Monday, February 3, 2014

Hmong New Years Festival 2013

Hmong Young Ladies In Luang Prabang, LPDR

Early in December, we flew from Vientiane to Luang Prabang for a holiday.  We typically go to Luang Prabang in December because it is dry season and the temperatures are very moderate, perhaps even on the cool side.  Most importantly, December is usually the time when the Hmong people of the area celebrate their new year.

Hmong New Year in Laos is a celebration that is the longest and most popular Hmong cultural event that is typically celebrated in December after the rice crop has been harvested and when the moon is darkest.  Traditional it was to start with the first rooster crow on the first day of the new moon in the 12th lunar month.  The celebration can last from four to seven days.  There are many festivals in cities and villages of all sizes.  The actual start day can vary each year as well as each locale and sometimes will slightly change at the last minute.  After stumbling upon the festival on our first visit in 2008, we use local contacts in Luang Prabang to determine the exact dates before finalizing our arrangements.

The Hmong New Year celebration consists of "in house" rituals and public festival.  The "in house" rituals are meant to give thanks to the ancestors and spirits along with welcoming a new beginning.  Duang and I have not witnessed these rituals ... yet.  The "in house" rituals include calling back home ancestor spirits to enjoy the celebration and the the making offerings to the spirits, that guard each home, with the living family members. The young members of the family pay respects to the old and in-laws - asking for blessings from the the elders of the home, elders from their clan, and the elder in laws of other clans.

Among other in-house rituals are offerings to the spirit of wealth, cleaning of the body, if a shaman is a member of the family - a special ritual to the spirit of curing allowing the spirit to have a vacation for 3 days at which the spirit is called back to do curing, a ritual to get rid of all problems, issues, misfortune that occurred to the family in the past year , some special feasts, and a ritual to release the souls of all dead family members.

Hmong New Years festival, the public celebration, is the only holiday shared by the whole Hmong community - an occasion where members of all the clans come together.  This is extremely important to know and understand a major function of the celebration - courting.

Young Hmong Maiden In Traditional Dress

At the Hmong New Year Festival, Hmong people of all ages dress in traditional clothing to eat traditional Hmong foods, drink, socialize, listen to traditional music, play games. and to enjoy themselves.

Young Hmong Play Pov Pob

A central part of the Festival is play a Hmong game called "Pov Pob".  At face value it is a rather simple game of two lines of people facing each other tossing a cloth ball or more typically these days, a used tennis ball, back and forth.  The ball is lobbed gently by one hand in an arc and caught in one hand.  If someone drops the ball, they are supposed to take an item from their clothing and give it to the player opposite from them.  The items can be recovered my singing a love song to the opposite player.

Young Man and Woman Pov Pob Players
The rules are rather simple.  But as in any game, it is the nuances, skills, and manner in which the game is played that define the game.  What one may superficially observe and know of the rules of a simple game often does not give a true understanding of the games subtleties and complexities.

In the case of Pov Pob, many of the players are playing a variation of a game of skill played for thousand and thousands of years by mankind - courting.

In the Hmong culture people are not allowed to marry within their clan.  Since the smaller villages typically inhabited by members of the same clan.  The residents of the villages have very limited access to potential acceptable mates.  However it is during the Hmong New Years Festival that the clans come together in a single location.

An Elderly Hmong Man Playing Pov Pob

Several games of Pov Pob go on at the same time.  Most of the games are played by adolescents or young adults younger than 18 years old.  However there are some games played by adults - much older adults.  Widows and widowers also have their own Pov Pob - a game of meeting, socializing, and perhaps courting leading to marriage.

Games of Pov Pob are relaxed and low key pastimes.  Although the games are meant for Hmong people, I was privileged to be invited to participate in a game and the young people were eager to teach me how to play.  There were some specific girls and sequence that I had to follow in tossing the tennis ball as well who would be tossing the ball back to me.  It was not, as the saying goes, "It's all Greek to me", rather it was all Hmong to me.  I did what I was told when I was told, laughing and enjoying it all just as the other players were.  Most importantly, for me and my pride, I made every catch one handed of balls tossed my way.

Just as most things in life there is the way that things are supposed to be and the way that they actually are.  I am convinced the same in playing Pov Pob.  I believe that some players purposely drop the ball in order to become better acquainted with some one that they are interested.  Many of the players were softly singing songs without having the need to retrieve an item of theirs - sort of getting right to the point.

One of My Pov Pob Playing Partners
In writing this blog I learned additional rules for playing Pov Pob - by the book.  Boys and girls in pairs set up two opposing lines about 5 to 7 meters (15 to 20 feet) apart.  Boys toss the ball to girls.  Girls can toss to either boys or girls.  However boys can not toss to other boys.  You can not toss the ball to members of your own clan.  You also can not date a member of your own clan - so meeting people at these festivals is extremely important in searching for a spouse.

My coaches for Pov Pob were young Lao men from the United States.  There was a diaspora of Hmong peoples to the United States and other nations in the 1970s.  They say that "Time heals everything".  I am not sure that everything is healed for the Lao peoples throughout the world but they are now welcomed back to their homeland.  We have met many of the original refugees as well as their children and grandchildren during their visits to Lao.

Elderly People, At the Periphery of the Pov Pob Field, Enjoying the View
During our two days at the Festival we saw many examples of four generations of family enjoying themselves.  Even young children and babies wear traditional Hmong clothing.  The clothing is very pretty - intricate patterns, multiple colors, heavy beading, faux fur or feather trim, silver coins, reflective metal disks, extensive embroidery, silver jewelry accents along with just as interesting hats. Some young men wore costumes covered with small highly polished thin metal disks.  The girls and young women also had excellent make-up with particular attention paid to their eyes.

Hmong Young Women Check Out Their Selfie

A Happy Attendee 

On one end of the Pov Pob field there was a line of booths selling all kinds of foods and beverages.  We had lunch one day at Mr Lee's booth.  Mr Lee?  "Lee is actually the name of a Hmong clan.  We and our driver dined on noodle soup, Qwetiou with sides of raw cabbage, fresh mint leaves, and small chili -just like the soup we eat in Isaan.  We also had some grilled sausages, Pepsi, and fresh pineapple.  Later as I was taking photographs came up with a cone of coconut ice-cream as a treat for me.

Hmong Girl Prepare Spicy Papaya Salad -"Pauk Pauk"
Past the food booths, there were several booths made from suspended tarps where people, more specifically young couples, could have their photo taken in front of many different back drops.  If the couple were not wearing traditional clothing, some of the booths had Hmong clothing that they could don for their special photograph.

There were also several booths that were selling Hmong music CDs and DVDs.  Other booths sold various sundries such as ear-rings, hair ribbons, hair clips, combs which were of great interest to the young girls.

A Grandmother Reads A Palm
Over at the area where the elderly people were congregating , at a table selling some herbal remedies, a grandmother was reading the palms of people - no doubt advising them if they had indeed made a "love connection" at the nearby Pov Pob games.

An Enthusiastic Toddler Plays Her Own Game of Chance
Gambling is a big part of culture in the Lao People's Democratic Republic.  Gambling is legal in the LPDR unlike in nearby Thailand.  From our experiences in Lao, it appears the game of choice is a dice game.  The game consists of a plastic cloth with various large printed and colorful pictures on it.  Grid lines separate the various characters on the betting cloth.  Players place their bets on the character of their choice or on the lines that separate the characters for a combination bet.  Three large dice with the same printed characters are placed by the game operators on a hinged shelf inside the lid of a wooden box. The box lid is partially opened to create a roughly 45 degree ramp down to the bottom portion of the box which lays flat either on the ground, platform or table.  After all the bets are placed, the operator or someone in the crowd designated by the operator pulls a string that releases the hinged shelf which sends the three dice tumbling down the ramp to the enclosed area of the bottom portion of the box.  The top exposed characters indicate the winning bets and combination bets.

The one time that I played the game at New Years Festival of the Khmu people near Muang Sing LPDR, I won several times ending up with 40,000 Kip.  I gave my winnings to Duang since she was still gambling.  She returned to where I was taking photographs with no money.  In 15 minutes, she had lost her money as well as my $5.00 USD of winnings.  No matter the loss, it was great entertainment to play and interact with the local people.

Most of the gamblers that played the game with us in the Khmu village were children mostly between the ages of 8 and 14.  Upon leaving the festival in Luang Prabang we walked through one of several gambling tents located at the entrance to the festival.  Each tent had several tables where many people crammed around gambling.  The action was load and very animated.  It was obvious that the people were really enjoying themselves.  At one table that was not in operation, a precocious toddler was imitating the gambling frenzy that was surrounding her.  She would select one of the characters printed on the cloth, pretend to place a bet on cloth, she would then shout out in joy as she celebrated winning.

Our third visit to Hmong New Year Festival had been very enjoyable.  We most likely will return once again this December.  On this upcoming visit, I hope that we are able to witness some. if not all, of the "inside rituals".  We have 10 months to see what arrangements can be made.  There is always something to do and this will be added to the list.

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