Pike Place & The Hmong Florists

If you find yourself standing at 1st and Pike, cobblestone street beneath your feet and facing the iconic ‘Public Market Center’ sign, just to the right you’ll see another, more unassuming sign: ‘Meet the Producer.’ Most people don’t give this second sign a thought (even though it’s in the same number of selfies as the first sign) but it’s this second sign, and what it represents, that gives Pike Place its magic.

Pike Place opened in 1907, making it one of the oldest continuously operated public farmers’ markets in the US. It’s also ranked as Seattle’s most popular tourist destination and ranked 33rd in the world. The market is filled with the typical things: flowers, crafts, fruits, veggies and seafood (albeit it’s flying); what makes Pike Place special isn’t just what’s being sold, but who is selling it.

The opportunity to interview one of the vendors of a flower booth at Pike Place came about from a conversation I was having with a friend of mine, who happens to be a vendor’s son. I was asking him what ethnicity he was when he matter-of-factly stated, “you’ll never be able to guess.” Confidently taking up his challenge, after I was given a hint, I started guessing every southeast Asian country, “Laos?” “Nope.” “Burma?” “No.” “Cambodia? Vietnam?” “No. No” “Fine just tell me” “I’m Hmong” “Hmong??” “Told ya you’d never guess.”

Sure enough, I had never heard about Hmong people. Yet as I came to find out, they make up the majority of the florists at Pike Place. My friend went on to tell me that he’s been wanting to write about his family’s story because he’s sure that within ten to fifteen years there won’t be much of a floral presence at Pike Place. “The younger generation knows how to sell flowers, but not how to grow them” he told me.

To learn more I met with Dao Cha, mother of my friend and owner of Lee Lor Garden at Pike Place. But first I did some research and learned that Hmong people are:

  • An ethnic group from the mountainous regions of south China, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and Thailand.
  • A sub-group of the Miao ethnicity in China
  • Were recruited by the CIA as spies during the “Secret War.” Formally known as the Laotain Civil War, the “Secret War” took place from 1953-1975. It’s considered a proxy war on account of the United State’s indirect involvement.
  • As refugees they fled to Thailand to seek political asylum and thousands of those refugees eventually settled in Western countries in two separate waves. In the late 1970s the first wave was when most of the refugees came to the US.

With these few facts as my knowledge base, I ventured to Pike Place on a sunny Sunday morning and saw what it was like behind Dao’s booth. What I immediately noticed was the copious amounts of green stems layering the floor, buckets of flowers, and a river of people making their way through the market in front of us.

Through translating family members Dao and I talked, and it was as though she was checking off each bullet point I had researched about Hmong people. She was born in Laos and her family initially came to America by way of Thailand because of her family’s involvement in the “Secret War”. Her father was recruited as a spy for the war and the family had to choose between communism and freedom. When I asked Dao when her family eventually moved to America she told me to my amazement the exact date, “July 22, 1979.”

Coming to America can be terrifying, and Dao’s experience was no different, she didn’t know how they were going to make it in the US. The day after Dao arrived in Seattle she had a job at Remlinger Farms where she eventually learned how to farm on her own. Dao also sold vegetables for Remlinger Farms in Chinatown. She later became an owner of her flower booth at Pike Place because a friend at the market was able to make the right introductions.

Running a successful booth is no easy feat. Dao explained that her routine consists of getting to Pike Place in the early morning, selling flowers during business hours, and heading out to Carnation after closing to tend her farm and cut flowers for the next day. Dao follows this routine every day.

Even though it’s become common to Dao, like home, she still believes Pike Place is special. She loves the different types of people she sees, noting that cruise ships come to port and unload people from all over the world.

There’s also a family aspect to the market for Dao. While she’s busy selling flowers, her family members are also working in their own booths and they socialize throughout the day.

Most immigrants who come to America hope to establish lives from which their children can thrive. Dao is no different and is happy to report her son has a successful career with a prominent company on the Eastside. First arriving to America, “I didn’t know if we would survive, but then we found Pike Place.” Dao not only survived but believes her family has flourished in Seattle.

A dream come true, no doubt. But it also means that the flower business that set them up to prosper, could soon be left behind as each succeeding generation chases dreams of their own. Without anyone willing and able to work the farms, there won’t be flowers to sell. Perhaps it wouldn’t be as big a deal if this was just happening to one or two families, but 80% of the flowers sold at Pike Place are from Hmong families, and a majority of the younger generations aren’t interested in taking over the family business. Throughout the history of Pike Place this is a trend. According to Dao, Native Americans used to predominantly sell flowers, then the Japanese took over, then Filipinos, and then Hmong. It’s not clear who would take over after Hmong families eventually stop, but Dao says she’s planning to run her booth until she physically can’t. Though Dao’s son doesn’t know how to manage the farm, he still enjoys helping his mother every weekend that he can.

After the interview was over, I was planning to buy a bouquet to take home with me, but Dao beat me to the punch. “Let us make you bouquet” she said. I left staring down at my beautiful, robust bouquet, more enamored with Pike Place than ever.

Perhaps we should fret over the fate of the flowers at Pike Place, or maybe we should be grateful for the presence they have at the market to this day. Next time you’re at the market, take the ‘Meet the Producer’ sign at face value, get to know the unique stories that contribute to today’s Pike Place.


BONUS FACTS:

  • Want to see Hmong represented on the big screen? Watch “Gran Torino”, they play the film’s bad guys.
  • To make a great bouquet have a solid, oval base, and go from there.