B-boys showcase their skills in Fresno. (Ce Vang/Valley Public History Initiative)
Documentary filmmaker Christopher Woon-Chen says he wanted to understand his own relationship with hip-hop culture and breakdancing. He’s Chinese-American and he asked himself, "Can Asian-Americans be a part of hip-hop, and can we be so authentically?"
He says he thought he could answer this question by “seeking out stories of others doing it, and not just in isolated experiences. I wanted to know about groups of Asian-Americans who were doing hip-hop en masse, and outside of Filipino-Americans in the '90s, that was also Hmong-Americans in the Central Valley.”
So he started in the Central Valley and found the stories so interesting that he made a 2011 documentary called "Among B-Boys." And, he says, the answer to his question about Asian-Americans being a part of hip-hop was an unequivocal yes.
Historians Romeo Guzman and Sean Slusser at Fresno State agree. They’re currently working alongside graduate students to collect oral histories from Fresno’s Hmong b-boys and b-girls. The "b" stands for "break." The project will be archived at Fresno State as part of the Valley Public History Initiative.
The oral histories start with kids whose parents had fled Laos after the Vietnam War. Many of the older generation had helped the U.S. in the CIA’s Secret War and later came to Fresno after living in refugee camps in Thailand. But the neighborhood they moved into wasn’t exactly easy: lots of crime, a high murder rate and rival gangs everywhere.
Slusser writes in "Tropics of Meta" that the b-boy and b-girl crews “fulfilled the same function as more traditional community organizations or even gangs. Yet, these bonds were forged through the quintessentially American expression and language of hip-hop."
They also were using hip-hop to survive economic depression and crime. Slusser writes, “Ultimately, b-boying was at once a form of self-expression, a way to cope with high levels of poverty, and a tool for refugees and the children of refugees to build community among each other while simultaneously establishing roots in a new land.”
Forty-year-old James Vang says he got into a lot of trouble as a teenager and was in a gang. But then he found dance.
“This really helped save my life, you know, to help me do something else with my time.”
He was one of Fresno’s first generation Hmong b-boys.“We didn’t really have anyone to teach us,” he says. “We were just watching it off of movies [like "Beat Street"] and catching what we could. Kind of make things up as we went. Try to get a signature move, try to create your own identity."
He and other kids taught their younger siblings and their cousins. The Hmong community was tight-knit and breakdancing spread like wildfire, not only in Fresno but eventually to other Hmong communities in the Midwest.
"At the time, just being Asian was hard. Once we started breakdancing, it opened up a whole different world,” Vang says.
A different world that gave Hmong kids a stake in this new land. It was a world their elders didn’t understand at first.
“There wasn’t really a term for 'breakdancing' in the Hmong language,” says Billy Xiong, who also danced in the '90s. He says his mother worried about his safety. She didn’t like him dancing on his head.
Slusser says breakdancing had died down around the country after the '80s dance craze. B-boys revived it in the Central Valley.
“It was the Hmong b-boys that were kind of the gatekeepers, They were known kind of throughout the city as the best b-boys. So if you wanted to earn your stripes, if you wanted to kind of earn your reputation as a b-boy, you had to kind of get their respect first.”
Take Charles Montgomery, aka B-boy Goku, He’s part Creole, part Mexican, but he got the gatekeepers’ respect.
He is Fresno’s most well-known b-boy today. Goku grew up in the same rough area as the Hmong b-boys. He says it makes sense that they embraced hip-hop.
"Of course, you’re coming out of like rural areas, you just got people struggling, they just want to find some type of way to let it out. We were like a country-town Bronx, you know?” he says.
Goku still travels the world breakdancing. But he’ll never forget how the Hmong b-boys inspired him when he was a teenager back in the '90s.
“The Hmong really picked it up here,” he says. “It was the thing to do in the Central Valley. Windmills and flares and 90s and head-spins. You’re just like, ‘Wow, this is like a comic book, live-action comic book,' you know?' ”
Thirty-seven-year-old Ville Thao can still show off the moves, and today -- the first Saturday in April -- he’s dancing in front of a crowd at Fresno State as part of the oral history project. Earlier in the day, he was part of a panel discussing the Hmong b-boys’ contributions to hip-hop in Fresno.
“I wish I could show more but I don’t want to get hurt today. I’ll be hurting tomorrow,” he says, a little breathlessly. “I’m gonna feel it.”
But that’s OK. There are plenty of younger folks ready to step up. Even now, new generations of Hmong b-boys perform at the huge Hmong New Year festival in Fresno.
"I have nephews and nieces now. They come up and they’ll breakdance in front of me, and then their auntie would like say, ‘Yeah, you know your uncle used to breakdance,’ and they look at me and they’re like ‘him?' " says Thao with a laugh.