Posts tagged ‘Laotian Refugee’

January 12, 2014

In A Past-Plagued Laos, A Youth Chases A Future

art & life

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January 09, 2014 5:00 PM

Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) bond when they encounter each other in a Laotian refugee village in The Rocket.   Tom Greenwood/Kino Lorber

The Rocket

  • Director: Kim Mordaunt
  • Genre: Drama
  • Running Time: 92 minutes

Not rated; violence, partial nudity, ribald humor, animal sacrifice

With:  Sitthiphon DisamoeLoungnam KaosainamSuthep Po-ngam

In Lao with subtitles

To help his struggling family and escape his own status as an outcast, a plucky young boy enters a competition. Yes, The Rocket is a sports movie, with an outcome that’s easily foreseen. The cultural specifics of this Laos-set tale, however, are far less predictable.

Australian writer-director Kim Mordaunt came to his debut fiction feature via a documentary, Bomb Harvest, about Laotian children who collect scrap metal from American bombs. The Rocket’s 10-year-old protagonist isn’t one of them, but he does encounter some unexploded bombs and rockets — “sleeping tigers,” in the local lingo. These become of particular interest to Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) when he learns about a singular contest.

The story begins, though, with Ahlo’s birth, which his superstitious grandmother (Bunsri Yindi) deems inauspicious: Although his sibling is stillborn, Ahlo is technically a twin, which according to local lore means he may be cursed. But his mother (Alice Keohavong) refuses to kill him, as the older woman advises.

Nothing comes of grandma’s premonition for a decade, until Laos’s communist government and an Australian corporation announce plans for a new dam that will inundate the village where Ahlo and his family live. (There’s only one Aussie in the film, and he doesn’t even have a speaking part, but he embodies Mordaunt’s regret about what his countrymen have done in Laos.)

On the way to their new home, catastrophe strikes the family, and grandma begins to chide that it’s all Ahlo’s fault. Things only get worse in the relocation camp, where the promised new houses haven’t been built yet.

There, Ahlo befriends 9-year-old Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her only surviving relative, “Uncle Purple” (Thep Phongam). Kia is playful, but a little more sensible than her new pal; her violet-suited uncle is an amiable alcoholic and, a bit too whimsically, obsessed with James Brown.

They’re pariahs in the camp, so Ahlo’s father (Sumrit Warin) orders him to avoid them. Still, the boy has a genius for getting into trouble all by himself, and after his antics enrage the shantytown community, Ahlo’s family must join Kia and her uncle on the lam.

Making their way through a country still hobbled by a war that ended in the 1970s, the refugees encounter preparations for a “rocket festival” — the goal being to puncture the sky and release rains to end a troublesome drought. Thinking he can win enough money to buy his family a new home, Ahlo turns to Uncle Purple, a former child soldier, for tips on explosives.

Laos is reportedly the world’s most bombed country, per capita, and The Rocket conveys a strong sense of the devastation. It also shows a documentarian’s eye for the earthy rural culture, with its phallic talismans and animal sacrifices.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, the movie depicts a world where humans and other critters live closely together, and where animals are treasured yet routinely slaughtered. Ahlo himself is quite the killer, in fact, although Kia stops him from aiming his slingshot at one particular endangered species.

More poetically, Ahlo takes a swim that becomes metaphorical: Diving into a lake created by an existing dam, the boy floats past submerged statues that symbolize the country’s scuttled traditions. This interlude, like the movie’s conclusion, is both agreeable and a little glib.

As Ahlo, Sitthiphon Disamoe demonstrates the resourcefulness he learned during a period when he was a street seller and beggar. It’s his exuberant performance, as much as the pungently naturalistic setting, that lifts The Rocket’s scenario above the generic.

The Wall Street Journal - Life and Culture

Film Review

A Lovely ‘Rocket’ Arrives Under the Radar

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Jan. 9, 2014 1:44 p.m. ET

A special pleasure of movie going is sitting down with low expectations and coming out with surprised delight. “The Rocket” will do that for you, even though your expectations will have risen somewhat if you’ve read this far.

From left, Loungnam Kaosainam, Bunsri Yindi, Sitthiphon Disamoe and Sumrit Warin Kino Lorber

It’s a small film, set in Laos, with a big theme—changing one’s destiny. The hero, 10-year-old Ahlo, carries a curse almost from birth. He’s supposed to be bad luck, and he does have a gift for creating chaos wherever he goes. But he has the great luck to be played by a former street kid, Sitthiphon “Ki” Disamoe, whose irrepressible verve confers plausibility on this feel-good fable. (So does Andrew Commis’s stylish cinematography.) Kim Mordaunt’s debut feature was shot with a mostly nonprofessional Laotian cast. You’d never know, though, that the amateurs hadn’t had extensive experience—Mr. Mordaunt, an Australian, is an actor himself, and he directs actors exceptionally well—or that the one seasoned pro wasn’t tossing off his distinctive performance with beginner’s luck.

Laos gives the action a haunting context—a nation, scarred by the Vietnam War, where unexploded American bombs, or “sleeping tigers,” still lurk in the fields. After Ahlo’s family experiences a string of disasters that include the loss of their home and land to a giant Australo-Laotian hydroelectric project, the kid goes forth with his father and grandmother in search of a place to live and a way to survive. Soon they meet an endearing orphan, Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam), and her boozy uncle, Purple (fine work by a veteran actor and comedian named Thep Phongam); the characters may be clichés, but the performances are utterly fresh. At that point the group’s journey becomes, by turns, a charming road movie—Purple is a mysterious eccentric with a military past and a James Brown fetish—and a peacetime variant of “Forbidden Games,” René Clément’s 1952 classic about a young orphan girl and a poor farmer’s son making their way through Occupied France during World War II.

Mr. Mordaunt is no stranger to that latter part of the plot, having made a documentary feature, “Bomb Harvest,” about an Australian bomb-disposal expert and Laotian children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. But his taste is eclectic, with talent to match, so “The Rocket” is ultimately a canny piece of entertainment in which Ahlo gets a chance to redeem himself, and save his family, at a local rocket festival. A rocket festival? Yes, such things do exist in Laos, according to the production notes. They’re county fairs of a sort, competitions that ring changes on the nation’s history by firing rockets back at the sky that once rained bombs, awarding prizes for the missile that flies highest. Far be it from me to reveal the outcome, but watching Ahlo mix his explosives is like watching a Cordon Bleu chef whipping up a stupendous soufflé.

July 20, 2013

Long journey from Laos into Fresno Hmong pulpit

Long journey from Laos into Fresno Hmong pulpit

Published: July 19, 2013 Updated 11 hours ago

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Published: July 19, 2013

By Ron Orozco — The Fresno Bee

Once a boy soldier in the “secret war” in Laos, today Xing Yang of Clovis is ready to become a pastor — at age 59.

In 1979, he fled communist-controlled Laos with his wife and two children. They ran through the jungle, swam across the Mekong River, dodged bullets and found safety at Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand. A year later, they settled in Joliet, Ill., seeking a better life.

Now, Yang has earned a bachelor of theology and is ready to become pastor of a new congregation, Hmong Evangelical Lutheran Church, in central Fresno.

“He has come from so many years after the war to achieve so much,” says son Pou Kong Yang, who keeps in his wallet a tattered photo of his father when he was living in the refugee camp.

Pastoral Studies Institute at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wis., designs programs for refugees and immigrants to study special curriculum that relates to them and to navigate a timetable that fits their lives. Yang set out on an eight-year plan, which required him to travel to towns up and down California where the institute provides classroom teaching.

Institute director E. Allen Sorum says Yang faced an uphill battle.

Hmong traditionally aren’t Christians. They traditionally follow animism, a belief in the existence of spirits and demons. Shamans and witch doctors are called upon to thwart them. According to data used by the Pastoral Studies Institute, 350,000 Hmong refugees live in North America — and 250,000 practice their traditional beliefs.

Sorum says he sees growth, however, in Hmong people converting to Christianity. Many are introduced to the faith by Christian “witnesses” at refugee camps. After they settle in the United States, Hmong visit American churches to learn more. Yang heard the Gospel message in a refugee camp. In the United States, he attended a Methodist church in St. Paul, Minn.

Refugees also try to assimilate as they hold on to important parts of their culture, Sorum says. That can lead to conflict between first-, second- and third-generation family members, who vary in how much they want to assimilate or hold on to traditional ways.

However, Sorum says refugees can follow a natural progression to want to share their conversions with others as they spend more time in the United States.

The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which oversees the Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, has reached out to Hmong for about 30 years, and it now has 10 Hmong pastors within the synod. Thirty-two seminarians have graduated from the Pastoral Studies Institute. Of them, Yang became the 19th Hmong or Laotian.

“This brother worked very, very hard to achieve his bachelor of theology, and I am very, very proud of him,” Sorum says. “He is so gracious and humble. I just have huge respect for him.

“This is how our seminary is trying to approach this next millennia — to train those who come from overseas.”

A guerrilla fighter

The son of a farmer who tended to cattle, horses, goats and water buffalo, Yang was born in a small village of about 200 in the providence of Xieng Khouang.

At 12, he became a soldier in the “secret war” in Laos, when the CIA in the 1960s and ’70s worked with the government to fight communism.

“They came into schools and forced any student who could carry an (M1) Carbine rifle to fight,” he remembers. “They needed help.”

In 1965, he lugged that rifle, draped a bullet belt across his chest, hid in trenches that he dug and waged guerrilla warfare.

“We would shoot to the place where we heard shooting,” he says.

After 1 1/2 years, his mother, Xee, won an appeal that Yang shouldn’t have to fight since her husband and three older brothers also were in the war.

Yang continued his education and became a teacher. But, in 1970, he returned to the jungle to help fight at Boum Long, a village that was fired on the heaviest.

In 1975, when the war ended, the communist government in Laos found out Yang had fought and sent him — and others — to jail. He was released after less than a year when someone “vouched” for him.

With many people running across Laos to Thailand, the government appointed Yang as a security leader. His job was to arrest those who tried to flee. Many escaped under Yang’s watch, so he was sent to jail again. A year later, he was released.

Orphaned by the war, Yang realized he had no choice but to flee with his family. In 1979, they ran for their lives, reaching the Thai refugee camp. Their youngest child died there.

In 1980, after an interview, Yang, his wife and a son were allowed to board a flight to the U.S. with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

On their third day in Joliet, Yang got a job as a custodian at First Baptist Church. He knew no English, but he got some help. “I was taught English by another custodian — Jack Hutchinson,” Yang says. “But there were many times when I cried. He spoke to me, and I didn’t understand.”

Less than a year later, a nephew visited the Yangs and persuaded them to move to St. Paul, which had a high concentration of Hmong refugees and special programs for them.

There, Yang enrolled in English as second language courses and worked toward his GED. At night, he worked at a Honeywell factory, cutting metal as a machinist.

Remembering the Christians who shared their faith in the refugee camps, Yang started to attend a Methodist church. He became a Christian and started reading his Bible to learn more about his faith.

“But it was frustrating to me: what the love of God is and how God helps you,” he remembers.

Three years later, the factory shut down. A cousin/pastor, Nhia Sou Yang, was interested in evangelizing in Orange County. He persuaded Yang to move to Fresno.He also wanted to tap into Yang’s English skills for his evangelization.

In 1984, Yang moved to Fresno, where he began to see how God had a hand on his life.

Shaped by God

While in Fresno, Yang struggled with issues about faith and culture.

“I am strong in the Hmong culture,” he says. “After becoming a Christian, I wondered what is the difference between culture and the love of God. I read my Bible every day.”

In 1990, he became president of Lao Evangelical Church. In 2004, when Yang completed his presidency, his life took an usual turn when he met a clergy member with St. Peter Lutheran Church in Clovis. Yang learned about the Pastoral Studies Institute program for refugees just like him. He went to St. Peter Lutheran and said yes to the seminary.

“I was getting old, about 50, and I said, ‘I will die some day,’ ” he says. “I said, ‘Why don’t I become one of God’s slaves?’ It was something I could tell God: ‘Here I am, use me.’ “

In 2005, he enrolled in the institute, but there were many challenges, especially studying and learning Greek and Hebrew.

The Rev. Michael Carr, who became pastor of St. Peter Lutheran in November 2009, became one of Yang’s primary institute teachers. Carr taught courses Thursdays at St. Peter.

Yang always carried an electronic dictionary with him.

“Studying any language that is not your first language is very difficult,” Carr says. “This is what he’s been doing, plugging away all these years.

“There were times, I would talk over his head. He would ask a question. I would try to figure out a way to explain. He would always use a highlight pen to mark things he didn’t understand. Later, he would look it up and figure it out. As far as learning, it was exhausting for him.

“From a human standpoint, the journey he has taken is mind-boggling.”

A humble man

Nearly everyone who meets Yang comes to a similar realization: He is special, a humble man who wants to help others.

Daniel Thao, 28, of Fresno completed the institute program with Yang. Many times, they traveled in the same car for hours to the classrooms.

“He is a hard worker,” Thao says. “He puts his heart and soul into everything he does in order to achieve what he wants.”

Ue Yang says her father has always encouraged his children to pursue higher education and to see the opportunities in America. She says her father always put his own plans for higher education on hold — until God called him to seminary.

“It was so encouraging for us kids to come home and see Dad studying,” she says. “I came home, and sometimes I didn’t feel like studying, and I would see Dad.

“He would turn on a lamp in a corner of the house — not all the lights because he didn’t want to disturb anyone. It encouraged us to work hard.”

Xing Yang and his wife set goals for all their children to graduate from high school. When that happened, they upped it to “going to college and having a decent job,” his daughter says.

Two other Yang daughters graduated with master’s degrees from UCLA this year. Ue Yang says the children also have been inspired by their mother, who works two jobs as a housekeeper.

Ue Yang says she didn’t hear her father tell his story until just several years ago: “It took Dad years to open up,” she says. “He is so humble.”

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6304.

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