St. Paul City Council asks China Friendship Garden Society to dissolve, reconfigure Hmong advisory committee

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A dispute between speakers of two Hmong dialects — Hmong White and Hmong Green — has for months overshadowed planning and fundraising for a second phase of the Minnesota China Friendship Garden at Lake Phalen.

On Wednesday, with the goal of better days ahead, the St. Paul City Council directed Parks and Recreation to expand and diversify a design advisory committee, and asked that the Minnesota China Friendship Garden Society dissolve and reconfigure its Hmong advisory committee.

The conflict? In a nutshell: the letter “H.”

Nine artistic stones inscribed in both dialects line a picturesque walking path near a Chinese pavilion donated by St. Paul’s sister city of Changsha, China, but until now, the path has drawn more controversy than cooperation. One stone describes the “Hmong” people, while another drops the letter “H,” leaving the word “Mong,” as it’s spelled in Hmong Green.

Some would have none of it.

“The spelling H-M-O-N-G is the inclusive and neutral name that has (bound) our people for generations,” reads a letter to the city council, dated June 21, and signed by Tong Vang, president of the Hmong SGU Veterans and Families of USA, Inc.

“The lack of diverse community engagement process during the Phase 1 of the Phalen Regional Park China Garden has spawned an out of control conflict that has now divided our Hmong community,” Vang wrote.

Taking the opposite tack in April, elder speakers of Hmong Green rallied outside St. Paul City Hall to say they felt slighted by Council Member Dai Thao, the city’s first elected Hmong council member, as well as the Hmong 18 Clan Council and other speakers of Hmong White, whom they claimed had mocked their language. They called for Thao’s resignation.

At Wednesday’s council meeting, Thao took a conciliatory tone as he began reading a lengthy statement into the record that acknowledged “feelings may have been hurt” and asked all sides to work together on the pavilion’s next phase. “I want to invite everyone back to the China Friendship Garden” project, he said.

He then said one family had dominated the advisory committee, and he reiterated claims he made in April that his family had received violent “terroristic threats” over the dialect dispute, but “I forgive you.”

Thao then introduced a council resolution calling for a “robust community process and representative engagement” prior to planning Phase II, which could span a more elaborate Hmong plaza, a Chinese Moon Bridge, the extension of the existing Xiang Jiang Pavilion garden and a permanent donor wall. The council approved the resolution 6-0.

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