Written by Lisa Herrick / Photos by John Willheim / Photos by Xiong VFX
The bold documentary film executive produced and directed by Lar Yang & Lu Vang is the first episode created in partnership with Hmongstory40 and ValleyPBS, and serves to clarify the historic military role played by the CIA-funded Hmong Special Guerilla Units (SGU) using archival footage as well as original testimonials from veteran soldiers, high-ranking military officials, emergency nurses, and political operators who witnessed firsthand the devastating toll of the secret war on the Hmong—leading up to the evacuation of lima sites 98/20a, the American CIA air base located in the secret city of Long Cheng, which was the second largest city in Laos at the time although it did not officially exist on any map.
The air is still, and thick with plumes of neon orange smoke snaking between the tall palm trees composing the dense, green carpet of jungle canopy stretching toward infinity. Overhead, the tut-tut-tut-tut-tut sound of helicopter rotors chopping the sky drowns out all birdsongs, all thoughts, even the beating of your own heart. They circle slowly, these giant iron birds of prey, and cast black shadows stretching like claws over the rising dust that tastes like scabs in your mouth. And that’s when the bombs exploded, forcing night into day by the orange flame of a midnight sun: the whole world on fire.But, That’s Not How it Happened. Not Exactly.
In a sense, like many Hmong Americans who were either born here or who arrived at a very young age as child refugees, I had no actual memory of where we came from—and I didn’t know why we were here, or why our family was so small. At school, it seemed that everyone else knew exactly where they came from. They had charts and albums full of relatives—each tree trunk a common clan, and every leaf a sibling whose full birth name connected to branches and roots reaching back hundreds of years into the past. They knew exactly why and how they came to the United States. And I couldn’t explain why it was just my parents and me, and where was my grandmother, and why didn’t we have any photos of her? So, I searched for stories that could sound like mine, or my parents’, had we found our own voices then.
In the 1980s, that meant devouring everything on the Vietnam War—including watching Francis Ford Coppola’s epic war film, Apocalypse Now (1979), on repeat until I had internalized the whole two-and-a-half-hour long movie as a proxy for my own family’s imagined Coming to America story. In my daydreams, I imagined a younger version of my mother standing by a river in a slim-cut dress, waiting for a shallow canoe to take her across the ocean while Jim Morrison growled, “This is the end, my only friend.”
Little did I realize that the film was merely a Hollywood fever dream; an anti-war paean inspired by Joseph Conrad’s classic novella, Heart of Darkness (1899); and it barely took even a cursory glance at the real machinations of the Vietnam War, or noticed its neighboring ethnic wars in Laos and Cambodia because of it. Most of all, I had to finally admit that I was part of the reason we were complicit in a nearly 40-year-long stalemate: I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell.
And we were not alone in feeling that it was time to break the silence. The Hmong journey to becoming Americans is often misunderstood. Nearly half of Laos’s estimated 300,000 Hmong fled the country after 1975, according to Kou Yang, professor of Asian American Studies at California State University, Stanislaus, and author of The Making of Hmong America: Forty Years After The Secret War (2017). In 1977, the first Hmong refugee family settled in Fresno, California. Today, over 24,000 Hmong Americans call the city home (2010 U.S. Census), ranking Fresno as the second largest urban population of Hmong Americans in the country only after Twin Cities, Minnesota. Their deep economic and cultural influence in Fresno spans across agriculture, retail, education, politics, media & broadcasting, and city-wide cultural events such as the Hmong New Year festival. And it was at this annual event in December 2015 at the Fresno County Fairgrounds that Lar Yang premiered the HmongStory40 exhibit—and ValleyPBS television executives Elizabeth Laval, Vice President of Programming & Development, and Phil Meyer, CEO, were inspired to partner with Yang to locally produce a film focused on exploring the Hmong in the Secret War.Yang is no stranger to success as the owner of his own boutique graphic design agency in Fresno, and he credits everything to hard work—not luck—as well as his supportive network of family, friends, donors, advisors, volunteers, and community partners who actively support Yang’s passion to document and preserve Hmong culture for posterity.
His film partner and co-director, Lue Vang, is a professional multimedia producer based in Sacramento who has worked with commercial clients in music and nonprofits; this is their first feature length film production as StoryCloth Productions.
Most of all, i had to finally admit that i was part of the reason we were complicit in a nearly 40-year-long stalemate:
I didn’t ask, and they didn’t tell. I was able to sit down with both Yang and Vang recently, as well as military veteran Gia Chue Her, to discuss their documentary filmmaking process.
(Text translated from original Hmong or Lao italicized)
Herrick: First of all, how did you get involved with the film project?
Her: At first I was brought on to help our Hmong create the HmongStory40 project. I didn’t do any heavy lifting, but I guided and supervised them because, as an elder, I know the real story. That’s how I got involved.
Yang: [Gia Chue Her] sits on our advisory board.
Vang: [Lar] mentioned it to me when the HmongStory40 exhibition was in Sacramento, and I was asked to come out to photograph the exhibition in order to turn it into a digital experience online for a different project. This was around mid-February 2017. I [had]done short form documentary work but . . . this wasn’t just any documentary. It was something we all cared deeply about: our people, our history, our story.Herrick: So, you technically started working on this film project in 2014? 2015?
Yang: 2015—so just about three years ago.
Vang: I ended up in Fresno visiting family and hiking Yosemite one weekend–and the next morning I’m in the car with Lar and Charlie [Vang] traveling to SoCal to assist with an interview/shoot. I just went deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole. But we all knew and agreed that, whether or not there were more capable and experienced people out there, surely they weren’t crazy enough to commit the same way given the circumstances, time constraints, and challenges involved. I said, “Okay, secrew it! Fine. I’ll jump.”
Herrick: And, at that time, had you wanted to tell your story, Mr. Her?
Her: I had talked about it a little bit by then already because they had recorded my story for the HmongStory40 Project. I had a younger brother Missing In Action (MIA), so I talked about him.
Yang: We had shot and compiled a short documentary film about him and his missing brother.
Her: That’s right. But, at the same time, I didn’t want to say too much.
Herrick: Was this a story that you had told your own children, or had they never heard of it?
Her: Oh, they had never heard about it before. Once my children were born, we never brought it up. My oldest daughter, we brought her [to America]when she was only five years old. Even today, she hasn’t asked me so I haven’t told her.
When I was in Laos, I wasn’t just sitting around doing nothing all day. I was a person who was the “xeem tuag”, as they say. I was the lone survivor of my village. I had a brother and uncles—so many of them—they all died. Every single one of them. When the Vietnamese arrived, they wiped out everybody. One man was stuffed into a plastic body bag, and sent back home like that.
That is why I say that I am the “xeem tuag”. That is why I say very little. To tell you the truth, when we elders considered it—myself included—we told ourselves that these things we witnessed just couldn’t be casually brought up in conversation because they were truly frightening. There was a part of me that didn’t want my children to know. If they had asked me, I wouldn’t have told them anyway. But, if they asked me once they had become adults, I would have told them then.
You know, I have lived two lives. When we were at war, I was the one fighting and killing; When we fell to the Vietnamese, I became a “peb xeem”— a citizen — and I was only a farmer.
Herrick: So, how did you two decide to make this film? Were there a lot of changes?
Yang: You know, I had two objectives for the film. The first objective was giving a voice to that generation that never had one, because some of the stuff that we talked about is very hard to swallow. You could tell there were things that Hmong have long wanted to say to the Americans, but there was never a platform—for example, when MayKou’s father said, “It took ten of me to die to save only one of them.” They felt abused. I think that American viewers will see that and say, “Holy, shit! Did that guy really say that?” It’s about all those things—the voices and the nurses, too. It’s so empowering for a whole generation of women. Imagine if you had heard those stories in the 1980s, just how much more driven you would have been.
Vang: The end product is drastically different from the conceptualized version, but I always told Lar that we would discover the story eventually. He gave me a lot of creative freedom to explore the narrative, but he emphasized anchoring the film in certain requirements and facts: it needed to serve educating someone who may not be familiar with the war and the Hmong people, and it needed to highlight some key events, so we both had to operate on some middle ground and understanding.
It was always [that]Lar emphasized information and [that]I needed to contextualize it. I found myself repeating “story arc”—I don’t know how many times—and I lost count of how often Lar said, “It’s about the human cost.” We can laugh about it now. But stress was high. ValleyPBS was great in that they trusted us enough to adjust and pivot like a true team player.
Her: What I also see is this film is only the start. This is just the beginning of the story, and there hasn’t been anything created quite like this film that you can hold in your hand. There probably isn’t anything quite like it. It would be very difficult to find. Hmong don’t have any photos because Hmong were so poor, they couldn’t take any photos at all. Kindhearted Americans gave you the footage, and that is why you can see it now, is that right? But to see the kind of action that Hmong had to witness firsthand, nobody took any pictures. The footage that we have right now, that’s close enough.
Vang: It [was]incredibly challenging on so many levels. I have to remind you, we had a crazy schedule to get this done: Lar and Charlie wrapped filming in September after filming in Minnesota. I had to sacrifice a trip or two, . . . but on top of that, I worked a full time job as a videographer for another company. You can only imagine how much sleep I was getting. Moua Xiong, who works for CrossingsTV here in Sacramento, was so instrumental in assisting me. There’s no way we could have pulled this thing off without each other.
Herrick: I liked that, in your film, you had many different voices—men, women, and—
Yang: High-ranking officers to Vang Pao, himself, to historians . . .
Herrick: Was that cooked into the design?
Yang: That was cooked into the design, because I wanted to have a lot of perspectives. I wanted people at the very top. I wanted Americans who had been studying it for 30-40 years so you can’t refute the data. But I also wanted to bring in the nurses, too, because it’s empowering for young women. I want them to say, “Wow, I didn’t believe that women of that generation had that kind of strength and integrity.” They’re all modeled under Choua [Thao]—her way, her attitude toward life—she was at the very top, so all of her nurses conformed to that. That was her critical role.
And there were also everyday soldiers like Chue Pao Moua. He’s was a soldier and a prolific storyteller, and then you compare that to perspectives of people from high-ranking positions.We really only used about 30-40% of the interviewees. We even had a case—a CIA liaison with code names who was communicating between the battalions and CIA officers. There was a guy that was sent to do intel on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and then Agent Orange dropped and they all got sick. There are so many different perspectives, but there just wasn’t room to weave it into the story or to fit it all in.
Vang: As filmmakers and storytellers, our job is to have a perspective and say something. Lar didn’t want it to be a sob story where we play the victim. Sure, and I didn’t want that either. He wanted it to be about the human cost of war. I added that it needs to be more. No people should have to carry such a burden and pain. If I was going to do anything, I was going to do this for them. I wanted at the very least for our parents and elders and their generation to know that someone else out there, someone who has never seen their war or their struggles or their loss, understands them. That’s the core of where I was crafting from. So many other films about the Hmong and the Secret War have attempted to tell the story, but so few have made an effort to talk about it in their voice. I know I can’t squeeze everything into one hour, but I’m not trying to do that.
It’s a very deeply human story. It’s all the things that you would ever want to do for your kids or your loved ones. What would you do to protect your kids?
Herrick: When you were going through the released CIA documents, did they actually quantify or delineate between Hmong casualties versus other hill tribes?
Yang: No, it was all lumped together. The CIA—even the state department records classified them all as Highlanders. But what I think the CIA documents actually do is they verify and they validate that the Hmong served & they partnered in the whole Vietnam conflict. It wasn’t a little, isolated guerilla war in Laos. It was all part of the Indochina problem. They’re all interwoven. More than anything, the documents validate that the government knew about the Hmong way before they acknowledged that they knew them. They pretended like they didn’t know who we were, you know what I mean (laugh), and without those public documents, we’d have no claim to our own history. A whole generation of veterans who sacrificed, lost limbs—if their assurances meant nothing? I think that’s what it did, more than anything: it validated that it was real, that we were working with the Americans. Long Cheng [Ed. Note: the CIA-backed air base] had, on an average day, 300 flights in and out. The flights would go out to all the LIMA sites throughout Laos. Three hundred flights—imagine that. And they were keeping the soldiers armed. They were moving soldiers to the front.
Her: The Long Cheng air base was rather small but incredibly busy. You couldn’t ever do the same amount of work even at the Fresno Airport! The planes were huge. There was one in particular, the 130, or what the French called the “Caribou”.
[Ed. Note: Lockheed C-130 Hercules] They were always the two largest planes there, and there was hardly any room left over for helicopters or other planes. It didn’t matter, though: planes never stayed very long. As soon as they landed, they were loaded up and sent back in the air.
Yang: And they were supplying the surrogate army in the front. If you think about this, when the Vietnamese attacked the enemy—when they attacked General Vang Pao—they attacked Hmong villages, the “kaitong”, and not anywhere else because that’s where all the soldiers were. That’s how massive the war was.
Everyone was fricking involved. It wasn’t this small little guerilla thing with 20 guys going out on a special mission once a month. A lot of people died. After the evacuation from Long Cheng, all these people were left behind. They just said, “Alright, you’re on your own, figure it out. Go on your own, do whatever it takes.” It’s a very deeply human story. It’s all the things that you would ever want to do for your kids or your loved ones. What would you do to protect your kids? At the very core, it’s all of those things because it forced the Hmong in that position.
Herrick: So, out of all the interviews you conducted, which was your favorite clip?
Yang:I think that Choua Thao, when she talked about the dead person crying. I cried at the interview. That’s just deep at a human level, that you still live after you die, that kind of stuff. A lot of them were very, very powerful. I think when I was just listening, I was like, “Man! Are these stories that good?” Or, have our people gone through so much that, when you talk about it, it’s just so deep and so real? I realized that’s what it is, because for something to impact you that much, to have made you suffer so deeply—to tell a story that way, it has to be true.
Herrick: What is the greatest message from this film?
Yang: I think that the greatest message, from the Hmong perspective, is to understand that the Hmong were not always primitive, slash-and-burn farmers. That’s what you’re taught in school. We had generations of strong leaders, who served with the French—high ranking officers with the French and the Laotian government. We have the capacity to be great things, because we have it in us.
And the second takeaway is to really just follow your own story. Because just like [Gia Chue]’s telling us, we’re understanding the war now and a lot of his kids have never even heard his story, so it’s their loss. For you to be at 40, and then to understand that your dad might have died a couple of times in the war but you never got his testimony? I think that’s heartbreaking that you had all this available, and were just never tuned in to understand that story.
Herrick: Any tips for people who may be inspired by your film to make their own home video, or interview a family member?
Vang: I think it’s everyone’s job & opportunity to sit with their folks and capture those stories to share. It’s more important that this film inspires our community to converse and share dialogue and stories about our experiences. I hope others might be inspired to not only engage with community and their families in discovering more to history and their stories, but also to ignite their hustle and fuel their purpose with something beyond themselves, something out of their reach, and to take a leap of not just faith but blind optimism with the people they trust. How else do you imagine dreams happening?
Yang: I think that everybody should do it, because it’s not just the Hmong people’s story. It’s your individual family’s story, and you should document it. It’s not so much that you document it, and then you get this wealth of knowledge or this empowerment.
It’s that you help to alleviate what your parents had to go through. Just because by asking, it lightens their load. They talk about it, you acknowledge them, and it alleviates a lot of their baggage—their emotional baggage—of carrying their survival story. They want to have a conversation but can never engage that, or start it, alone. That’s what we hope the film will do: open multigenerational connections like that.
Vang: We’ve got to start somewhere together.
Clovis, November 2017
Kneeling down with a sharp-tipped permanent ink pen, I wrote a short summary of my father’s story on the map of Laos, at the capitol, where he had been a student before the war, before the genocide. The vinyl map stretched nearly the entire length and width of the conference room floor at the Clovis Memorial Veterans Center, where ValleyPBS hosted the community preview screening event for The Hmong and The Secret War. It was a crisp and clear autumn evening, and several young college student dancers posed proudly for photos in full regalia before performing at the reception featuring traditional Hmong delicacies like steamed corn cake, pumpkin water, tri-colored rice cakes, rice wine, and tiers of immaculately cubed tropical fruits.
Several attendees bashfully removed their stiletto-heeled shoes to tiptoe onto the soft map, and took selfies while pointing to the location of their ancestral villages. The stories simply spilled forth, building in layers upon the map—stories of childhood friends, comrades, forgotten loves—marked where they were last seen alive almost 50 years ago.
It felt like a relief to sign my name, too, and watch the oily black ink drying quickly on this room-sized family album of sorts. After spending nearly half my life mutely dreaming of the distant past using borrowed landscapes, different mountains, the wrong rivers—this small act felt like a tethering of my parents’ wandering timelines, an anchor tying me fast to the ground beneath me. I thought of my uncle, a Major in the SGU who had passed away suddenly just a month before, and how he had been the last in a long line of men who had served and sacrificed in the shadows. I thought of my grandfather and his cousin, whose bronze statue was decorated with flowers every New Year, and I remembered my father’s uncle too—all long gone. And yet, here we were: safe in a new land, our passage paved by their blood sacrifice. We were alive. And as I stood up and looked around the room, I recognized the same beatific look on other people’s faces all around me. We felt like siblings in that moment.
This felt like home, at long last.
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