Chu Thao (Vientiane, Laos)

Chu dropped out of school at the age of 15. Her parents could not support five children, and her teachers showed little interest in her education. Lacking support, she felt leaving school would lessen the stress on her parents. Her story is like that of many young women in Laos.

Fortunately, Chu’s aunt re-enrolled her at the Vientiane Capital school a year later. Being a young Hmong woman from a remote village meant she was not fluent in the official Lao language, and at 16 Chu was placed in third grade. Taunted and teased by younger children, Chu did not quit. She persevered to become a successful student and leader.

She joined VivNcaug, a Hmong women’s group. There, she met other female college students who became her role model, and gave her motivation to further her education. With their support, she spent a year in Cambodia learning English.

Chu’s amazing journey is an inspiration for other Hmong girls. Today, making Hmong handicrafts, such as the Hmong cloth balls or “pob,” helps Chu earn money to pay for school uniform, books, transportation, food, clothing, and English classes.

MaiYa Vue (Xiengkhouang, Laos)

MaiYa lives in a small village on a picturesque hillside next to a two-lane highway surrounded by rice paddies where the jungle is her backyard. Her village is in the center of one of the most heavily bombed provinces in Laos by the US government during the Vietnam War.

The youngest girl of nine children, MaiYa is a quiet and determined person. To make money she sells whatever vegetables yields from the family’s rice farm, and forages for forest bamboos and other wild plants. On a good day, about once or twice per week, she makes between $3 to $12.

Unlike most girls in her village, MaiYa is not married and continues to struggle through high school. After her father passed away a few years ago she quit school so she could help her mother, and support her siblings in school. Realizing there would be no future for her without an education, she recently returned to school. At 20, MaiYa is the oldest student in her high school, but she is determined to finish. Her goal is to gain at least a vocational education and work as a bank teller or English teacher.

MaiYa is especially talented with her hands. She makes a variety of handicrafts, including embroidery, reverse applique, and cross-stitching paj ntaub. When she’s not in school or at the market she sells her embroidery. It takes at least one day to finish one piece, but she’s had to sell it for less than $2. She hopes more people sees value of her artistry and skills and supports her handiwork. The income earned will help her achieve her goals.

Mang Yang (Nan, Thailand)

At the age of 8 Mang learned to batik Hmong skirts from her parents. When she married at 16, she began teaching her husband’s family to batik. Her husband saw how hard she worked using the traditional tool (dlav/diav, which translates into spoon), and eventually developed metal molds in the same designs as traditional batik drawings. The metal molds made the batik process faster and more precise because instead of drawing every line and swirl, one could now dip the mold in wax and stamp the pattern onto hemp or cotton cloth. It takes approximately one day to make three rolls of six meter cloth (not including the indigo dying process). Mang has been able to support her family by making batik fabrics, and she’s also been able to employ other family members.

Mang shares that when she was elected President of her district’s woman’s group, she realized many people had a higher education except her. It was then that she decided to return to school. Mang, her husband, and their 20 year old daughter continue to attend adult education classes because they want to get their high school diploma.

Today, Mang is among the few artisans who continue to batik. She is frequently invited to demonstrate her skills at fairs, and has provided training to others in her village. Batiking is hard work and she has lost some sight over the years. She hopes to move onto other lines of work someday. She feels good that the art form and skills will not be lost because she has taught her children and relatives how to batik.

Pang Yang (Nan, Thailand)

Pang has been a silversmith for 22 years, making traditional Hmong jewelry. Pang’s parents were very poor and didn’t allow her to continue her education; so she decided to learn the art of silversmithing from her three uncles who were all silversmiths. Three days after she got married, at the young age of 15 years old, she began making jewelry full time to support her family. During periods of high demand, Pang and her husband can make up to 8,000 baht per month ($244), but that does not occur regularly. To supplement their livelihood, they are also seasonal rice farmers.

Pang and her husband understand the importance of education, and returned to school as adults. They both now have graduated from high school. Pang has five children between the ages of 7 and 23. She made sure they all received formal education. As a thoughtful, articulate, and reliable person, Pang is a natural leader and was elected president of her village’s neighborhood woman’s group, which is home to the largest Hmong population in Thailand.

Sapa O’chau (Sapa, Vietnam)

Sapa O'Chau (SOC) social enterprise aims to preserve the culture and traditions of ethnic minority handicraft in Vietnam. Currently, the majority of existing handicraft businesses are not owned by ethnic minority people. Some businesses claim that they are helping ethnic minorities, or claim that they themselves are ethnic minorities, but many of the handicraft products sold in these businesses are not authentic. SOC believes these business tactics are unethical, and erodes the value of traditional handicrafts, especially among younger generations. These practices also drive down the value of the skills, and ultimately the products. All this leads to the gradual loss of pride in culture and traditions as young people turn away from the art of traditional handicraft making.

SOC wants to protect the interest of ethnic minority people by empowering them to preserve their traditional handicraft making skills, market traditional handicrafts, share the story of the woman makers, as well as share the meanings of these traditional designs. SOC is working to encourage women to make high quality products through transforming vintage textiles into modern apparel. SOC plans to make unique clothing, yet still allowing customers to tailor it according to their functional needs and fashion taste. SOC also promotes traditional handicrafts because the materials are environmentally friendly. SOC hopes to connect ethnic minorities artisans directly with customers, because this will translate into more profit for women in poverty.

VivNcaug's SISTERHOOD HANDICRAFTS (Vientiane, Laos)

Handicrafts from the Heart is an economic development program of VivNcaug, also known as Sisterhood, a nonprofit group whose mission is to support the well-being of women and girls to reach their full potential so that they can break the cycle of poverty and raise their status in society.

Handicrafts from the Heart works with a group of women artisans to produce handmade products made from environmentally friendly materials mainly hemp, silk, cotton, bamboo and other natural materials available in Laos and neighboring countries. The artisans use designs and motifs traditionally seen in Hmong textile. All proceeds directly benefit the artisans and the VivNcaug organization.

The goal of the handicraft program is to assist women to earn income so that they can improve their quality of life. For some of the women, this has been the first time in their life they are independently earning income.

Traditional Hemp Cooperative (Ha Giang, Vietnam)

The founder of the Traditional Hemp Cooperative, Mai Vang, came from a very poor family, but they are talented artisans; using the hemp they grow to make traditional cloth. One day, two Swiss couples passed by her family’s home and asked to buy the cloth hanging outside their house. Mai convinced her aunt to sell it. Soon thereafter she was introduced to Craftlink, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that helps market traditional handicraft from different ethnic minorities of Vietnam.

Mai and her husband opened their cooperative in 2001, and selected sixty applicants to join. Today, they make their own fabric and create quality handicrafts. In addition to making income for women artisans, they offer classes teaching women and children traditional handicraft designs. These classes are taught by expert makers who are paid.

Mai says that the art of batik resides in only six or seven elderly women. This is why she wants to revive her people’s traditional craft with a new generation. Additionally, she has seen first hand how women are empowered when they can make their own income. She wants to continue helping poor people living in remote areas turn their traditional skills into livelihoods.

Mai's cooperative has grown to 130 members from nine small communities. Mai hopes to find more partners so that they can sustain income streams for the women she works with. Eventually, she wants to co-own a shop in Hanoi to introduce her people’s handicraft to the world. She also wants to make her community workshop better able to provide support and training for her artisans.

Ying Khang Hang (Xiengkhouang, Laos)

Ying comes from a long line of batik experts; her skills have been passed down from generations of grandmothers. She married at 18, and has made and sold her batik textiles to support her six children. Since 2005 when her husband passed away, Ying has been the sole provider for her family. To make ends meet Ying also has a maize farm where she and other small farmers export their maize to neighboring countries. In the past, on an annual basis, she could earn up to $2,000 from her batik, and $2,250 from her maize farm. With this earning she has put all her children through college.

Today, Ying is a master batik artisan; among only a handful left. Ying is frequently invited to demonstrate her skills at handicraft fairs. She has passed on her skills to her 20 year old daughter. She uses natural bee’s wax and indigo to make her batik textiles. She is able to replicate traditional designs, but also works with RedGreen Rivers to create new designs.

Saoban (Vientiane, Laos)

Saoban in Lao means village - a name specially chosen to denote its mission to support Lao village handcrafts that improve the livelihood and well-being of villages in rural Laos.

Saoban is an affiliate of PADETC (Participatory Development Training Center), a Lao non-governmental organization (NGO) that integrates socially sustainable programs in education, agriculture, micro-finance, handcrafts and community leadership. Since 2005, the Saoban Project has helped form more than 14 village artisan groups (mostly cotton, silk, and bamboo weaving groups), and trained more than 300 village artisans, of which 90% are women. Despite such efforts, many of the craft producers were still not getting fair prices from buyers, and standards were difficult to maintain.

So, in 2011 Saoban opened its social enterprise to promote fair business practices and to protect the livelihood and well-being of village artisans and their families. Saoban showcases the beauty and cultural heritage of Lao handcrafts to buyers. Saoban products are not produced in workshops or factories, but rather all made in homes and communities by village artisans. By doing so craft production can flexibly fit with the rhythm of the artisans' family and farming lives.

RedGreen Rives™ brings scarves, shawls, and jewelry made by Saoban artisans.

Bao Moua and Shoua Ying Thao (Nan, Thailand)

Bao Moua and her husband, Shoua Ying Thao, have been making jewelry since they were teenagers. For over 20 years, they’ve refined their craft, carrying on the skills that have been passed down their family for at least three generations. Shoua Ying’s grandfather was recruited to work among a select group of silversmiths for the Royal Hilltribe Project founded by the King and Queen of Thailand. This history makes Shoua Ying feel proud of his family’s skills.

Bao and Shoua Ying married when they were just 15 years old, not an unusual practice for many young Hmong in Thailand, but they recognize how this has inhibited them. They are thankful for their silversmith skills, as it’s been the primary means for them to make a living. Income earned from their products supports their family’s livelihood and their four children’s education.

Bao and Shoua Ying value their heritage, and creatively incorporate traditional designs with modern pieces of jewelry, housewares, and decorative wall hangings, which they sell in the countryside of Nan province. Together with RedGreen Ri
vers, Bao and Shoua Ying produce modern jewelry inspired by tradition and artistry.