Tornado: A Global History of Hmong in the Central Valley

The Fourth of July Hmong Freedom Celebration, known simply by attendees as J4, is the largest gathering of Hmong people in the United States. Since the late 1970s, tens of thousands of Hmong from across the United States and the world gather in St. Paul, Minnesota for the annual summer sports and culture festival. Among the sports tournaments played are volleyball, flag football, soccer, and sepak takraw.[1] Sepak takraw is a sport native to Southeast Asia, primarily Thailand and Laos. Centuries of years old, it is played with a woven rattan ball and a volleyball net. But unlike volleyball, players don’t use their hands: they use their feet. Athletes of sepak takraw are generally flexible and acrobatic. The best players often jump into handstands and flip-kick the ball over the net, similar to volleyball strikers, with one difference: no hands.  

As amazing as it must be to watch a game of sepak takraw, the largest crowds at the J4 can be found around the multiple soccer fields. In recent years, not counting 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the J4 celebration in Minnesota has attracted tens of thousands of attendees over the long four-day, holiday weekend. Hmong and non-Hmong from around Minnesota, the United States and across the globe make the pilgrimage every year. When Hmong people attend the J4 celebrations annually, the majority of them go there to watch soccer.[2] In the 1990s, there were anywhere from 50 to 70 soccer teams participating in the tournament, playing on four different fields. These days, the number of teams and players who register for the tournament has gone down. Similar to many other soccer tournaments, teams are broken down into brackets. Winning teams play anywhere between five to nine games in the four-day period before going head-to-head in the final match.  

In the early days of the tournament cash prizes were pretty low or non-existent. In contrast, by 2022 the men’s soccer champions received $7,000. Since the early 1990s, a team from Fresno known as Tornado has tried to win the coveted cash prize, but more importantly the honor of being champs. There were fewer teams in the early days, so the odds of getting a trophy were much sweeter. “I can’t recall how many trophies, but it was several years that we dominated. We’ve gotten so many trophies I can’t even count ‘em,” says Yee Vue, a Hmong resident of Clovis, California and an “OG” member of Tornado, recalling his wins at J4 in Minnesota and many other tournaments around California.[3] Thousands of Hmong families around the world, have flown and continue to fly out to Minnesota every year for the J4 festival and tournaments. The J4 is an amateur tournament, but that doesn’t mean the players were amateur. Fuechi Lor, a Fresno native who remembers watching the talent at J4 every year since he was a kid, says that there were players at J4 who “should have been playing collegiate ball, and professional as well.”

There are also smaller tournaments held in states with Hmong soccer clubs and leagues. The glory and the cash at a local tournament, such as the annual Southeast Asian Soccer Tournament in Sacramento, California, is much smaller than what can be won at J4. July 4th in St. Paul is where the Hmong soccer community from all over comes together to prove who’s the best. “J4 in Minnesota is like our World Cup,” says Fuechi. “Everybody trains for and plays for that tournament. You could win everything here in California, but until you win J4 in Minnesota, you’re really a nobody.”  

A Scattered People

So when did tens of thousands of Hmong Americans, and Hmong people from around the world, begin to come together on such a large scale to play soccer in a mid-western state not often associated with diversity? It all started with the Secret War. Known as the Secret War, or the Laotian Civil War, the conflict broke out in the mid-1950s between the government of the Kingdom of Laos and the communist political organization Pathet Lao, or Lao People’s Liberation Army.[4] In its efforts to combat communist forces in Northern Vietnam during the Vietnam War, the United States sent CIA operatives to train Hmong men and women who lived in the highlands of Laos as fighters. After the U.S. was defeated and withdrew from Vietnam and surrounding areas, tens of thousands of Hmong also looked for a way out, fearing the inevitable backlash that would come from having been a part of U.S. involvement in the region. While a very small number of Hmong were able to immediately make their way to the United States, the majority of the Hmong diaspora made their way to Thailand, before arriving to the United States, France and Australia, among others.[5]  

Once in Thailand, Hmong refugees faced horrible living conditions in refugee camps. In the Ban Napho camp, in northeastern Thailand, refugees were made to live in extremely small huts made of bamboo and corrugated iron, use communal toilets, and bathe using rainwater they had to collect themselves. Many individuals lived in the same camp for years. The logic of the Thai government was that if the camps were so unbearable, refugees would stop coming.[6] Unfortunately for Hmong refugees, camps such as Ban Napho have remained a reality into the very recent past. Ban Napho was not closed until 2000.[7] The connection between soccer and those with refugee status among Homing is clearly illustrated by a U14 team from 2006. In 2006, nearly every player of the Farview Park U14 soccer team in North Minneapolis had arrived from refugee camps in Thailand just the year before.[8] While the history of the Hmong diaspora as a whole presents a precariously scattered people, the individual communities they have made in various locations around the world continue to thrive.  

The largest segment of the Hmong diaspora who have relocated, forced or otherwise, currently reside in China. Other large Hmong communities are present in the United States, France, Australia, Canada and Germany, though there are Hmong to be found in many other countries around the world as well.[9] In the first days of resettling Hmong people in the US, the government attempted to spread the community across the country. Like many other immigrant groups before the Hmong, government officials erroneously believed that if the concentration of any one group settled in a given area was too big they would not assimilate into American society. Despite these efforts, many immigrant groups to the US either stayed close to one another or made their way to areas with larger populations of their fellow community members and away from isolated corners of the nation. Hmong people did precisely the same. In the United States, the largest populations of Hmong now reside in Fresno, California and the Twin Cities of St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Hmong families and individuals chose over time to be near other friends and family.[10] Because of this, these two areas of the country have been home to some of the best Hmong soccer players.  


There are some who speculate that the French introduced soccer to Hmong people near the end of the era of French colonization of Southeast Asia, around the 1950s.[11] But others are skeptical and argue that it would have been difficult to play the game in the rugged hills and mountain villages of Laos.[12] However it happened, watching Hmong soccer players from Fresno would make you think they had been playing the game since it was invented. In their oral histories, as former players for Tornado, Yee Vue and Fuechi Lor narrate the history of Hmong soccer in Fresno. Their lives in the Central Valley and time spent on the pitch demonstrate the cohesiveness of the Hmong community in the United States, from the first generation, Yee, to the second, Fuechi. Yee spent most of his time with Tornado during the 90s, until he retired in 2007. Then he became an “OG”. Fuechi started playing with Tornado the same year Yee transitioned out.  

Yee Vue is a first generation Laotian American and former Vietnam War refugee. Yee was born in Long Tieng, a former Laotian military base that was operated by the CIA during the Vietnam War. Yee barely recalls his childhood, having gone from Long Tieng to a refugee camp in Thailand and then to the United States, all before he was 6 years old.  

I can’t really recall much; it was like a dream. I recall staying in the camps in Thailand, and then relocating to the States in 1978. I just remember playing in the streams and the dirt, but it’s like a child having a dream. You wake up, and you can’t remember it.

When they arrived in the US in 1978, Yee and his family, his mom, dad, and four siblings, were among the first Hmong families in Park Forest, Illinois, a small town south of Chicago. Just five years later in 1983 the family moved to Tulare, California. Reflecting on the move to California, Yee notes that, “the weather was cold in the Midwest with the snow. And in California you had more Hmong people here, more relatives.” Two years later, Yee and his family moved a few miles north to Clovis, a city in Fresno county, and settled there where Yee still calls home today. Having arrived in the Central Valley in 1983, the Vue family formed some of the earliest members of the Hmong community there, a community that was nicknamed “Ban Vinai Village” after a refugee camp in Northeastern Thailand.[13]  

Tornado was founded in the 80s by Bee Thao, an “OG” in California Hmong soccer. Yee played right fullback for Tornado, sometimes subbing as an offensive mid or right forward. “I was always a good defender; I blocked a lot of goals.” Yee remembers playing a game in Sacramento against Punishers one year, “I was there for a funeral actually.” As Yee remembers it, it was an exhausting match, and afterwards a Punisher came up to Yee’s brother-in-law and told him that Yee was the only reason the Punishers lost that day, that he had blocked a huge amount of goals. Yee, in recent years, was even stopped in the street by a father of his son’s friend: “Look, son, that’s one of the best defenders ever from Lao Modesto.” In California, with Yee on defense, Tornado was dominant in the 1990s. That’s not to say Tornado didn’t experience a loss every now and then. In 1999, Tornado got 3rd place, losing in the semifinals at J4 to Minnesota’s Twin Stars, a team filled with semi-pro players at the time.  

Yee was one of the earliest Hmong soccer stars to play in the Central Valley. He began playing the game on the weekends with his relatives, mainly uncles and cousins, as soon as he could kick a ball. A young Yee got serious about the game in seventh grade. Eventually, when Yee was a teen, some of the original groups of older, established Hmong teams, such as United Shalong and Phooj Ywg Hmoob (Hmong Friends), helped create new teams for different age ranges. Today, Phooj Ywg Hmoob still plays as a Senior League team. The “OGs.” After high school, Yee played for several different teams around California. Yee played with White Shadow, Lompoc, San Diego, and Silver Hawk – all before finally settling on Tornado.  

While Yee was honing his skills playing with different teams across California in adult amateur clubs, Fuechi was just starting out on the pitch as a kid. Fuechi Lor was born and raised in Fresno in 1989. His parents, Chonkav Peter Lor and Mayyia Lor were both Vietnam War refugees who met in Wisconsin soon after their arrival, around the same time as Yee and his family arrived in the US. Like Yee’s family, eventually the Lors realized they did not like Midwest winters. After having three kids in Wisconsin, including Fuechi’s older brother Kiabtoom, the family grew by three more in Fresno for a total of six. Recalling his childhood near southeast Fresno, Fuechi says, “we lived in a small house near the Fresno High area; a three bedroom home, and it was just enough for us to be that tight-knit family which we still are today.” From a young age, Fuechi’s parents encouraged him to play soccer as a way to keep him off the streets. In those days there was a lot of gang activity in certain parts of Fresno, including around where Fuechi grew up. “Soccer kept us grounded and away from a lot of those bad things, that’s just something that my parents knew and always tried to instill in us,” Fuechi says, recalling his parents’ motivations for encouraging their kids to play sports. According to Fuechi, “if you know the area of Shields and Moroa, it’s not the greatest.” Soccer wasn’t the only activity that boys in the Hmong community participated in as a way of staying off the streets. When Fuechi was just a little kid in the early 90s, hip-hop culture was like a god-send for the Bumz, a Hmong b-boy crew in Fresno who chose break-dancing over gang life.[14] For a lot of Hmong teens a little older than Fuechi at the time, hip-hop and break dancing held the same meaning for them as soccer did for others.  

Similar to the passion the Bumz had for hip-hop, for Fuechi soccer was more than just something to do after school. Fuechi’s parents recognized his talent and knew he needed to play the game, even when Fuechi’s grades started slipping. One day, as a sophomore at Bullard High School, playing for Bullard United, a local Fresno youth soccer club, Fuechi came home with a D in math class. Fuechi vividly recalls what his mom told him that day: “My mom told me that morning, ‘You need to go turn in your jerseys, you’re not going to play anymore because you need to pick up your grades’.” An obedient son, Fuechi tells his coach, “my grades are slipping and my mom is pulling me from the team.” So Fuechi hits the books, doesn’t attend practice and misses several games. Pretty soon, Fuechi’s mom confronted him, “Hey, why are you not at practice?! When are your games?” “You told me I had to quit,” Fuechi remembers admitting. “No! We were just scaring you so you would pick up your grades! We still wanted you on the team!”  

Fuechi tells me that Tornado is the most successful Hmong soccer team in California. According to him, “Tornado is the only Hmong soccer team from California to ever win in Minnesota.” But Fuechi always had more reasons to want to play with Tornado, not just because they were good. “Tornado are actually like family to us. They would be considered like my cousins.” Fuechi tells me that he and his family would always watch Tornado play when he was growing up, at games and tournaments in both California and the Midwest. In those days, there were two Hmong brothers who hosted tournaments at least once a month all over California. When Fuechi talks about Tornado during those days, he says, “Tornado won a lot of those tournaments here in California.”  

Fuechi started playing with Tornado when he was fifteen. As a teenager, Fuechi mostly got to play when the team was winning by a lot. Fuechi became an integral part of the team during college. After his first year at Fresno State, Fuechi tried out for Fresno City, but the coach there wanted to redshirt Fuechi. For those who might not know, redshirting in college sports happens when an athlete is asked to not compete for a season or a year. That player can still attend practice, receive scholarships, and attend classes but will not play for a determined amount of time. After thinking about his decision, Fuechi decided to stay at CSU Fresno. “Do I regret it? I kind of do,” Fuechi admits, “But you can’t look at the past and dwell on it, you know.” It was shortly after his disappointment with Fresno City that Fuechi found his way to Tornado.

In 2007, during the winter,  Fuechi played with Tornado at a tournament in Merced. “One of the starters got hurt, and they said ‘Hey, Fuechi, you gotta get in man, Pao Her got hurt’.” Actually, the team didn’t call him Fuechi, they called him “Ubby.” It wasn’t the world’s most epic debut. At J4 that year, Tornado lost to Majiks. “We should have won that year. We had a stacked team. We actually lost by an own goal.” From his days watching Tornado play in California and at the J4 in Minnesota, Fuechi and Tornado were always close. He was close with many of his fellow Tornado players on the pitch, and also many of the “OGs,” who mostly retired in 2007 and would sit on the sidelines and offer coaching assistance. Now it was Yee’s turn to sit in a folding chair and watch Fuechi play, the way Fuechi had grown up watching Yee play with Tornado.  

After the “OGs” retired, Fuechi says Tornado had a hard time finding the right players. “We tried to find some younger guys, but we just couldn’t find the right pieces,” Fuechi recalls. Looking to the future, some of the younger Tornado players also made some changes. After several calls from Hmong teams in the Midwest, several members of Tornado decided to play for Twin Star, the Minnesota team that had beat Tornado in ’99. On a team that was bleeding players, Fuechi felt like he was waiting for a call too.  

One day, Fuechi was encouraged by his brother, Kiabtoom, to join him on King United, a Hmong team in Sacramento. “Our team was, well let’s just say we shouldn’t have gotten far,” Fuechi laughs. “But we made it far! We were beating teams from Wisconsin, Minnesota. We ended up winning, winning, winning.” In 2010, Fuechi and Kiabtoom headed to J4 to face off against their old rivals, and old friends, Twin Star. Tornado reunited on the pitch as two different teams. “It was pretty much a Tornado final. You had me, my brother, and all the Sacramento guys, pretty much all Tornado guys. And Twin Star, pretty much half the team was Tornado.” While King United was knocked out in the finals at PKs, or penalty shoot-outs that occur when the game cannot end in a tie, Twin Star took first place. But Fuechi’s memories of that tournament focus more on the team’s reunion. “Those photos are crazy, cause you’ll see half of us in one jersey and half in the other.”  

When Tornado came back together in 2011, it felt like for real this time. “That’s when we said, ‘no more of this 2010 stuff!’ We’re going to go back as Tornado!” As the oldest member of the team that year, Kennedy Yang, the goalkeeper for Tornado, rallied the rest of the team together. With the team fully invested, Tornado was able to recruit new players who fit well with their style of play. “The style that we liked to play is the counter. We leave our forwards up there and drop back pretty low. Once we get the ball we just send our forward. Kind of how Chelsea played against Barcelona that one year, when Fernando Torres scored that goal against Barcelona.” The game Fuechi is referring to was between Chelsea and Barcelona during the UEFA Champions League in 2012. A mostly miserable game for Chelsea, Barcelona retained possession of the ball most of the game and lead 2-1 up until around the 80th minute. Near the end of the game, with Barcelona on a seemingly incessant offensive, Chelsea’s counter defense got a hold of the ball and passed it up to former Madrid forward, Fernando Torres, who scored a redemption goal that millions of soccer fans still remember, including Fuechi. In 2011, the counter served Tornado well, and they beat Hmong USA in the final game 1-0 at J4.  

The next year, Kennedy is convinced by some of the “OGs” to retire, to go out on top with a great legacy from 2011. Fuechi and several other Tornado players, on the other hand, are determined to go back and defend their title. Fuechi quickly gets a team together, unfortunately without all of the other players from last year. Without a stacked roster, Tornado lose in the semifinals at J4. That year, the J4 champions were actually Hmong France, who came all the way from Europe and defeated the Minnesota Majiks.[15] Unable to stay away, and perhaps disappointed by the loss, Kennedy calls up Tornado with a desire to regroup for 2013. Tornado forms up once again and become the 2013 J4 champions, beating the Black Cats. It would be the last time Tornado took home first place at J4. These days you can find Tornado playing mostly in the Central Valley.  

The New Generation of Tornado

Fuechi says that it was hard for Tornado to attract and keep a lot of younger players. The team would routinely call in friends from other states and invested more in borrowing players than training up the next generation. So Fuechi can understand why many of the young guys chose to leave. Tornado currently has a small roster, mostly freshmen in college, some high schoolers. Calvin, the son of a former Tornado, is perhaps the most active player in terms of recruitment and getting other young players in the community interested in playing soccer. But there’s just not that much to do once a player joins the team. “There just aren’t that many tournaments around anymore,” according to Fuechi.  

According to Twin Star owner Fong Herr, “There is so much potential for Hmong soccer to become really powerful, but it will take hard work and a community effort to make it happen.”[16] In 2018, team owners and players in Minnesota envisioned a training camp that would start training a new generation of Hmong players as young as 4 or 5 years old. According to one Hmong journalist, “The future of Hmong soccer therefore hinges on the return of these top-notch players back to the Hmong community to forge a new era in the evolving state of Hmong soccer.”[17] But the older players, the “OGs”, are there. They never left the community.  

Yee and his sons, along with other Hmong players in Fresno, get together at Temperance-Kutner Elementary and Fancher Creek Elementary to play, train and enjoy the game. Reminiscing on what the game means to him, Yee says, “soccer is a platform, the opportunity to bridge, to meet people.” Yee still maintains connections with people out in the Midwest as well. “When we go to Minnesota, my kids will say, ‘Dad, there are so many people that know you’. And I say, because soccer was that bridge. If it wasn’t for soccer, I wouldn’t have that connection with people.” And like the journalist said, what really counts is how the older generation uses those connections to help out the next generation. In soccer, inspiration can come from just over the hill.  

Fuechi’s oldest son plays on two different teams in Fresno. At only 6 years old, Fuechi sees the importance of having his son play with older kids, some as old as 8. Thinking about his own journey, Fuechi says, “It gives you perspective. We could get our kids to at least play college ball, if not more.” Fuechi isn’t the only one thinking about his son’s future in soccer: “He says it, and I don’t know how serious he is because he’s only 6 years old, but he says, ‘I want to play professional soccer’.” Fuechi’s son idolizes Heung-Min Son, the South Korean international star goalkeeper for Tottenham Hotspurs. “He’s got all his jerseys. And the cool thing is he can identify with him. He says, ‘I’m Asian, Heung-Min Son is Asian. If he can do it, I can do it’.” Fuechi and his son are clearly, very passionate about the game.

“Maybe he’ll be a Tornado!” I say to Fuechi. Fuechi laughs and finally says, “I don’t know if they’ll be around by then…”

Think back on how many Hmong were pushed out of Laos, Thailand, and Southeast Asia. In diaspora, scattered all over, despite numerous ruptures among family members and neighbors, there remains a sense of community that exists on and off the pitch. There are real ties, some familial and some friendly, for which soccer serves as a catalyst. Tornado can be an inspiration, a source of nostalgia, and a proud legacy. But like Fuechi, Yee, and everyone who came before them, the new players will always be Hmong. And that is something that Calvin and Fuechi’s six year old son can always be proud of, no matter what kit they decide to wear.  

Enrique Salas-Limon is a recent MA graduate in History from Claremont Graduate University and will begin the PhD program at CGU in Fall 2023. He is interested in writing histories that link narratives of migration, race, and capitalism.

This essay is part of the public history project “The Other Football: Tracing the Game’s Roots and Routes in the San Joaquin Valley,” which was founded by Romeo Guzman at Fresno State in 2018 and is now housed at CGU. Prof. Guzman, his CGU graduate students, and Fresno State alumni and futbolistas continue to organize events in Fresno and the Central Valley. For more information contact Prof. Romeo Guzman at To browse the archive please visit (To date we’ve only uploaded about 20 percent of the entire archive; do check back!)

Note: Unless otherwise attributed, quotes are from oral histories with Yee Vue and Fuechi Lor, conducted by Sang Vang on May 13, 2019, and Enrique Salas-Limon on November 11, 2022 and November 23, 2022, respectively. Quotes have been edited for clarity.    


[1] Sarah Horner, “St. Paul: One of the largest Hmong festivals in world continues today,” Pioneer Press, July 5, 2015.

[2] Chai Lee, “Friends separated by war reunite at Hmong International Freedom Festival, which returns after two-year absence,” Sahan Journal, July 1, 2022,

[3] All quotes in this essay are attributable to oral history interviews conducted with Yee Vue or Fuechi Lor, unless otherwise indicated.

[4] Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012), 12.

[5] Colin Burch, curator. “The Bumz,” The Bumz: Fresno Hmong B-boy Pioneers, 2016, (accessed on December 10, 2022)

[6] Karla Bruner, “Stories of Rejection,” Fresno Bee, October 13, 1996.

[7] “Laos: Ban Napho camp repatriation completed,” Briefing Notes, News and Stories, UNHCR USA, February 25, 2000,

[8] Jay Clark, “Community Voices | Hmong North Minneapolis Soccer Players Cheer Coach Blong Yang Victory,” Twin Cities Daily Planet, November 10, 2013.

[9] Lisa Lee Herrick, “Eating Thirty in Fresno: Finding Home at Hmong New Year,” Boom California, December 24, 2019,; Sue Murphy Mote, Hmong and American: Stories of Transition to a Strange Land (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2004), 11.

[10] Birch, “The Bumz,” 2016.

[11] Wameng Moua, “The changing face of Hmong soccer,” Twin Cities Daily Planet, June 15, 2006.

[12] Stephen Magagnini, “SOUTHEAST ASIAN GAMES – On fields of play, Hmong,” Sacramento Bee, July 11, 2011.

[13] Herrick, “Eating Thirty in Fresno,” 2019.

[14] Birch, “The Bumz,” 2016; “Smurfs, Wizards, and the History of Hmong B-Boy Culture in Southeast Fresno,” Tropics of Meta, March 31, 2017,

[15] Horner, “St. Paul,” 2015.

[16] Moua, “The changing face of Hmong soccer,” 2006.

[17] Ibid.