The ‘Hmong Village’ in Saint Paul

Last week, something called the ‘Hmong Village’ opened here in Saint Paul, to a moderate amount of local fanfare. The name may evoke images of either an ethnic ghetto, or a subsidized housing project, but both are quite far from the truth. It’s actually a market – bazaar might be a more appropriate term – that’s very, very heavily targeted towards the Hmong population here. Being an unemployed slacker, I wandered by on two recent days to have a look, have a bite to eat, and broaden my cultural horizons a bit.

End result? It’s a mighty interesting place indeed, let down slightly by a bit of bad planning.

A little background: The Village is situated in an absolutely huge building that used to house offices – and warehouse space – for the local school district, before they downsized. Until the Village opened, the building had sat vacant for a couple of years. After a couple million in renovations, the place now employs around a thousand people, which isn’t too shabby at all, on the face of it.

One big concern is how long it’ll employ a thousand people for. See, for all it’s size and awesomeness – and we’ll get to those in a minute – this isn’t the first market of it’s kind in Minnesota, or even in Saint Paul; it’s actually the third such Hmong-centric market just in the city alone. (The other two are an unnamed market on the west side, and one next to the state Capitol, whose ‘Hmongtown’ nickname is now apparently semi-official.) So you’d like to think that the local community would have learned from their mistakes and gotten everything right this time around.

Maybe not.

When the west-side market opened a couple years ago, a big criticism levelled at the operators was that they’d accepted pretty much anyone who wanted to be a vendor, regardless of what they were selling. It wasn’t that people were selling anything objectionable – as far as I know, there were no porn merchants or anything like that – but that everybody was selling the same damned stuff. Does one block really need four bubble-tea vendors? Three places selling Pho? Five fruitmongers? No, claimed the bubble-tea, Pho, and fruit vendors. The competition was crippling, everyone complained, and it was the management’s fault.

If they thought that was bad, the Hmong Village is sure to be sparking complaints. The place has something like 230 merchants, all crammed under one roof. There are over a dozen restaurants, around twenty produce vendors, a couple of service-oriented businesses (a photo studio, a tax-preparation office, a barber shop, and a bunch of others) and then a great teeming maelstrom of retail merchants jammed into a bustling maze of narrow aisles straight out of a Hong Kong movie.

Because of the insanely crazy layout, I’m not sure I’ve actually managed to see the whole thing, so far. And a lot of the businesses haven’t opened yet. But what is open so far seems surprisingly repetitive – there are maybe three or four shops selling, as far as I can tell, absolutely identical ethnic dresses. Two or three places with a probably identical selection of DVDs. A couple of convenience stores selling nearly-identical assortments of products all found, individually, somewhere else in the building.

The restaurants aren’t much better: at any given moment there are around a dozen roast chickens sitting under heat lamps, to say nothing of a couple score of the Hmong equivalent of the egg roll, gleaming piles of what look like char siu but probably aren’t, and stacks of cured sausages similar to lop cheong. And did I mention the four or five places selling Pho, all within a seventy yards of one another?

If you think that’s bad, though, the produce market – an aircraft-hangar like room in the midst of the whole complex – must surely take the cake. The majority of the dozen or so merchants there when I visited were selling absolutely identical produce, sourced in bulk from the same local wholesalers.

That seems like a recipe for disaster, but you see the exact same thing at the local farmer’s markets, so maybe it works for them, somehow. Perhaps there’s some sort of tribal dynamic going on, whereby people whose families came from one part of Laos only buy from merchants who came from the same region? I don’t really know, and nobody will offer any sort of explanation beyond “it’s complicated”, but the end result is a, to a white guy, pretty incomprehensibly redundant array of greengrocers all side-by-side, competing for business.

It’s not a bad thing, necessarily. The older merchants – first-generation immigrants – seem curiously unconcerned about actually doing business, showing every sign of being content to just sit behind their stalls all day, and inevitably seem kind of put out when you interrupt their ruminations and/or socialization with an attempt to, you know, buy something from them.

The younger ones, though – a lot of whom seem to be second-generation Hmong-Americans – seem to have a somewhat better grasp of economics and capitalism. They want your money, and make it quite clear that the prices displayed – and they’re the only ones displaying prices, mind – are really more of “suggestions” or “ballpark figures” than what you’re actually going to pay. Hamburger onions, three for a dollar? You want? Here, have five for a buck. You want a couple apples? Here, for you, four for a buck, and have some free limes. What, you don’t want limes? They’re fresh! No? How about a pound of eggplant? Okay, limes it is, then.

So, in that respect, it works out really well for the buyer – avoid the grumpy old farts and stick to the youngsters, and get good deals. Maybe the old farts expect you to haggle with them, I don’t know. One of my guiding principles in life is a policy of meek nonconfrontationalism, so I’m not really much of a haggler, to be honest – and even if I were, I’d have a hard time trying to bargain down people who are, for the most part, selling produce at right around half-off local retail prices, if not lower. I mean, shit, they’re just trying to feed their families – something that’s driven home when, you know, the entirely family is right there, working the booth.

Don’t get me wrong, I really like the place, and hope it does well – not least because it’s pretty much the only place on this side of the city to get half of what the restaurants are serving. Wandering around, I had the frequent feeling that I was one of the only white guys in the entire building, but it wasn’t in a bad way. For all that the place is called the ‘Hmong Village’, and for all that it seems to be exclusively operated by the Hmong, and it has a delicious informality about it, as if to the people there, it really is a village, they seem pretty darned accepting of outsiders. Here’s hoping the place thrives.

If you’re in the Twin Cities, it’s definitely worth a visit, if only for the experience of navigating your way through the maze-like bazaar. Allow yourself an hour or two, wear comfortable shoes, bring a compass in case you get lost, be sure to try the Bahn Mi from the place right next to the southeast-ish entrance, expect to have to fight for a parking spot, be aware there are no bicycle racks, and most importantly, have fun.

Published in: General | on November 11th, 2010| No Comments »

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