30,000 expected at Hmong sports tourney in St. Paul
ST. PAUL -- Tom Vang has never missed the annual Hmong Sports Tournament, and he was born 21 years ago.
So once again, Tom Vang plans to kick and eat his way through this weekend's festival, just as he has done ever since he can remember.
What draws Tom Vang back to the two-day event at Como Park isn't just the possibility that his team might win the $5,000 top soccer prize but the chance to bond with fellow athletes and friends.
"I think it's more of a Hmong gathering where you know everyone you know will probably be there," said Tom Vang of Coon Rapids, Minn.
"It's a place of old friends and the feeling that it's the biggest in the U.S. and maybe the world."
The 23rd annual festival, which opens today, is expected to draw 30,000 people a day, organizers say, up from last year's 15,000 to 20,000 visitors.
This year, Tom Vang will divide his time between running around the soccer field, playing flag football and publicizing the Association for the Advancement of Hmong Women and Minnesota's Education Now and Babies Later program.
And then there's the food.
"Getting it at the tournament, for some reason, has a psychological effect," Tom Vang said, naming some of his favorite snacks: papaya salad and tapioca pearl drinks. "You can get it at the store or make it at home, but over there it tastes so much better."
The festival started as an athletic competition but now doubles as a reunion for Hmong people from around the globe. People are coming from across the nation and from countries such as Thailand, France, Australia and Laos, said Cher Pha Thao, president of the festival's sponsor, Lao Family Community of Minnesota.
"People are eager to travel to Minnesota to visit their friends and relatives" during the summer so they can avoid Minnesota's long winter, said Ying Vang, the organization's executive director.
Teams will play for prizes totaling $22,100 in events such as soccer, volleyball, golf, bowling, tennis and badminton. Participants will also compete in the traditional Hmong sports of kato, which uses a bamboo-woven ball, and tuj lub, or topspin, which uses a top tied to a wooden pole.
The festival also features about 100 food stands and 200 merchandise booths selling music, clothing and novelty items.
Txong Pao Lee, 35, of Apple Valley, Minn., said he might skip his first sports tournament in 22 years because the crowds have made it difficult to find a parking space.
"If I go, I'll wait until the last day when it's less crowded," said Txong Pao Lee, executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center in St. Paul.
Coinciding with the holiday weekend tournament is a national gathering of leaders of the Lao Family Community nonprofit social service agencies based in California, Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Agency leaders are hoping to come up with strategies to deal with growing demands to provide more sophisticated programs at the same time they face shrinking resources to meet those needs, said Ying Vang, executive director of Lao Family Community of Minnesota.