how they struggled? Their sufferings? Their ill fit with American society, perhaps even their dislocation and unbelonging wrought by American racial thinking?

I floundered trying to defend our editing and narration choices: our concern was that a documentary that portrayed Hmong refugees as destitute and maladjusted would be viewed through the hostile filter of American anti-immigrant racism…

But I wasn’t grasping the stakes for this discerning audience, an audience that called this the America-Vietnam War (for they were nationals of a country that had also been at war with Vietnam, and even more recently). This was the clincher for them: if white Americans made a film about the positive outcomes of Hmong immigration to the U.S., it would serve, ideologically, to downplay the havoc wreaked on Southeast Asians, the disruptions, the violence, the tearing away by political exigency of people from their homes. It would slyly exculpate Americans from the avalanche of destruction that our imperial quests had brought about. It would resignify this damage as opportunity, perhaps even as the American dream of resettlement and model minority achievement. It was not at all tenable, they insisted with more vitriol, to efface American bellicosity and empire through this disingenuous retelling…

I became mute.

I may have come of age opposing “Vietnam.” I may have demonstrated against the war in junior high. I may have been a peace-seeking youth in the People’s Republic of Cambridge. But it has always been my war…And still is.

It rides along, clinging like a stealth demon on my back, suddenly shimmering into visibility in the eyes of Asians who haven’t forgotten.