Ying Xiong grew up attending large Hmong events and weddings where guests were served food in styrofoam or plastic dishes that went into the landfill.
She wanted to combine her culture with her interest in sustainability, so in June, Xiong launched JY Line, a small business that sells biodegradable, Hmong-inspired dinnerware.
“My thought was, ‘Let’s find something that’s probably better for the environment,’ and so that’s what really inspired me to create these plates,” Xiong said. “The reason why it’s Hmong-inspired is so that we can use it at our community parties and our activities.”
Xiong, 39, runs the company by herself out of her home in Woodbury. The name JY Line came from Xiong’s first name and Jane, a secondary name she also uses.
Large parties and gatherings are common in Hmong culture, and many Hmong people look to them as a way to find community, Xiong said. Traditional Hmong funerals can last 24 hours a day for three days, with several meals and snacks served throughout the event.
“With our parties … a number of people are there,” she said. “If you’re talking about a wedding, that can be like two-three hundred” people.
Although she’s always been interested in environmentalism, Xiong said that learning about the climate crisis in school and college made her more enthusiastic about protecting the environment.
At gatherings, Xiong often imagined the plastic and styrofoam dinnerware piling up in landfills.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, well, what can we do better?’” Xiong said.
Sugarcane plates and cornstarch utensils
JY Line’s plates are made from sugarcane and its spoons, knives, and forks are made from cornstarch, Xiong said. The products are compostable. The perimeter of the plates are decorated with several qwj, a spiraling Hmong symbol which represents the unification of two families and the moon. Many Hmong products, from embroidery to porcelain plates, feature the symbol.
The design gives the plates elegance, Xiong said, adding that it was also important to make them and the utensils durable so that they were a viable alternative to plastic and styrofoam. She alternated the qwj in pink and green because those colors are common in Hmong embroidery.
Although Xiong finds it challenging to sell her dinnerware when people are more used to plastic and styrofoam, she hopes the Hmong community will be receptive to her products once they gain more exposure to it.
“It is a great product, but as in anything new, it may need more repetitive uses,” she said. “I like to believe that there is a good amount of people who do … like eco-friendly products. Even if that is not the case, the eco-friendly plates come with a design that gives it its uniqueness.”
The plates Xiong sells include three compartments to separate the diverse variety of food typically offered at Hmong events. Hmong cuisine can range from salads to noodles to dry noodles to soup to sweet pork to rice, Xiong said.
“There’s so much cuisine. When you go to a party it’s not just one or two–there is a lot,” Xiong said, adding that she wanted her product to meet the needs of the Hmong community.
Community is important to Xiong, a second-generation immigrant. Xiong’s parents lived in Long Cheng, Laos, until it came under attack by communist forces during the Vietnam War. Her father fought for about 15 years alongside other Hmong soldiers the United States recruited to fight on their behalf. He was about 18 when he joined their forces.
Sometime after the war ended in 1975, Xiong’s parents dodged artillery and gunfire to escape Laos, and made a raft out of bamboo sticks to cross the Mekong River into neighboring Thailand.
Her parents immigrated to the United States in 1980 after finding sponsors in Madison, Ohio. They first settled there, and moved to Minnesota a couple of years later to be near family.
JY Line allowed Xiong to realize her goal of starting a business.
“I’ve always wanted to start my own business,” she said. “I’ve always thought of things that we can do differently, in particular, more, ‘What can we do for the environment?’”
Xiong said that she felt emboldened to improve things around her after listening to motivational speaker and podcaster Rob Dial of the Mindset Mentor.
“I felt the urge to really just start with something–whether big or small–as long as I continue to take small steps towards my goal,” she said.
While she was doing product research, eco-friendly dinnerware caught her eye. It took her a couple weeks to print the first sample plates and two months to complete the final products. She funded all the expenses herself.
Between her full-time job as a dental assistant and being a mother of 4 kids between ages 5 and 14, it hasn’t been easy for Xiong to find time to market her products and communicate with her manufacturer. But she hopes that running her business will become easier with time.
JY Line’s manufacturer is in China, which can present challenges, Xiong said. “It’s not easy to just head on over there and take a look at your products.”
Customers can order her products by messaging JY Line on Facebook. Every set contains 100 plates, knives, forks, and spoons each. A box costs $55.
Customer Hlee Vang said she loved the items, and that the plates were “too pretty to be eaten on.” The only criticism she had was that the butter knives “were a bit small and the forks and spoons were a bit soft” However, Vang said she would order the items again.
Xiong currently has more than 200 boxes available for purchase, and hopes to expand the business as much as possible. Her end goal is to sell her products on Amazon, so that Hmong people who live outside of Minnesota can order her dinnerware.
However, Xiong is leaning on Minnesota’s large Hmong population and the state’s receptiveness of different ideas to boost her business.
“The Twin Cities is a great place for … people who want to start a business,” she said. “It’s so welcoming, so diverse, and I think that’s what I love about it.”