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A Roadside Chat with Cynthia Yongvang of the Hmong Association of Washington

Photo credit: Hmong Association of Washington

It’s hard to walk through Pike Place Market without marveling at the thousands of fresh flowers that are meticulously arranged.  

About 80% of the flower stands at Pike Place Market and farmers markets throughout the region are owned by Hmong farmers.  

Many of Seattle’s farmers markets are held on City streets! This is one of the many ways we manage our streets and sidewalks to enrich public life and improve community health. We work with the Office of Economic Development to administer permits. 

Fall flower drive for United Communities of Laos at a volunteer’s backyard in 2020. Photo credit: Hmong Association of Washington

Hmong culture is deeply rooted in growing food and flowers to nourish their bodies and spirit.  

Hmong refugees first came to Seattle in the early 1970s from Laos. (Jump to our Q&A to learn more about Hmong history!) Since 80-90% of Hmong people farmed back in Laos, it was natural for them to find work farming in the Seattle area.  

Initially, Hmong famers primarily grew vegetables, but in the mid 80s, with the help of the Indochina Farm Project, they found a niche growing and selling flowers at local farmers markets and Pike Place Market.  

Today, there are around 80 Hmong farms in the region! Most of these farms are small organic farms, owned and fully operated by Hmong refugees and their families. They do everything from tilling the earth and planting seeds, to harvesting and transporting the delicate flowers, to arranging and selling gorgeous bouquets, to managing their business.  

We had the chance to have a Roadside Chat with Cynthia Yongvang who is the Executive Director of the Hmong Association of Washington and learn a little more about their work to ensure Hmong culture in Washington lives on.  

Hi Cynthia, to kick off this roadside chat, what would you like people to know about Hmong culture and history?  

The Hmong originated in China among the Miao ethnic groups. About two million Hmong lived in the lowlands of Southern China and eventually migrated to the highlands of provinces such as Yunnan and Guizhou due to conflicts with the Chinese government. Over the next two centuries, the Hmong continued their struggle with the Chinese. In 1854 the Hmong fled to the highlands of Laos and Vietnam and settled there to raise their families where they maintained their own distinctive culture, including dress, oral literature and religion, valuing their autonomy and close-knit community above all.  

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong along with other ethnic groups enlisted to fight on the side of the Americans. After the war, the Hmong found themselves in the refugee camps of Thailand. 115, 670 Hmong refugees were resettled to 12 countries from 1975 to 1992 and because of their American military ties, more than 100,000 Hmong were sponsored by religious organizations like Catholic Charities, Lutheran Social Service, and Church World Service to come to the US.   

Today, based on the last census in 2010, there are more than 260,000 Hmong in the US with Minnesota, California and Wisconsin being the states with the largest Hmong population. In Washington, there are only 2,404 Hmong people with the first wave of Hmong refugees arriving to Seattle in the late 1970s and a second wave came in the early 2000s.  

How to does the Hmong Association of Washington work to support the Hmong community and preserve Hmong culture? 

The Hmong Association of Washington (HAW) is a nonprofit, founded in 1983, that serves the Hmong community in Washington. Our mission is to preserve and promote the culture, advocate for the Hmong people, and promote education in the community. For the past 35 years, it was a volunteer run organization that hosted the Hmong New Year celebration that is held at the Seattle Center each November.  

I was elected the board president in 2019. As an organization, we did a community needs assessment and saw new ways we could serve our community. Then in 2020, I was hired as the first Executive Director to build HAW infrastructure and develop programs to best support our community during the pandemic.  

We started a HAW youth program and a leadership program for our young people ages 18-30. We also partnered with Khmu and Lao organizations to form the United Communities of Laos and plan to build a cultural center in the next few years to support our Hmong, Lao and Khmu communities, share our cultures, and to provide office space for the partner organizations.  

Hmong dance at the Hmong New Year celebration at the Seattle Center. (Photo credit: Hmong Association of WA) 

Can you share more about your youth programs and the value of connecting Hmong youth?  

Our Hmong culture has been passed on for thousands of years. We’ve migrated to different countries over the millennia, but our culture, dress, and oral stories have remained intact. In Washington today, our youth and young adults were born here in the US and most are fully assimilated into American culture. Some of them grew up on their parents’ farms, but many of them are pursuing careers in the corporate world. We fully support our young people in their career journeys and also want to help them remain connected to their history, culture and language so that they don’t lose their Hmong identity.  

How are you connecting youth to Hmong culture?  

Our Youth Program started as a youth group to connect Hmong youth from across the region as they learned Hmong music, dance, history and language.  

This summer, some of our youth are creating a Hmong cookbook to share traditional Hmong recipes. We’re connecting them with Hmong farmers so they can work side by side, listen to their histories, learn about traditional Hmong farming methods and vegetables, and write down Hmong recipes. These recipes will be compiled into a cookbook that people can purchase with a veggies box from our Hmong farmers.  

How else has the Hmong Association of Washington been supporting local Hmong Farmers?  

Because Pike Place Market and other farmers market closed for a few months in 2020 due to the pandemic, many of our Hmong farmers were left without a market outlet to sell their flowers. 

HAW supported these farmers by organizing neighborhood sales with the help of many volunteers from the community.  

We learned from this experience is that the Hmong farmers can benefit from having their own farm cooperative. This year we’re helping our Hmong farmers form a Hmong Farmer Cooperative with technical support from Northwest Agricultural Business Center. We hope that this Hmong Farmer cooperative can support the older generation of Hmong farmers but also the next generation of farmers since many of the older farmers would be retiring in the next few years.  

Right now, each of the farms operate independently. But, with the coop, they can share resources and marketing strategies. For example, some people will be able to focus on farming, and then others in the coop can focus on selling. The younger generations who are interested in continuing their family’s farm are extremely interested in finding ways to improve their businesses and to farm more efficiently.  

Fall Flowers drive fundraiser for United Communities of Laos (Photo credit: Hmong Association of WA) 

What are some ways that readers can support Hmong farmers? 

Now that farmers markets are back, one of the best ways to support Hmong famers is to visit your local farmers market and purchase our flowers and vegetables! Know that your purchases at farmers markets, at Hmong-owned businesses and others, are supporting local farmers and small businesses. If people want to buy individual bouquets, they can also order flowers directly from a Hmong farmer.  

You could also host a flower drive to raise money for your school or other cause you are involved. To learn more about hosting a flower drive, you can contact the Hmong Association of Washington.  

Next time you purchase a bouquet of flowers from a farmers market in the area, know that there’s a good chance you’re supporting a Hmong-owned business, and that the person handing you the bouquet, was likely the person who grew the flowers! 

Learn more about Hmong people and culture