Leanne Lienkham Mounvongkham: A Short Biography

ACTA - Posted on 31 October 1999

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In Laos, people who are skilled weavers of silk skirts and scarves are greatly admired. They are all the more admired and respected in the United States where few still have looms at home, know how to weave, and take the time to weave.

In her village in the Sam Neua region, Leanne’s family made a livelihood as weavers for generations. She first learned from her mother when she was ten years old. Leanne is particularly skilled at "embroidering" designs into the warp during the weaving process resulting in decorated fabric of extraordinary beauty.

Her apprentice is her own daughter, Pheng Thephavong. Leanne taught her the basics twenty years ago in Laos, and has now come to an age where she has time to devote to learning the advanced artistic skills her mother can teach.

In California, mother and daughter take their loom and spinners to demonstrate at festivals and exhibitions. Last year, at "Threads of Tradition: Textile Arts of Laos in California's Central Valley," a major exhibit of Southeast Asian textile artists at the Fresno Art Museum, Southeast Asian visitors told them, "We’re so glad to see that a Lao person still knows how to do this."

Pheng ThepavongLeanne Lienkham Mounvongkham was born in the northeast Sam Neua region of Laos seven years before the Communists took over that area. Ban Ganang village, nestled in a river valley, had fifty closely related families living in the foothills not far from the border with Vietnam. The fighting between the Communists and CIA-led forces took place around her area and eventually made her an orphan.

Her mother died when Lienkham was ten and her grandmother and aunt took care of her and taught her weaving skills. She remembers watching her aunt weaving a skirt and wanting to learn how to make one for herself. For the Lao in remote rural areas, the process begins with growing cotton or raising silk worms. Living in a weaving household, she became proficient in all aspects of the process in the traditional way, under the guidance of her grandmother and aunt.

When she was eighteen, a landmine killed her father. To elude the Communist patrols, she fled in the middle of the night with her younger brother and another young woman. After walking three days through the jungle, led by Hmong soldiers, they reached an army encampment and from there were taken to Vientiane, the capital, to live with her older sister.

A year later, she married Phouvanh Mounvongkham and began working with his mother, Phim, who was a professional weaver. Until their escape to Thailand in 1980, she made skirts to sell in the urban Vientiane market.

Pheng Thepavong was about 10 when she came to the U.S. from Laos. At the time she was just beginning to learn to weave from her mother. It’s now 19 years later and mother and daughter are picking up where they left off to resume the intensive teaching and learning necessary to traditional Lao weaving.

Pheng recalls, “I just stopped when I came here and focused on learning English. I feel grateful that I have my mom to help me now, maybe one of these days I can teach my kids to do it.”

Pheng gave birth to her first child in February 2000. “Maybe she’s going to be a weaver. If we don’t keep doing this nobody’s going to be a weaver in the future. Only the older generation knows how to weave now. And when they get older, we won’t have anybody…Unless we start now. And that’s sad if we’re not going to have anybody interested to do it.”

Even though many of the older Lao women know how to weave, very few continue in the U.S. And Pheng knows no one in her generation whom has learned. She considers herself “somewhat old-fashioned.” “Most get caught up with society, school and all that stuff. They’re really not into these things.”

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