Joua (Joe) Bee Xiong (1961-2007) was born in a Hmong village in northern Laos around 1961. His father was a soldier for the CIA-supported Hmong leader Vang Pao, and Xiong did his share of soldiering as a young teenager. In the late 1970’s, Xiong traveled with his family to a refugee camp in Thailand. He immigrated to the United States in 1979 and arrived in Eau Claire in 1980. A determined young man, he graduated from high school and went on to gain several technical school certificates.
Joe Bee Xiong was interviewed several times by the Chippewa Valley Museum (late 1980’s, 1992, 1998 and 2006) when gathering information about local folk artists. Xiong was a qeej master (approximate pronunciation with a thick American accent is “kang”), learning to play two years after the end of the Vietnam War. The qeej is a free reed instrument, somewhat related to the bagpipe, and is not learned casually. Qeej players must serve an apprenticeship with masters, and Xiong learned from two older relatives. The instrument, traditionally, is an essential instrument at Hmong funerals where apprentices are under critical appraisal of elders and the deceased’s relatives. Xiong received his training in this way this way in his home village, and his skills were sharpened in the refugee camps where death was constant and the qeej-playing demanded at funerals seldom ceased. Here in Eau Claire, Xiong played for traditional funerals, although their duration and certain aspects of their practice have been altered by the nature of the life in urban America. As well as the qeej, Xiong played several other instruments including reedless end-blown flutes, side-blown flutes with copper reeds, and the jaw harp. (See Hmong Music for more general information). He performed with these instruments at new world Hmong seasonal competitions and at “culture shows” for outsiders. Joua (Joe) Bee Xiong passed away on March 30, 2007 in his native country of Laos.
Xiong has two sons, Lar Zeng Xiong, born September 23, 1983, and Lar Kong Xiong, born December 12, 1984 who learned how to play the qeej. Joua Bee began teaching his sons to play the qeej when Lar Zeng was nine years old and Lar Kong was eight. They have performed together at the New years festival, other festivals, at church, for associations, at schools and at culture shows. Qeej playing involves acrobatics, so the boys had to practice the moves as well. Joua Bee said that they have since become more interested in Western instruments and do not practice the qeej very often anymore.
For more information
Wisconsin Arts Board biography of Joua Bee Xiong Images of Lar Zeng and Lar Kong Xiong performing with the qeej. The images are included in an on-line exhibit about Hmong folk life in Eau Claire