Oskar Ly’s work reconciles her identities as a Second-Generation-Hmong-Queer-Asian-Woman-Artist

There are roughly 30,000 Hmong-Americans living in Saint Paul, Minnesota today, more than any other city in the country. The Twin Cities Metro area has a Hmong population of 64,000. While those may seem like small numbers when compared to the total population of 3.28 million in Twin Cities Metro, they are significant for a culture that has been historically small and relatively insular.

The Hmong are an Asian ethnic group believed to have originated in the mountainous Yangtze River basin of southern China. Hmong people migrated into Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. During the Vietnam War, Hmong people living in Laos were trained by the CIA to fight communist forces, and afterwards faced mass genocide by the Laotian government and Vietnamese Army, forcing them to seek political asylum in Thailand. Post-war Hmong diaspora has spread the Hmong people across the United States, French Guiana, Australia, France, and Germany.

The Hmong have their own language, their own religion, their own distinct culture and traditions. The Hmong people have a rich oral history passed down to each new generation through legends, ritual ceremonies, textile art and story cloths; however, there is very little written history that predates modern times.

Much like any ethnic immigrant population that is established in a new country, the children of immigrant parents assimilate into their new culture, often, their parents fear, at the expense of their cultural heritage. In America, second generation children often struggle to maintain both of their cultural identities, trying to reconcile their ethnic heritage with their western upbringing. For American-raised Hmong, that struggle is compounded by the fact that the Hmong historically have not had a written language. Their numbers are small, their culture and customs relatively unknown, and about a quarter of American Hmong families live in poverty. Many first generation immigrant parents are war refugees from Laos, grappling with language issues, poverty, and social isolation.

Oskar Ly is a Hmong French American living in Saint Paul. She grew up in a traditional Hmong household where her mother was always sewing, and as she got older Ly decided she wanted to make her own fashions. Ly is a fashion designer, hair and makeup artist, singer and songwriter, and much of what she does is to foster and promote Hmong arts and talent in the Saint Paul area.

It was through Hmong-organized open mics that Ly found her voice, so to speak, and was able to explore singing and songwriting. “Those are things I didn’t get to practice growing up,” she says. “It wasn’t encouraged. [Hmong] parents came from a refugee background and wanted something more for us; they wanted [their children to have] traditional careers.”

For her, creating music is an opportunity to celebrate and share Hmong culture. It doesn’t necessarily have to be Hmong music; it can be inspired by pop, folk, hip-hop, or anything else. “I personally don’t write in Hmong but others do,” she says. “People find self empowerment in their own language when even their parents don’t read or write in Hmong. We’re losing our language by the generation. Hmong don’t have their own national country; we’re hill tribe people. Because of a long history of being persecuted, Hmong people never had the ability to capture their language like other counties have in terms of writing – even something as simple as the alphabet [doesn’t exist].”

Open mics gave Ly the platform to share and connect with other artists, and through that Ly was able to start organizing and collaborating with other Hmong artists, sharing their talents and their stories.

“It really takes a collaboration of like-minded people to tell their stories,” says Ly. “[Hmong people are accustomed to] not seeing their experiences being reinterpreted through art in national media. Art is a way to tell our experiences and share our stories. With the Hmong community there are not enough narratives out there to paint a portrait of where our community [is] going and how it [is] changing. With the arts people are in control of how they tell their stories and turn it into something conceptual.”

Saint Paul is home to the first Hmong arts center in the country, the Center for Hmong Arts and Talent (CHAT). Ly has been a leader in the organization and an ambassador for Hmong arts for several years, exploring Hmong culture and community-building through music and fashion. Ly says that it has always been an important part of Hmong culture to preserve their own history, but it’s not something they even have a word for. While the Hmong have no history of written language, their history and culture is often worn directly on the body in brightly-colored, intricately detailed costumes. Their stories and culture are passed down through costumes and rituals. Whether Ly is a fashion designer and songwriter first and a Hmong woman second or vice versa, it is clear that her experience as a Hmong inform and inspire her art, and her art is very much a product of her cultural identity.

Ly also works with Shades of Yellow, the only Hmong LGBT organization in the country. “Much like in the Asian community, there is a lot of homophobia deeply ingrained in [the Hmong] community,” she says. One of the projects she did with Shades of Yellow was Queer New Year, a celebration of “being Hmong, being gay, being Asian.” A highlight of Queer New Year was a fashion show imagining what gay Hmong people might wear in a wedding. “There is a lot of what a man and a woman are ‘supposed’ to wear,” she explains, referring to the Hmong community’s rigid gender roles, particularly as they are represented in traditional Hmong costumes. “[The fashion show] was just about breaking the norm and pushing gender boundaries to see what’s possible, working with other Asian and Hmong designers to see what those looks could be.”

By working with different arts organizations and fostering relationships with other artists and arts advocates, Ly has not only developed as an artist herself, but also as an arts organizer. Her most recent project has taken her off the runway and put her on the streets, leading the highly visible community impact project ARTIFY. Working with affordable housing developer Project for Pride in Living (PPL) in partnership with Springboard for the Arts, Twin Cities Local Initiatives Support Corporation, and the City of Saint Paul, Ly has led the placemaking project transforming the blighted corner of Hamline and University, the site of a former car dealership that had been vacant for 10 years, into an engaging public art center. ” She worked with local artists to create and share on the site and create a sense of place and neighborhood pride. The project had the theme “Home is…” encouraging artists to reinterpret the concepts of home, neighborhood, and community.

She chose the “Home is…” theme based on the idea of transitioning the space from a vacant site to a new development that will be home to hundreds of people. ARTIFY is a temporary project and will be removed this spring when PPL begins construction on their new transit-oriented development along the Central Corridor Light Rail Line at the Hamline Station. PPL will develop 108 rental units on the site with ground floor retail, a family building, and a public plaza at the center, creating a hub for the community that will also be home to many.

Ly was able to have conversations with the developer about how to engage the community and use the arts as a friendly tool to have conversations and create opportunities for people to have positive experiences with the site. “This was outside of the typical creating for yourself. This was something much more public,” she says. “[I’ve been] hearing from community members their stories on how they used to experience the site and how they’ve grown a sense of pride about the site instead of it being just another empty spot.”

Her next big project will be along a similar vein, working with the Asian Economic Development Association to help local businesses to improve the area and attract visitors by using the arts by using the arts. This focus area has a long history of Southeast Asian immigrant groups moving into the neighborhood and opening businesses, and the AEDA hopes to build on the neighborhood’s history and cultural heritage to create a world-class shopping and tourism destination.

While not all of Ly’s work is unequivocally “Hmong,” a common thread that can be found throughout everything she has done as an artist – performing at open mic nights, designing custom fashions, organizing groups of artists for a public initiative – is community: the Hmong community, the Asian community, the LGBT community, the Saint Paul community. Ly’s work is highly cognizant of the communities she identifies with and exists within, never locking into a single identity but celebrating her own multi-dimensionality while reimagining how we as a society define ideas like “identity” and “home.”