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Deadly Despair: Latest slayings shock Hmongs--but violence transcends ethnicity

Source: AsianWeek/Pan Asia Venture Capital Corp.

Tuesday morning dawned clear and bright over 2681 Fairfield, a modest, '70s-style complex in north Sacramento. Dogs barked and barefoot children ran out to play as mothers took their needlepoint out on porches or balconies.

On Tuesday, there was no screaming. That happened Saturday afternoon, when police say Kao Xiong, 31, used a shotgun and a high-powered rifle to shoot his youngest children, then turned one of the guns on himself. When officers burst through the door of apartment 10, they found the bodies of Kong Meng Xiong, 7; Lisa Xiong, 5; Kong Pheng Xiong, 3; Peter Xiong, 2; and Micky Xiong, 1. Xiong's stepchildren, Vichian, 14; and Cheng, 9, escaped unharmed--one by climbing through a bathroom window.

After returning, their mother, Mai Thao, sobbed outside the apartment. She was turned away Sunday after trying to enter the crime scene. She and the two surviving children are staying with relatives in Stockton, police said.

The manager of the 50-unit complex recalled that he heard "something hit the wall." Then, he said, a neighbor knocked on his door and asked him to call police.

"I call police, then I heard gunshots after," said the manager, a middle-age Hmong man who requested anonymity. "I was very scared. It's very hard--it makes you feel memories back in Laos. The war--yes, I was in the war."

Some neighbors reported having heard Thao and Xiong fighting before the shootings. According to a Sacramento Bee report this week, a man who worked with Xiong at his lawn-care job said that on the night before the shootings, Xiong and his wife had argued over Xiong's plans to spend $400 on a new hunting jacket. The coworker said Xiong then took the money and gambled it away.

Chang Lee, who stopped by Tuesday to inquire about an apartment, heard another version of what happened. "She was angry at her husband and asked money to buy jackets for the children."

ORDINARY PEOPLE

But what set Xiong off on Saturday remains unclear, said Sacramento Lt. John Kane, a North Station watch commander. He said that Xiong, who lived in Stockton before moving to Sacramento, had no prior criminal record.

"They weren't violent," said the apartment manager. "They were ordinary people."

Pheng Lo, program director for the Lao Family Community in Stockton, said he met Xiong a few times while he lived in east Stockton. "He seemed to be a calm, nice person."

But Xiong's cousin, Chong Cha of Lodi, said that when his father talked with Xiong over the phone shortly before the shootings, Xiong warned him that he would kill his children. Cha's family, who had spent Thanksgiving with the Xiongs, drove 35 miles north from Lodi as quickly as they could. They were too late.

"They were a good family," Cha said. "We never expected this."

While Cha described Xiong as a loving husband and father, he acknowledged a perception that Xiong never seemed to earn enough money to support his wife and children. According to Lo, when the Xiongs lived in Stockton, Xiong was mostly unemployed. He and his family lived with his mother and father, a farmer named Vasai Cha who had been a soldier in the Vietnam War.

Xiong "had a hard time, moving from job to job," his cousin said. "He was unable to keep a job that would support the family."

Such stresses might well have taken a toll. To one of Xiong's neighbors, an 18-year-old man, Xiong "had a short temper. He was always grouchy. The way he talks to his family. Sometimes he yelled at them outside."

Lo said Xiong's father had kept guns in the home--which many Hmong do, especially ex-soldiers. Xiong himself had been among the last of his Hmong tribesmen to help fight the Communists, according to the Bee.

A PEOPLE IN NEED

Kane, the Sacramento police lieutenant, said it wasn't unusual for a family of nine like Xiong's to share a one-bedroom unit--many poorer immigrant families of all ethnicities often share such "starter apartments." According to the apartment manager, about 450 people, mostly Hmong, live in the 50-unit Del Paso Heights complex of 50 units. Most of them rent for $310 per month, just like Xiong's.

According to the Merced Lao Family Community, Sacramento County's Hmong population numbers about 15,000--only a tiny fraction of the more than 1.1 million people who live there, but still second only to Fresno County. In 1996, the 46,892 Hmongs who lived in California made up about 1.4 percent of California's population of 32 million, according to the California Research Bureau.

Nationwide, Hmongs tend to have less money and more children than the population as a whole. According to U.S. Census figures, Hmongs in 1990 had a per capita income of $2,692, compared with an average API figure of $13,806 and a national average of $14,143. Their average family size was 6.6 people per household (compared with just over 2.0 in the general population). In 1990, two-thirds of Hmongs lived under the poverty line, according to the Census.

Large numbers of Hmongs began arriving in the United States as refugees in the late 1970s with little skills or education. Their written language, in fact, wasn't developed until 1953, according to John Hwang, an Asian American studies professor at Sacramento State University.

According to the Census, Hmongs in 1990 had the lowest average levels of education among all API groups. In 1990, 19 percent of Hmong women 25 years and older had graduated from high school and only 7 percent of the men 25 years and older had graduated from college, compared with 23.3 percent of the collective Asian American population.

Lo, the Stockton family-center director, said Hmongs often suffered depression caused by financial hardship.

"In general, Hmong people have a lot of stress," Lo said. "We feel like there's no hope. We are very isolated and segregated."

Noa Lee, a caseworker for the Lao Khmu Association and Refugee Center in Stockton, said she has seen many people "explode" under financial pressures that were exacerbated after welfare reform passed in 1996. Since then, she has mourned several suicides, including her own uncle.

When he learned of the rampage in church on Sunday, Lue Vang, an administrator in the Sacramento City Unified School District, said he was indescribably incredulous.

"What makes a man do such a thing?" he wondered, just as he did last year when he heard that a 24-year-old mother had strangled her six children in St. Paul, Minn. Khoua Her was eventually sentenced to 30 years in prison.

A VIOLENT STEREOTYPE

Many Hmongs feel similar disbelief and some shame over the litany of violence, which over the past few months have also included allegations that six Hmong men gang-raped a University of Colorado student west of Boulder and that Hmong youths abducted girls from Wisconsin and held them in an abandoned house in Detroit, raping them repeatedly.

Reports of violence are "something the media plays up," said Ghia Xiong, a health program manager at the Fresno Center for New Americans. "Hmongs are identified as the bad, the worst group of the Southeast Asians." Referring to the fact that many Hmongs now over 40 had helped the CIA fight Communism in Laos, Ghia Xiong pointed out that the Hmong people "were peaceful--until they were dragged into the war."

That aside, he said, all ethnicities have their share of violence, he said, noting that a Vietnamese American and a Japanese American were recently implicated in workplace shootings in California and Hawaii, respectively.

Compared to other groups with similar income statistics, Hmong have lower rates of violence, said John Hwang, an Asian American studies professor at Sacramento State University. Statistics from the state attorney general's office may bolster his contention. According to a 1998 report, "other Asians,"--the category under which Hmongs are typically grouped--accounted for less than one percent of arrests.

Even more heartening, said Hwang, a new generation has been leading changes for the better over the past decade.

"They are now in higher education graduating with BAs, MAs, and PhDs, We are seeing more Hmong youngsters in higher education. It is a very dramatic change."

Rico Her, 23, is part of that transformation. As the oldest of 12 children, Her, a 20-year immigrant and a Sacramento State University senior, hopes to become the first to graduate from colege, but not the last.

As second-generation Hmong Americans transition from a traditional, agrarian culture to a modern one, "there's a struggle," explained Her, president of the Hmong University Student Association. "People feel if they become Americanized they'll lose their culture, but if they are not Americanized, they'll be poor."

Her acknowledges that he's lost many friends to that struggle. Parental pressures and longtime traditions still pressure many boys to marry by 18 and girls by 15. Others, he said, have "fallen into drugs and alcohol because their parents didn't push them to stay in school."

Vang stressed that to succeed in the United States, Hmongs must be open to cultural adjustments, such as two-income households. "Compromises must be made," he said.

Though his mother has little education, Rico Her credits her "common sense" for his own success. "She pressures me to finish school and get a job. She sees relatives who married early and got divorced. She realizes you can't apply old traditions to a new, modern way of living."

Before Her's father died two years ago, he instilled in his son the importance of education and assimilation, enrolling Her in Little League, track and band.

"Most Hmong children don't get this treatment," Her said. "They still think traditionally."

News of Saturday's shootings didn't didn't come as a big surprise, he said. "Violence is a result of frustration and anger" often due to sociological and economic oppression.

"This is not a Hmong problem; it's an American problem," Her said. "A husband killing his whole family back in Laos--you wouldn't have heard of such a problem. Domestic violence, gang violence are an American phenomena."