By C.J. Barbre
Letha Cooke took an immediate interest in assisting Visalia's newest immigrants more than two decades ago.
The connection might have been because her husband, Dave, was born in Southwest China to missionary parents.
"Basically in Visalia there are four tribal groups, the Mien, Hmong, Lahu and Lal," she said seated in the family room of her Tulare home. Cooke became what she calls an ombudswoman, but what others might call an inveterate home missionary, to the first three of these groups.
As was mentioned in the Sept. 1 Gazette story about Sammy and Koysio Lee, "The highlanders of Laos were recruited in the 1960s to help gather intelligence and cut off North Vietnamese forces along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. The Hmong and other highlander peoples in Laos, including the Mien, fought as guerrillas in the 'Secret War' in the U.S. war effort in Laos."
What wasn't mentioned was that there were 500,000 Hmong in Laos in 1960. In 1975 the communists took official control of the country after the U.S. called a halt to the Vietnam War. The new government set out to torture, re-educate or kill anyone who had allied with the United States. Following the withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam, more than 150,000 Hmong managed to escape into Thailand, about all that was left of this tribe. Eventually they were given an equal opportunity to resettle here. More than 50,000 were resettled in the United States with a large population established in the Central Valley. Their numbers were close to a hundred thousand when the 1990 U.S. census was taken.
When the first wave came to the Valley, Letha Cooke was an empty nester, her kids married, and her husband busy with the medical lab he owned. She decided to help these "peace-loving, agrarian people" as they were described in one report.
"I would go to their homes. I took them wherever they needed to go. I never went anywhere with an empty car. I asked a missionary what I could do. She said I could help them with their handiwork." Cooke got right on it. She had some of the women wear traditional clothes, women she said were beauty queens in their own country, and headed for the Visalia Mall. The first day out they sold $2,400 worth of exotically stitched goods called pa dau. Not bad for a day at the mall.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Hmong began to leave China because of the cultural discrimination they faced there. They settled in the mountains of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, raising crops and animals.
It was not until the 1950s that the Hmong had any kind of written language. It has been their custom to create story art through sewing - intricately stitched creations called "Story Cloth." Cross stitch embroidery, surface embroidery, reverse applique, and applique are used to create pictorial wall hangings that reflect a culture which relies heavily on oral tradition to tell the story of its people. Letha Cooke pulled a story cloth out of a dresser in a back bedroom of her Tulare home. The entire bedroom is dedicated to housing pa dau.There are handbags hanging from a hatrack, a closet full of jackets and pants, dressers with story cloths and even a crib full of dolls and baby carriers.
She said story cloths are becoming rare and the fancy needle work is being lost. The children of these first wave immigrants who came to America in the 1980s are not inclined to spend time stitching fancy designs on fabric here in America. Cooke said, in fact. the Hmong here in the Central Valley have become the biggest purchasers of these works of art, now considering them collectors items.
She passed on a sheet that describes pa dau or pa ndau as it is also spelled. "Pa ndau designs have been handed down for generations. They are arrangements of symbols that are drawn from Hmong folklore, spirit beliefs and rituals, and ceremonies commemorating the milestones of life. Some symbols are derived from tales of origin and folk heroes, repeated in praise of the spirits and ancestors who established the inherited social order. Others relate to rituals of exorcism, where sharp objects are employed. Their destructive qualities are sometimes used protectively to ward off danger and evil spirits. Recovery rites and the transport devices needed by the priest to travel after a lost soul and bring it back where it belongs are other image sources."
Her paper claims everything is handmade, "Neither rulers, nor irons, nor sewing machines are used in the pa dau process. The high degree of skill attained by a Hmong woman is the result of a whole childhood of practice." However, according to "The Peoples of the Golden Triangle" a 1984 book about the various tribes that Cooke strongly recommended, it says, "New techniques of producing clothing are being adopted, although still retaining tribal distinctiveness. Sewing machines have become standard equipment in the earthen-floored homes of many of the Hmong and Lisu, and it is virtually impossible today to find a hand-sewn set of clothing among them. Furthermore, Hmong women have found that cloth sold in the market with printed batik and embroidery designs imitating their patterns is a great boon in terms of time saved." It only makes sense, particularly when Cooke's sheet stated that one square inch of such needlework may contain up to 400 tiny cross stitches and may take as long as two hours to complete. Why wouldn't one do it in minutes by machine. It is still quite unique and beautiful to Westerners.
In just a generation, Cooke said the women are not sewing any more. "Teens can't tell if it's Hmong or Mien work. They are watching soccer and television." Cooke, as their ombudswoman, has taken their wares as far as to a gift shop at the Grand Canyon where she said it is purchased predominantly by the Native Americans there. She has taken it to Santa Cruz and Carmel, where she said the mark-up by the specialty shops is astronomical.
A very lengthy and deeply researched thesis on the Hmong concluded that the most threatening things to the Hmong culture were, in coming to America, the loss of the sexual division of labor, failing to observe the subordinate status of women, or to put it in a positive spin, "They regard the ability to speak the language and the retention of their gender and age hierarchies to be the most essential for maintaining their ethnicity."
So catch the show at the Lindsay Cultural Arts Council Gallery. This exquisite needlework is becoming a lost art.