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We visited Muang Sing for the first time in December 1999 because we heard that there were several Mien villages that were easy to get to, and since there were Mien students at the school where Peter taught he was interested in learning more about their culture. Another reason we wanted to visit Muang Sing was because we met a woman named Fahm Choy at a Cultural Show in Vientiane. She was with a group of other Mien woman selling handicrafts that were made through a cooperative (Mien Women’s Association) located in their village of Pou Don Than, located just miles outside Muang Sing and within a couple of miles of the Chinese border. Now, in 2008 as we write this section description, and think back to when we first met Fahm Choy, it was the only time in the nine years we've seen an exhibition of Mien embroidery in Vientiane. To this date, there are no galleries that feature Mien embroidery, besides a few that sell antique textiles and occasionally the heavily embroidered pants that the women make for themselves.
It’s amazing when you see the Mien women embroider because they work from the back of the cloth and cannot see the pattern until it is turned over. Their embroidery stitches are more complex than they seem, and what may look like a simple cross-stitch actually requires a variety of stitches such as a weaving stitch or horizontal/vertical stitch. The diagonal cross-stitch embroidery has only been in use the last forty years or so. The women use a modern embroidery floss, but often still use home-spun cloth, often bought from neighboring Thai groups and dyed an indigo color.
When we attended the handicraft exhibit in the fall of 1999 and met Fahm Choy for the first time, she gave us her business card with the letters ZOA on it. After doing a little research we found that ZOA was a Christian NGO for humanitarian assistance.
We went to their small office/home in early 2000 which was located in Vientiane and talked to the director and he told us about what they were doing up in Muang Sing. They had different projects going, and one of them was to help the Mien women in the villages of Pou Don Than start a cooperative to market and sell their crafts. By 1999 they were at the tail end of their funding and the hope was, like with all NGO projects, that they become self sustaining when NGO funding dries up. But in our experience from seeing different projects and talking to a wide variety of people in Laos, when the funding dries up, so often does the project. It’s hard to bridge the gap from dependency to independency.
We think ZOA meant well and we think they bought most of the Mien crafts and took them back to the Netherlands to sell there. But, to think that the women could gain some kind of financial independence from a little cooperative out in the “boondocks,” was not realistic.
Not just for the Mien, but for the Tai Dam and Hmong, who all mostly relocated to Muang Sing which seemed like a town where some tourists did come, and so maybe they could make a living selling their crafts. But the problem is two-fold. First, the number of tourists is relatively small because it’s not easy to get to, and second, a majority of the tourists who do come, are backpacker types who are traveling light and are not serious buyers of crafts.
We think when we first visited in 1999 there was still a strong sense of excitement about the possibilities in Muang Sing for all the ethnic groups and it was only through ZOA funding that Fahm Choy could come down to Vientiane to demonstrate Mien embroidery at the handicraft faire. From what we know, they’re the only ethnic group in Muang Sing that had NGO support in marketing their crafts.
ZOA lucked out with discovering Fahm Choy, because she is unbelievably dynamic and a natural leader. Unlike the Hmong and Tai Dam women in Muang Sing, who as a group impressed us with their “get up and go,” Fahm Choy is the only Mien woman that we saw who really tried to find a way to sell their crafts to tourists.
Unlike the Hmong and Tai Dam women, the Mien don’t try to sell their crafts in the town of Muang Sing, but wait for tourists to visit their village. At first, back in the late 1990’s, this was a reasonable strategy because many people came to stay at the Adima Guest House on the outskirts of the Mien villages. But, unfortunately, the guest house became run down and most of the guests were there for illegal purposes…
We have photos in this photo gallery for a post we wrote in our blog a while back showing Fahm Choy at the little cooperative store in front of her house and consulting with other cooperative members embroidering various craft items or embroidering cloth to be used for making a woman’s pair of pants.
Over a period of three years we ordered a number of items, various wallets, purses, bags and banners and were always impressed with the quality of the embroidery. We also know that some Japanese placed orders through her and they were always working of items to be shipped to relatives in the United States for sale. But by the last time we visited Muang Sing in 2005, the cooperative store was basically empty and Fahm Choy told us that most of the women had given up embroidering for the cooperative.
Fahm Choy has really tried, and we hope through Laos Essential Artistry we can market and sell the Mien crafts that we purchased from her so that we can go back and order more and help Americans appreciate the artistry of these very talented Mien women.