An incredible life, an amazing woman (2024)

Nearly 50 years after Xong Xiong left her home country of Laos amid the turmoil following the Vietnam War, the Missoula resident will celebrate her 100th birthday on Saturday surrounded by family and friends.

Like many Hmong people, Xiong doesn’t know her exact age, but she turned 100, or close to it, on June 6. While Xiong doesn’t speak much English, the friends she’s made over the last several decades who are coming to celebrate her are a testament to the life she’s built in Montana.

“I think it’s incredible,” Xiong’s granddaughter Gold Moua said of her grandma’s journey. “To come to the U.S. and have such an immediate community to help her transition is fabulous.”

The Hmong people are a minority ethnic group with a specific language and culture who migrated from southern China to the mountainous areas of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand in the early 1800s, according to the Hmong American Center.

Like many Hmong, Xiong, born in the Houaphanh province in eastern Laos, spent her childhood farming with her family, clearing land in the jungle to grow crops like rice and corn, said Chue Vang, translating for Xiong. Vang, also a Hmong immigrant, is related to Xiong by marriage.

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Translating for Xiong, Moua said her grandma grew up poor and worked a lot from a young age.

“Due to the farming life they didn’t have time to sleep or to be tired,” Moua said. “It’s quite a rigorous job. They had to be very self-sufficient. … They’d be gone in the morning, come back home at night and they’d be really tired, but the work isn’t done.”

While Xiong had siblings, it’s difficult for her to talk about them because she doesn’t know where they are after she immigrated to the United States, Moua said

Xiong was likely in her early 20s when she married her husband, Moua said. She was his third wife and never had children. (Moua is the daughter of Xiong’s stepson.) After marrying, Xiong continued farming with her family until she left the country in the 1970s.

In the 1960s, Laos became the battleground for the United States’ “secret war.” The CIA recruited thousands of Hmong men and boys led by General Vang Pao to fight against the North Vietnamese and communist Pathet Lao.

When the U.S. pulled out its forces in 1975, Gen. Pao and supporters fled Laos for Thailand. After the war, the Laotian communist government targeted the Hmong people for cooperating with the United States.

Xiong and her family were among thousands of Hmong people who left their homes for refugee camps in Thailand. They were very hungry before the United Nations began providing aid, said Chue Vang, translating for Xiong.

From 1975 to 1992, Hmong refugees were resettled in several countries, including more than 100,000 in the United States, according to the Hmong Association of Washington.

In 1978, Xiong, her husband and her stepson moved to Montana from Thailand. They settled in Missoula because some family lived there and Gen. Vang Pao lived there after he first left Laos, Moua said.

The Missoula area’s Hmong population grew to about 600 by the end of the 1970s but dropped to about 230 people by the 2010 census, the Missoulian reported.

Xiong, who was in her mid-50s at the time, was poor when she first moved to Missoula, she said. In 1982, she moved into Council Groves Apartments, a low-income housing complex, where she still resides.

Before retiring in her mid-70s, Xiong worked cleaning jobs at the University of Montana and Sentinel High School, along with a handful of other jobs. Xiong said she enjoyed her jobs when she was younger and joked that she is too lazy to work now.

“I say to people at church, … ‘I’m not working, too lazy,’” she said. “People say, ‘You’re not lazy, you’re retired.’”

The language barrier was difficult for Xiong, but American friends helped teach her English and Xiong taught herself to drive, Moua said.

“I had lots of friends I made that help me,” Xiong said.

Years ago, a neighbor brought Xiong to the Missoula Church of the Nazarene, where she still attends almost every Sunday, said Sharon Miller, Council Groves Apartments resident liaison. Church is huge in Xiong’s life, and the congregation welcomed her with open arms, Miller said. Since Xiong no longer drives, congregation members drive her to and from church, Miller said.

After moving to the U.S., it took a lot of community outreach and about five or six years for Xiong to become a citizen, Moua said.

“To this day she’s never struck me as somebody who is around 100 years old,” Moua said. “I’m incredibly proud of her.”

Miller started getting to know Xiong about four years ago, just before starting her current position at the apartment complex, she said. Now she helps Xiong and other residents with some chores, driving them to appointments and other tasks.

“She’s an amazing woman I just adore. I don’t know anybody here who doesn’t,” Miller said of Xiong. “We have a little bit of a language barrier, but it’s gotten a whole lot better in the last four-plus years.”

Miller has a collection of hand-sewed blankets Xiong has accumulated over the last four to five years and helps Xiong send them to her family in Oregon. Xiong also gives blankets or hand-sewed fabric circles to many people she meets and to the animal shelter, Miller said.

“She’s an amazing woman I just adore. I don’t know anybody here who doesn’t.”

Sharon Miller

Xiong spends a lot of time sewing, taking care of her two cats, Angel and Easy, and visiting with friends, family and neighbors.

“She loves all people,” Miller said. “Children especially are dear to her heart. She always has candy at her apartment so when kids knock at her door she can give them candy.”

While Miller talks to Xiong about things that make her happy, there is a sadness that goes along with it, she said. Sometimes Xiong will abruptly stop telling a story that involves someone who has died or if it hurts her feelings, Miller said.

Miller helped organize the party for Xiong to celebrate her 100th birthday and show her how many people support her, she said.

Xiong said she likes living in Missoula and has a lot of friends here.

“I’m really happy,” she said.

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