Qeej not Gangs: The Hmong Association of Long Beach
By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager
Imagine growing up with an extended family of 100 people who get together each Sunday.
For the last thirty years, the Hmong Association of Long Beach has been at work perpetuating the expressive traditions of the Hmong culture. In 1998, to reach out to youth, the association formalized a weekly event called Qeej (pronounced gang) Not Gangs Cultural Arts Program, held at a public parks building, known as the Homeland Culture Center, and funded in part through ACTA’s Living Cultures Grants Program. Each Sunday from 9am to 3pm, an intergenerational group of Hmong and Lao families come together in the two-room recreation center to share, learn, and perpetuate a variety of cultural riches: women and children create the intricate pan dau reverse embroidery; men play the qeej, a six-reed flute which accompanies marriage and funerary rites; cheexai, chants for funerals, are passed on; dance lessons are taught to popular songs play from an iPod; drumming exercises involving marching drills and foot patterns are shared; and language lessons are in full swing. The passing on of these traditions is interrupted only for a potluck lunch where participants bring an array of delectable foods to share. For these six hours each week, this building becomes a place where young children can play under the watchful eye of adults, surrounded by the sounds, sights, and aromas of their own culture. As they grow up, their mentors are people they have known for years. As teens, they have the comfort and reference point of their own social group. This is the slow and steady handiwork of community building.
The title of this successful event touches upon the importance of the qeej as the essential culture bearing musical instrument that is present at both spiritual and social functions. Its music is used to accompany the dead, helping them cross over and reach their ancestors, and it is also used to play the social songs that are prevalent in marriage negotiations and New Year observances. The qeej is a reminder to the youth that they have a connection to culture that is strong enough to help them overcome negative forces, which would remove them from their community, a matter of grave spiritual concern.
A brief recounting of how the Hmong came to the United States provides a necessary perspective to truly understand the full impact of this success story. The first five families to arrive in Long Beach came in 1975. They were refugees from the Vietnam War, fighting on the side of the United States, coming here to rebuild their lives. Hmong guerilla fighters had prevented the Communist takeover of Laos for over thirty years. The Hmong fought to preserve their way of life and for control of their mountain farm lands. By the mid-1960’s the CIA recruited the Hmong to support the US war efforts in Southeast Asia. When the US withdrew from Southeast Asia, Laos was taken over by the Communist party, and the Hmong soldiers and their families were targeted for re-education in prison camps or for extermination. In large and small groups, Hmong families fled to Thailand where a few were allowed to immigrate quickly while most languished in refugee camps for years.
The journey to the United States came with significant trauma and culture shock. The community underwent a serious acculturation process, with the generation gap often difficult to overcome as young people were being lured away by negative influences in their new environment, such as gang activities. At this point, in response to the growing alienation of young people from their parents’ generation, the Hmong Association of Long Beach was formally founded in 1980, in the words of their organizational brochure, to “preserve our rich cultural heritage based on an oral culture where everyone is an artist.”
A generation of young people have been raised and educated here since the early days of resettlement in Long Beach. Refugees continue to arrive and now find a vital organization which provides services, community building, and a cultural oasis that has been hard fought and hard won.