A dancer performs at the Hmong International Freedom Festival in 2014. Credit: Ackerman + Gruber | For MPR News

Attending the annual Hmong International Freedom Festival is a coming-of-age event for the Hmong community. As a young Hmong person, it’s where you go to win your first sports trophy, or have your dreams crushed when your team leaves the field after one game.

It’s where you may have met your first online date or long-distance partner in the early days of AOL, Hmong On Line, Hmoob.com, or xanga. It’s where you had your first heartbreak, or met your first musical idol. You may have met your current life partner there.

This year marks the 40th year the festival will be held at McMurray Fields at Como Regional Park in St. Paul. It also marks the festival’s return after being canceled the last two years due to COVID. The event will be held on July 2 and 3. Admission is $10.

Like many anchor events in a community, it is known by many other informal names, such as The Freedom Festival, July 4, J4, or THE Soccer Tournament.

The festival always falls on the weekend of America’s birthday, thus the Hmong community loves to just call it July 4 or J4. What began as a small community gathering in its early days has now grown over the decades to become a place where the Hmong diaspora across the globe can gather every year to reconnect. 

The early years saw large soccer tournaments anchor the festival. But as more Hmong folks took up other sports, it has diversified to include other athletic tournaments, including but not limited to golf, basketball, football, volleyball, tujlub (a Hmong form of top spin), and takraw, which is also called kick volleyball.

It’s also a great gathering of artists, entrepreneurs, and craftspeople showing off their skills, talent, and their best Hmong food. A main stage allows community leaders, elders, and elected officials to speak to the community.

More programming has been added in the last two decades for younger generations, including a smaller secondary stage for music and talent shows. Some years, young artists and activists have set up their own stages in or right outside of the festival.

War buddies reunite

I’ve seen firsthand how powerful and magical it is to make new connections at J4, and to rekindle old ones you thought were lost forever.

In the summer of 2010, I ran for state Senate District 67 in the East Side of St. Paul, which had just been vacated by former State Senator Mee Moua. I was one of many candidates and officials who participated in the opening parade and ribbon cutting.

My campaign also hosted a campaign tent at the festival. I was at my booth with my parents one day when an older Hmong couple came by. They were visiting from North Carolina.

This man from North Carolina hadn’t seen my dad since the war, which ended in 1975. Both thought they would never see each other again.

Chai Lee

The man and my father recognized each other and immediately embraced. They had been in the same military unit in Laos during the Vietnam War. They fought the communist forces on behalf of the U.S. CIA, which recruited many Hmong men and boys in Laos to fight against the communists and to rescue fallen American soldiers.

This man from North Carolina hadn’t seen my dad since the war, which ended in 1975. Both thought they would never see each other again. They didn’t even know if the other had made it out alive after the war, when many Hmong fled Laos for Thai refugee camps after being persecuted for helping the United States.

The man pulled out his wallet. There was an old picture of my father inside. He had held onto that precious picture all these years, wondering if he would ever see his friend again. They both cried. It remains one of the handful of times I’ve seen my father cry.

They’ve kept in touch ever since. 

A taste of ‘the old country’

Each summer, J4 is the place to be if you want to relive a part of the old country and take a trip down memory lane. If you’re nostalgic for Hmong arts and craft,  you can find handmade Hmong jewelry and traditional clothes from Laos, Thailand, China, and elsewhere.

Crafts available for purchase at several booths include hand-forged Hmong knives from Laos and handmade bamboo reed instruments (called a “qeej” in the Hmong language) from Thailand. You can find small stools made of bamboo or rattan that elders love to sit on. There are baby carriers (daim nyias) with intricate Hmong patterns sewn by hand.

Soccer teams compete at the Hmong International Freedom Festival in 2014. Credit: Tim Post | MPR News

Of course you’ll also find a new generation of artists hawking their CDs, DVDs, custom graphic T-shirts, and other wares as they blast their new YouTube hits.

It’s a place where you can find old and new music, old customs and new art. It’s a place where you will meet old Hmong actors from the VHS blockbusters of the 1990s and see new pop stars debut their latest songs.

The soccer tournament is also a popular place for many civic engagement groups to raise awareness. It makes sense that everyone flocks here to spread their information to the Hmong community. There is no other place outdoors in the Midwest or in America where you can find 40,000 Hmong people from across the globe in one area over a single weekend.

When you’re at J4, you’ll see several groups and institutions, including white Mormon missionaries speaking fluent Hmong, handing out flyers about all sorts of issues: voter registration, political candidates, upcoming concerts, and community events. There is no end to the opportunities you will find advertised on pamphlets or posters plastered on fences. You will be informed. 

Coming of age

J4 is where you go into business and tried an ice cream truck one year and failed. Or you operated a BBQ food truck and took the world by storm. It’s where hopes and dreams are inspired and dashed, and where one generation passes the torch to another.

There is something for everyone. For me, it was a little different. It was a baptism by fire in the Minnesota heat. My family moved to St. Paul from Fresno, California, in August 1998 when I was 11. 

The Hmong Minnesota Pageant Court welcomes guests at the opening ceremony of the 2019 Hmong International Freedom Festival. Credit: Mee Vang | United Hmong Family

I was 12 in 1999 when I attended my first J4. At one point, I began to stumble around and collapse from heat exhaustion. Thankfully, I found shade in an uncle’s booth where he sold movies, clothes, herbs, and medicines. I found a water fountain that helped me find my strength again.

I now have a higher tolerance for both heat and cold, but am much smarter about staying hydrated throughout the day in any weather. 

For all of us, J4 is simply a place to gather–to enjoy the Minnesota heat and humidity, and all of the best, fresh Hmong food you can find.

Chai Lee is a proud Saint Paul resident who went to Humboldt High School on the West Side. He works in the leadership field in the nonprofit sector and loves to bike and watch movies at the theaters.