Family members on Friday were working on funeral arrangements “fit for a king” for Gen. Vang Pao, whose death evoked deep sadness among the Hmong and others who treasured him as a leader and military hero.
Gen. Vang’s traditional four-day Hmong funeral will be in Fresno; the dates could be settled by Monday, said Chai Vang, one of his sons. Both the Fresno Convention Center and Fresno Fairgrounds are under consideration.
Chai Vang said the family needs a venue large enough to accommodate crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 people each day. Vang said mourners are expected to come from around the world — one reason services probably won’t take place for several weeks or even a month.
Gen. Vang, 81, died Thursday in Clovis after being hospitalized with pneumonia and a heart problem.
He had long been revered as a patriarch in the Hmong community and a crucial ally of the United States.
Vang Pao time line
December 1929: He is born to farmers in a Laotian village.
World War II: He becomes a teenage translator for French paratroopers fighting the Japanese in Laos, trains at a French officers’ school in Vietnam and becomes a commissioned officer. Laotian leaders make him a general.
1961: He is recruited by the Central Intelligence Agency to lead a secret army of Hmong soldiers against Laotian Communists and their North Vietnamese counterparts.
1975: He is flown from his mountaintop headquarters to the U.S. He lives in Montana before moving to Orange County.
1977: He establishes the Lao Family Community organization to provide social services to Hmong nationwide.
Early 1980s: He and a group of allies form Neo Hom to aid insurgents who remain in Laos to continue the fight to overthrow the Communists.
2003: He meets secretly in Amsterdam with Vietnamese government officials, who seek his support for normalized U.S. trade relations with Laos. In exchange, he asks the Vietnamese to pressure Laos to stop persecuting Hmong.
June 2007: Federal authorities charge him and eight others with planning to overthrow the Communist government of Laos, sparking protests by Hmong around the country. He spends six weeks in jail before being released on bail.
September 2009: Prosecutors drop charges against him.
December 2009: He tells a Fresno audience he plans to return to Laos, seeking reconciliation. His trip is soon canceled after the Communist regime says he would be executed as a Vietnam War criminal if he returns.
Dec. 26, 2010: He attends the Hmong International New Year celebration at the Fresno Fairgrounds. He is later hospitalized for pneumonia and an ongoing heart problem.
Jan. 6, 2011: He dies at age 81.
During the Vietnam War, he commanded a CIA-trained force to fight communists in Southeast Asia.
After the war, he helped thousands of Hmong people settle and build new lives in America.
Friday, the worldwide Hmong community sought information about Vang’s funeral as they expressed sorrow for his death.
Details aren’t yet known, but a typical Hmong funeral lasts three to four days. Services are held continually, 24 hours a day.
The family generally chooses three representatives to oversee the funeral ceremony and others to cook for mourners, said Tong See Yang, who is in charge of cultural programming at KGED radio.
Three people play a pipe instrument made of bamboo and beat a drum to lead the deceased’s spirit back home.
Cows and chickens are often sacrificed during the funeral. The animals are believed to lead the deceased on the journey back to ancestors, Yang said.
Tributes began to pour in on Friday. In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley extended “our sincere condolences to Gen. Vang’s family and his many friends inside and outside the Hmong community.”
Dozens lined up in Sacramento before a Friday evening community vigil at Hmong Palace Church, while about 200 held candles during an outdoor ceremony in Merced. The California state Assembly is scheduled to adjourn at noon Monday in memory of Vang.
His death has been the dominant topic on Hmong airwaves.
The Hmong American Broadcasting station on KGED (AM 1680) in Fresno received phone calls from local listeners and Internet listeners from as far as Thailand, Laos and France.
“I was flooded with phone calls,” said Pahoua Moua, marketing manager. “People called to express their sorrow.”
Many callers sought confirmation that Vang’s death wasn’t just another rumor.
Last week, text messages and Internet posts spread the rumor that the general had died.
Hmong radio program directors at KBIF (AM 900) received similar phone calls.
Callers reminisced about Gen. Vang’s life and his military accomplishments and spoke about his love of the Hmong people, said program director Moua Vang.
Friday, disc jockeys at both stations played sad Hmong songs and spoke about the painful loss of a Hmong hero.
KBIF plans to air some special programs next week. Program directors want to invite close friends and relatives of the general to share stories about his life.
It’s too early to talk about who could replace Vang, program directors say, but they hope to invite local Hmong leaders for a roundtable discussion about the future of the community.
Vang was regarded as a visionary leader, who urged young people to pursue an education and offered guidance on community issues.
Many say no one could fill a position that Vang earned through his deeds.
“We cannot wear his shoes,” said Lue Yang, executive director of the Fresno Center for New Americans.
“He is coming from a long history and he proved that he was a true leader … I don’t think we can replace him.”
Charlie Vang, executive director of the Hmong International New Year Foundation and a relative of Gen. Vang, said it takes time to develop such a leader.
“I cannot see anyone” ready to take his place, Vang said.
Pov M. Xyooj, who returned to Fresno after graduating last year from UCLA, said he wonders how the Hmong community will cope.
He said the younger generation of Hmong wasn’t as connected to the general but still respected him as a leader.
Xyooj said the community may be challenged to stay unified in the absence of a defined leader such as Vang.
“Whether people liked or disliked him, whether people knew or didn’t know him, it’s going to be a really big impact on the Hmong community,” Xyooj said.
Read more: FresnoBee.com