One of Brian Xiong’s few memories of the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand involves watching his mother, Porche Yang, sew paj ntaub, the “flowery cloth” of traditional Hmong embroidery work. His mother would sell each one for a dollar apiece.
“I would just lay down every day next to my mother, who would sit in a chair next to a basket of needlework materials and a basket of different color thread,” said Xiong, a 37-year-old professor in St. Paul. He describes himself as part of the “1.5 generation” of Hmong immigrants. That is, the generation born in Hmong refugee camps but raised in the United States.
Since college, Xiong has collected and documented Hmong cultural items through a remarkable St. Paul museum and repository called Hmong Archives. The paj ntaub pieces Hmong Archives has collected feel particularly important to Xiong, who is now a board member. “It’s just amazing for me to see my own family, especially the Hmong women—that’s how they make their income.”
When his mother died in 2011, Xiong had a paj ntaub symbol engraved on her gravestone. “You will always be remembered in my heart and your art will forever remain a part of the Hmong,” the gravestone reads. “Peb hlub koj, Niam—we love you, Mom.”
Four years after his mother’s death, Xiong and Marlin Heise, the chief volunteer at Hmong Archives, received an unusual email from the family of an 88-year-old woman named Martha Zimmerman, a resident at the St. Mary’s Care Center in Madison, Wisconsin. The note would prove to be the start of a conversation and, ultimately, a book. But first, as often proves the case with Hmong history, it was a complicated story.
In the 1980s and ’90s Zimmerman sold paj ntaub pieces on consignment at gift shops and trade shows, on behalf of some 60 Hmong women. Decades later, she still owned hundreds of paj ntaub. Neither the senior care facility nor Zimmerman’s family could maintain the collection. They didn’t want to throw them away. But who would take them?
This is where Hmong Archives stepped in. In its 20-plus years of existence, Hmong Archives has managed the unusual feat of becoming a major cultural institution while remaining largely unknown outside the local Hmong community.
Hmong Archives occupies a basement, a few storage rooms, and a corner of the East Side Freedom Library. But those limited spaces hold a lot: more than 200,000 artifacts. This list includes books, cassettes, maps, newspapers, dolls, posters, tea kettles, children’s shoes, photographs—and, of course, paj ntaub.
Xiong and Heise knew they needed to make room for Zimmerman’s 700-piece paj ntaub collection. Even if Heise initially had to store most of the pieces in a garage.
Hmong Archives exists for just this reason: to rescue the heritage of a people that have already lost so much. There were multiple layers of loss to sort through. To start, Zimmerman, in old age, had lost her memory of collecting the craftwork.
Many of the textile pieces depict a missing cultural moment, a homeland lost. Taken together, they represent the financial role women played to support their families while floating from one temporary home to the next: Laos, Thailand, and, finally, St. Paul.
What followed were four years of correspondence with Zimmerman’s family, three trips to Madison, and exhaustive documentation and photography. Now, at last, the work will become available to the community. On July 31, Hmong Archives will release Martha L. Zimmerman: Paj Ntaub Collection, a book presenting Zimmerman’s expansive craft collection, descriptions of each piece and the names of the Hmong women she worked with.
The book, compiled by Xiong and Heise, will be available for purchase through the Hmong Educational Resources publisher (HER), with the support of a $4,000 microgrant from the Minnesota Humanities Center. In 550 pages, the book includes a biography of Zimmerman and photographs of her paj ntaub, with the size, color, date collected and artist name for each piece.
“These are the contributions of women who sold paj ntaub to make a small income for their family,” Xiong said. “If you don’t preserve those collections, we don’t have anything.”
Paj ntaub: a form of Hmong oral history—also pot holders, tea cozies and aprons
The paj ntaub in the new book chronicle the breadth of Hmong culture: farming, hunting, feasts, weddings, waterfalls and basket-weaving.
For example, a 2-foot-square piece made by Song Moua Lor, dated to 1986, depicts a wilderness scene with mountains, trees, animals and a waterfall. Four large trees sewn in each corner of the piece house monkeys and birds. A few antelopes drink from a stream flowing from a waterfall.
The scene, on first glance, suggests harmony: Rabbits, bulls, elephants, bears, owls and chickens appear scattered in front of a blue background. But a closer look reveals a looming threat. A tiger stalks the antelope near the stream, while two hyenas chase their prey at the bottom of the piece.
The scene depicted in this particular paj ntaub resembles some of the pieces Xiong’s mother created. In the Ban Vinai camp, one of Xiong’s cousins used to draw pictures of animals on a piece of cloth, he recalled. Xiong’s mother would then embroider the image he drew, filling in the black outline with bright-colored thread sewn closely together.
Long before Xiong’s mother stitched her paj ntaub, Hmong women produced similar work during their frequent relocations to new farmlands. Mothers would typically teach their daughters the craft at a young age. The embroidered fabric ranged from 3-inch squares to queen-size bedspreads.
Some paj ntaub, especially around the Hmong New Year, would go into clothing, incorporating clan identifiers through colors and designs. Some paj ntaub quilts would depict folk tales. Hmong women would use methods like appliqué, batik and cross stitch to create the intricate embroidery work.
Paj ntaub designs were a way to record “language in imagery,” according to a 2015 Minnesota Historical Society magazine piece, timed to an exhibit in St. Paul. The Hmong people lost their written language over centuries of displacement—first from southern China to Laos, then to Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries like Cambodia, before the Hmong arrival in the United States.
For many Hmong people, that last step started in Laos, where men joined a CIA-sponsored secret operation during the Vietnam War. By the end of the conflict, in 1975, some 30,000–40,000 Hmong soldiers had been killed in combat. Thousands of Hmong families then sought refuge in Thailand.
This is where paj ntaub transformed from a culturally specific craft to a market good. Hmong women began sewing paj ntaub to sell in refugee camps. And they adapted paj ntaub designs to create western handicrafts like pot holders, tea cozies and aprons for NGO workers, diplomats and Christian missionaries on their visits to the camps.
Selling paj ntaub became a main source of income for Hmong women who were otherwise restricted from working in the camps. These elaborately crafted textile pieces typically sold for around $1.
Client names, sale prices, dates—but who were the artists?
Martha Zimmerman first encountered Hmong embroidery in 1955, when she lived in Laos with her husband, an anthropology professor. She enjoyed painting and drawing, and eventually learned four languages: French, Thai, Lao and Hmong. In Laos, she became obsessed with paj ntaub, assembling a large personal collection.
Zimmerman’s records suggest she didn’t start selling samples until some 25 years later, when she met a Hmong woman at O’Hare Airport in Chicago. That woman, whose name seems to be lost, became Zimmerman’s first client.
Once Zimmerman returned to Madison, she started working as a Hmong translator and social worker. In this role, she met other Hmong women and helped sell their embroidery pieces on consignment in gift shops, trade fairs and museums.
Zimmerman was meticulous in recording the names of her clients—61 in all—and the date each piece sold. Zimmerman’s different clients displayed distinct styles, which could be identified by the border pattern or the thread color. The last usually depended on what an artist had on hand at the time.
Though no paj ntaub artist himself, Heise has gotten acquainted with these styles. After a long day working at Hmong Archives, he called Sahan Journal to discuss the book from his home. He lives so close to the library, he said, that he can hear his home line ring while he’s working.
“There are just so many variations. What did those women’s fingers do?” Heise said, baffled by the meticulous details in so many paj ntaub.
While Zimmerman’s records are quite detailed, Heise and Xiong often could not determine if the client name registered with a particular paj ntaub actually made the piece. Might a daughter or sister-in-law have sewed a piece on the client’s behalf? Some of the client’s names remain completely unknown.
At 88, Zimmerman, alas, is unable to clarify her own records. Heise hasn’t been able to find any of the artists. But he hopes that as the book circulates, their family members may come forward—potentially with more paj ntaub pieces.
Heise waited one year after first meeting Zimmerman to make sure she understood that he would be archiving her 700 paj ntaub pieces for a book. He expressed admiration for the effort and care that she’d invested in collecting the craft. “She has been a woman who has taken care of things from Laos, to Thailand, to many other countries, with children,” Heise said.
In 1991, Zimmerman spoke fondly of paj ntaub in an article for the News & Record during an exhibit she hosted at a university in North Carolina. She seemed to appreciate that the pieces represented something far beyond tea cozies.
“What I want to do one day is make a book so that 20 or 30 years from now, when the young people say, ‘We had a good culture and it’s gone,’ they’ll have a source,” she said.
A donation drop-off turns into a cultural calling
Starting in 2017, Xiong took charge of transporting the boxes, bags and suitcases filled with paj ntaub from Wisconsin to Minnesota. At Hmong Archives, Xiong and Heise spent about one hour sorting, filing and photographing each individual paj ntaub piece. The pair estimates it took them 1,000 hours to process and catalog the whole collection.
However, it isn’t unusual for Heise to spend the majority of his day working at Hmong Archives. He’s been a constant presence there—his self-selected title is “chief volunteer”—since 1999. That’s when Heise joined Yuepheng Xiong, owner of Hmong Arts, Books and Crafts, to co-found Hmong Archives. The pair tapped a $75,000 allocation from the state legislature to collect Hmong history.
As an archivist, Heise has spent years collecting discarded items, much like Zimmerman’s holdings. But his dedication doesn’t just stem from his love of libraries.
Before the inception of Hmong Archives, Heise had been working as a book cataloguer at the Minnesota Historical Society. Here, he got in the habit of chatting over coffee with the Hmong student workers, including one, named Chia Thao, who became a lifelong friend.
The next year, Heise traveled to the Ban Vinai refugee camp and stayed with Thao’s uncle. He’s been going back to Thailand during the winter almost every year since, returning to St. Paul with crafts and artifacts.
“I don’t want that stuff sitting in my house and not getting used,” Heise joked. “So when the opportunity came for Hmong Archives to get started, I knew where I would get rid of everything.”
Xiong’s family also held artifacts worth preserving. In 2002, Xiong decided to donate some of these items to Hmong Archives. What was supposed to be a quick drop off became a turning point in Xiong’s life.
Hmong Archives, he explained, emerged as a place for him to relearn his own identity as a Hmong-American. In this sense, recovering Zimmerman’s paj ntaub collection was a win for Hmong Archives. But it was also a win for Xiong and the women in his family who made paj ntaub.
“If we don’t preserve and collect materials of Hmong culture that we have,” Xiong said, “we will lose the identity of who we are.”
Community vs. collector: Who should hold onto Hmong crafts?
When you walk down the stairs into the basement of the East Side Freedom Library, you encounter five of Zimmerman’s larger paj ntaub pieces set up on stands across from a large meeting room. Down a narrow hallway, a few small rooms house thousands of items: Hmong toys sorted neatly into boxes, farming materials on shelves, newspapers and books sprawled across tables.
It would be a great discovery spot for families and children. The problem is that almost no one can access the building during the COVID-19 pandemic. This crisis spiked plans to stage a proper art exhibit of the paj ntaub collection. Instead, Xiong and Heise decided to present the material in a book.
While a book will prove more accessible to view, Xiong has thought about how the Hmong community will receive it. Xiong has already received pushback from a few Hmong people concerned about the spotlight the book shines on Zimmerman.
At a Hmong Archives board meeting a week earlier, Xiong brought up comments he received from a couple of young Hmong artists who were unhappy with a book dedicated to a non-Hmong woman. Her privilege, they suggested, gave her access to what had otherwise been a purely Hmong artform.
Xiong rejects the argument. “If there’s no Martha, there’s no collection,” he said. “We need to give credit where it’s due.”
Xiong added that he’s glad Zimmerman preserved paj ntaub so extensively, because he can now share it with the younger Hmong generation. He hopes the book will encourage children to visit Hmong Archives and learn more about their history.
“We still have some pieces of the puzzle here,” Xiong said—that is, everyday items that tell a story of mass displacement and the cultural rebirth of the Hmong people. This puzzle has over 200,000 pieces, and they’re all housed at Hmong Archives.
Heise said he may have an incomplete knowledge about Hmong history. But he does have experience, as a leading archivist who spent years handling and documenting cultural and historical artifacts.
“That’s one of those things that gets debated a lot. Why can we non-Hmong people be the ones that are doing this? Well—” and here Heise paused before pondering his own half-German and half-Norwegian ancestry. Organized efforts to archive Norwegian immigrant materials, he explained, didn’t really commence until a hundred years after the first Norwegians arrived in the United States.
“We started out in ’99,” Heise said of the Hmong Archives, “and we’re then already 20 years late.”
Now 79 years old, Heise said he doesn’t move like he used to and he wonders who is going to take over after him. Hopefully, he said, his successor is someone with first-hand knowledge of Hmong history.
As for Zimmerman, Heise said, for years she was a great “go-between” for Hmong women creating paj ntaub and their American customers. Now it’s time for Hmong Archives to bring the collection out of Zimmerman’s suitcases and into the public eye.
Martha L. Zimmerman: Paj Ntaub Collection will be available July 31 from HER Publisher and can be purchased on their website.
Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.