Head-to-head: Dueling Hmong New Year celebrations

FRESNO, Calif.

A dispute between dueling New Year celebrations is a minor distraction, but the events are drawing thousands to the city.

Both Hmong New Year festivals will last one week, and both kicked off Monday morning.

The two celebrations are both huge and both feature mostly the same cultural traditions -- like handing out hard-boiled eggs as blessings.

But there are a few differences, and some of those differences are splitting the Hmong community.

The sounds of sizzling meat are the same at the Southwest Regional Sports Complex and at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

The ball tossing games, colorful traditional outfits, and jam-packed vendor booths are the same as well.

And as the music of a Hmong violin greets people entering the older celebration, the crowd is thinking only about their best chance to share their culture and see friends -- old and new.

"A lot of Hmong people come here and meet and have fun and get girls and all that stuff," said 13-year-old Jim Moua, of Merced.

But like the bananas and yams, tension simmers right at the surface.

The second New Year celebration launched last year, about four miles away, featuring many of the same ceremonies and dancing, but also reviving sporting traditions from Laos and Thailand.

Its organizers say the old guard lost sight of its cultural purpose and started seeing the New Year as a chance to make money.

They filed a lawsuit less than two weeks ago.

"We want change," said Mai Summer Vue, of the United Hmong Council. "We want transparency. We want the non-profit to really provide opportunity for the community and not so much for personal gain."

The city of Fresno also sees economic benefits as New Year crowds arrive from all over the country and world.

Mayor Ashley Swearengin is one of many city leaders who took part in Monday's opening ceremonies at the fairgrounds.

Fresno's first Hmong city council member, Blong Xiong, made it to both celebrations.

"Having the two is fine with us as long as the community supports it," he said. "At the end of the day, this is a Hmong community event. It's not about the organizations that are hosting it."

And in this first celebration without the inspirational Hmong leader, Gen. Vang Pao, his youngest son says the general would be upset to see his community split.

"My personal wish on behalf of my father is we'd like to resolve these issues and bring everyone back together," said Chineng Vang.

Both celebrations continue through Jan.1. The two sides have a date in court coming up in April.

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