Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Lao Magician in action

Here's a Lao magician in action, although there aren't many details on the context:

Interestingly, Sisuepahn Phila is a Lao magician as well, using her art with partner Brian Gillis to bring joy to orphans in Laos through the non-profit Magic 4 Orphans. The main website still needs some work, but it's an interesting project:
You can also see their regular magic act at:

Asian and Asian American Magicians

During the early 20th century there were a number of Asian and Asian American magicians of note, however, few of their lives have been actively studied and much of what we know about them has long remained unfortunately brief. Three to consider include:

Ching Ling Foo (1854 - 1922) from Beijing. He was the first modern East Asian magician to achieve world fame, and was immortalized in a song by composer Irving Berlin. He's particularly famous for offering a reward of $1,000 to anyone who could reproduce his most famous trick of producing a child from a bowl of water that was itself created from a piece of empty cloth. Ching Ling Foo's act was ripped off by an American magician who donned yellow-face and claimed he was "Chung Ling Soo."

Long Tack Sam (1885-1961) is from northern China's Shangdung Province. He has come into renewed fame recently thanks to the work of his granddaughter who released a graphic novel and a film discussing the life and times of this magician. You can see a trailer here: An acrobat, magician, comic, impersonator, restauranteur and theater owner, the colorful Long Tack Sam was also Orson Welle's mentor in magic, a freemason and a world traveler.

De Yip Loo is a Chinese American magician with roots in the Midwest. In an article in the May 2004 issue of Magic Magazine, Mark Holstein wrote: “De Yip Loo was a Chinese magician who created the famous “Shang Po Magic Show,” not too long after several seasons of touring the world with the Great Blackstone and, later, the Great Dante." 

De Yip Loo came to America as a teen and started on a farm in Minnesota, but moved to Chicago where he set records for breaking more dishes than anyone else at a local Chinese restaurant. But then the Great Blackstone and from that point on the rest became history. His daughter Mai Ling maintains a great website about his life at

Dr. Krysten R. Moon has a very interesting article: The Rise of Asians and Asian Americans in Vaudeville, 1880s–1930s.

Dr. Moon suggests "While playing to the lowest common denominator, vaudeville was also an incredibly democratic form of entertainment for the period, and a place where the children of immigrants often found success. It was in this environment that Asians and Asian Americans had opportunities to express ideas and traditions in ways that were not found in later forms of entertainment, especially film and television..."

Asian Week has a 2007 article: Asian American Magicians Have The Magic Touch providing a brief overview of the current scene for the emerging Asian American magicians today, including Andrew Ngo, Carlos da Silva II and the multiethnic troupe, Prophecies of the Element:

Time for a little magic: Jade

One of the few Asian American women magicians practicing today, Jade has won awards internationally for her performances which combine her heritage with contemporary showmanship and style. To this day she is the only woman to receive the coveted Gold Medal of Magic from her peers of the International Brotherhood of Magicians, an award given only a few times in the 20-year history of the World Magic Competition. You can see an example of her art here:

2009 / 2552 Year In Review

While from a Lao point of view, the year isn't anywhere close to being done yet, it still seems as good a time as any to do a look back on 2009. The year was filled with many new friends made, many places visited and many things learned and a few new books out. Not bad.

This was a good year as an NEA Fellow in Literature, and it encouraged me greatly to continue my work as a poet and keep taking artistic risks and experiment with new methods and approaches.

Receiving a 2009 Asian Pacific American Leadership award from the State Council of Asian Pacific Minnesotans was also a great honor, as was the certificate of recognition from the Mayor of San Francisco during the International Lao New Year Festival and an award of appreciation from the students and staff of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Thank you all for your support.

Traveling across the country, it became apparent there is still much work that remains to be done to keep the literary arts a deep cultural passion of our nation. I'm very intrigued by what it would take to improve our artistic infrastructure to create a sufficiently supportive environment for our writers and creators.

From a travel perspective, I was able to travel to many cities and states including Tennessee, California, Arizona, Nebraska,Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and briefly passed through North Carolina, South Carolina, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

I've emerged with a stronger sense of where our communities are at the moment, and there's a lot worth looking at. I even seem to have met a few long-lost relatives for the first time in 36 years. Who can argue with that.

This year my rate of publication was slower than usual or perhaps simply condensed with the release of my books Tanon Sai Jai and BARROW and a few other personal projects. However, work on my novel and short story collection went very well, and we've begun successfully fund-raising for Lao women's dance, the Lao Writers Summit and bringing Legacies of War and Refugee Nation to the Twin Cities for 2010. So, it's moving forward, not backwards or sideways.

Learn and grow. There's still so much to see and seek but I definitely have no big regrets about this year. Here's to the future and wishing everyone else a safe and prosperous season ahead! Thank you for making this journey with me!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts Announced

The National Library of Laos has announced the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts (DLLM), a web application which will make images of almost 12,000 texts from throughout Laos easily accessible for study. The digital library can be viewed at This is an exciting and interesting development. It should be very interesting to see improvements throughout the coming years ahead.

NEA 2010 Literature Fellows announced

The 2010 Literature Fellows of the National Endowment for the Arts were announced this month. This year the fellowships are awarded to creative writers working in prose.

I encouraged many of you to apply if you were eligible. The applications for poetry are due soon.

For Minnesota a big congratulations goes to Matthew Batt of Saint Paul and Gregory Blake Smith of Northfield.

Notable Asian Americans selected this year include: Padma Viswanathan, author of House of Sacred Cows and The Toss of a Lemon, Frances Hwang and Aimee Phan, a Vietnamese American writer and author of We Should Never Meet.

Congratulations to all 42 writers chosen! Over 25,000 pages were reviewed from 993 eligible applicants. The Fellowship awards $25,000 to support writing and additional projects necessary for the writers' artistic growth.

To apply, writers submit a sample of their best work. Prose writers submit 30 pages of fiction or creative nonfiction. Poets submit 10 pages of poems. These are judged blindly by anonymous manuscript and sent to a panel of distinguished American writers who spend five months evaluating them.

In my year, ca. 1,000 poets applied. Only 42 were selected, less than 1 per state.

The panel is split into teams, who pick their favorites to discuss in Washington, DC. Every chosen manuscript is read, discussed, and scored by a subset of judges who ultimately rank-order our work according to our combined scores.

The full panel looks at the ranked list and makes its final recommendations, which then go through two more levels of review: the presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed National Council on the Arts and the NEA Chairman.

This is NOT an easy process.

That being said, I strongly benefited from my NEA Fellowship and had the opportunity to meet so many of you face to face because of it. I think it makes an exceptional difference in the life of a writer, not only monetarily but because it is one of the strongest affirmations from our peers.

These are some of the most distinguished writers in the country today judging our work on as little as 10 pages and 200 words outlining our plans. That's not a lot to work with.

The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting excellence in the arts bringing the arts to all Americans. Established by Congress in 1965 as an independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nation's largest annual funder of the arts.

Retired WI principal aids UXO removal in Laos

A nice article from the Wausau Daily Herald about Jim Harris, a retired principal of Weston Elementary and his wife, a retired English and art teacher.

They formed the non-profit We Help War Victims to hire a bomb removal team to work in the Lao province of Phongesali that has received no official help in removing the unexploded bombs from the war for Laos (1954-1975)

He first went to Laos when he was still a principal to learn more about the culture of his Hmong students and the country they came from. Since retiring, over the last four years he's been volunteering with Phoenix Clearance Limited which specializes in UXO and mine removal.

During the war for Laos, more tons of bombs were dropped on Laos than were dropped on all of Europe during WWII. 3 out of 10 failed to detonate and now, over 35 years later, they continue to kill and maim Lao civilians and children even after the end of the war. Many of these victims today weren't even alive during the conflict. At the current rate of removal, some experts expect it will take 500 years to get rid of all of them.

Man jailed for eating rare tiger, new bird discovered in Laos.

There's probably a lot of behind-the-scenes politics going on here, but a villager named Kang Wannian apparently just ate the last wild Indochinese tiger in China.

Kang Wannian lives in the Yunnan province of southern China, and claims he encountered the tiger and killed it in self-defense while gathering clams at night at a nature preserve near the Lao border. Four of his buddies were also jailed for sharing the tiger meal. He claims he didn't know it was rare. He's going away for 10 years for killing a rare animal and gets an extra two years for illegal firearm possession. He also got a fine of ca. $70,000.

Less than 1,800 wild Indochinese tigers are left in the world today.

Scientists have also found a new warbler named the "limestone leaf warbler" because its breeding habitats in Laos, which is a region where several other unusual species have been discovered including the Laotian rock rat, a unique striped rabbit and the bare-faced bulbul songbird, as well as many new species of frogs and salamanders. Of course, most of them are also now facing extinction like the Irawaddy freshwater dolphin. It's such a shame we're on the verge of eating our distinctive biodiversity, our heritage, to extinction.

General Vang Pao to return to Laos

The Fresno Bee and other news sources have been discussing a recent announcement by Hmong general Vang Pao to return to Laos on January 10th. He is celebrating his 80th birthday this week.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A good month for Lao art in Minnesota

In a special bit of news this month, the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council of Minnesota recently announced three grants awarded to Lao organizations to support the arts in Hennepin County in 2010. The total is $15,000 in support to Lao arts here, and I'm immensely pleased to see this belief in our community and an interest in our creative work in this state.

The Lao Assistance Center of Minnesota is receiving $5,000 in funding for Refugee Nation, which will include a month-long community residency pairing professional artists with community residents to create cultural awareness through performance art. You can see an example of a performance here:

The Lao Womens Association has received $5,000 to offer free traditional Lao music and dance instruction. The project will include multiple performance opportunities for participating students.

And finally, Lao writers have received $5,000 to convene the Lao Writers Summit in Minneapolis, the first national literature summit for Lao American refugees in 35 years. The summit will take place August 13-14, 2010.

Overall, this is significant moment for the community and an exciting opportunity in the years ahead.

The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council promotes incorporation of the arts into the daily life of communities by providing leadership, advocacy, grants, and services. 

The Metropolitan Regional Arts Council (MRAC), which serves the 7-county Twin Cities metropolitan area, is the largest of the regional arts councils established in 1977. Each regional arts council is an autonomous organization designated to assess arts need, develop programs and services to meet those needs, and distribute funds to arts programs in its region. The majority of funds come from the Minnesota State Arts Board through an appropriation by the Minnesota legislature. MRAC also receives a generous grant from The McKnight Foundation.

4th Annual Lao Education Conference a success

A big thanks to everyone who organized the 4th Annual Lao Education Conference in Sacramento, California on Friday, December 11th. The mission of ALEC is "Inspiring and empowering Lao American students to pursue higher education for the betterment of self, family, and community."

The event was a fine and positive conference this year with some amazing talent from across the country and the state of California.

Speakers included my colleagues Catzie Vilayphonh of Yellow Rage, Ova Saopeng and Lidet Viravong of Refugee Nation, fashion designer Nary Manivong, Phoumy Sayavong of the Center for Lao Studies and Noi Sourichanh (Sirch) Chanthyasack, MBACEO of LANA. So many other exceptional professionals and role models in the Lao community also played a big role in this event and it's clear the Sacramento community cares about the future of its youth.

The students were very engaged in a series of interactive activities, panels and workshops to discuss the Lao American movement, academics, jobs and getting to college and their heritage.

Although there are over 200,000 Lao in the US, there are only a few other student conferences organized for Lao youth anywhere else in the country and it is often difficult for these activities to acquire sufficient resources to reach out to all of the local children.

As of 2000, fewer than 7% of the Lao community had graduated from college and less than 1% had advanced degrees. Hopefully, this statistic has changed and will be reflected in the Census 2010. But in any circumstance, families and community members need to continue to work together to ensure the best possible opportunities for their children and to take positive steps in their education.

The conference was organized by the Lao American Advancement Organization. By the year 2013, the vision of LAAO is to be an advancing organization and will have in place the board, staff, facilities, and financial resources necessary to make it one of the most effective Lao American community development agency in the United States of America. I look forward to seeing what their fifth conference looks like.

Again, I extend my deep thanks to my hosts for their hospitality and their generosity and giving me the opportunity to speak with such wonderful students and wish them all great success in the future!

White House recognizes Hmong New Year

Through the White House office of the Press Secretary, President Obama issued a nice statement for the Hmong community as many of them celebrate their Hmong New Years across the country this holiday season. His nyob zoo xyoo tshiab was a particularly nice touch.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Good News in Lao Publishing

A grant from Planet Wheeler, created by the founders of the Lonely Planet guidebooks to fund innovative grass-roots initiatives, has been awarded to Big Brother Mouse.

This grant will allow them to set up both village and home-based libraries in sixty more villages in the coming year. It represents an exciting phase for Big Brother Mouse, who have been conducting great projects in children's book publishing since 2006.

They also have a number of other exciting things to share from this year, and I'd recommend people take a look at their efforts and support it if you can.

As always, for those who are fluent in Lao, I'd also recommend taking a look at Dokked Publishing the first private publishing company in Laos.
Ultimately, of course, I hope to see a stronger infrastructure in our community that supports a viable, progressive business model for Lao publishers around the world. This includes equitable distribution channels and fair market practices for Lao intellectual property.

I hope in the near future, enough sustainable interest in Lao publishing emerges both in and out of our community to allow more publishers to take diverse artistic risks and encourage high standards of craft.

By 2021, I hope to see at least 10 well-run Lao publishing houses across the US. I think it's viable to see the development of at least 1 to 2 new publishers in other nations as well, including Canada, Australia and France. By 2025, if not sooner, it would be wonderful to see the first Lao Literary Awards.

In theory, ambitiously, it could take as little as $100,000 to start all ten houses, or less than 50 cents per Lao in the US. Of course, the challenge is in the fundraising and ensuring there's good management and distribution available for the community.

From many conversations I've had across the country, there's a strong demand for Lao children's books among Lao parents. More than poets, I run into individuals interested in writing children's books or family memoirs.

With ca. 200,000 Lao in the US, with nearly 50% estimated to be under the age of 18, this can present an interesting and viable market. Young Adult writers could find a good market, given that the majority of Lao children's book writers are thinking of writing books for the younger end of the spectrum, but few books for teens.

Family memoirs, to me are a dicier proposition. They will have to be written so that they are of greater interest beyond just the immediate family of those involved, providing interesting perspectives for the reader. The good news is that almost every Lao immigration/refugee story I've run into also has enough distinctive and wild twists that family narratives could do better than many others currently available.

Naturally, I'd like to see more books of poetry emerge from within our community. I've seen some very promising manuscripts over the years, but many suffer from a chronic fear to engage with our culture or employ an unrepentant Laoglish. I want Lao American poetry to take on issues with a deep authenticity and a willingness to critique the inner and social worlds of our community with depth, breadth and risk.

I don't know if those types of books can emerge without our community finding ways to support and enjoy a healthy competition between a diverse number Lao publishing/media houses. I think it's something we need to work on in the coming years ahead. But I believe it can be done.

1st Reading for 2010: January 13th!

On January 13th at 7PM, I'm reading at the Birchbark Books Reading Series at Birch Bark Books, 2115 West 21st Street, Minneapolis, MN 55405  The Reading Series is sponsored by Birchbark Books and Isles Deli and features new, emerging, and established writers every month.

This is the first time I've ever formally read with Andrea Jenkins and Tammy Darrah Wenberg.  I hope to see you there! The series is every 2nd Wednesday of the month, from September through May.

The Bios:

Bryan Thao Worra  A poet, short story writer, playwright and essayist, his work appears in over 80 international publications including Bamboo Among the Oaks, Contemporary Voices of the East, Tales of the Unanticipated, Outsiders Within, Astropoetica, Hyphen, Journal of the Asian American Renaissance, Whistling Shade, and Asian American Press. His work in taught around the world and he is the author of On the Other Side of the Eye, BARROW and Winter Ink. Bryan holds a fellowship in literature from the National Endowment for the Arts and received a 2009 Asian Pacific Leadership Award from the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. 

Andrea Jenkins is an award winning poet and writer. Most recently, she was named a Givens Foundation Fellow, and won the Loft Mentor Series in 2002 and the Napa Valley Writers Conference scholarship in 2003. Her work has appeared in several local publications and she has performed with The Outward Spiral, Mama Mosaic, and many others. Andrea self-published a chapbook of poems called tributaries: poems celebrating black history; her upcoming self-published collection will be called Pieces of a Scream: New and Selected Poems. She currently is co-curator of the S.A.S.E, Carol Connolly GLBT Reading Series at Intermedia Arts. Andrea is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at Hamline University and lives in Minneapolis, with her 8 cats, 3 dogs, and a parrot. (Ha! Just kidding)

Tammy Darrah Wenberg teaches writing for Metropolitan State University. She earned an MFA from Hamline University in 2006 where she is currently a doctoral candidate. Her first book of poetry, Evoked, Never Commanded, yet to be published, grew out of her thesis manuscript. She is currently working on a new book exploring the interconnectedness of two landscapes: the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains where she grew up and South Vietnam, which she experienced more as an apparition, as the daughter of a veteran of the American War. She lives and writes with her family outside of Saint Paul, Minnesota

UNESCO Creative City Program and the Lao

It's no secret one of the larger projects I'm committed to involves building the cultural and artistic infrastructure of my community over time, because I consider it essential to cultural development and growth.

I was intrigued by UNESCO's Creative City program. It's building a network to highlight cities who are accomplishing unique work in several fields such literature, film, music, crafts and folk art, design, the media arts and gastronomy.

Would I like to see a city in Laos one day meet those criteria? Absolutely, but I know that's a long way ahead. On a more 'practical' level, given the emergence of the Lao as a multinational culture, I believe effective resettlement/presence in any of our host nations benefits greatly from a commitment to cultivating this infrastructure. I'll discuss more of this throughout 2553.

I like film and writing, so these are the two areas I'm particularly hoping to see advocacy and growth in because I think they will be essential to growth and maintaining progressive cultural bonds.

For film-makers, UNESCO hopes a city would have:
* Notable infrastructure related to filmmaking, i.e. film studios, cultural/movie landscapes, cinematographic memorabilia, etc;

* historic links to the production, distribution and commercialization of films, especially within a native/local and culturally relevant context;

* cinematographic legacy in the form of archives, museums, private collections and/or film schools;

* tradition of hosting film festivals, screenings and cinematographic events;

*birthplace, residence and/or workplace of creators and artists in the film industry;

* depiction of the city in films, preferably realized by native creators and artists;

* existing films about the city.

For writers, the criteria are:
* Quality, quantity and diversity of editorial initiatives and publishing houses;

* Quality and quantity of educational programmes focusing on domestic or foreign literature in primary and secondary schools as well as universities;

* Urban environment in which literature, drama and/or poetry play an integral role;

* Experience in hosting literary events and festivals aiming at promoting domestic and foreign literature;

* Libraries, bookstores and public or private cultural centres dedicated to the preservation, promotion and dissemination of domestic and foreign literature;

* Active effort by the publishing sector to translate literary works from diverse national languages and foreign literature;

* Active involvement of media, including new media, in promoting literature and strengthening the market for literary products.

I think these can be developed, even within a 'virtual city,' 'virtual nation' context, but to me, transportation, funding and presentation/distribution infrastructure definitely need to be in place. How best to develop and cultivate these over time?

My colleague, Catzie Vilayphonh has also discussed the issue of the preservation of Lao cooking traditions, and I admit, that, too intrigues me. Under the UNESCO guidelines, such an environment would have:
* Well-developed gastronomy that is characteristic of the urban centre and/or region;

* vibrant gastronomy community with numerous traditional restaurants and/or chefs;

* endogenous ingredients used in traditional cooking;

* local know-how, traditional culinary practices and methods of cooking that have survived industrial/technological advancement;

* traditional food markets and traditional food industry;

* tradition of hosting gastronomic festivals, awards, contests and other broadly-targeted means of recognition;

*respect for the environment and promotion of sustainable local products;

* nurturing of public appreciation, promotion of nutrition in educational institutions and inclusion of biodiversity conservation programmes in cooking schools curricula.

I think it would be amazingly ambitious and interesting to see Lao gastronomy advance to a point where we have Lao food festivals, awards and other methods of recognizing truly great cooks and cooking traditions in our community, to see restaurants that openly advertise themselves as Lao and even to risk focus on regional cooking specialties, rather than the usual one-size fits all hodge-podge of the present. Of course, this too is a long way ahead, but I imagine it could be done in fifteen to twenty years.

Maybe sooner, if we really pull together.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

[Readings] Speculations @ DreamHaven Books, March 12th

In 2010, I'll be reading at the acclaimed Speculations Readings Series on Friday, March 12th from 6:30-7:30 PM at DreamHaven Books at 2301 E. 38th St. in Minneapolis. This series is organized by SF Minnesota,a nonprofit organization dedicated to speculative fiction education since 1992.

DreamHaven has hosted readings from internationally acclaimed writers including Neil Gaiman, Douglas Adams, Clive Barker, Terry Brooks, William Gibson, Lois McMaster Bujold, Eleanor Arnason, Terry Garey, Samuel Delaney, Andrea Hairston, Catherine Lundoff, Kelly Link, David Schwartz, Kim Harrison, Kelly McCullough, Barth Anderson and many other masters of science fiction, fantasy and horror.

I'm honored to be a part of this tradition and looking forward to sharing new work with everyone including selections from BARROW and other special projects in progress, including Southeast Asian American folktales and other short stories.

We'll all be celebrating afterwards at Merlin's Rest at 3601 E. Lake Street, right across from the White Castle.  Mark your calendars!

SF Minnesota is a multicultural, multimedia organization dedicated to improving contacts among groups and individuals interested in speculative fiction, both inside and outside of the traditional SF community. They are committed to making Minnesota's SF community more closely reflect the cultural diversity of Minnesota in the third millennium.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Last Reading of the Year!: Sacramento, December 11th

December 11th I'll be presenting at the ALEC Conference in Sacramento, California with Catzie Vilayphonh, Ova Saopeng and many others! It's my last reading of the year and my last reading of the year, and I want to thank everyone who's been a part of that journey!

Given that the Catzie and I have never presented together in person before, that's exciting. If you're in Sacramento in December, come join us. You also get a chance to meet Thavisouk Phrasavath, the Oscar-nominated director of Nerakhoon. It's one day only and a really short day!

Friday, December 11, 2009 from 9:00 AM - 3:00 PM
California State Univeristy Sacramento - Student Union Ballroom
Registration begins October 2009 at 

Price: FREE for middle/high school students & their parents. General Price is $40 per person.  Group fees are available.