Hmongtown Marketplace

Coordinates: 44°57′41″N 93°06′34″W / 44.96139°N 93.10944°W / 44.96139; -93.10944
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Hmongtown Marketplace
Map
LocationSaint Paul, Minnesota, United States
Coordinates44°57′41″N 93°06′34″W / 44.96139°N 93.10944°W / 44.96139; -93.10944
Address217 Como Ave, St Paul, MN 55103
Opening date2004[1]
Previous namesInternational Marketplace
ManagementJameson Liu[2]
Owner
No. of stores and services200–300[4][1]
Total retail floor area6 acres[5]
No. of floors1
Public transit access
Websitehmongtownmarketplace.com

Hmongtown Marketplace is an indoor market focused on Hmong American products and culture in the Frogtown neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota. Hmongtown was the first Hmong-owned and operated market in the United States and is today noted for its cuisine and produce, with the Star Tribune calling the food court "one of the state's top culinary gems."[8]

Locally it is variously referred to as the Hmong Farmers Market or Hmong Flea Market, or simply "Hmongtown" to emphasize its role as a cultural hub like a Chinatown, not just a retail location.[4][9]

Description[edit]

In two buildings, more than 200 vendors sell traditional food, clothing, and home goods especially from Hmong and Hmong American culture, including from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand.[10][11] The market is designed to simulate open-air markets in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Vientiane, Laos. Produce vendors sell culturally specific fruits, vegetables, nuts, and other edible plants.[12] Hot and ready-made food vendors sell a variety of dishes such as roast meats, boba tea, papaya salad, and bánh mì.[1] Home goods include green market, electronics, religious supplies, and garden tools.[13][8]

Outdoor summer market booth selling potted vegetable plants

In the summer the market nearly doubles in size with an outdoor market in the surrounding paved lot that brings the number of vendors up to 300 or more.[4] The outdoor market is sometimes referred to as the Hmongtown Farmers Market and sells produce as well as meat, clothing and textiles, herbal medicine, live potted plants, and home products.[14]

The large size and foot traffic have led to the nickname "Hmong Mall of America". 600 people work inside, as many as 20,000 customers have been noted during events, and there is capacity for more than 300 stalls.[5] The interior footpath complexity due to the many stalls has been described as "labyrinthine" and "byzantine".[15][14] Because of the wide variety of products and services offered at Hmongtown, it is referred to as many different kinds of markets, such as a mall, a supermarket, a flea market, a farmers market, a marketplace, and a food hall.[16][9][17][7]

History[edit]

Americans with Hmong ancestry by state

Hmongtown was the first Hmong-owned and operated market in the United States.[18][19] The market was founded as International Marketplace[18][20] in 2004 by Saint Paul, Minnesota entrepreneur Toua Xiong.[1] Hmong people were persecuted in their homelands following the Laotian Civil War known as the Secret War and Xiong wanted a place for first generation immigrants such as himself to gather as though they were at home. The marketplace originally had many video stores that sold footage of and movies set in Laos and Thailand as part of that nostalgia.[19]

Xiong remembers his childhood in Laos before his family escaped to a refugee camp: “The sadness is always burning in me. We don’t have a country. We were chased, and chased. I had no reason to be chased into the jungle at 7. I made no mistake. The [refugee] camps were a prison. I am as capable as any person, but I never had a chance.” Xiong, a younger brother, and his parents joined his teenage brothers in an American-run refugee camp when he was 12. At 17 years old he and his wife immigrated to St. Paul, Minnesota and settled in Frogtown.[4] In three years he gained college degrees in business and accounting.[10][18]

The 6-acre[5] site was previously Shaw Stewart Lumber Co. on Como Avenue, north of the St. Paul Capitol building. Most of the original buildings remain, with the largest warehouse functioning as the main market building. Xiong didn't realize the obstacles to redeveloping the property for grocery and retail when he rented it from the lumber company, having only recently become a business owner and an English speaker. Renovations to meet regulations included a sprinkler system, more toilets, exhaust fans in restaurant spaces, and an upgraded larger sewer pipe to connect to the municipal system. Despite setbacks, he opened International Marketplace in 2004.[4][21]

In 2009 he bought the property from the lumber company and renamed it Hmongtown Marketplace.[5][18]

Hmong people at a marketplace in Ha Giang province, Vietnam

When Hmong began immigrating to Minnesota in the 1980s, there was no cultural hub such as Hmongtown, which made it difficult for refugees to find the supplies and foods they preferred. The market was an ambitious effort to change that.[10] Hmongtown has been credited with creating hundreds of jobs and other entrepreneurial opportunities for much of the Minnesota Hmong diaspora.[22] Most of the vendors speak only a Hmong dialect and not English, which Xiong notes allows them to maintain employment and start a business while still acclimating to America.[4][10][18]

In 2010 Xiong was awarded the Immigrant of Distinction award for his work at Hmongtown from the Minnesota-Dakotas chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.[18]

Hmongtown was featured in 2019 as part of CNN's Emmy Award winning United Shades of America with owner Toua Xiong and local Hmong American chef Yia Vang.[23]

Culture[edit]

Garden tools for sale at a stall inside Hmongtown

Hmong are the largest Asian diaspora in Minnesota, and Minnesota has the second-largest Hmong population in the United States.[24] Hmongtown is a staple of local Hmong life and creates a sense of community and belonging.[1] Less than four miles away is a similar Hmong American marketplace called Hmong Village. The markets and surrounding Asian businesses are in the Little Mekong Cultural District, a business district with a high concentration of Asian businesses and cultural sites.[21][25][11]

While the focus is Hmong culture, the marketplace contains shops and stalls with proprietors and products from any of the cultures that can be found in the surrounding neighborhood Frogtown, which is one of the most diverse neighborhoods in Saint Paul.[26] Nepali, African American, and Mexican vendors have been noted.[27][28] More than half of Hmongtown's visitors are white. Owner Toua Xiong aims for the market to be welcoming to those new to Hmong culture.[29][10]

Art and crafts[edit]

Basket with straps, Hmong Trang, Vo Nhai, Thai Nguyen, 2002 – Vietnamese Women's Museum – Hanoi, Vietnam

Vendors at Hmongtown sell traditional Hmong textile art such as kawm (woven baskets) and forms of Paj Ntaub (flower cloth) such as batik dyed cloth (Paj Ntaub nraj ciab/cab[30]) and story cloth, which depicts scenes from Hmong life and history.[31][28]

Light boxes of photography from Hmong American artist Pao Houa Her, whose work was selected for the Whitney Biennial, decorate the West Building food court seating area.[32][33] The exhibit is accompanied by text from Hmong American poet and playwright May Lee-Yang.[34] Her's artwork being displayed simultaneously at the renowned Walker Art Center and Hmongtown was praised by Walker’s curatorial fellow in visual arts Matthew Miranda as a "break in the art world decorum" that "subverts the white view in museums."[35]

Other featured artists have included Tetsuya Yamada and HOTTEA.[36][37]

Cuisine[edit]

Stalls selling fresh produce at Hmongtown Marketplace

Hmongtown is noted for its prepared food and quality produce, with the Star Tribune calling it "one of the state's top culinary gems"[8] and Saveur enthusing it's a "destination" for cooks.[21] Minnesota-native food critic Andrew Zimmern says it's "the country’s best little-known ethnic market."[38] Minnesota Monthly included Hmongtown in their "'culinary canon' of essential local eats"[39] list the "Foodie 40", saying Hmongtown is "one of the great, affordable flavor adventures in the Twin Cities" and calling it "ground zero" for good chicken wings.[40][41] The average price of a meal is less than $15 and restaurants are open all day for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.[42]

Individual restaurant stalls and a food court serve traditional Hmong and Southeast Asian meals, snacks, and street food.[43] Because Hmong is a diaspora, Hmong cuisine is a fusion, so dishes at Hmongtown come from Tailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and even China, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. Difficult to find outside of Minnesota, Hmong-style barbecue is prominent, including traditionally prepared and cold Hmong sausage (nyhuv ntxwm hmoob), which is a pork sausage flavored with Thai chili and lemongrass, and sai krok, a traditional fermented pork sausage.[21][44][45][46] Dishes popular among Hmong such as pho, khaub poob (curry noodles), larb (minced meat salad), nab vam (tapioca dessert), purple rice,[16] boba tea, mangonada,[47] and papaya salad are widely available from multiple restaurants.[48][49]

Mok pa made in Laos, steamed catfish in banana leaf

Notable vendors and dishes include:

Hmongtown is recommended for its cuisine in many travel guides such as Lonely Planet and Condé Nast Traveler.[52][53][54]

An outdoor market that sells much of the same merchandise as the indoor market operates from May to October. It has an emphasis on fresh produce and starter plants for gardening vegetables.[55][56]

Produce commonly available at Hmongtown has Southeast Asian origins and is difficult to find in mainstream groceries. A large portion of the produce is locally grown by Hmong farmers.[14][46]

Longan such as those sold at Hmongtown

Events[edit]

In June 2016 Hmongtown held the first Hmongtown Festival, a two-day music and cultural festival focusing on Hmong history and culture.[10] The owner Toua Xiong who learned to sing and play guitar in a refugee camp played at the first festival.[4]

Medical[edit]

Hmongtown vendors sell traditional Hmong and Southeast Asian medicine such as herbs and imported over the counter drugs.[21] Traditional Hmong herbal medicine is difficult to find, so vendors at Hmongtown attract customers from all over the world and play a role in preserving Hmong culture.[2]

Because of its reputation as a Hmong community hub, Hmongtown is often targeted for public health initiatives. Hmongtown participates in outreach around testing for breast cancer and reducing consumption of heavy metals from skin lightening products and fish.[59][60] The market also held vaccine clinics during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.[61]

In June 2013, law enforcement raided Hmongtown and confiscated hundreds of pounds of illegal medication, including penicillin, opiates, and mislabeled over the counter medication. Vendors were subjected to full body searches. Cultural differences and language barriers were blamed, although Ramsey County Sheriff's office spokesperson Randy Gustafson said that vendors had been previously warned against selling the products confiscated. 14 vendors were ultimately charged with "selling misbranded drugs, possessing and selling drugs that require a license, selling syringes, and unlawfully possessing poison."[62]

The Minnesota Department of Health started an educational series with Hmongtown vendors to explain drug safety and American regulations in response.[63][62] A similar incident occurred at the nearby Hmong Village shopping center in 2018.[64]

Expansion[edit]

Hmong Cultural Center Museum

Hmongtown plans to expand to Hmong senior daycare and senior housing, and include more Hmong cultural activities such as an art gallery, music performance, and permanent history exhibits.[4] Underground parking and an office building are also planned.[5]

Off-site expansion includes nonprofits and museums. Through Hi Hi LLC, Toua Xiong and his wife Nou Xiong founded a Hmong and Karen cultural center and museum a few blocks from Hmongtown. Xiong envisions someday publishing Hmong recipes to preserve their cuisine. He also runs Hmong Connections, a cultural exchange program.[18][65]

In 2025, Xiong plans to open a second Hmongtown location in the former Sears space at the Maplewood Mall.[66][67] The 14 acre space would be developed into a marketplace and additional services aimed at younger customers than the original Hmongtown targets.[68]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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