On Thursday, September 16th, the Hmong American Leadership and Economic Development hosted the Little Mekong Night Market at Haymarket Plaza in downtown Eau Claire.
The event, held in conjunction with the Hmong Economic Advancement, Research, and Equity conference held at the nearby Pablo Center, lasted from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and featured a variety of vendors and artists.
Vendors at the market included stalls such as Echamaa’s Kitchen – a grocer selling sticky rice and Hmong sausage – jewelry stalls, a plant and kitchen clothing store.
There were also performances, including performances by children singing traditional songs, and passersby had the opportunity to learn a line dance.
A vendor at the event was Sean Vang, who sold plush toys and toddler t-shirts.
Vang’s plush toys feature designs he draws and prints abroad, which he then sews and finishes himself. Of these designs, Vang’s personal favorite is a frog based on his own favorite animal.
He was persuaded to sell these at the market by an acquaintance from a previous event.
“They recommended that we come here because they said our items would sell well, so we were like, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try,'” he said.
See Vang’s designs at drawbyseanshop.com or on Instagram at @drawnbyseanv.
Another booth in the market featured MJ Wong Engel, Assistant Coalition Director for the Wisconsin Democratic Party, who represented the party’s Asian-American Coalition. This group served as one of the sponsors for the HERE conference.
“We’re out here because this is the Wisconsin that we want to see, a Wisconsin that celebrates our diverse cultures and communities,” she said, “and being an Asian American myself, it’s just awesome. To be a part of this event, the conference and all that HALED is doing to ignite Hmong entrepreneurship.”
Organizers of the Little Mekong Night Market included Addison Vang, who served as the market’s co-chairman. Vang explained that the event came directly from the ideas of the HERE conference, which focused on Hmong entrepreneurship.
The conference examined start-ups and resources and provided opportunities for networking. Guests included speakers from the state level, who came to explain state support systems, Vang said.
“There’s really no room for that right now.” Vang said. “They work in their own little silos and with no government help, so this conference was a way to bring it all together.”
In turn, Vang says the night market emerged to encourage small business owners. Although the event was not limited to just Hmong vendors, most or all were, and the market aimed to provide a space for Hmong vendors to showcase their produce. However, in terms of attendees, the event was aimed at the general community.
“We really wanted to provide an event that wasn’t just for Hmong,” Vang said. “It was for families, it was for people who wanted to come together to be part of something fun. When it comes to inclusion, look around you – there are so many different people.”
To fulfill the market, Vang contacted vendors across the state of Wisconsin and in the Twin Cities. He also explained that the market was inspired by one in the Twin Cities of the same name who provided support.
Vang provided insight into the name of the market and explained the symbolism and meaning of the Mekong River to the Hmong people. He compared the river to the Mississippi, emphasizing its size; Historically, the Mekong was a treacherous obstacle for the Hmong to cross to escape oppression.
“The Mekong represents many things: it is dangerous, but it also represents life and freedom,” Vang said.
As such, it has become a representation of Hmong struggles and their challenges and achievements, such as immigration or entrepreneurship. In addition to this significant cultural implication, however, Vang added that Eau Claire’s geography is particularly apt.
“Luckily we have two rivers here, which is great, so it kind of worked out,” Vang said.
Flake can be reached at [email protected]