Hmollywood Movies: 1.5-Generation Hmong Americans and Transnational Film Production in Thailand.
This article draws on work on transnational cinema to investigate the production of films by Hmong Americans in collaboration with Hmong in Thailand, with film production centred at a particular place, Khek Noi sub-district, in Khao Kho district, Phetchabun Province. The article examines factors that influence the particular ways that Hmong films are produced in Thailand for Hmong audiences in the United States. It also considers other issues, including those related to politics, economics, marketing and government regulations. Globalization, in this article, is considered to be the interaction of people, states or countries through the growth of the international flow of money, ideas and culture (Appadurai 1996). The purpose of this article is not to investigate any particular film, although some are mentioned, but rather to demonstrate the various reasons why the Hmong film-making industry has emerged in the way it has, with Khek Noi at its centre. Indeed, Khek Noi is a place that many Hmong film-makers agree can suitably be referred to as 'Hmollywood', comparable to other important centres of film-making, such as Hollywood or Bollywood.
Much of the scholarship on diasporic cinema has focused on how films are produced in particular countries (such as India or China) and then exported for the consumption of diasporic audiences living as minorities in other countries (Desai and Dudrah 2008; Marchetti 1998), particularly those in the West. The circumstances of Hmong transnational cinema fundamentally differ, as the Hmong do not dominate any country, and they are in the minority--at least at the national scale--in both the countries where Hmong films are produced (Thailand) and also at the places where the films are primarily consumed (the United States). This creates a complex dynamic, one that is examined in this article. In particular, through considering history, memory, linguistics, culture, economics, regulation and markets as they relate to the Hmong film industry, and how national contexts have affected different Hmong people, the intent is to demonstrate that Hmong film-making is neither simply transnational nor global, nor is it only place-based. Rather, the conditions that have produced the present circumstances are linked to transnational intercultural experiences, globalization, and also particular places--especially Khek Noi. Indeed, Hmong American film-making, like various other kinds of transnational film production, has developed in a particular way, and in relation to certain geographies, ones that will be illuminated in these pages. My goals are to explain the historical circumstances of Hmong transnational film-making, and also to contribute to the literature on transnational cinema through applying a geographical lens to understand the ways that transnational cinema is in some ways affected by transnationalism and globalization, while in other ways it remains crucially place-based. In addition, I intend to demonstrate how national contexts are crucial for constructing Hmong subjectivities, and how these different subjectivities have affected the social dynamics affecting Hmong film-makers with different national backgrounds working in Thailand.
Hmong American Media
Various forms of media are used by Asian American communities (Lopez 2014 and 2016b; Yang 2008). For Hmong Americans, film plays an important role in connecting people and places located far apart (Lee 2006, p. 25; Leepreecha 2008, p. Ill), including Hmong Americans who migrated over the last forty years from their original homelands in Laos, to refugee camps in Thailand, and finally to 'third countries', particularly the United States (Baird 2014; Lee 2006 and 2009; Schein 2002 and 2004). Leepreecha (2008) has also, however, pointed to the prevalence of other forms of media for the Hmong diaspora, including print, the Internet, music cassettes and even art embroidery. In line with this, Lopez (2016a) has recently investigated how cell phone-based chat programmes have emerged as a popular form of media for Hmong Americans. There are also other forms of Internet-based media that Hmong Americans partake in, such as blogs and 'Pal-talk' chats.
Hmong have relied on film for various purposes, from making home videos with camcorders for narrating their new lives in America to relatives in Laos (Koltyk 1993), to communicating traditional Hmong music via YouTube (Falk 2013), to recreating Hmong history through producing amateur videos (Yang 2008). However, what is of particular interest here is the production of films in Thailand for the mass consumption of primarily Hmong Americans in the United States (Baird 2014; Leepreecha 2008; Lee 2006 and 2009; Schein 2002 and 2004). Indeed, hundreds of low budget Hmong language films--comedies, action films, horror films, historical fiction movies, documentaries, and others--have been produced, since the 1990s, by mainly 1.5-generation Hmong American men for the American market. Many of these Hmong American moviemakers spent years living and going to school in Thailand as children after leaving Laos and before coming to the United States. However, these Hmong films are not simply made by Hmong Americans. The vast majority are co-created in Thailand, in collaboration with Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao, who work for the Hmong American directors as actors and in various other capacities. Khek Noi--the most populous Hmong community in Thailand--is the centre for Hmong film-making in the country, for reasons that will become apparent as this article progresses.
Khek Noi has become a very important place for Hmong filmmaking, and this has been the case for many years. One of the arguments of this article is that there are specific reasons why Khek Noi has developed into a film-making hub. That is, there are landscape and language-related reasons for this, and there are also familial-relations and network-related reasons. In addition, as more and more films have been made, Khek Noi has become an increasingly recognizable place for Hmong Americans to make films. Furthermore, the film-making skills of Hmong Thai at Khek Noi have gradually developed, thus making it easier to produce films there than elsewhere. Finally, political history, national laws and regulations are also important factors.
This article examines identity as one crucial aspect in making sense of why Khek Noi is the primary site for Hmong film-making; in particular, the divisions between 'Hmong Americans', 'Hmong Thais' and 'Hmong Lao', categories that the Hmong themselves frequently use, but which are also contested. To understand the ways that transnational Hmong film-making operates, it is important to identify how transnational processes related to Hmong film-making are negotiated and practised, and to identify why Khek Noi has emerged as the centre for Hmong film-making. In that Thailand is seen as crucial to the Hmong film production process, this article is best located within the transnational cinema literature associated with diaspora, a term that has become increasingly common even if it has also been criticized for perpetuating national/transnational binaries (Higbee and Lim 2010, p. 9). In this particular case, however, it must be remembered that non-diasporic Hmong people in Thailand are important players.
As mentioned above, the relationships between transnational and globalized processes and place-based issues are crucial. On the one hand, many scholars interested in cultural studies have pointed out the importance of globalization in shaping present-day circumstances (Denning 2001; Jameson and Miyoshi 1998; Appadurai 1996). But on the other hand, the central role of particular places and geographies has also been noted by many (Gordillo 2004; Pigg 1992; Tuan 1977). So, how should we reconcile these differing but important forces? The assertion here is that there is a need to recognize all the influences in order to make sense of these complex processes. It is not that they are always equally important, but they encompass elements that are frequently entangled with one another, and so are always relevant, albeit to varying degrees. In the particular case of Hmong film-making in Thailand, it is not simply about "globalization" (Lee 2009, p. 121), as the term tends to erase the importance of particular places and geographies. Similarly, there are transnational elements, and they too are important, but focusing too much on nation states is also problematic (Higbee and Lim 2010, p. 9), although focusing too little on national issues would be equally foolish. Nor can the circumstances be understood through only a consideration of particular places. Rather, specific types of Hmong transnational networks and processes need to be recognized, ones for which the overarching terms 'globalization' and 'transnational' are too broad to appropriately capture.
The next section briefly outlines some basic history that is useful for understanding Hmong American film-making and how it has developed. The methods used in conducting this study are then outlined. This is followed by a brief overview of Hmong American film-making. Research findings are then presented. The social dynamics that are frequently intertwined with Hmong film-making--especially Hmong-American and Hmong-Thai relations--are considered, along with the crucial production and marketing factors associated with Hmong moviemaking. Some new directions that the Hmong American film-making industry is moving in are also considered, so as to address various challenges that the industry is facing.
The Making of Hmong America
To tell the story of Hmong America, it is useful to begin with Hmong involvement in the Second Indochina War, more commonly known to Americans as the Vietnam War. While this history might appear to be only remotely related to the topic of Hmong film-making, it is in fact crucial for understanding the particular context in which Hmong film-making has developed.
As conflict escalated in Laos after 1959, the United States began looking for reliable allies. In 1961, the United States started providing training, weapons and other supplies to the Hmong. However, in 1962 the second Geneva Accords were signed, officially making Laos a neutral country (Hillmer 2010, pp. 88-102). This did not stop North Vietnamese communist forces from staying on in the country. Soon after, the United States decided to do so secretly as well. Thus, the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) increased its activities in Laos, including collaborating closely with General Vang Pao, who was made the commander of Laos's Military Region 2. Over time, a secret paramilitary army made up of Hmong and people from various other ethnic groups was established in northern Laos, and over the next number of years they fought against the communist Pathet Lao and, particularly, their North Vietnamese allies (Hillmer 2010; Warner 1996; Conboy 1995). The conflict, because it violated the Geneva Accords and was unknown to most of the world, became known as 'The Secret War' in Laos. While there were CIA-supported paramilitary groups in other parts of Laos (Baird 2010; Briggs 2009; Conboy 1995), Vang Pao's Hmong-dominated forces in Military Region 2 became the most active in the country between the early 1960s and 1973 (Conboy 1995), before the Vientiane Treaty was signed in February 1973 and a coalition government was formed, involving both communist and non-communist factions. It was at that point that the United States began withdrawing from Laos (Evans 2002, p. 167).
In May 1975 the Pathet Lao communists gradually orchestrated a takeover of the government in Laos. As part of the transition to socialism, in August 1975 the King of Laos was forced to abdicate, and finally, on 2 December 1975, the Lao People's Democratic Republic, or Lao PDR, was officially established (Evans 2002, pp. 172-75).
Many months earlier, however, in May 1975, General Vang Pao and a few thousand of the top Hmong military brass and their immediate families at his base at Long Tieng, in northern Laos, were evacuated by plane to Nam Phong airbase in northeastern Thailand, where they became political refugees (Morrison 2007). Many others crossed into Thailand from Laos through other means. Still others stayed on, refusing to surrender to the new communist government. A steady stream of refugees continued to flow into Thailand throughout the 1980s (Evans 2002, pp. 178-87).
While many of the Hmong who fled to Thailand hoped to fight back against the communists in Laos so that they could eventually regain power and control in Laos (Baird 2013, p. 132 and 2014, p. 8; Vang 2011, p. 2) others felt that such efforts were likely to fail, and thus resigned themselves to resettlement in various Western countries, including France, Canada and Australia. The United States, however, was the most important destination for Hmong political refugees, who first began arriving there in December 1975 (Vang 2010, p. 46). This history was crucial for creating the societal structure and political orientation of Hmong America, and has also affected the development of Hmong cinema in various ways.
The refugee camps in Thailand were finally shut down in the early 1990s. Some Hmong opted to return to Laos, but many originally from Laos continued to live in Thailand, either as undocumented migrants or as Thai citizens (Vang 2010, p. 46; Hillmer 2010, pp. 290-92). Most, however, chose to emigrate to Western countries, especially the United States. For various reasons, however, the transition to life in America was rarely easy (Vang 2010; Yang 2008).
According to the 2010 United States census, there are presently over 260,000 ethnic Hmong people living in the United States, of which California, Minnesota and Wisconsin have the largest populations (Pfeifer et al. 2012, p. 2). The vast majority have now obtained US citizenship, and many of the younger generation were born in the United States and have never been out of the country (Pfeifer et al. 2012, p. 21).
Many of the older generation of Hmong Americans cannot, however, speak English well, and they not surprisingly remain nostalgic for their homeland in Laos (Lee 2006, p. 20 and 2009; Hillmer 2010, pp. 242^3; Yang 2008, p. 33), since they were torn from their country of birth involuntarily due to conflict. Many of these people have made their histories as US allies during the Secret War important parts of their identity and narratives, especially when meeting with white Americans (Tsing 2013, p. 65). Although many Hmong Americans have not visited Laos since leaving the country, often due to continuing distrust and resentment against the communist government that still controls the country, others have chosen to return, mainly for short trips, to visit relatives. Some have even invested in business ventures there. This is one of the main reasons that Thailand and not Laos has emerged as the key location for Hmong film-making. There is still much mutual distrust between Hmong Americans and the Lao government with regard to armed conflict, especially between supporters of General Vang Pao's United Front for the Liberation of Laos (UFLL) (Neo Horn Pot Poi Xat in Lao), and the Chao Fa, led by Pa Kao Her (Baird 2013, pp. 140-41 and 2014, p. 18). Indeed, this particular political history is essential for understanding how and where Hmong moviemaking developed in Thailand.
The research that this article is based upon began in June 2012 when I first travelled to Khek Noi to conduct research, including on Hmong film-making. Over the next four years, up until June 2016, I conducted over twenty detailed interviews with various people associated with Hmong film-making in Thailand. This included Hmong American film-makers in Khek Noi, other parts of Thailand, and in the Midwest of the United States, either using Thai or English to communicate. A number of Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao in Thailand who have also been variously involved in Hmong American film-making were interviewed, and I also spoke with a few Thais who were previously involved in Hmong American film-making in Thailand.
Although the aforementioned interviews constitute my main sources of information on Hmong American film-making in Thailand, I have watched a number of Hmong films, and had some Hmong Chao Fa films translated from Hmong into English (Baird 2014, p. 20). This article considers the Hmong film industry, but not specifically the production of music videos and cassettes, a topic that is discussed in more detail by Lee (2006).
Hmong American Film-making: A Brief History
Initially, Hmong people had little control over the films made about them. In Thailand, for example, one of the first English language documentaries about Hmong people, "The Miao Year" (1968), was made under the direction of the Australian anthropologist William Geddes. It was made about Hmong, but the Hmong subjects of the film had very little influence over how the film's narrative about them was constructed and told, or how the video footage of them was edited and presented. It was, however, transnational, as it was made in Thailand by an Australian, primarily for a Western audience.
The Thais also made Thai language films about the Hmong, ones that had transcultural elements, but which were not transnational. One of the first was released in 1977. Titled Seua Phu Khao, or the "Mountain Tiger" in English, the lead role was played by the well-known ethnic Thai actor Soraphong Chartri, who played a brave Hmong fighter who had faced serious hardship. (1) The fictional movie became famous in Thailand, but notably there were no actual Hmong people involved in the film's production, either as actors or in any other capacity. The film simply depicted Hmong as Thais imagined them.
Hmong film-making by Hmong people and in Hmong language only started in mainland Southeast Asia after Laos became a communist country in 1975. These political circumstances created the diaspora that would produce films and engage in other transnational activities (Lee 2006, p. 3). Many of the Hmong who migrated to the United States between 1975 and the mid-2000s did not speak English well, missed their homeland intensely and were nostalgic for the mountainous landscape there. Many were not literate in any language. Therefore, demand quickly developed for Hmong language visual media. Initially, however, there were no Hmong in the United States who had the technical skills or funds necessary to produce the type of Hmong language mass media that was in demand.
Beginning in the 1980s, however, some Hmong Americans began making home videos in Hmong language for Hmong American viewing using handheld camcorders. Some of the first videos were quite short and were produced by Hmong Americans in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, where a large Hmong diaspora population is located. Later, some Hmong from the United States started travelling to Thailand, and later Laos, as tourists and to visit relatives. Many filmed their experiences travelling back to Asia. As one of the early Hmong American film-makers Moua Lee put it, "People missed home so much, and so they wanted to capture images for others." (2) Thus, Hmong Americans started filming their travels to capture their own memories, but also for the benefit of other Hmong Americans.
According to Lee (2006, p. 8), some of the first Hmong language documentaries were produced by Hmong Americans who visited China in the late 1990s. The film-makers often compared Hmong American and Hmong Chinese cultural practices (Leepreecha 2008, p. 103). Similar short films about Hmong American encounters with Hmong from Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar followed (Lee 2006, p. 8). Since 1997, Yuepheng Xiong from ABC Hmong Books in Saint Paul, Minnesota has also made a number of Hmong language documentaries about Hmong history in Asia (Lee 2006, p. 10), including films about the origins of Hmong people in China, and the history of the Hmong involvement in the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT). His main goal was to recover missing or 'omitted' Hmong history from different parts of Asia.
In addition, Hmong Americans--in collaboration with journalists and non-Hmong activists--have produced a number of films about the plight of the Hmong who remain in Laos and Thailand, especially those who continue to resist or otherwise hide in the forests from Lao communists and their Vietnamese allies. These included two political films released by the Fact Finding Commission (FFC), based in Oroville, California, in 2002 and 2004 (Lee 2006, p. 10). And in the 2000s a number of Western journalists secretly travelled to the forests of northern Laos to meet with and film small groups of Hmong still resisting the Lao PDR government. These videos and associated news reports had an emotional impact on many Hmong Americans, and led to such responses as the organization of the "long march for freedom" from Minnesota to Washington DC, which began in August 2004 and took two months to complete on foot (Vang 2018, p. 44). This march, organized to raise awareness about the plight of the Hmong still living "in the jungles" (Lee 2006, p. 11)--as was depicted in the film, "Hunted Like Animals"--was produced by the German activist Rebecca Summer (Lee 2006, p. 11), but with considerable logistical and financial support from Hmong Americans.
One of the first Hmong Americans to make films explicitly for the consumption of the larger Hmong American community was Sou Thao, from Fresno, California, who filmed some early films in Tak Province, Thailand, and at the last Hmong informal refugee camp in Central Thailand, located on the grounds of Thamkrabok Temple in Saraburi Province. Later, he made films in Chiang Mai. He did not make formal films, but rather narrated over amateur video footage. He often filmed Hmong Americans interacting with Hmong from other places, exchanging ideas about culture, history and life experiences (Lee 2006, p. 8). Others made similar films, and while they were largely narrated without scripts or screenplays, these films nevertheless appealed to the imaginations of many Hmong in the United States. After some time, however, the quality of these productions gradually improved. For example, 1.5-generation Hmong American Moua Lee studied film production in Fresno, California and was one of the first to adopt standard film-making practices such as creating scripts and screenplays. Other younger 1.5-generation Hmong Americans pioneered similar advances.
Ga Moua, a well-known Hmong American songwriter and a frequent traveller to Asia, created some of the most successful early Hmong comedy films made in Thailand. The most famous of these have become known as the 'Dr. Tom' films. The first of these was Yuav Tos Txog Hnub Twg (How long am I to wait?), which was released in 1995. Moua apparently decided to make the film on the spur of the moment, with little budget, and an improvised script (Schein 2004, p. 442). The comedy depicted the experiences of a Hmong American who had a menial job in the United States, but when he returned to visit Laos he pretended to be a rich doctor, using his story to con people and convince money-hungry and submissive young Hmong women in Laos to have sex with him (Lee 2006, pp. 21-22; Schein 2004, p. 448). In that these films depicted stories that Hmong Americans could easily relate to, since similar things were happening in reality, the films soon became a huge hit amongst them. After the first film became extremely popular, many other 'Dr. Tom' films followed (Schein 2004, p. 450). Various other Hmong American films produced in the 1990s also helped spur the Hmong film-making industry, although films were still often being produced with limited technology and budgets (Lee 2006, p. 17). Comedies are particularly popular to make as they cost less than action movies, fewer actors are required and there are rarely any special effects or stunts involved. (3)
Most of the Hmong American film-makers who emerged as leaders in the field can be defined as 1.5-generation males, including Moua Lee, Jame Vang, Kou Thao, Kao Chang, George Lor, Mong Vang, Bryan Vue and others. Although the histories of these Hmong American film-makers vary, in the main they were born either in Laos or in Thailand when their parents were refugees from Laos. All spent some time in Thailand as refugee children before emigrating to the United States, mainly as teenagers. Most speak Thai to some degree, and all are fluent Hmong speakers. Most have some level of film-making training in the United States. Many may be considered caught between two worlds, the United States, their adopted home, and Laos and Thailand, where they were born or had spent a significant portion of their early lives.
Another important aspect of Hmong American film-making that needs to be made clear relates to the production chain. While the majority of movies produced are filmed in Thailand, they are almost all intended for Hmong American audiences, as the difficulty of enforcing copyright laws in Thailand makes it difficult for Hrnong film-makers to make money selling DVDs in Thailand. Since the 1990s, films have been made in Thailand and then marketed at Hmong New Years and Fourth of July festivals in the United States, as well as at Hmong stores in the United States. But even though it is now possible to order Hmong movies online, the market has become more challenging, for various reasons, forcing film-makers to become more innovative, an issue elaborated on below. Both Lee (2006) and Leepreecha (2008) discuss the role of Hmong American films in the construction of an increasingly 'globalized' Hmong culture, a topic important for the argumentation of this paper and one that is also discussed below.
Indicative of the increasingly professional nature of Hmong American film-making, since the 2000s Hmong American film-makers have created a small association called Hmong Information Filmmaker Organization (HI-FO). Boualong Vue in Sacramento served a four-year term as president of HI-FO between 2012 and 2016, with Jame Vang as his deputy. The organization was set up to support Hmong American film-making in dealing with various challenges, as discussed below.
The Emergence of Khek Noi Sub-district as the Centre of Hmong American Film-making and the Importance of Social Dynamics
The transnational nature of Hmong film-making in Thailand should, by now, be evident. Here we look at the relationships between Hmong Americans, Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao involved in film-making, and the particular reasons why Hmong film-making has developed at Khek Noi despite the tensions that have sometimes emerged between these Hmong with different national backgrounds, although most Hmong Lao are now citizens of Thailand, and many were even bom in Thailand.
The particular social and geographical circumstances in which Hmong movies are being produced are affected by various cultural factors and divisions. First, one cannot write about Hmong without mentioning that there are eighteen Hmong clans, and that clan affiliations have been fundamental in Hmong society, thus leading to important long-established clan-based alliances and rivalries (Lee 2015; Lee and Tapp 2010; Geddes 1976) that also affect networking and social dynamics (Baird and Vue 2017). More recently, as some Hmong have become Christians, new alliances have been created based on religion, with shamanistic traditionalists and Christians often ending up associating with different groups (Tapp 1989; Ngo 2015; Leepreecha 2016). As one shamanistic Hmong American filmmaker put it, "Clan issues are not as important to me as before, but marrying a Christian would represent a more serious problem for me." (4) These social relations have inevitably affected networks associated with Hmong film-making.
In the early 2000s, many Hmong Americans started travelling to Southeast Asia, especially to Thailand and Laos. In that Laos is still a communist country, and tensions between Hmong Americans and the Lao government remain, even till now, most Hmong Americans to have visited Laos did so primarily to visit relatives left behind when they fled the country. Initially it was not possible to create Hmong films in Laos, especially ones that incorporate Hmong history from the perspective of Hmong Americans who largely sided with General Vang Pao during the Secret War. In addition, and crucially, Thailand is a freer country, with fewer restrictions on film production. Furthermore, Thailand was a close ally of the Royal Lao Government that General Vang Pao was part of, until Laos was taken over by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975. Vang Pao's amicable relationship with the Thai government was not the only factor that made Thailand attractive for film-making, although it played a role. Overall, Thailand was a place where the political environment allowed Hmong films that reflected the Hmong American perspective to be made. Moreover, many Hmong Americans speak Thai or Lao. The older generation of refugees to the United States often speak Lao better, but some of the 1.5-generation of Hmong are more competent in Thai, as many moved to refugee camps in Thailand at a young age, or were born in the camps, and some spent many years in the camps before eventually emigrating to the United States. Some attended school in Thailand for many years. Not surprisingly, they often feel quite comfortable in Thailand. In relation to Hmong language communication, it appears that so far there have not been any significant linguistic barriers between the 1.5-generation Hmong American film producers working in Thailand and the Hmong Thais with whom they mainly interact at Khek Noi.
An important reason why Hmong language film-making has developed so quickly in the Khek Noi area is because Hmong people--especially first-generation Hmong in America--often continue to miss their former homes in Laos, and feel nostalgic for the past. In other words, memory and history are crucial. Therefore, according to Jame Vang, a prominent Hmong American film-maker who works in Thailand, the landscapes included in Hmong American films are important, and since there are plenty of mountains and forests near Khek Noi, these were a crucial factor in why filmmaking became centred at Khek Noi.
As the Hmong film-making industry gradually expanded in the Khek Noi area in the 2000s, more Hmong in the area gained varying degrees of experience in film-making. Some learned technical skills, others became actors, a few became competent film editors. Overall, this made it easier for new Hmong film-makers to find people in the Khek Noi area with film-making experience to work for them, and in turn this reduced the amount of anxiety and costs associated with making Hmong films. This has undoubtedly contributed to Khek Noi becoming the centre of Hmong American film-making.
In addition, Khek Noi sub-district is a densely populated space, and the vast majority of those who live there are Hmong. This large concentrated population of Hmong in one location has helped preserve the Hmong language better than in some smaller Hmong communities in Thailand. Further, Hmong from Khek Noi mainly speak White Hmong (Hmoob Dawb, the main Hmong dialect used by Hmong Americans). This is advantageous, as most Hmong Americans want to watch films made in their own dialect, White Hmong, and people in Khek Noi are considered to speak White Hmong well (Baird 2014, pp. 10-11).
Some Hmong American film-makers still have Hmong Lao relatives who live in Thailand, and they were thus drawn to the Khek Noi area because of this. This was the case for the first Hmong American film-makers who worked in Khek Noi, and it is another reason why Khek Noi has emerged as the centre of Hmong filmmaking. More recently, however, Hmong American film-makers have relied on introductions from other Hmong American film-makers to people they have worked with in Khek Noi, which is yet another reason that Khek Noi has become so important for making movies. Furthermore, the children of some Hmong originally from Laos have become important actors and other collaborators with Hmong Americans in producing movies. They generally get along better with Hmong Americans than Hmong Thais do, possibly because Hmong Americans either originally came from Laos or their parents did.
Even though Khek Noi has developed as the centre of Hmong filmmaking, there have been some tensions between Hmong Americans and Hmong Thais, and to a lesser extent Hmong Lao, which merit particular attention. Indeed, it is especially important to recognize how national contexts have shaped Hmong subjectivities, and how differences have affected Hmong norms and understandings, as this affects the social dynamics associated with film-making. As nation states have become increasingly important in the lives of people around the world (Anderson 1991), national identities are increasingly affecting transnational Hmong relations. Indeed, Hmong transnational film-making presents an excellent case for considering how national identities are intertwining with ethnic Hmong identities to create particular relationships and divisions. National influences challenge globalization and fit well with ideas related to transnationalism, since transnationalism recognizes national differences more than globalization does, even though influences vary.
Class-based identities linked to national contexts are yet another important factor. For example, Hmong American film producers are not wealthy by American standards, and they do not see themselves as being affluent or of a higher class than other Hmong. In fact, in comparison to other Americans, Hmong American film producers are generally poor, and this relationship between class and national identity has affected how Hmong Americans often view themselves as being discriminated against in a white-dominated America (Her 2012, pp. 40-41), and for good reason. But the Hmong Thai, due to the communist political backgrounds of many, tend to see Hmong Americans as privileged capitalists, with many more advantages compared to Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao.
Crucially, most of the Hmong Thais at Khek Noi were allied with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) between the late 1960s (Race 1974; Marks 1973) and the early 1980s. Their experiences in the forests with the CPT have affected the ways they (and their children, to a lesser extent) view the world. The Maoist political training that many received during the armed struggle they engaged in has sensitized them to class-based issues that many other Hmong, including Hmong Lao, but especially Hmong Americans, are not attentive to. I observed this on a number of occasions during fieldwork. The Hmong in America have been taught to believe in the 'American Dream', which is fundamentally about capitalist individualism, and which is not as sensitive to class-based divisions. Therefore, there has been a tendency for Hmong American filmmakers to see themselves as poor disadvantaged film-makers, while their Hmong Thai colleagues view them as rich privileged capitalists. This is not the case, however, for Hmong Lao living in Thailand, as they tend to have the same right-wing background as Hmong Americans.
The differences between Hmong Americans and Hmong Thais became particularly evident during a number of interviews that I conducted with Hmong Americans and Hmong Thai involved in film-making at Khek Noi. For example, one well-known Hmong Thai actor told me that the Hmong Thai did most of the work on films, but that they were exploited and not paid sufficiently by Hmong Americans. However, Pao Porabat, an ethnic Thai actor and stunt man who has worked on various Hmong movies produced in Thailand, informed me that the Hmong Thai actor who thought he was carrying much of the load of film-making was actually not nearly as skilful as he claimed to be. (5) The impression that Hmong Thai are more important for film-making than they actually are persists amongst many Hmong Thai who work for Hmong American film-makers. Indicative of this, a Hmong American film-maker told me that in his view, Hmong Thais aspire to make a lot of money through film-making because they do not fully understand the Hmong American film market, assuming that more money is being made by the producers than is actually the case. (6) Indeed, various Hmong American film-makers have experienced tensions over money with their Hmong Thai colleagues. One Hmong Thai, for example, asked a Hmong American film-maker to buy him a cell phone. The former initially explained that he needed it to stay in touch with the filmmakers, and the latter bought the phone. However, the film-maker later observed that the Hmong Thai only really used the phone to contact his girlfriend. This created discord between the two.
One Hmong American film-maker became frustrated about the divisions that frequently emerge between Hmong Americans, Hmong Thai and, to a lesser extent, Hmong Lao in Thailand. (7) He was not satisfied by these categorizations, but he explained that how Hmong are categorized is an important issue when it comes to negotiating film-making in Thailand. Another Hmong American film-maker was so annoyed with the divisions that he bluntly told his Hmong colleagues from Khek Noi that he no longer wanted to be called a 'Hmong American'. Instead, he simply wanted to be considered 'Hmong'. He acknowledged, however, that he was unsuccessful in diminishing the barriers that exist between the different Hmong national groups that interact in Thailand.
One Hmong American film-maker explained that the Hmong Thai in Khek Noi often have high expectations for benefiting materially from film-making, as many Hmong Americans go there to make movies. This was a major concern for him. To make his point, he explained that in one case the film team obtained a whole branch of bananas. After eating the bananas, many Hmong Thai crew members expected the Hmong Americans to pay for them. In another case, when the team was preparing to leave Thailand, a Hmong Thai colleague asked if the Hmong American would give him the group's plates and cutlery. The Hmong American felt that the Hmong Thai was inappropriately trying to benefit from their interactions. He reported that there was always tension over money. These tense and frequently awkward moments were troubling for him, as he did not see himself as a rich Hmong American, but the Hmong Thai clearly did. He also felt that the Hmong Thai were not serious enough about the work being undertaken. Another Hmong American film-maker expressed similar sentiments, and said he tried to deal with this issue by being as clear as possible from the outset about rates of payment for work, in order to avoid subsequent confusion and discord. He believes that this helped ease tensions. This shows how national contexts have divided the Hmong in terms of expectations.
One major conflict emerged between a Hmong American filmmaker, Jame Vang, from Minnesota, and Da Xiong, a Hmong Thai from Khek Noi, during the production of "Blood for Freedom" (Wirabaroot Khao Khor in Thai) (2012), the first Thai language Hmong-made film ever produced. Initially, Jame and Da agreed to work together, but no specific agreement regarding funding allocation between them was drafted. Da, in what some might consider 'Thai style', assured Jame that they could work it out later. Da wrote the script in Thai and supported the film-making process in various other ways. Jame went along with this, but things became complicated when Jame did not have enough funds to finance the film, and so brought in some Hmong Thai partners from Chiang Rai Province. Things finally came to a head when filming was completed and it became clear that Da expected to benefit more than what Jame had anticipated or could afford to pay. To make matters worse, Jame had ceded the rights to the film to the Hmong from Chiang Rai in order to obtain funding to complete the project. Jame agreed to a 30:70 split with the Chiang Rai investors, with them having the majority share, but Da wanted a 50:50 split with Jame, which was not possible as he had already made the agreement with the Chiang Rai investors. (8) Finally, Jame and Da had a public falling out that could not be resolved. Da felt that Jame should have explained to the Chiang Rai investors that Da was already a partner. (9) In the end the film was not marketed well. It was not released in the United States, and only Hmong people in Thailand saw it. (10) This situation led Jame to stop making films in Khek Noi, and he has since moved his operations to the Phu Chee Fa area in Chiang Rai Province.
Another source of tension between male Hmong American filmmakers, Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao relates to Hmong Americans using film-making as a cover for having extra-marital relations with local Hmong women, even though some already have Hmong wives in the United States. Some of these relations are actually facilitated by Hmong Thai and Hmong Lao men, who introduce Hmong American men to women. If a relationship is established, they start 'dating', and the facilitating Hmong Thai or Hmong Lao men are hired to work for the Hmong American film-makers while the latter are spending time with their girlfriends. Excessive drinking frequently occurs during Hmong film-making trips, which has also been a source of tension. These circumstances give the Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao the impression that many Hmong American film-makers are not sincere about making films, and just want to have Hmong 'girlfriends', again revealing how national identities affect relations. One Hmong American explained that he gained the reputation of being stingier than other Hmong Americans after he demonstrated that he was serious about making his film and did not want to drink a lot or spend a lot of money. This resulted in different types of tensions emerging, since the Hmong Thai were not able to extract as many material benefits from him as they had hoped.
Challenges related to trying to balance life in America with life in Hmong Thai society have also emerged as a problem for some Hmong American film-makers, especially with regard to different types of societal expectations. One Hmong American film-maker became very emotional about this and even broke down and cried. He told me to tell other Hmong Americans who want to make films not to come to Thailand because it is too complicated to live in two cultures in two countries. He said he just wanted to be Hmong, but it was hard to negotiate the different expectations of people in Hmong American and Hmong Thai societies.
There have also been some conflicts between ethnic Thais and Hmong Americans, although these have taken different forms from those that have emerged between Hmong Americans, Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao in Thailand. These conflicts include Thais trying to cheat Hmong Americans. For example, according to Pao Porabat, an ethnic Thai named Tom, who owned CD Media, tried to cheat Hmong American film-makers more than once. The first time, Tom promised Kou Thao that he would invest 800,000 baht to make the first Chao Fa film, but Tom never actually came up with the funds. Later, he tried to convince Pao to collaborate with him to cheat a Hmong American film-maker again, but Pao refused to cooperate. (11) In fact, considerable discrimination against Hmong people by ethnic Thais has been reported in the literature (Forsyth and Walker 2008; Vandergeest 2003; Delang 2002).
All the social, cultural, political, kinship, ethnic, linguistic, geographical, financial and personal factors discussed above are variously important for understanding Hmong social dynamics associated with film-making, and why Khek Noi has emerged as a crucial place for Hmong film-making, but they have not been equally important for attracting every Hmong American film-maker to Khek Noi. Different film-makers have been attracted by a varying assemblage of factors. It is crucial to recognize how important unevenness is in relation to transnationalism, just as it is the case for globalization, which actually exists with more unevenness and is much more place-centred than is sometimes recognized.
Challenges and New Directions for Hmong American Film-making in Thailand
The film-making model that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s is facing various challenges. For one, the economic model that has, at least to some extent, sustained the Hmong American film industry is facing significant challenges. In the past, Hmong Americans typically made films and then produced VHS cassettes and later DVDs, which were largely marketed to first-generation Hmong Americans. However, the population of first-generation Hmong Americans is declining as older people gradually pass away. In addition, it has become more difficult to sell DVDs at a good price, as Hmong Americans are engaging with a more complex streaming media landscape. These factors have forced many Hmong American film-makers out of business, and have caused others to significantly scale back their film-making. These circumstances have also resulted in some Hmong American film-makers moving in new directions to try to overcome marketing constraints embedded in the old model. Some, for example, are adopting more globalized strategies, by trying to make films that can be marketed online exclusively, without making DVDs. George Lor, a Hmong film-maker from Sacramento, California, for example, told me that he receives US$0.02-0.03 for each commercial viewing or 'click' on YouTube. (12) This could potentially be profitable. For example, the trailer for Moua Lee and Kao Chang's "Hidden Wrath", which was produced in Thai, was viewed 15,000,000 times on YouTube, which is apparently more than for most trailers. (13)
Over the last few years two Hmong American-made films that did not actually target Hmong American audiences have been made in Thai with the hope of breaking into the mainstream Thai film market. This represents a somewhat different kind of transnational cinema, but is seen as feasible by some because the cost of getting into the American market or even the Hong Kong or Singapore markets is beyond the financial means of independent Hmong American film-makers. It might, however, be feasible to compete in the Thai market, since the expectations for quality are somewhat lower than for other more advanced movie markets.
The first Hmong American movie made in Thai was "Blood for Freedom" (Wirabaroot Khao Khor in Thai, which was released in 2012). It cost about 20 million Thai baht (over US$500,000), by far the highest budget for any Hmong American film ever made. However, due to the conflicts that emerged during production, it was not marketed well and has not received the attention it deserves. (14) The second film, "Hidden Wrath" (Ammahit in Thai), was released in 2016. It was produced with a more moderate but still significant budget of about US$50,000 by Moua Lee and Kao Chang, two Hmong film-makers based in Saint Paul, Minnesota. The film is not in the Hmong language, nor does the content have anything to do with Hmong people. Instead, the storyline of the suspense drama is set in the lowlands of Thailand and relates to haunting spirits and revenge against some ethnic Thai men in a village. Even though the characters are all ethnic Thai, some of the actors are Hmong Thais, and the film was made in Khek Noi. It remains to be seen how effective its marketing will be, although the trailer has been viewed a lot on YouTube. (15)
Another new direction that a few Hmong American film-makers are pursuing is to break into the English-language mainstream American film industry. This represents a more American-centric strategy. Abel and Burly Vang, who are Hmong American brothers from California, have so far been the most successful in moving into Hollywood, and they are currently involved in making higher budget films produced in the United States for a broader English language American viewership. They won the 2008 Nickels technical award for scriptwriting, and this helped establish them in the mainstream industry.
In addition, Moua Lee told me that while foreign movies were previously produced using Hmong language subtitles, as the Hmong American community becomes increasingly comfortable in English, it might not be long before movies produced in Hmong also include English subtitles, not for people of non-Hmong heritage but rather for second- and third-generation Hmong Americans. (16) This could represent a new way of reaching younger Hmong American audiences who have much less knowledge of the Hmong language compared to their parents and grandparents.
Another change in recent years is that Hmong in Laos are increasingly becoming involved in film-making and for this are sometimes teaming up with Hmong Americans. Due to political constraints in Laos, it is still not possible to make some types of films there. For example, the Chao Fa films produced in Thailand have been banned (Baird 2014, p. 16). However, it is possible to make less politically sensitive films, including music videos, and there have been more of those produced in Laos in recent years. In addition, some well-known Hmong singers and actors have been brought by Hmong film-makers from Laos to make films in Thailand. This trend is likely to continue, and as one Hmong American put it, "Khek Noi is still likely to remain the centre of Hmong film-making for the foreseeable future". (17)
The point of this section has been to demonstrate that while Khek Noi seems likely to remain an important place for Hmong moviemaking, marketing aspects associated with Hmong American film-making are undergoing various challenges due to technological, marketing and demographic changes. Thus, transnational and globalized influences will continue to be linked to place-based film production, even if the situation is far from stable.
The social, political and economic aspects of the Hmong filmmaking industry centred at Khek Noi, Thailand--a place I refer to as 'Hmollywood'--are clearly complex, especially those involving the co-production of films by Hmong Americans, Hmong Thais and Hmong Lao living in Thailand. Indeed, differences arising from national and historical contexts are significant when it comes to the ways Hmong American film-makers interact with their colleagues and with others in Thailand. Ultimately, what emerges are assemblages that are both closely linked to transnational interactions and globalization, in terms of technological advances and global trends in media production, but are also place-based in important ways, due to an array of factors. This helps us to think about transnational and globalized processes as more uneven and place-based than is typical, something I believe is important.
Hmong film-making has developed in Khek Noi due to its landscape and scenery, the prevalence of the Hmong language and proficiency of its locals, culture, existing transnational familial relations, Hmong film-making expertise, marketing factors, government regulations, and political history. These have together--but not equally--resulted in unique interactions and film-making networks developing between Hmong Americans and Hmong Thais at Khek Noi. It is not simply about 'globalization', a term that tends to flatten experiences and network spaces, in ways that do not fit with reality. What has been described here are specific types of Hmong transnational networks and processes, ones for which the overarching term 'globalization' fails to appropriately contextualize, even if transnational is also a contested term for some, as it tends to privilege national origins.
It is uncertain how long Khek Noi will continue to be the primary hub for Hmong American film-making, but it seems likely to remain dominant for the coming years. Nevertheless, the Hmong American film-making industry is facing various marketing, technological and audience demographic challenges, so there are likely to be various changes in Hmong American film-making in the coming years.
This article has sought to outline the history of Hmong American film-making in Thailand over the last few decades and to contribute to the understanding of transnational cinema. In particular, we need to see this film-making as being influenced by an array of factors that are cultural, national, transnational and global. Place-based circumstances are, however, also important, as they are embedded in particular historical, political, economic and cultural factors, ones that are uneven but crucial.
(1.) Many years later, he also took on one of the leading roles in "Blood for Freedom".
(2.) Moua Lee, personal communication, Madison, Wisconsin, 17 February 2016.
(3.) George Lor, personal communication, Khek Noi, 15 August 2015.
(4.) Hmong American film-maker, personal communication, Khek Noi, 21 July 2013.
(5.) Pao Porabat, personal communication, Bangkok, 14 June 2012.
(6.) Hmong American film-maker, personal communication, Khek Noi, 12 August 2015.
(7.) Some tensions exist between those identified as Hmong Thai and those considered to be Hmong Lao at Khek Noi.
(8.) Jame Vang, personal communication, Rom Fa Thai Village, Chiang Rai Province, 31 May 2015.
(9.) Da Xiong, personal communication, Khek Noi, 21 July 2013.
(10.) Jame Vang, personal communication, Rom Fa Thai Village, Chiang Rai Province, 31 May 2015.
(11.) Pao Porabat, personal communication, Bangkok, 14 June 2012.
(12.) George Lor, personal communication, Khek Noi, 21 July 2015.
(13.) Moua Lee, personal communication, Madison, Wisconsin, 16 February 2016.
(14.) Jame Vang, personal communication, Saint Paul, Minnesota, 11 November 2012.
(15.) Moua Lee, personal communication, Madison, Wisconsin, 16 February 2016.
(16.) Moua Lee, personal communication, Khek Noi, 21 July 2013.
(17.) George Lor, personal communication, Khek Noi, 12 August 2015.
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Ian G. Baird is Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, 550 N. Park Street, Madison, WI 53706, USA; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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|Author:||Baird, Ian G.|
|Publication:||SOJOURN: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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