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Anchorage's Hmong community rings in the New Year

Under a giant inflatable dome, Anchorage's Hmong community rang in the new year Sunday with rituals both old and new — traditional garb, green papaya salad and sticky rice, cultural songs and dances and plenty of Instagram pictures made possible by selfie sticks. 

Numbers are inexact but organizers estimate that 500-600 people attended the three-day event held at the Dome, a sports facility off Raspberry Road owned by ChangePoint church, over the course of the weekend.

In their former homeland of Laos, the Hmong people celebrated a New Year's festival after the year's rice harvest. The tradition endured when many Hmong emigrated to the United States as refugees after the Vietnam War, in which thousands of Hmong fought for the United States in what has been called the "secret war" in Laos.

Today, Anchorage has a Hmong population of more than 3,500, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Anchorage School District includes about 1,019 students who live in Hmong-speaking households, according to the district. That makes it the third most common language spoken by district students, after Spanish and Samoan.

Sakura Chang chases after Hope Lao as they play during the Hmong New Year celebration at the Dome. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Most of the younger generations of Hmong children and young adults in Anchorage grew up in the United States, said Arthur Yang, executive director of the Hmong Center of Alaska. The three-day New Year's festival is the centerpiece of the year's community-wide cultural events, Yang said.

This year, for the first time, the event used the length of the 180,000-square-foot facility's full-size football field, with a stage for dancing, singing and a Miss Hmong Alaska pageant, vendors and flag football and soccer matches.

The soccer and flag football are an effort to draw more participation from young people, said George Vue Yang.

"Our young people, they grow up Hmong and American. We try to keep our custom and culture and also adapt to mainstream culture," said Chang Doua Xiong, president of the Hmong Center of Alaska.

Women prepared green papaya salad, multicolored tapioca pudding cups, purple sticky rice and Hmong sausage and chicken. The sound of thousands of coins on traditional Hmong clothing tinkled in the pressurized air of the Dome.  

A young boy tries to intercept a ball during the Hmong New Year’s celebration at the Dome. (Bob Hallinen / Alaska Dispatch News)

Ong Yang and her parents Nao Kao Yang and Saliva Xiong were all wearing ornate traditional clothing laden with the jingling silver coins. Hmong New Year's is the biggest event on their calendar.

"It's a big deal," Ong Yang said. "We look forward to it every year."

For sale at the event: herbs to help with conditions like stroke, meant to be boiled and consumed like a bitter tea, according to Mai Vue. Hmong language books and pamphlets were sold by Vang Yang, who teaches language classes in Anchorage. The most popular book: a Hmong encyclopedia.

Jimmy Lee was selling DVDs and CDs of Hmong movies and music, mostly produced in Thailand. The runaway favorite these days is an epic called "Xib Fwb Cawm Seej" or "The Ju Sen Master," starring an actor whose acclaim would be comparable to Bruce Lee's in Hmong culture, he said. 

And there were tennis balls.

In the middle of the turf, a line of women faced each other, tossing fresh neon tennis balls back and forth. Traditionally, the game — called pov pob — is a courting ritual for young people to meet each other at the year's biggest community gathering.

Samita Lee explained: "You throw the old year away and catch the new year." 

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