Call for Submissions: Lao Diaspora Project

Calling all Lao Diaspora!

Do you have photos worth a thousand words? Does it tell a story about your family’s history? Does it reflect who you are? Does it speak of the journey of where you came from and where you are now?

In 2013, LLOTP launched a new project photographing and collecting stories of the Lao Diaspora starting in Minnesota, across the U.S. and in Laos. These stories will be presented through a visual and literary arts piece that will be archived on the website, displayed at a gallery reception, and presented for public education to learn about our shared journey and history.

Little Laos on the Prairie, in collaboration with Laos in the House and artist Chantala Kommanivanh, want to share your story, and those of friends and family! Please spread the word and learn more at: http://littlelaosontheprairie.org/laodiasporaproject

The Lao community’s stories will help educate the public and officials about our shared journey that has been left out of mainstream history. This is a chance for your story to be honored to give our community a chance to reflect, relate and learn from others in the Lao Diaspora.


-Chanida Potter, editor@littlelaosontheprairie.org

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The Lao Food Love Affair in NYC: Chef Phet of Khe-Yo

This is a first part series on Lao food in the mainstream food scene.

The Modern Lao Chef with Midwest Roots

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Chef Phet at his restaurant, Khe-Yo

It starts with the smells. Tasting it comes second. In its traditional form, the sight of it scares the hell out of you. Then when both senses cancel out what the eyes think they see as exotic and weird, a magical dance occurs on the tip of your tongue. It’s not your usual sweet and sour takeout that it should remind you of. It’s new, different and yet so comforting. It’s bold, a bit pungent, and delightfully bitter. Your mouth becomes happy at the joy of the unknown flavors the typical American would never imagine as being delicious. And that’s how a typical beginner’s love affair starts with Lao food.

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Thip khao at Khe-Yo

In the heart of Tribeca village in New York City, there are two Lao chefs. At Khe-Yo, Kansas-based Chef Phet Schwader is a no-nonsense Lao American food scene hustler who enjoys playing with flavors of Southeast Asia. Across the street is Chef Jeannie, a low-key mom from Southern Pakse who serves up mom’s homecooked Lao favorites. She knows of the famed Chef Phet. “Yeah, he’s new to this town. I’ve been here forever!”, she exclaims. Chef Phet, on the other hand, had no idea there was another Lao chef in the same vicinity. They’re both convinced there’s enough space for more than one Lao chef to rule the town. To start, we focus on Chef Phet, who I visited back in July.

At his roots, he’s Lao. He’ll tell you he just wants to make good food, but New Yorkers are in a tizzy with the Lao food scene, which has been taking its rightful place among foodies in the East Coast. In this side of town, New Yorkers can be a tough crowd.

“What the fuck are you doing? Get the pot off the cutting board!” Chef Phet screamed at a young sous chef who pulled a kitchen sin. As he walked us through a maze downstairs through the back kitchen, I expected a touch of Hell’s Kitchen-like atmosphere with short tempers that matched the flaring knives of when fish heads quickly met their demise. “Sorry about that. It’s not a cheap cutting board”, he explained to me. I keep quiet to not mess with the king of the house. We made it to the freezer, which was Lao in all its finest fridge hoarding. “Look at that bin of dried fish. My uncle in Laos sent it. You can smell it from here, right?” Chef Phet’s temperament scales back a bit as he re-connects with his ingredients. We meet the staff of over 30 people behind the curtains and make our way back to the lunch table. “On a Friday night, we average around 800 hungry people who want a taste of Lao food. Mom usually pulls up a stool in the middle of the kitchen to just watch me. I’ll yell at my staff and she’ll give me the eye and remind me to be nice. That’s my Lao side that keeps me grounded.”

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Fish being prepared Lao style

We started our conversation over banh mi sandwiches (with pork belly, of course).

Tell me a bit about your family’s journey to the states. How did you get here?

I was born in Nongkhai, Thailand. My father passed away there and I recently went back to find out what happened. I was three when I got to America. Our sponsor had a printing company, and wanted to sponsor Lao folks. His name was Jack Fishback. Growing up in in Kansas, there was a huge Lao community in Wichita, Kansas. Mom is huge in the temples. I have one older brother and one younger sister. Mom cooked a lot of food. Our treat was KFC and Pizza Hut on Fridays. When I went to field trips, I always wanted a ham & cheese dish but mom always made me a banh mi sandwich. Father passed away in Nong Khai. I didn’t have a father figure until my mom remarried an American and that’s why my last name is Schwader.

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Chef Phet and his family in Laos, 1970s.

What does being Lao American mean to you?

I get the best of both worlds. I have another culture that I can relate to. I relate to the American and relate to the Lao. Karma, respect to elders, the idea of string tying. I’m not spiritual. Mom had a lot of loss in her life. When my stepfather passed away two years ago, there were a lot of Lao community members, but not very many came from the American side. Shit happens. If you have a community who you can go to, then go to it.

I went to Laos in 2011 for the first time and then this past March. The Lao mentality of giving is what made me feel connected to who I am. Seeing my relatives for the first time and seeing the village of where I came from. It gave me a sense of: no more questions. This is where I came from. I was the only Asian kid in high school. The Lao were in one side of town and the rest of us on the other side. I would have friends over for dinner and they thought the vegetables were weed. Growing up, the house stunk and I would be embarrassed. It was hard to identify with the Lao. I’m Lao and my wife is Colombian.

How did you start a love for cooking? Describe your cooking.

In Kansas. I went to a community college in KS. I wasn’t serious about it. I ended up working in kitchens. The people I worked with had saw my potential. I was in my 20s. I went to culinary school and came in the city in ’99. I worked with a Malaysian chef at AZ. It really opened my eyes about what a good restaurant and good cooking can do. I got a look at the good, bad, and ugly of things. I didn’t want to make other people money and I got burnt out. About three years ago, I quit and went to my friend at a restaurant around the corner. He won Iron Chef, and had a lot of noreity. He wanted to open a restaurant with me. Overall, my food is Southeast Asian with heavy influence of Lao flavors, which is a balance of sweet, sour, salty. I say to people; the best way to describe Lao food is sticky rice (khao nieow). It’s the defining aspect of the cuisine.

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Sous chefs of Khe-Yo

How has the restaurant business been so far?

It’s been good. When I first came, I didn’t know if it would work. If you look at the menu, the flavors are traditional, but the presentation is different.

Success is a relative form. The city is a hustle. You have to make yourself different. It’s a niche that is filled right now. I don’t want to be regulated to just Lao. In the Fall, I make the squash and not just papaya for salad. I have regulars. The Lao who come say it’s just like their mom and dad’s cooking. It’s the best compliment. It’s all of the things my mom cooks.

What do you think about the label that you’re a Lao modernist on food?

I can’t make everyone happy. I put out what I feel has substance and character. It doesn’t bother me if I can’t make something that people think it isn’t Lao. People still come in happy and leave happy. As a chef, you want people to like it, but as a business owner, I have to make money.

Tell me a bit about your journey here in New York. 

We’re living the dream. We got opportunities. My mom always said: appreciate what you have. Being a Lao American, I appreciate the fact that I was able to come here. I try to remember where I came from and what I have. Growing up in Laos, you get a little bowl of rice and a bit of meat. Here it’s endless. You have to be reminded where we came from.  Life is a work in progress. There’s always challenges.

How is the scene for Lao food here?

When people eat it, people love it. I cringe when people use spoons and forks to pick up sticky rice out of the thip khao. I try to influence people to eat a different way. I want to open more restaurants and in different cities.

What would you say to other aspiring Lao cooks?

Practice makes perfect. I worked in kitchens for 20 years, but I started only cooking Lao food a few years ago. It’s about how it tastes as you’re cooking. Practice and experiment. Eat as much good Lao food as possible. Make your own flavor profile. I always think to myself: will I like this dish? And not if people will like it. Get in the business to get out. I sacrifice a lot. I work 7 days a week, 15 hours a day, but it’s not work to me. It’s my happiness. How many people can say that? You have to balance your life out. I told myself I always have to be able to go back to Laos. Because New York makes you crazy and you have to know how to hustle, but as a Lao person, I look at my mom and I remember how to treat people.

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Chef Phet, Khe-Yo

Khe-Yo is located at 157 Duane St., New York (212) 587-1089. 

For more on the Lao Diaspora, go here.

-Chanida Potter, editor@littlelaosontheprairie.org

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Our veterans, our stories: Veterans Voices Month

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Minnesota has led the way on many issues, one  of the most recent being the designation of October as Veterans’ Voices Month to honor those who served in the military.

This effort involved institutions such as the Minnesota Humanities Center and the veterans in many of Minnesota’s  communities. Representative Jerry Newton (D-District 37A), and
Representative Bob Dettmer (R-District 39A) wrote the bill in the House, while Senator John A. Hoffman was the Senate sponsor of this legislation. As the Minnesota Humanities Center noted,  “The Veterans’ Voices Month legislation passed by unanimous vote in both Houses.” Governor Dayton signed the bill into law and Minnesota became the first state in the country to designate an entire month  for Veterans.

David O’Fallon, President of the Minnesota Humanities Center, said in a statement “This is unprecedented. Veterans’ Voices Month not only honors our Veterans, but builds a stronger understanding of their commitment to our country and communities.”

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For the Lao Minnesotan veterans this should be a time of celebration as we also see the community moving forward with establishing a monument on the state capitol grounds to recognize the Laotian and Hmong veterans who served as US allies during the Southeast Asian conflicts of the 20th century. We also have seen many more community members working together to record the voices of our veterans through oral histories across the country and in Minnesota. This has been an imperfect process. Already, we have lost so many families’ stories for the next generation.

Because of the nature of the Secret War, language, and other cultural barriers there is still a lot many don’t understand about how our veterans and our families got here. How they helped US Special Forces and others such as the secret US airmen stationed at the radar guidance station on the mountain known as Phou Pha Thi. There are many events where we do not have a clear picture, and many of the Southeast Asian archives around the country do not have the resources to collect or preserve the stories of our Lao veterans.

Saysana Pommalath the Lao veterans and MN State Senator Foung Hawj during the holidays

Saysana Pommalath the Lao veterans and MN State Senator Foung Hawj during the holidays

As the Lao community marks 40 years of the Lao diaspora in 2015, we can only hope that by next October, we will have many more veterans voices heard so that we can see how they were forever interwoven with the story of Laos, of the United States, and Minnesota. This is one of the reasons why Little Laos on the Prairie, along with artist Chantala Kommanivanh, and Laos in the House, are working together on the Lao Diaspora project. The deadline for families to submit to this project is November 1st and we hope to see many submissions from our veterans and their families so that we can show the next generation not only who we have been but where we are going.

~M.K. Khamchanh,
Little Laos on the Prairie

 

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June Rain, October Reunion

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This past weekend, Little Laos on the Prairie and Sahtu Press traveled to the acclaimed Beverly Hills artShow, which drew well over 1,000 visitors from around the world. Over 240 artists were exhibiting in the posh venue but for our team, there was really only one big draw, the master Lao artisan Thép Thavonsouk, who is rarely in the US, splitting his time between Canada and his art school in Laos.

The occasion was momentous as it also marked the first time we had seen Ai Thavonsouk in twelve years. He had come to visit Minnesota in April, 2002 and several of his pieces were part of the Five Senses Show of Laotian art we were organizing at the Babylon Gallery on Lake Street (April 1st to May 2nd, 2002). It had been an inspiring meeting that left a significant impact on our work over the years. My poem, “Discussing Principles of Art with Laotians” had been inspired by his conversations with us in an effort to capture some of the ideas we were now considering.

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Born in Vientiane, Thép Thavonsouk grew up in Laos during the French occupation. He attended the Lycée de Vientiane in Laos and was given exposure to the French aesthetics and classical arts. The prominent French artist Marc Leguay was  living in Laos at the time as a teacher. Leguay was a deep influence on Thép, showing him the work of the Impressionist painters.

Thép obtained the Baccalauréat from the Lycée de Vientiane and left Laos in 1967 with a Fulbright Scholarship for St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York. There, he earned a degree in Diplomacy with a minor in Art. In 1972, Thép emigrated to Canada. He settled in Lethbridge, Alberta where he taught French at the University and English as a Second Language to new Canadians.  He eventually decided to pursue his true calling of painting and studied in Taiwan under the well-known Chinese painting masters Chen Ming-shien and Tien Manh-shih. He also studied in Japan learning the arts of Kiri-e (paper cutting) and woodblock printing, and spent many years in Hawaii perfecting his techniques.

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Some of Thép Thavonsouk’s most popular work of has been from his “June Rain” series of  watercolors and inks on rice paper that vary in size and value. He is also well known for his “Saffron Robes” series of Theravada Buddhist monks from a variety of non-traditional vantage points.

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Today his work is sought around the world, and you can see some of it on exhibit at www.junerain.com

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After we drove over ten hours to see him, it was a wonderful reunion and he was very easy to spot among all of the artists there. He was in his his element, cheerfully embracing everyone and discussing his work with an admiring audience. Many had never heard of Laos before but were drawn to his vivid images and his clear mastery of his craft.

Who could have imagined after 12 years since our last meeting that Nor Sanavongsay would go on to found Sahtu Press and his own children’s book, A Sticky Mess, also inspired by the same Lao youth and Buddhist heritage he shared with Thép? Artists’ journeys are often unpredictable, often with many of our peers setting aside their brushes and pens in favor of more “practical” pursuits.

How many artists of our generation did we start out with who are still actively creating today? It’s something I wonder about with a bit of sadness as we approach the 20th anniversary of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project next year, and the 40th anniversary of our diaspora. I think there will be some profound soul-searching during the National Lao American Writers Summit in this upcoming April.

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As the Beverly Hills artSHOW went on, one thing was clear for all of us: That we all still had a lot to learn in the world. It was good to see how far we had all come, and how far we still had to go to get what we all really came for. It made us wonder how far any of us would go for our art, and what kinds of people we would meet along the way, both from our past, and or future.

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When the show was done for the day, we gathered at the Crescent Hotel in Los Angeles and reminisced about the time between our last visit. We had a chance to see the amazing work he was doing in Laos to inspire the next generation of Lao artists and to enable them to pursue amazing opportunities in the future wherever they go. We promised it would not be another 12 years before we all came together again.

~Bryan Thao Worra
Little Laos on the Prairie

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