Phila. poet seeks to raise awareness of Lao culture

Catzie Vilayphonh at the Wat Lao temple. "I had to find out the history for myself," she says.
Catzie Vilayphonh at the Wat Lao temple. "I had to find out the history for myself," she says. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: June 12, 2014

Born in a camp for Lao refugees, Catzie Vilayphonh was an infant when her family was resettled in Philadelphia in 1981.

"Was I 15 days old? Fifteen weeks old? All I know is I was a baby," she said recently over sticky rice and bitter melon soup at a South Philadelphia restaurant. "I didn't even know I was a refugee until my 20s."

Traumatized by their uprooting, her parents rarely spoke of the past.

"I had to find out the history for myself," said Vilayphonh, who graduated from Central High School in 1998 and a few years later, with her stage partner, Michelle Myers, a Korean American, achieved acclaim as spoken-word poets with their in-your-face performances as Yellow Rage. The duo toured colleges and were featured on HBO.

Now Vilayphonh, 33, a marketer for the Philadelphia apparel company UBIQ, has thrown herself into Laos in the House, her multimedia project to spotlight a Southeast Asian community with a lower profile than the better-known refugees of Vietnam and Cambodia.

Funded with a $25,000 matching grant from the Knight Foundation, she hopes to debut Laos in the House with a three-day festival in Philadelphia next year.

The project, which takes its name from a poem by Vilayphonh, has three components. It will collect and archive digital stories about the Lao diaspora in America. It will create a Smithsonian-style exhibit to be displayed at the city's Asian Arts Initiative and the Barnes museum. It will showcase performances in Philadelphia by Lao American artists.

In 1990, the U.S. Census counted 878 Laotians in Philadelphia. Nearly a quarter-century later, according to the State Department, 3,268 Laotian refugees live in Philadelphia. The U.S. total is about 250,000.

Kounesone Vilayphanh, president of Wat Lao Phouphaphammarm, a Buddhist temple on 20th Street near Washington Avenue, estimates the city's Lao-descended population at 5,000.

Vilayphanh, who is unrelated to Vilayphonh despite the similar spellings, said he was happy to learn about Laos in the House and only wished the community could be more supportive financially. "Day-to-day donations" to the temple are just enough to keep it going, with little left over, he said.

Seeking wider support through the Internet and other outreach, Vilayphonh says her project will put the region's Lao community on the map. Her goal: an extravaganza to make people say, "You have to come to Philadelphia. You have to see this in person!"

Traveling the United States to perform Yellow Rage, she visited Minneapolis, where she found a large and inspiring Lao presence.

"For the first time I performed my poem  'You B  ring Out the Laos in the House' and people got it," she said. "I didn't have to break it down."

The poem, which takes about nine minutes to present, includes verses about Lao ethnicity, culture, and cuisine, including fried grasshoppers and ant-egg soup.

Speaking about one of her favorites, fertilized duck eggs, in which the embryo is boiled alive and eaten in the shell, she says: "In Laos we call it khai look. . . . On TV, everyone calls it 'That episode on Fear Factor.' "

The poem also includes a spoofy riff on people who try to guess her nationality.

"Oh my Gawd, your hair is so pretty! Where are you from?" she mimics, channeling a Valley Girl. "Let me guess, I'm really good at this. You're Filipino. Oh, no, no, wait, wait wait. You're Hawaii. No, no, no. Give me one more try. Thai. No? What the [expletive] are you then?"

The poem includes a stanza about her first name. To be successful in America, someone told her mother, children need easy-to-remember American names. Her mother didn't know any.

"Someone said 'Cathy.' My mom heard 'Catzie,' " and the rest is history, said Vilayphonh. Her sister, who was born in Philadelphia, is named Judy.

Raised near Fifth and Ritner Streets, Vilayphonh completed Central High and enrolled at Community College of Philadelphia intending to move on to Temple University but never did. At the Asian Arts Initiative she met Myers, who became her stage partner, and their careers took off. Five years ago Vilayphonh's daughter, Aditi, was born. She is a single mother.

Steeping herself in history, Vilayphonh learned how during the Vietnam War, the United States bombed Vietcong resupply routes that ran through Laos, covertly supported the royal Lao government against the Communist Pathet Lao, and in the process displaced hundreds of thousands of civilians.

"The bombing caused the diaspora, so America invited us in," she said, adding that the reception of the refugees wasn't always warm or easy.

Laotian American Bryan Thao Worra, 41, author of several books of poetry, met Vilayphonh in Minnesota a decade ago.

Living near Los Angeles now, he said the relatively small size of Philadelphia's Lao community was no barrier to Vilayphonh's goal of advancing the Lao American narrative.

"It is not necessarily so that the biggest communities are where the biggest voices come from," he said. "It's precisely the smaller communities where we have seen the best work emerge, asking the classic questions: Who am I? Where am I from? How did I get here?"

215-854-2541 @MichaelMatza1

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