Remembering Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun - Trailblazing Hmong craftsperson, community organizer, and unparalleled heritage bearer

PANG XIONG SIRIRATHASUK SIKOUN (June 7, 1944 – December 22, 2020)

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, 76, path-breaking Hmong craftsperson and community organizer, passed away on December 22, 2020 at Jeanes Hospital from COVID-19.

This biography was assembled from materials housed in the Philadelphia Folklore Project files and archives, Pang’s family collection, and memory by Debora Kodish, Carole Boughter and Chakawarn Sirirathasuk.

Beloved and influential matriarch of a large extended family, Pang was a major force who introduced Hmong traditions to the wider national community and sustained the culture for generations of American-born Hmong community members. Dynamic, generous, brilliant, creative, openhearted, traditional and forward-thinking, highly skilled in multiple media, and an industrious worker, Pang was an innovator in Hmong arts, culture, foodways, lifeways, and self-help/economic development strategies.

Born in the mountains of northeast Laos in Xieng Khouang Province—the most heavily bombed place on earth—Pang’s earliest memories as well as the first three decades of her life were shaped by war in the region. After the death of her mother, Mao Vang, and as the oldest of fourteen children, Pang took on many familial responsibilities. From the women in the family, she learned to make traditional clothing and Hmong paj ntaub, delicately pieced and folded reverse appliqué that conveys Hmong history and culture. Her father, Xia Kao Xiong, a traditional healer and leader, introduced her to aspects of Hmong culture not ordinarily shared with young daughters.

The escalating war in Laos eventually forced Pang and her family to evacuate their home and head to Pa Dong. There, Pang became a businesswoman, setting up a food stand along the roadside, which is where she met her first husband, Charoon Sirirathasuk, a handsome Thai paratrooper and medic serving in the Royal Lao Army. They were married on April 25, 1961. They had six beautiful children and spent fifteen years living in Sukhothai, Thailand with Charoon’s family. But, in 1975, the Pathet Lao came to power and Hmong people, who had allied with the Royal Lao Army, fled to safety. Some 40,000 Hmong made their way to Thailand, walking through the mountains and floating across the Mekong River. Learning that Pang’s family was alive and in Ban Vinai Refugee Camp in Thailand, Pang and Charoon sold their property and then registered at the camp, quickly becoming staff. Between 1976 and 1979, at the refugee camp, Pang functioned as a teacher, learner, healer, organizer, entrepreneur, and artist. This was at a time when Hmong women’s needlework developed as an artistic means of expression, a way of sharing Hmong stories in cloth, and as an economic development tool. For the next four decades, Pang continued to maintain connections to Ban Vinai art and artist networks, and to build artistic and economic avenues for Hmong people.

In 1979 Pang, Charoon, and their family moved to Philadelphia to join Pang’s brother Chao Song. Pang was 35 years old, among the tens of thousands of displaced Hmong refugees making lives in new lands. During this time, more than 20,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, including 3,000 Hmong people, were resettled in urban Philadelphia, which was not especially hospitable. Anti-Asian violence, especially in West Philadelphia, took a huge toll on Hmong families. Many families moved away. Pang and the Xiong clan are among those who chose to stay. Pang became a motivating force behind preserving Hmong traditions and lifeways. She helped keep the community together through organizing traditional Hmong celebrations of New Year, weddings, births, and the commemoration of the Hmong people's departure from Laos. Widely known as an eloquent Hmong spokesperson, Pang was deeply committed to making “Americans” know the hearts, minds, and spirits of Hmong people.

Her impact is incalculable. In a wide range of projects, from the 1980s to the present, Pang encouraged Hmong elders to share what they knew, and young people gained instruction in needlework as well as other traditions, such as kwv txhiaj (rhymed poetry exchanged back and forth between two “singers” in contests or courting), stories, dance, customs, and more. She is beloved among generations of Hmong children who remember learning how to keep the culture, arts, ethics, values, and, equally, how to be a good person. Pang broke many barriers for Hmong women through her art and music; she remains an inspiring role model. Many Hmong women attribute their success to Pang’s guidance and counsel.

Over the past 41 years here, Pang has been honored for her work with awards from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, Social Science Research Council, Pew Fellowship, Leeway Foundation, Independence Foundation, and many other grants. Pang worked collaboratively with national, regional, and local nonprofits and governments including the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, The Folklife Center of the International House of Philadelphia, John Michael Kohler Arts Center, USIA, Wheaton Arts, Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP), etc. She co-curated PFP’s “We Try to Be Strong,” a retrospective exhibition on local Hmong arts (2006) and served on PFP’s Board of Directors and the Board of the Hmong United Association of Pennsylvania.

Charoon passed away in 1994, and in 1996 Pang married Somboun Sikoun. Once married, Pang and Somboun continued supporting the family through her artistry and his work as a baker. Nothing gave Pang greater pleasure than her family. She was a devoted wife, mother, grandmother, aunt, and more.

She leaves behind six sons and their partners, Chakarin, Chakapope (Ka Yang), Chakaphong (Duab Cis Moua), Chakawarn (Dannelle), Chakaphat (Wang), and Chakrith (Jeannette), two stepsons, Somkhit Sikoun and Khamphou Sikoun, thirty-one grandchildren and ten great-grandchildren. She also leaves behind six siblings, her sister Mai Yia Xiong, and five brothers, Nhia Toua Xiong, Wa Doua Xiong, Ka Moua Song, Chao Song, and Pa Chai Xiong, as well as her husband, Somboun Sikoun.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, we invite those who wish to honor Pang’s legacy to use the GoFundMe Honoring Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, https://www.gofundme.com/f/honoring-pang-xiong-sirirathasuk to support medical expenses, funeral, and memorial costs.

Sources include / for further information:

“Fabrics of culture: Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk,” in Passing on Traditions: Sixteen Master Folk Artists (Fall 1990); Works in Progress 3:3 (1990) 1, 7-8.

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk, Yang Blianghheng Lo and Jennifer Michael, with the assistance of T-Bee Lo, Khue Vang and Chakaphong Sirirathasuk, “’The heart lasts longer than appearances,’ Hmong Kwv txhiaj (courting song) at New Years,” Works in Progress 6:1 (1992-3) 4-6

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun, “’You only have to worry about bears and tigers,’” Works in Progress 11:2-3 (1998) 1, 14-17, 25. [Interviewed, transcribed and edited by Deborah Wei]

Sally Peterson, “We Try to Be Strong: Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun,” Works in Progress: Magazine of the Philadelphia Folklore Project 19:3 (2006-7) 4-7, 21-24:
 

Pang Xiong Sirirathasuk Sikoun and Debora Kodish, curators, We Try To Be Strong [PFP exhibition, 2006]
 

Also see William Robbins, “Violence Forces Hmong to Leave Philadelphia,” New York Times (September 17, 1984) B16: