To kick off Asian Heritage Month at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, the Asian Student Association (ASA) and Hmong Student Union (HSU) will present on April 4 a traditional Hmong story cloth that is hung on the second floor of Reeve Memorial Union outside the main ballroom.
The massive story cloth covered in ornate, brightly colored stitching was installed as an effort to better represent the diversity of cultures that make up the UW Oshkosh student body. The artwork was generously donated by HSU with additional support from ASA and Reeve Union.
Alina Xiong, president of ASA and a music industry major from Sheboygan, led the initiative to have the Hmong story cloth hung in Reeve.
“We wanted something that can make us Hmong students feel represented—feel comfortable,” Xiong said. “We wanted to see something on campus we could identify with.”
Story cloths, or paj ntaub in the Hmong native language, are cherished pieces in the Hmong culture. The intricate, handcrafted needlework generally depicts the lifestyle, folklore, warfare and loss of homeland of their people. Prior to having a written language—which was established in the 1950s—story cloths were used to pass down historical knowledge and traditions between generations.
The atrium of Reeve Union is adorned with a large collection of flags representing countries from all around the world. The Hmong population, however, does not have a flag. Hmong students on campus—comprising more than 300—feel a paj ntaub is the closest thing they have to a flag.
“It describes and contains our history, our journey and how we got here,” explained Pa Houa Xiong, HSU member and biology major from Wausau.
“I think a lot of flags can be interpreted that way,” she added. “Yes, ours is much more detailed, but it shows who Hmong people are.”
Pa Houa Xiong worked closely with Alina Xiong throughout the process of acquiring and hanging the tapestry. This project was a valuable learning experience for the two, who also sit on the multicultural mural committee together.
“We want to see more diverse artwork on campus that represent diversity, culture and the students that go to school here,” Pa Houa Xiong said.
I don’t think a lot of people on campus know or understand the Hmong culture, she said. Maybe this can be a start.
Other Asian Heritage Month events happening this week at UW Oshkosh include Asian Heritage Trivia Night in the Reeve ballroom and Thai Culture Night in the Horizon Village recreation lounge.
About the paj ntaub
Paj Ntaub translates directly to “flower cloth.” The detailed embroidery on the story cloth hung in Reeve Union tells the story of the Hmong exodus from Laos to Thailand. It depicts the daily life of the Hmong people, their history in the Vietnam War and their journey across the Mekong River from Laos to safety in Thailand.
Story cloths are traditionally sewn by Hmong women and girls. They are most commonly hung as tapestries or worn as garments. The artwork typically portrays the period of history when the Hmong population migrated from China to various countries in Southeast Asia to escape oppression.
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