In Praise of an Unheralded Hero

By Henry D. Delcore

(Reprinted with permission from the Fresno Bee, Saturday, September 16, 2006)

On Aug. 31, 2006, Neng Lee died at age 66. From Sept. 8 to 11, he was given a traditional Hmong funeral at a modest hall in downtown Fresno.

News of Hlaw (respected elder) Neng's death was quickly passed through Fresno's Hmong community by word of mouth and it was announced on a local Hmong language radio program.

In the course of four days, hundreds of well-wishers went to pay respects to him and show support for his family. The hall became filled with flowers and people jammed the inside to witness the rituals that accompany a good man's passing.

Still more people gathered outside to talk and eat. General Vang Pao, leader of the pro-American Hmong forces during the Vietnam War, came from southern California. On the evening of Sept. 10, there were at least 500 people in attendance.

Why should we care?

But outside of Fresno's Hmong community, Hlaw Neng's passing drew little notice. As a family friend, I found myself one of a handful of non-Hmong attendees. Who was Hlaw Neng, and why did his death draw such attention from Fresno's Hmong community? Why should the rest of us care?

Hlaw Neng came to the United States in 1980. He had served as a captain under Vang Pao during the CIA-sponsored "secret war" in Laos. When the Lao communists were victorious in 1975, Hlaw Neng and thousands of other American allies fled to Thailand and later to the U.S.

But Hlaw Neng's service did not end when he arrived here. Hlaw Neng was an elder and the leader of a branch of the Lee clan here in Fresno. As clan leader, his role was to advise his clanmates on difficult issues and mediate disputes.

The disputes he mediated ranged from the mundane to the grave. In one case, two clanmates built storage sheds next to each other. Then, one man found a hole in the side of his shed and accused the other of stealing a board for himself. The accused claimed he had purchased all his boards from a local store. Hlaw Neng was called in to mediate between the men and lead them toward a more harmonious relationship.

But many of Hlaw Neng's duties involved far more serious situations. At all hours of day and night, Hlaw Neng responded to calls from clanmates who faced some of life's most intractable problems: parents who had lost control of their children, married couples on the verge of divorce, accusations of domestic abuse.

In one case, Hlaw Neng was called to a home where a man was pointing a gun at his own head. While other members of his clan and community slept, Hlaw Neng was often up at the wee hours of the morning, because some situations do not wait for daylight. He was known as a man who was unfailingly rational and calm. When others acted rashly, he responded with reason, fairness and the deep knowledge that comes with age and experience.

Hlaw Neng's service extended beyond his own clan and ethnic community. How many 911 calls were not made because Hlaw Neng was there to calm things down? What sorts of human and social costs -- the costs associated with things like divorce, delinquency and suicide -- did he help avert? The people he helped, the members of his clan and Fresno's Hmong community, know. That is why they turned out in such large numbers.

As far as I know, none of Fresno's public officials attended Hlaw Neng's funeral.

As part of the climax of the funeral, Hlaw Neng's family and friends stayed up all night on Sept. 10 to listen to a series of chants. The focus of the chants that night was the instruction of the young. For nearly eight hours, about 30 of Hlaw Neng's grandchildren, nieces and nephews, mostly teenagers and young adults, sat on the floor in front of his casket.

Recognizing their elder

A skilled chanter delivered a message from Hlaw Neng to the young people. Hlaw Neng's advice included exhortations to love one another; to not cheat, steal or lie; to avoid adultery; and to turn away from drinking, drugs and gambling. The young people fought back sleep, and at the appropriate times, they bowed their heads to the ground in recognition of their elder and his wisdom. Hlaw Neng's descendants and his advice to them are his final gifts to our community.

We should know who Hlaw Neng was and appreciate the service he rendered to the entire Fresno community.

Henry D. Delcore is on a sabbatical leave from his position as an anthropology professor at California State University, Fresno. He can be reached by e-mail at hdelcore@csufresno.edu.