March 19 2014 12:00 AM

Exploring the culture of the Hmong, forgotten ally to France, America

In 2005, French journalist Cyril Payen’s provocative documentary “Guerre Secrète Au Laos” (“The Secret War of Laos”) debuted on French television. The film focused on the plight of the Hmong people who have lived in hiding in the jungles of Laos for over 60 years. The Hmong, an Asian ethnic group, continue to be oppressed by the native Lao tians for collaborating with French forces in the Indochinese War in the 1940s and ‘50s, and with Americans in the Vietnam War in the ‘60s and ‘70s.

“It’s like these people chose the wrong side of the war,” Payen said in an interview Monday. “After the wars, (France and America) wanted to forget them. They were abandoned by them.”

On Thursday, Payen will screen his film for East Lansing audiences and lead a panel lecture, along with five Michigan State University staff members, discussing the role that the Hmong played in American and French histories. Among those who will join him are Safoi Babana-Hampton, MSU professor of romance and classical studies, and East Lansing author Martha Bloomfield, who’s working on a book about Michigan’s Hmong population for MSU Press. The panelists are each experts on some facet of Hmong people, but Payen’s ties to the subject matter are deeply personal.

“The Hmong were trained and (introduced) into the (Indochinese) War by my own grandfather, a French army commando who parachuted into Laos,” Payen said. “I have a trans-generational duty” to help them.

Payen’s film is sending ripples of controversy throughout Asia. His depictions of the conflict between the Hmong and the Lao tians and his coverage of Thailand’s recent deportation of Hmongs back to Laos — a virtual death sentence — have gotten him blacklisted from several Asian countries.

Payen’s appearance in East Lansing was coordinated in part by Babana-Hampton, who found him on Facebook and tried unsuccessfully to include him by Skype in a lecture last year. She is an expert on the vast French culture spread throughout Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. When Payen’s schedule opened up this year, she developed a grant to fly him in.

“I hope a wide range of perspectives can be expressed,” Babana-Hampton said. “The memory of cultural minorities should have a strong representation in academia and also in the media. These kinds of debates promote social justice.”

Recently, France passed a series of “memorial laws” that force the government and the educational system to acknowledge unsavory elements about its past, including its Vichy government, its involvement with colonial slavery and its opportunistic relationships with groups like the Hmong.

“France has a duty to recognize troubling moments of its history,” Babana-Hampton said. “The value that comes out of this creates integrity where a wide range of cultural heritages can be preserved.”

She said the country-less Hmong have long been a target of assimilationists as they’ve moved throughout Southeast Asia. Until a written language was introduced to the Hmongs in the ‘50s, they passed down their traditions orally, which is something that motivated Bloomfield when she was asked to write a book about them.

“I’m not a historian — I’m just a writer and gatherer of stories,” Bloomfield said. “I thought this was the perfect project for me. Being closed off is what causes people to develop stereotypes and prejudices. I would like there to be more understanding.”

Bloomfield is working with Babana- Hampton and Payen to develop a sequel to “Guerre Secrète Au Laos” that would follow the Hmong living in the U.S.; there are nearly 6,000 Hmong living in Michigan alone.

Bloomfield has started working with members of the MSU staff as she’s begun re-interviewing people so their stories could be captured on camera. One of the subjects is Lansing resident Tong Vue, a Hmong refugee who came to Lansing in the 1970s. Vue, 74, works at the Greater Lansing Food Bank’s Garden Project.

“(My grandma) is excited to be able to share her story and provide insight into her life,” said Christine Xiong, 26, Vue’s granddaughter who was born and raised in Lansing. She graduated from MSU’s School of Packaging two years ago and works as a material handling engineer at General Motors. She said she’s excited for Bloomfield’s book, Payen’s movie and the proposed sequel.

“Documentaries like this can keep traditions alive,” she said. “I will always take pride in knowing where I come from. And we’re very willing to talk about our culture if someone is willing to listen.”

Panel discussion/ film screening on the Hmong people

4-6 p.m. Thursday, March 20 FREE Big Ten C Meeting Room, Kellogg Center, 219 S. Harrison Road, East Lansing