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Coronavirus Victims: Keeper Of Hmong Culture Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun


Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun wove her history and that of her people into massive quilts in a Hmong embroidery style called paj ntaub.

NAOMI STURM-WIJESINGHE: She has huge pieces, like the size of a huge wall - right? - that literally tell the story of Hmong migration, you know, from China and from Laos and to the refugee camps in Thailand during the Vietnam War. And then you see them - you literally - like, you see them boarding the planes to the U.S. and coming to Philadelphia.

KELLY: That is Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe. She is executive director of the Philadelphia Folklore Project. That's a nonprofit that supported Pang's work. Pang died from COVID-19 in December. She was 76. But her legacy lives on through her craft and the stories she told. In the late '70s, Pang's family was among thousands of Hmong people who immigrated to the U.S., many of them fleeing war and oppression in East Asia.

CHAKAWARN SIRIRATHASUK: I remember the very day. It was March 15, 1979. That's when we landed in Philadelphia airport.

KELLY: That is Chakawarn Sirirathasuk, one of Pang's six sons. Originally from Laos, Pang and her family first moved to a refugee camp in Thailand, then to the U.S.

SIRIRATHASUK: First time we ever see was snow (laughter) - that was the very first thing that we see was, whoa, it's a lot of snow (laughter).

KELLY: The family squeezed into a two-bedroom apartment. And Pang and her then-husband learned English at a Philadelphia community college. While she studied, she wove intricate paj ntaub quilts using the method she'd learned from her mother. Soon, her teachers took notice, suggested she start selling them. And so she began her annual holiday sale. Pang held it at her home. It was the stuff of legend.

STURM-WIJESINGHE: It was this amazing thing. Her husband and her sons are, like, award-winning chefs. And so they would cook all this amazing Hmong and Thai food, and people would come and shop and eat. And it was like - it was totally her thing.

KELLY: Again, Naomi Sturm-Wijesinghe - she first met Pang at one of these sales. She loaded up on gifts for friends and family. And Pang also made a personal connection, gifting her a small, embroidered turtle; turtles being an animal central to Hmong folklore. Pang's son, Chakawarn Sirirathasuk, remembers that attending these events was as much about interacting with Pang, a beacon of Hmong history and spirit, as it was about walking away with a new piece.

SIRIRATHASUK: One of the things that she always want us to preserve is our traditional culture. She always teach us, you know, it doesn't matter, you know, where you go or who you become, but always remember your traditional - your old culture.

KELLY: Her work was exhibited locally. She received numerous awards, including a Pew Fellowship in 1996. And Pang was especially good at linking Hmong elders with younger generations, sharing traditions and values - all this on top of being a mother to six.

SIRIRATHASUK: She always said, you know, when I scream and yell at you every day, every time, I'm telling you that I love you.

KELLY: Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun died in December from COVID-19. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.