Future of Laotian folk art hangs by a thread

In a small, barren San Diego apartment in a wartime housing project on a Saturday morning, refugee children are watching cartoons on television. They grasp only a few words, but recognize more each week. The father is studying computer analog systems at the kitchen table. On the walls there are photos of family members in colorful native costumes standing in front of huts. The mother , Yang Chea, is doing pa dao (pronounced pan dao), the ancient needlework of the Hmong people of northern Laos.

It's a delicate art, this pa dao, consisting of tiny cross-stitches the size of petit point combined with applique, and it presents a delicate issue. The future of this ancient folk art is hanging by a thread, but Yang Chea stitches on, hoping her daughter will do likewise.

By hand she executes a central design in boxes, counting the threads of the underlying fabric to ensure symmetry. Within the boxes she stitches floral or geometric patterns, butterflies or Lao temples. Thousands of stitches blend together into a mass of color surrounded by embroidered borders or appliqued bands in contrasting colors. Sometimes the appliqued border is a series of tall triangles, representing the mountains the Hmong crossed to escape their homeland.

Often the applique is in reverse, similar to the art of the San Blas Indians of the Carribbean, with layers of fabric cut and folded under to reveal a contrasting color beneath. Nothing is drawn. A Hmong woman must approach her fabric with only scissors and needle.

The designs reflect their village life for the last 1,000 years, beginning when the Hmong inhabited central Mongolia, then China, before they immigrated to Laos. Shells, pumpkin seeds, stars, the path of a worm, the cross section of a cucumber, the scales on a dragon's back, the stamp of an elephant's foot are all traditional applique designs. Some American observers even see in the designs an aerial view of the terraces around sacred fortified cities.

Besides the traditional colors of bright pink and strong yellow, a Hmong woman chooses colors that represent her tribe. Called green Hmong, white Hmong, blue Hmong, for example, the tribes take their names from the predominant color of the woman's festival dress. In addition to festival clothing, pa dao pieces were also used as wall hangings, bedspreads, collars on wedding and funeral clothing, baby carriers, handbags, pouches, money belts, sashes, and pillows.

By the time a Hmong girl is nine years old, she has taken up her needle to learn the fine cross-stitching. She knows that her needlework skill is a sure measure of her value as a marriageable bride. By the time she marries at 14 or 16, she must have a wedding skirt, which takes a year to make.

With horizontal patterns of tiny embroidery, appliqued bands, ribbons folded in a zigzag pattern, and, for the green Hmong, batik, the entire skirt, generously full, is pleated in tiny 1/4-inch wide pleats. Without irons, pleats are sewn in tightly and the skirt is stored for a year to set the folds. On the wedding day and every new year thereafter, those stitches are removed, releasing the pleats. The day after each year's festival is devoted to repleating, putting the threads back in for another year.

No one can imagine a young girl in Laos not wanting to learn pa dao, it is so inherent a part of their culture. Women work on pa dao every spare minute, even stitching as they walk to the fields to plant and harvest.

Here, as refugees in a demanding culture, everything is different. Perhaps it's the children, rubbing elbows in school with more Americans than their parents do, who see things more clearly.

Yang Chea's 12-year-old daughter, Moua Ong, started pa dao when she was nine. In near flawless English she explains, showing a piece of her work, ''My mother taught me the stitch and then I made the design. But now that I know how to do it, I don't want to do it anymore. I just want to study spelling and math.'' Later, out of earshot of her mother, she confides, ''Do you want to know what I think? I hate pa dao.''

Perhaps her reaction is based on the ridicule shown to the Hmong in American schools when they carry their books in the tasseled, delicately stitched carriers, branding them as different. So the young discard their needles for TV and textbooks.

With more Hmong estimated to be here than in Laos and with most who remained past childbearing, this ancient way of life faces possible extinction. In those US communities that have large Hmong populations - Minnesota, Montana, and southern California particularly - Hmong are struggling to preserve their endangered culture. In San Diego some courageous Hmong women have even embarked on giving classes to Americans.

Slowly they see new uses for their stitching wizardry and now apply pa dao to aprons, potholders, jackets, and place mats.

According to Su-Mei Yu of San Diego's Lotus Folk Art Center, the first gallery in the nation to display exclusively the arts of all four refugee groups (Hmong, Lao, Cambodian, and Vietnamese), ''It's remarkable to see these women adapting their ancient art to the Western market. Just the change from the traditional use of strong primary colors to those more appealing here shows their ability to acculturate and their willingness to change to be successful. They underestimate themselves. They don't see themselves as artists. They just know that the better they are, the more they can earn. To them pa dao is their only means of survival.

''Americans have been extremely receptive to the new art once they see its adaptations. It's a tremendous vehicle to introduce into the society a new group of immigrants. For the Hmong women with limited English skills, pa dao is the only way they can say 'This is who I am.' ''

The message conveyed with their needle is strong, sometimes startling, and unmistakably human. On the central wall of Lotus Folk Art Center there hangs a most unusual pa dao, solely the work of one Hmong woman who still waits in a Thai refugee camp for the chance to come to ''any free nation.'' Much more clearly representational than traditional pieces, the work is an array of village scenes. One figure plays the keng, a bamboo festival flute, and another plants rice surrounded by birds, pigs, rats, and opium poppies. People are walking, crossing the mountains with bundles or babies on their backs. Children carry teapots and cherished household goods. And in between them all are soldiers bearing submachine guns. Like all good art, it is sensitivity to experience made visible.

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