Vietnam War veteran, Chongge Vang, 80, has been confined to his Sanger home during the pandemic, keeping busy with chores on his two-and-a-half acre property.
“I have nothing to do, so I have to walk around and then clean up, water all the trees, all the fruit, you know. That’s what I do,” he says.
Vang lives with his youngest son, but after his wife died two years ago, the house has been even more quiet. That’s why Hmong New Year has been especially important for him. The week-long festival means he gets to visit with relatives and friends from all over the country.
“New Year, everybody come, you see each other. Shake hands, hold and hug each other. But this year, no way you can see it and hug anybody,” he says.
This year will be the first time that the largest Hmong New Year celebration held in the United States will be cancelled. It’s estimated that 100,000 people attend the celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds. The cancellation has wide-reaching impacts on the Hmong community, economically and culturally.
Blong Xiong, executive director of the nonprofit Fresno Asian Business Institute and Resource Center, says the lack of connection caused by the New Year cancellation is devastating.
“I think every immigrant community has a family atmosphere. But ours really is truly connected through that way. Our gathering is about family, our food is about our family, our event is about family and the pandemic is not,” he says.
But Xiong says they’re not just missing out on a huge social gathering, the Hmong New Year is also a financial boost to the city and to hundreds of vendors.
“Here, when it comes down to Fresno, where you’ve always averaged anywhere from 70 to 100,000 folks that come to the city. You look at the economic impact that has, not only within our Hmong community here, but throughout the city,” he says.
The event is usually held Dec. 26 through Jan. 1. The nonprofit Hmong Cultural New Year Celebration, which was organizing the event, expected 400 vendors to be part of the celebration, with 30% of vendors based locally. The Fresno/Clovis Convention Center and Visitors Bureau estimates the economic impact from last year’s event to be $2.24 million, based on attendees, ticket prices and other indirect and induced economic impacts.
Small business owners in immigrant communities have always dealt with added challenges in finding resources; language barriers, lack of access to technology. But the pandemic has made the need more urgent and crucial for survival. Xiong says a cancelled New Year celebration adds to that pressure.
“Many of the small businesses that we talk to that does jewelry, that does some of the small clothing, that sell cultural things are directly impacted. Because many of these small businesses rely on the New Year to be half of their yearly income, or even more,” he says.
And on top of the social and economic losses of the New Year cancellation, many in the Hmong community are already suffering from depression and anxiety because they’ve lost loved ones to the pandemic. Dr. Ghia Xiong, director of the Living Well program at the Fresno Center says that’s been the focus of his work lately.
“Many of them are in disbelief, grieving right now: ‘why my mother, why my father, why my son, why my daughter. We’re in America, why can’t we be saved by medicine?’’“ he says.
Dr. Xiong says the New Year cancellation only compounds the loss of other traditions including funerals. Ceremonies that usually last several days have been cut short to one day or even hours during the pandemic.
“It’s changing the way they live their lives, changing the way they conduct a lot of traditions and practices and rituals. It’s really significant,” he says.
But, he says, one result of the pandemic and the cancellation of important events is people are now finding other ways to connect.
“This whole idea of FaceTime, this whole idea of Facebook. I think older folks are beginning to see the value of that,” he says.
Still, the loss of Hmong New Year is hard to take, especially for older folks, like Chongge Vang in Sanger, who won’t get to see their friends.
“I don’t know, I feel so sad, and not like in the past. This year, everything, it changed. You can’t do anything about that,” he says.