Performing Hmongness, Pt.1: Reflections on Hmong Beauty Pageants

A semi-serious conversation between two Hmong American women.

LT: I first met Kashia Vu (KV) when she was a sophomore in high school. I was a senior…in college — at Stanford University. We reconnected last year when I saw her competing in the premiere Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant hosted by Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, Inc. (HCNYC) Kashia placed 3rd as the 2nd runner-up for 2017–2018.

This week, as the contestants for the 2018–2019 Miss Hmong USA beauty pageant gear up for competition, Kashia and I are sharing our various thoughts and ideas about past and imaginary future pageants with y’all in this dialogue which draws from our own personal backgrounds as well as experiences.

KV: I met Lilian Thaoxaochay (LT) when I was in high school. I was blessed with the opportunity to attend SHOPPE (the Stanford Hmong Outreach Program Promoting Education) — I highly recommend it to high school students. The host of Hmong students believe deeply in promoting higher education among Hmong youth. When Lilian, who was one of my hosts, reached out and congratulated me for running in the pageant, I was extremely happy that she’d remembered me and wanted to continue supporting me after all these years. I seriously thought she had forgotten about me (LOL).

LT: I remember all of my SHOPPE kids! But to be fair, I only had to be responsible for two cohorts (LOL), but you were all, like the founding of SHOPPE all those years ago, an integral part of my college experience and beyond.

FYI SHOPPE is currently accepting applications for Spring 2019, available here: https://tinyurl.com/SHOPPE2019APP. The deadline is Friday, February 8th, 2019, at 11:59PM PST.

SHOPPE, Cohort 2 — KV is in the black t-shirt, second from the left.

But to get back to pageant business, what made you want to compete in a Hmong Beauty Pageant at all?

KV: I competed in last year’s competition because I want to be an ambassador for the Hmong community. I wanted to represent Hmong people and do outreach with the younger generation so that they too can feel included and can voice their ideas on growing as a community. I thought that being a pageant winner would give me more opportunities to become better involved.

LT: And has it allowed you to become more involved? What kind of events have you participated in during your court’s reign? What happens after your one year — do you have other stuff forthcoming?

KV: I had quite a lot of ideas for community outreach, especially to promote higher education right after the New Year, but I decided to focus on achieving my higher education. I am developing a project that will take time but I’ll let that be a surprise.

LT: So I’ve never competed in a beauty pageant. All I know of competitions comes from secondhand stories and what I witnessed while tallying scores for the pageant — but I haven’t written that up yet.

However, my mom was a beauty pageant girl in a Fresno Hmong New Year competition in the early to mid 1980s. She said she failed to win first place because she botched her question during the public Q&A round. Ostensibly, the crowd was cheering too loudly for her. Apparently, her beauty and poise were SO overwhelming and so she couldn’t hear the question. I’ve never been able to ascertain whether the question wasn’t allowed to be repeated or that it was she still couldn’t hear the repeated question, but to this day, she’s not sure what was asked of her or what she responded. At least, not with any clarity (LOL).

A newspaper clipping/photo of LT’s mom re: Fresno Hmong New Year circa 1980s.

What did you know and/or did you know anything about Hmong beauty pageants before you competed last year?

KV: I actually never watched a Hmong pageant before running. I just occasionally watched a bit of Miss America or Miss Universe. It’s always neat seeing how each contestant represents their state or country.

I first heard about the Hmong pageant when I read an article about my aunt who won the first Hmong pageant in California. She made history at a very young age and was recognized for her talent. Her legacy in the Hmong community inspired me to run in the pageant in hopes to gather a similar momentum to my goal of being involved in the Hmong community to. She actually came to support me when I ran for the pageant.

LT: In your opinion, what do the rounds or events tell us about each contestant? Are there any events you particularly liked? Is there a round or event you’d like to see in the future?

…Because one event I’d really like to see is a test of traditional skills, not necessarily values. Every generation has a different priority and chooses its own issues, this is why cultures demonstrate changes and shifts. However, what makes most cultures still identifiable, separate or distinct from other cultures are the things they do, this includes both special occasion rituals and everyday habits, like food preparation, types of clothing they wear.

So my “new event” might range from catching, killing, and defeathering a chicken on stage to demonstrating how quickly one might bag hot rice into a sandwich bag. Who invented that, started it by the way? I can’t tell if I’m very impressed with them or upset — it largely depends upon whether or not I have to bag hot rice into a sandwich bag, I think. Or maybe they can tuav ncuav! It’s strangely come back into vogue, but not everyone’s done it. Luckily (or not), I remember doing this with my grandmother when I was young. I straight up prefer the mochi machines (LOL)!

How the “Barbarians” in Gran Torino (2008) kill chickens.

KV: Lilian, you are too funny with this one. A lot of my relatives also told me about this idea too, especially catching a chicken and cooking rice. I think if it were to exist — a traditional skills round would impress the Hmong community but it might be more spectacle than skill. Plus, it would require quite a lot of preparation and a few regulations to go through beforehand, especially if it really involved live chickens. If not, this could make a unique television show that would have a lot of views (LOL)!

I don’t know of a new round that I would like to see in particular, but I would like to highlight how important each existing dress and question round is. The contestant should utilize these rounds to enhance who they are. Walk in the outfit like it was made and is a part of you so you personally shine and folks can see it’s not just the outfit that glitters. Be aware of the best way to answer questions while being true to yourself because this shows how intelligent and in tune you are with yourself and the community. I believe this is a way to show your true beauty when competing in a pageant.

Talent was my favorite round during the pageant, but deciding on your “one” or “best” talent is always a difficulty. Everyone told me that I needed to pick something different so that I would stand out, to not sing or dance. I’m definitely not good at either one, but I am a songwriter.

Songwriting is my passion. It’s also a way of expression. Every round is an opportunity to show the community who you are and what you believe in, not just as a pageant girl. So I happily settled on playing a song I had written on the piano.

KV during the Talent Round, December 2017.

The composition was about the loss of a friend from almost three years ago — so sharing it was like sharing a page from my diary on the stage. I was quite nervous about how others would react especially since I’m not a skilled pianist. I do remember that it fell completely silent and everyone stood still even outside the stage area during my performance. Afterwards, a lot of young people came up to me to tell me how much they liked my talent. What made me really happy was that some of them said they felt inspired by my talent to continue pursuing music. I will never stop writing songs. Music is a part of me. I am definitely looking for producers and singers who want to collaborate.


LT: There is this expectation that every contestant know and speak Hmong. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a translator except for maybe the year a Chinese Hmong girl competed for the Miss Hmong International title. When I saw (and heard her) I was deeply aware of the weirdness of the Hmong that was being used. It’s not necessarily conversational Hmong. It’s so overly exaggerated in tone and inflection, inundated with fake sophisticated words, like, keeb kwm (history) — OK, maybe that’s just me, but it’s a “fancy” word that I like…but this version of Hmong makes ZERO sense anywhere else except for on the stage, right? Okay, but really, my complaint is that contestants are never asked to showcase their bicultural, multi-lingual identities -why not? How do you feel about this? What is the role of the Hmong language in this type of competition?

KV: It’s interesting that you bring this topic up regarding pageants. This was my number one barrier to running. The pageant that I ran in was the first one in Fresno that I saw allowed both Hmong and English, but you can only choose one. I am not fluent in Hmong in the way you mentioned so I saw this as my opportunity to run. I personally think contestants should be able to speak Hmong, English or whatever languages are permitted by the pageant rules, including sign language.

The speech round is the time contestants can show both their intellect and elegance in communication despite what language they speak. I watched a video of a Hmong pageant that occurred in France, and the majority of the contestants spoke French. It was a hard and stressful decision, but I chose to speak English after the first meeting with the pageant coordinators because I would rather sound fluent and confident about my speech than mispronounce Hmong words or use improper grammar.

LT: I think I’ve changed my mind about the kind of “new” round or event I’d like to suggest. Again, I’d be an awful contestant and my Hmong has only improved since 2014 when I took Hmong language classes, but if I could host a portion of the competition this year, I’d like to add a public cultural exam — you know where I read questions out loud about Hmong culture, history, and famous people, and the contestants would write and display their answers to the public while sitting at desks on the stage. They would receive points for correct answers — and if they got it wrong, we’d all learn a little bit about them as well as ourselves!

But that’s me — I’m an academic who studies Hmong folk and I always think it’s so very important to share, talk, and remind even ourselves, especially ourselves of who we are, where we come from, and what we’ve done. Shouldn’t that be part of what makes a contestant beautiful? Why are pageants, perhaps more entertaining and accessible than a public Hmong superquiz? Also, what’s something that remains memorable for you from your pageant run?

KV: I think any event can get accessibility at the organizational level. So this Hmong trivia tournament with academic scholarships would be a great idea to host, actually at anytime of the year, because it promotes cultural identity and education. I’m sure there would be many supporters and contestants for this type of event if someone organized it with the right purpose and promotion. I think the public might actually look forward to new additions to Hmong New Year. There is also a growing amount of Hmong organizations and public figures that focus on education and showcasing Hmong culture, history and progression so why not have their support? Of course, they may need some help on finding accurate information from established anthropologists and historians, such as yourself (*wink wink*).

KV on opening day at HCNYC, December 2017 (PC: Doua Lor).

Regarding the pageant, I think the question rounds already provide the opportunity to quiz contestants. I know for sure I did a lot of research about Hmong history and culture to prepare for the question rounds. My family and friends were extremely supportive in this aspect by educating me prior to the contest. The questions usually revolve around Hmong culture and history so they can be about anything. Having this knowledge can definitely help with strategizing your answers.

Although every pageant is different, I think the purpose of the pageant is to allow contestants to showcase who they are, which should include what their goals are. After my experience competing, I realized that Hmong pageants can also be a way to teach the youth about the importance of Hmong culture and beauty. Hold a workshop to inspire them to strive for more unity in the community and set a good example for everyone. Use it as a way to help the youth voice their thoughts and be confident in what they believe in.

I remember having so many young girls come up to me behind the stage/scenes and tell me I was their favorite princess during and after the competition. This reminded me that we have a responsibility to guide the minds of our future leaders and innovators in the right way so that they have the freedom to dream and to take our community higher and farther. I told the girls that you don’t have to be me or a princess to be beautiful. Who you are and what you do make you beautiful.

LT: And that’s a beautiful sentiment. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on your experience and whatnot with me and all of our readers!

Good luck to 2019’s batch of contestants — including (full disclosure) maivmai contributor, Pachia Lucy Vang! Nyob zoo xyoo tshiab!

KV (left) and LT (right) w/ Elizabeth Yang (center), founder of HWTOTW, April 2018.