Open House Journal
Meeting at the Doorstep
by Benjamin Filene
On the snowy afternoon when translator Foung Heu and I first knocked on Pang Toua Yang’s door, he thought he had won something. Actually, we were there to tell him that his house would be the subject of an upcoming Minnesota Historical Society exhibit. Open House will tell the story of a single, existing dwelling–Pang Toua’s on St. Paul’s East Side–and the people who have lived within its walls, from the German immigrants who built it in 1888 to the Italians, African Americans, and now Hmong who have followed. The exhibit will be at the Minnesota History Center–Pang Toua’s house will remain untouched–but we wanted his support and feared he would tell us the Hmong equivalent of “Hit the road.”
Instead, Pang Toua told us that he and his wife, Mai Vang, had recently become citizens. The previous week they had voted for the first time, helping to elect Mee Moua, the first Hmong legislator in America. Was it their ballot that had led us to their house, they wondered? “They think this is how American democracy works,” smiled Foung after translating their question. Awkwardly I explained that no, their house had been chosen because of its location in St. Paul’s history-rich Railroad Island neighborhood and because, by chance, we had a 1925 photograph of it in our library collection. I waited apprehensively for Pang Toua to say thanks but no thanks. Instead, he led us into his house and, even more generously, shared with us his life story–a story of family, farming, war, and forced migration, of Old World and new.
At a glance, Pang Toua’s house looks nothing like its 1925 incarnation. The single-family home that pharmacist Albert Schumacher had built at 470 Hopkins Street in 1888 was a duplex by 1910; today, it’s a triplex, and Pang Toua and his family enter through a side door. The spacious front porch shown in the photo has long been enclosed. The third floor, where Italian families cured sausages, is gone, destroyed in a 1970 fire. And every remnant of Victorian ornament, flourish, and gewgaw on the façade has disappeared, replaced by smooth pink siding.
The house’s interior furnishings, too, would seem foreign to the German and Italian immigrants who lived there before, but perhaps the stories these objects tell of relocation and adaptation would resonate. On the wall are two framed documents–Pang Toua’s U.S. citizenship certificate and a record of his service in the CIA-supported army of General Vang Pao in Laos. In 1975, after the American army withdrew from Laos in defeat, Pang Toua and Mai were forced to flee with their parents and their six young children. As they tried to escape into the forest, the Communist Pathet Lao troops opened fire on them. Pang Toua and Mai surrendered, but their parents did not emerge from the woods. Presumably they were killed. After their capture, Pang Toua, Mai, and their children spent four years on a Pathet Lao work farm and two more in a Thai refugee camp before the family faced a choice: stay in the camp–with its continual food shortages and cramped conditions–until it closed, return to Laos and face likely persecution, or go to America. Reluctantly they left their homeland, arriving in Minnesota in 1986.
Settling in St. Paul has been a mixed blessing for the family. Mai finds life easier here. She and Pang Toua grow vegetables in their garden and in a community farm plot, but the work of putting food on the table is not as taxing as it was on the farm in Laos. Pang Toua and Mai’s children have embraced America. Their oldest daughter, Mee Yang, has become and entrepreneur. Tired of people pronouncing her name as if it rhymes with “sang” instead of “sung,” she changed it to Elizabeth Young. She now owns 14 properties, including the house on Hopkins Street, part of which she rents to her parents. When I meet her, she teases me for owning “only” one home.
Pang Toua himself is struggling to navigate between American and traditional Hmong cultures. He tells me he would be happy to help on the exhibit project because “In Laos, I was a useful person–my own farmer, my own blacksmith. Here I can’t do anything.” Compounding his feeling of dislocation, he recently suffered a terrible accident. he had a dream that some children were poking a bee’s nest with a stick and that the bees swarmed out and stung his whole body. The next week, he recounts, he was grilling in his backyard. His bottle of lighter fluid had a hole in it, causing flames to shoot up and burn him severely. To Pang Toua, the dream and the accident are connected. And so he has consulted both western doctors and Hmong shamans to treat the injuries he suffered. The first thing one sees upon entering the Hopkins Street house is a shaman shrine. “If it’s a disease,” Pang Toua tells me, “then doctors can cure it, but if it’s spiritual, then you need shamans.”
Pang Toua and Mai’s tale is only one of many wrenching, buoyant, comic, and tragic stories we’ve uncovered in researching the 50 families who passed through 470 Hopkins Street between 1888 and 2003. Strikingly different in their details, these life stories share a rich and idiosyncratic humanity that could never be scripted. As we delve into census, birth, marriage, and death records, page through faded family photo albums, and talk to anyone who might have known someone who once lived in this house, we are gaining a sense of the texture of history and of home: how ordinary people build their lives within four walls and within circles of family, ethnic group, neighborhood, city, and nation. The house has become a vessel of dreams, a stage for successes, setbacks, tragedies and transformations. 470 Hopkins Street has led us into worlds richer than we could have imagined–worlds where the boundaries between Old World and New World blur, where “American” takes on layers of meaning that transcend any dictionary definition, and where a knock on the door can open up conversations that reach across cultures, geography, and time.
Minnesota Historical Society· 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906· 651-259-3000