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Lao America’s 2016 Year in Review

It’s been a year of historic proportions for Lao America. We witnessed the start of the Obama’s administration renewed pivot to Laos, the continued cultural renaissance of Lao artists across the diaspora community, a surprising and unexpected U.S. presidential outcome, as well as deaths in the community looming in the air.

Here’s a brief summary of some accomplishments, happenings and highlights from Lao America below to close out 2016. As 2017 approaches us in a few days, here at LLOTP, we’re committed to continuing the way in building and amplifying more diverse voices in the Lao diaspora.

January

February

  • February marked the 50th anniversary since the historic visit to Laos by US Vice President Hubert Humphrey from Minnesota in 1966.

March

  • In March, 2016, BasicNeeds facilitated the first ever counselling training for Buddhist monks in Pek district, Xiengkhouang province, a severely bombed province in Lao PDR. The training aimed to build the capacity of monks to provide psycho-social support to UXO victims and was conducted in partnership with Danish Church Aid (DCA), supported by the European Commission. You can read more about this intriguing and vital project here.
  • The American Academy of Poets announced that Mai Der Vang received the prestigious Walt Whitman Award for her first book of poetry, which will be released in 2017.

  • On March 12th, Aloun Phoulavan, Christopher Khounabanam, and the young artists of the Our Stories: Laos youth art exhibition at the Ramsey County Library in Roseville for their opening reception. Featuring Lao food and a special musical performance, the exhibit showcased the work Lao American visual artists Aloun Phoulavan and Christopher Khounbanam did throughout 2015 with Lao youth in Minnesota with the support of the Lao Assistance Center.
  • The 10th Annual Lao Educational Conference (ALEC) was held March 29th, 2016 in Sacramento.

April

  • The Lao community ushered in pimai festitivities in Year of the Monkey in April. In Milwaukee, they held the Southeast Asian Youth Education and Career Conference on April 16th, 2015.

May

  • The National Lao American Writers Summit was convened in San Diego for the very first time, chaired by Krysada Panusith Phounsiri. This year’s keynote speakers were Channapha Khamvongsa whose work would later be praised by President Obama during his historic visit to Laos; and Laotian poet Bryan Thao Worra, who had recently finished speaking before the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets as a featured writer.  The Lao American Writers Summit Gallery: ‘Intersectionalities’ was opened to the public in San Diego until May 28th, presenting over 18 nationally-recognized Lao American artists. It was a somber moment for many of the writers in the Lao American community with the passing of Keon Munedouang, a Navy veteran and popular blogger known for his work on Militant Minority.

  • In May, a Lao New Year dinner pop-up called #BLESSED brought monks of the Lao Buddhist temple Wat Phomm to the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia, where attendees were given a water blessing and baci (thread-trying). Guests were also treated to authentic Laotian cuisine by #IEatLaoFood collective from Brooklyn, served traditionally sitting on the floor while listening to Lao karaoke videos. Three featured speakers shared stories of using their work to help immigrant and refugee communities: Channapha Khamvongsa of Legacies of War, Naroen Cchin of 1Love and Ben Miller of South Philly Barbacoa.

June

July

  • Ajahn Bounxeung Synanonh recieved the prestigious 2016 US National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship for his work as a traditional musician. He is now one of only five Lao in the world to hold this distinction, in addition to master weaver Bounxou Chanthraphone (2000), needleworkers Mone and Vanxay Saenphimmachak (1993) and singer Khamvong Insixiengmai (1991) in the 34 year history of the awards. It is one of the highest recognitions an artist can receive from the United States government.They are presented to artists who embody artistic excellence in order to support their continuing contributions to the traditional arts heritage of the United States. Born in 1949 in Savannakhet, he lost his sight at 15 but learned to play the khaen that same year from elders who took the time to teach him. At 67 years old, he’s still teaching students and performing.

  • Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao became Associate Dean of Special Services at Pasadena City College. There she assures the optimal operation of the Special Services department, working to help students with disability, psychological, health, wellness, and Student Veteran related questions and opportunities.
  • The 5th International Conference On Lao Studies was held  July 8-10, 2016, at Thammasat University, Bangkok, Thailand.
  • Triathlete Addy Thongsonlone secured a spot at the Ironman World Championship 2016.

August

  • The Lao-American Reading Center opened in Luang Prabang. Hours are Mondays-Fridays 8:00-17:00. Topics include business and economics, protection of the environment, trafficking in persons and narcotics, democracy and human rights, and current events in ASEAN countries.
  • Director Mattie Do’s Lao horror film “Nong Hak: Dearest Sister,” was selected as an official selection of Fantastic Fest, which kicked off a successful series of international festival screenings that received rave reviews and helped put Lao cinema on the mainstream map.

  • Dr. Jefferson Svengsouk was featured in WXXI’s ArtsInFocus series for “combining his two passions, caring for people in need and playing the Native American flute.” Brothers Nor and Alisak Sanavongsay were recognized at the Laotian Annual Banquet in Fresno for their community service on August 27th.
  • Ninja Foods marked their first anniversary on August 13th. In their mission statement the founders say “Here at Ninja Foods, we don’t just make stuff to sell. We are marketing a movement. We are a team of five unique, passionate individuals, united by one common goal: to put Laos on the map by being part of the Lao Food Movement, joining forces to spread the word about our food, heritage and culture. People have been eating our food all these years but not everyone knows it’s actually Lao food they’re eating. We want to change lives one thum sauce at a time.”
  • The Laotian American National Alliance Conference was held in Las Vegas.
  • August marked the 25th anniversary since the death of Konerak Sinthasomphone, a 14-year old boy killed by Milwaukee serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, as well as the murder of the Thai Buddhist monks of Wat Prom Kunaram in Arizona, which has been called the worst mass murder in Arizona history. The Arizona Buddhist community held a special ceremony to honor the lives lost. August also marked the 45th anniversary since President Nixon admitted the presence of the CIA Secret Army in Laos.

September

  • In September, President Obama made a historic visit to Laos with a pledge to increase aid to Laos for UXO clearance to address the leftover munitions from the Vietnam War as well as other diplomatic developments. There were many other policies he hoped to put in place, although there is considerable tension about how many of these will be supported under the new administration in the US now. Lao America saw a renewed upsurge of the spotlight to Laos and the good work of Legacies of War catapulted into a media firestorm.

  • LLOTP’s team did the media circuit in Lao American diaspora reactions to President Obama’s visit to Laos. Chanida Phaengdara Potter returned to MPR News with Tom Weber. Leslie Chanthaphasouk interviewed on Southern California Public Radio and Bryan Thao Worra also interviewed LA Weekly.
  • Bryan Thao Worra made history as the first Lao American elected to serve as the president of the Science Fiction Poetry Association, an international organization with members in 19 countries marking 38 years of art and writing. Playwright Saymoukda Vongsay received the prestigious Knight Arts Challenge Award in Saint Paul with fellow playwrights May Lee Yang and Naomi Ko for the comedic FAWK project. Catzie Vilayphonh and the Laos in the House team launched their new ongoing webseries Laos in the Houseguest.
  • On September 17th, Lao American bodybuilder Ko Chandetka competed in the Mr Olympia-Classic Physique Division and placed 7th. There were 17 competitors in total who made it to the final competition from around the world.  “It feels great. Top 10 was my goal. And I actually defeated the winner earlier in June at my first show, so that keeps me really motivated.” He recently completed a documentary that is now in the production stages.
  • Lao American actress Sydney Viengluang debuted on the hit zombie television show as the Lao doctor Sun Mei searching for cure for the zombie outbreak.

October 

November

  • It was a busy month for Lao American arts! The Pom Foundation held its first benefit gala to preserve traditional art and music in the spirit of Pom Outama Khampradith, the founder of the Kinnaly Dance Troupe of Seattle.  Playwright Saymoukda Vongsay and Bryan Thao Worra were in New York for the Smithsonian’s CTRL+ALT: A Culture Lab on Imagined Futures with over 40 artists in a pop-up museum exhibition.
  • November was of course a month that changed everything with the election of Donald Trump for President, bringing out a wide range of responses from the community.

December

  • The Lao American Society of Georgia held their benefit gala that drew community builders from across the country.

  • Kulap Vilaysack announced that her show Bajillion Dollar Properties has been renewed for a second season. Saymoukda Vongsay announced that she received a 2017 Verve Spoken Word Grant from Intermedia Arts and a Loft Literary Center Spoken Word Immersion Grant.

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