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For unrecognized minority, temple brings sense of community

Patricia Leigh Brown/California WatchKouichoy Saechao (right), chairman of the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association; Lai Chow Saephan (left); and Chaylium Saechao wear traditional garments at the King Pan festival in September.

To watch elderly women in hand-embroidered robes sip coconut drinks while sharing news is to marvel that there is yet to be a category for “Iu Mien” in the U.S. Census.

The feeling of being an unacknowledged minority within an Asian minority was a major impetus behind the building of the King Pan Community Center and Temple, a hidden Oakland treasure and center of Iu Mien life tucked into an unassuming side street of East Oakland.

“We don’t have a country,” said Seng Fong, a 39-year-old social worker. “So this is a place to feel a sense of ownership and belonging, a place we can talk and celebrate.”  

The Iu Mien, an ethnic minority from southeast China, were among thousands of Laotian mountain peoples who were forced to flee their villages after aiding the CIA during the Vietnam War. The first generation of refugees settled mostly on the West Coast – the majority in California – after surviving harrowing escapes across the Mekong River and years of squalid conditions in Thai refugee camps.

Arriving in America in the 1970s, the Iu Mien experienced profound culture shock, made more acute by the lack of a written language. 

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“There were gangs, family conflicts, language barriers, problems with police,” said Kouichoy Saechao, chairman of the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association. “We used to be villagers. Here, we didn’t even know our neighbors.”

The King Pan compound, which broke ground in 2000, is one of only three Iu Mien temples in the world. (The other two are in Hunan Province, China, and Gresham, Ore.). The complex was built with donations from the Iu Mien community at large – about 35,000 people in the U.S., with 12,000 or so living in and around Sacramento.

“When people drive by, they think it’s a house,” 15-year-old Yaneli Peres, a neighbor who lives across the street, says of the sweeping Chinese-style double roofs and ornamental gate. “But it’s a temple.”

The center, organized around a traditional courtyard, has become the place where young people gather on Sundays for language classes and elders keep each other company over fragrant bowls of beef and bamboo shoot soup.

On a recent Saturday, about 500 Iu Mien people from Redding, Stockton, Fresno and even Thailand flocked to the complex for the 16th annual King Pan festival. Elderly women in black turbans were decked out in richly embroidered robes with silver adornments, bright red boas made of yarn draped like mink around their necks.

The concept of a public space is new for the Iu Mien: For more than 2,000 years in China, and then in southeast Asia, religious festivals, as well as weddings and funerals, took place at home.

But as Iu Mien refugees were resettled in U.S. cities and became isolated from one another, the village social networks that held the community together broke down. Many slid quietly into depression, drug abuse, compulsive gambling, truancy and gang activity. Between 1985 and 1994, Iu Mien youth had the second-highest incarceration rate in California, according to a report [PDF] on community resilience written by Hanmin Liu, co-founder of the Wildflowers Institute, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco.  

The institute helped the Iu Mien community find ways to replicate the social cohesion of highland villages within Oakland, Sacramento and other cities. 

“We don’t have a written language,” explained Saechao, who escaped from Laos in 1975. “So it’s hard to connect.”

Eight informal “districts,” or networks, now knit together people from several villages who lived close to each other in Laos, each with a point person who helps organize events and offers guidance in family disputes.

But by far the most galvanizing force was the creation of a place, which “made the invisible visible,” in Saechao’s words. King Pan, the namesake of both the temple complex and the festival, is a mythical forefather, creator of the 12 clans of the Iu Mien people – the clans still exist in the 12 last names passed down through families.

In the U.S., “King Pan has been re-signified as a way to bring the community together," said Hjorleifur Jonsson, associate professor of anthropology at Arizona State University. "There was a sense that if they didn’t build a temple, the culture was going to dissipate.”

Inside the temple are golden shrines to divinities as well as ancestors, reflecting a creative blend of Taoism, Buddhism, Confucianism and ancestor worship.

With donations from Iu Mien well-wishers and private foundations, the Lao Iu Mien Culture Association purchased the 27,000-square-foot site in 1996. They still are paying off loans for the temple. The association hopes to expand the complex to include a community hall, library and museum that would include public programs.

The complex is on a residential block in the Sobrante Park neighborhood of East Oakland, an area with one of the lowest life expectancies of any East Bay ZIP code and more than twice the number of emergency room visits for assault, according to the Alameda County Public Health Department. 

Phebia Richardson, a 78-year-old community activist, said the biggest challenge is the “lack of communication” between groups. She would like to see the Iu Mien participate more in local issues like crime prevention.

“It does enhance the aesthetic effect,” she said of the complex. “But what it’s all about is neighbors helping neighbors.”

Saechao said there have been fewer responses to their standing invitation to drop by than they had hoped.  That is not to say there aren’t visitors. Recently, a busload of elders from Sacramento came to ponder how the temple might be replicated there.

“They’re a role model,” said Kao Siew Saetern, 31, who manages the website www.immien.com.

Every year after the Lunar New Year, a group of male elders will gather at the Roberts Regional Recreation Area in the Oakland Hills. There, they will honor the place-spirit, the original Native Americans who settled the area. Then they will ask for well-being and protection for Oakland, the city that is now home.

California Lost is an occasional series examining challenges facing neglected communities around the state.

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