Behind the Hmong Cultural and Community Center in La Crosse is a small blacksmith’s shop. Inside this humble workshop the tradition of Hmong blacksmithing is kept alive by master blacksmith Tong Khai Vang. The tradition of Hmong blacksmithing was brought to La Crosse from Laos in the latter half of the 20th Century by Mr Vang and others. During their time in the United States, they have made hundreds of different tools and educated many in the Hmong community in this ancient tradition kept alive through their work.
In the corner of the shop is a trash can filled with scrap metal from which tools for a variety of purposes are created; whether they be gardening tools, kitchenware or ceremonial instruments, they are all created with the same care and respect as any piece of art, and rival the quality of machine-made tools available elsewhere in La Crosse. It is amazing how recycled truck springs, lawnmower blades, and railway spikes can be re-forged into tools of exceptional quality and rugged beauty.
This is known as a bird knife because of the swooping point at the end of its spine, reminiscent of a bird’s tail as it is about to take off. It’s about 14 inches long overall, and has its own wooden sheath. It was created using a handmade forge and shaped on an anvil with hammers and tongs. It was then sharpened on a homemade bench with blocks of stone. There are no pieces of industrial equipment in the blacksmith shop, only handmade benches. Hours of hard work and generations of knowledge went into the creation of this knife, keeping traditional Hmong blacksmithing alive in the 21st Century.
This knife is one of the objects that will be featured in the exhibition “[art]ifact , Where History Meets Art,” on display from February 26 through April 16, 2016, at the Pump House Regional Art Center. “[art]ifact” is a collaboration of the Pump House, the UW-L Public History Program and the La Crosse County Historical Society.
This article was originally published in the La Crosse Tribune on November 21, 2015.