A Hmong Village in Minnesota

I’m always excited to see a business opened by a community, for a community. Last weekend Hmong Village celebrated its grand opening in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and it felt like the Hmong (pronounced “mung”) had finally found home.

If you are not familiar with the Hmong people, here’s a quick history. The Hmong are from southeast Asia. Many were once concentrated in Laos, but they also resided in Vietnam and Thailand. Some are still refugees in their own land, not able to escape the circumstances of war and poverty that exist today.

The Ho Chi Minh trail passed through Laos from North to South Vietnam. The CIA recognized in the early 1960’s that to stop supplies, communications and military from moving south on the trail, they needed gorilla forces in Laos to help American soldiers fight the North Vietnamese. A “secret” army of Laos soldiers fighting on the U.S. side was born. It’s estimated that more than 18,000 Hmong died during the Vietnam conflict.

In December 1975, the United States recognized the Hmong’s contribution to its efforts in Vietnam, and opened its doors to Hmong refugees. Today over 250,000 Hmong live in the U.S., the largest concentration in California, then Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Knowing a tiny faction of this history, I was eager to see what had come of the culture, and what businesses were sprouting inside Hmong Village. Parking on a residential street, I walked one block to an overflowing parking lot outside of the shopping center, and dodged my way between cars to the entrance.

Joyous sensory overload.

Hmong Village is a former warehouse, and still feels like one. What you don’t expect are the types of vendors that provide the sensory overload. There is traditional clothing, shoes, dollar stores, pots, pans and jewelry stalls. There’s a farmers market, a grocery. You can get your hair cut at one of the small stall businesses. One stall offers eyebrow waxing. There’s even an arcade. The most surprising item for sale were DVDs. There are about a dozen DVD movie stalls. It quickly became apparent that the Hmong love Asian movies. Most movie stalls had several TV screens, all playing different films. Families wandering the Village would stop and watch a movie for a few minutes, then move on to the next DVD stall, and start the stop-and-watch process all over again.

What really makes Hmong Village a destination spot is the food. There are 17 restaurants serving piping hot bowls of Pho, curry noodles, roasted chicken leg, sausage and sticky rice and barbecue ribs just to name a few. There are individual tea houses in certain stalls, and bubble tea vendors. There is a bakery as well, serving croissants and miscellaneous French pastries. I believe I saw a vendor with pizza by the slice, but it was untouched.

If you have the opportunity to visit Hmong Village, save the farmers market for last. As you stand among the fruits and vegetables, look at the walls. Hand-painted murals of Laos transport you to the old country. It’s when I really took a moment to look at these murals I realized the Hmong have known America longer than we have known them, and they might just be home in this place. Finally.

This is a terribly brief summary of the Hmong’s historic plight, so I encourage you to read more about the community on Jeff Lindsay’s site. You can also read the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s review of Hmong Village and the Pioneer Press article about the family businesses in Hmong Village.

One of a dozen DVD stores!

Grocery store with a little of everything.

Food made fresh.

Crawling for Art

A little known art festival runs twice a year in the Lowertown district of downtown Saint Paul, Minnesota. The Saint Paul Art Crawl has been held every April and October in one location or another for the last 30 years. Today the Lowertown art community opens up its studio spaces to display paintings, photography, sketch drawings, media art and the like. More than just an art show, the concept of Art Crawl is to educate the masses on new ideas in the world of art.

Perhaps the name “Art Crawl” describes the state you are in after eight hours of moving from studio to studio. Most of the artists’ studios are in converted warehouses with few elevators. Climbing six to eight flights of stairs per building is a great workout, and you typically have enough time between each floor to give your knees a rest while you survey the various art mediums.

If you are in Lowertown during Art Crawl, here is one full day of studio hopping that I recommend:

  • JAX Building
  • Northern Warehouse
  • Tilsner Artist Cooperative
  • Cosmopolitan Apartments
  • Lowertown Lofts Co-op
  • Rossmor Lofts

If you need to re-fuel, The Black Dog is the local coffeehouse where the artists hang out. It’s a little bit Seattle grunge, a little bit Greenwich Village, with rotating art exhibits on the walls and live music playing in the corner during the Crawl. The food is local and organic when it can be, and offers selections for meat eaters and vegans. Beer and wine are also available along with juices, smoothies, coffee and tea.

To get an idea of the types of art you can find while Crawling, visit the past Art Crawl competition winners gallery.

What other neighborhood art festivals have you found in your travels? What made them unique? I’m always looking for a new art destination, so let me know!

Getting away from it all

I have to remind myself that “vacation” does not mean spending two weeks in Europe. The definition of vacation is actually a period of suspension of work, study or other activity, usually used for rest, recreation or travel.

By that definition I have to classify my last weekend getaway as vacation. I took a day off from work, and more importantly, I went to an area without cell phone or data service so I could not answer e-mails. Sure, I had the shakes after 24-hours without checking in online, but it’s remarkable that you can still find a cafe with WiFi in the middle of nowhere.

One of my favorite areas in Minnesota is bluff country, located in the southeast corner of the state. Husband and I decided to fast-track it to Lanesboro, and then wander home on two-lane roads. Located in the heart of the Root River Valley Trail system, you can bike 60 miles through the limestone bluffs inside the river valley or tube down the Root River in Lanesboro, or one of the neighboring towns like Preston.

After a day in Lanesboro we went went east on Hwy. 16 and spotted hawks, rabbits, beaver, coyote, deer in addition to farm animals and a many mosquitoes. We passed through Fountain, Whalan, Harmony, Rushford and Houston. Arriving at the end of Hwy. 16 in La Crescent, Minn., we traveled up Hwy. 61.

If you are driving on Hwy. 61, put down the windows, turn up Bob Dylan’s Hwy. 61 Revisited and take in the North Country. My favorite stops are:

You can see much of Minnesota bluff country in one day or take your time over a weekend. Just remember not to get frustrated with the hills when they block your cell service. You’re on vacation.

Minnesota music

Seattle = Grunge. Greenwich Village = Folk. Memphis = Blues. Minnesota = music’s best kept secret.

Home to The Trashmen, Judy Garland, Bob Dylan, Prince, The Replacements, Soul Asylum, Semisonic, The Jayhawks, Atmosphere and a host of hip-hop artists on the Rhymesayers label, Minnesota has produced stars from virtually every era of popular music.

Rich in diversity, visitors can typically find a variety of music playing around town any night of the week. With a quick search, I found 118 different bands, trios, solo acts and the like playing on Friday night in the Minneapolis – Saint Paul area. If you are in town and want to experience a booming music scene, consider my personal favorites:

First Avenue – The creme de la creme of all Twin Cities clubs, First Ave. is the CBGB of Minneapolis. With pitch black walls on the inside, the crowd ranges from tattoos and piercings to hoodies and hightops depending on the night. Large bathrooms are upstairs in addition to the First Ave. Twitter stream which runs continuously on large screens by the second level bars. Bonus: First Ave. admission means you can also check out 7th Street Entry.

7th Street Entry – The baby sibling attached to First Ave., 7th Street Entry is the starting place for bands. A few make it, most don’t, but you get to hear a range of incredible music in a space no larger than your living room. If late night clubbing isn’t your style, 7th Street offers many all-ages or 18+ early shows that put you in bed before 10:00 p.m. Tip: pack earplugs. The size of 7th Street means ringing ears the next day if you don’t care for your hearing.

Turf Club – This club is like your favorite pair of worn shoes. You should give them a good shine, but it would take away the character. A shotgun club with a lower level lounge decorated in Minnesota kitsch, The Turf is where the local musicians hang out if they don’t have a gig. Reasonable cover at the door keeps the place usually packed. It’s also the club that local bands use for trying new material out on smaller, more intimate crowds.

The Cabooze – Hosting tribute shows and bands traveling post-outdoor festival season, The Cabooze in Minneapolis is most notable for its interior space. A large dance floor, tables and chairs, plus a comfy sitting lounge overlooking the stage make The Cabooze a great place to see music or mingle with friends.

The Artists’ Quarter – Located in the basement of the Hamm Building in downtown Saint Paul, The Artists’ Quarter feels like a speakeasy. National acts, local legends and B3 Organ Night make this club a place you’ll want to hang out. Downtown professionals, music professors and students from McNally Smith College of Music are standards in the crowd. In town over the holidays? The Artists’ Quarter is one of the best New Years Eve parties in Saint Paul.

Dubliner Pub – Closest thing to a pub in Dingle, Ireland, the Dubliner features foot-stomping Irish music six-nights a week in a no frills bar. And they pull your glass of Guinness correctly. Best part? There’s never a cover.

The Dakota Jazz Club – This club serves dinner with your jazz. It’s polished and perfect if you want to dress-up and do the town to see some of the best jazz musicians on tour today.

Kitty Cat Klub – On the East Bank of the University of Minnesota in Dinkytown, there is a lounge club like no other called The Kitty Cat. Velvet sofas, lampshades and oriental rugs set the scene for solid music that is typically free on the weekdays, or if you go early enough for food on the weekends.

Lee’s Liquor Lounge – This is my favorite spot to see honky-tonk. Johnny Cash just sounds better in Lee’s. And the dance floor is always full of regulars who make-out or square dance-out the evening in front of the band. The old guy behind the bar is Louie, the owner, and he runs a tight ship. Be sure to check out his impressive collection of Elvis memorabilia hanging throughout the place.

Mayslack’s Bar – Nice-sized stage with a small dance floor, Mayslack’s is a great old building with solid music. If you go, try the roast beef sandwich.

Nye’s Polonaise Room – Voted the Best Bar in America by Esquire magazine in 2006, Nye’s is a mix of polish sausage, country blues, a polka band and a piano bar. The vinyl booths and orange/red 1960s decor are the icing on the cake.

For a full listing of music in the Twin Cities, look for the City Pages on free newsstands or visit www.citypages.com.

Read my take on Soundset, one of the largest hip hop festivals in the Midwest, hosted in Minneapolis by Rhymesayers.

Have more than one night to spend in Minneapolis-Saint Paul? Check out The New York Times city recommendations.