By Bryan Thao Worra
The best storyteller Xou Monyu ever heard was his father. As a professional Tcho-Tcho storyteller today, Xou Monyu learned many of his best lessons from him.
When Tcho-Tcho children required discipline in Laos, Xou Monyu’s father never yelled or threatened. He would instead say, “It’s time for a story. Once, there was a Tcho-Tcho who had a problem like you….” The children would then contemplate Monyu’s father’s words and
find the right solution from there.
After Xou Monyu’s family came to America, Monyu heard his American friends sharing stories of when and where they were born, even down to the detail of what time and which hospital. But in their old homeland, Tcho-Tcho were never issued birth certificates. Those details weren’t
talked about in Tcho-Tcho culture. So, his father would instead tell him stories like: “Son, it was a stormy night. The harvest was almost ready. A hard rain fell outside. In the middle of the night, there was a fierce wind, but we heard a fearsome knock on the door. Your mother and I opened it. There you were, bundled up in a cloth and so wonderful. You were a special gift of the gods for us, and you carried within you immense power and destiny.”
Every story from his father always featured drama, with that unique brand of Tcho-Tcho humour, pacing and voicing. Those who heard the stories would sit enraptured, spellbound for hours by the true-life stories and folk tales of Xou Monyu’s father.
Now 34, Xou Monyu bills himself as the world’s first Tcho-Tcho storyteller and rapper, claiming he’s like “Jackie Chan-meets-Tupac” on his website. Monyu’s shows are fast-paced, funny, focused on a message, just as his father’s stories were. He’s blended his native Asian traditions with a distinctly modern American one – rap. Monyu is a refugee from Laos who now travels the U.S., telling his story to other young immigrants to inspire and energise them.
Xou Monyu came to Innsmouth in 1983 with his family. His father had served as an interpreter for American paramilitary advisers in Southeast Asia and was one of thousands who had to flee persecution after the end of the war for helping the U.S. In his exploration of his family’s history, over time, he discovered parallels between American rap, spoken word, and traditional Tcho-Tcho music and chanting.
“When we first came to the U.S., no one knew who we were,” Monyu said. “I looked in all of the history books, all of the stories and poems, and what I saw wasn’t us. There were so many negative stereotypes and assumptions about us that I saw I needed to set the record straight. They were calling us an ungodly, yellow horde who worshiped hideous alien gods from beyond, who were cannibals and mercenaries. But we’re one of the oldest cultures on earth. I didn’t want the next generation growing up with no idea of who they were.”
“Most of you are in such a Western bubble; you need to be awakened and hear the call. I’m not saying that, as a culture, we have all the answers. You shouldn’t be practicing jaivox, or what I call ‘Tcho-Tcho yoga’, thinking you found the next hip thing, some secret route to cosmic enlightenment. We’re a people. Not magical elves. But we spent thousands of years to pass on our traditions, to preserve them and share them, because they’ve given us a way to live under even the most adverse conditions.”
Monyu’s native homeland of Laos was the most heavily bombed nation of the 20th century, with more tons of bombs dropped on Laos than on all of Europe during World War II. Some scholars trace the Tcho-Tcho to cultures in Siberia or the Plateau of Leng near Tibet, although this is hotly disputed, says Monyu. Monyu recently returned to Laos for the first time in 30 years. “It was eye-opening, seeing where we came from,” Monyu said. “There were some mysteries solved, but, like a hydra, even more questions to ask were identified. I can’t wait to go back again.”
Monyu is planning on joining a special expedition to Southeast Asia being organised by the Tcho-Tcho Intercultural Alliance in December 2012 to help Tcho-Tcho youth immerse themselves in traditional culture. The trip will also be part of the excavation of recently discovered ruins of a settlement that may have been one of the first Tcho-Tcho cities in history. “It’s an honour to be considered for the project,” Monyu said. “Why was it abandoned? What could have destroyed it all of those centuries ago and hidden it from us until now? I can’t wait to find out.”
An active member of the Tcho-Tcho Traditional Arts Foundation, Monyu works to broaden the audience for Tcho-Tcho artists. He organises monthly readings and exhibitions of Asian-American artists in Innsmouth. In 2009, he was recognised by the City of Innsmouth Council for his continued leadership as an artist and educator. Monyu also lends his talents to Innsmouth non-profits to help them raise funds, especially those who work in refugee resettlement organisations.
“When I think of the Tcho-Tcho journey, I always remember that our heart can eternal lie and so, we become immortal, as long as we stay true to who we are. And we can’t forget to laugh along the way, or else fear, sorrow and terror devour you. They utterly devour you until nothing is left. You become a shadow at the base of a cracked pillar during a storm in a forgotten kingdom, as my father used to say.”
Monyu discovered the importance of gathering his people’s stories to provide a record and has dedicated himself to doing that. “There is so much distortion of our record,” he said. “How much truth can you reclaim from an aeon where truth wasn’t a commodity? I’m always trying to find ways to connect people with the importance of their story. I think that’s a message people can relate to, even if you’re not a Tcho-Tcho.”
You can catch Xou Monyu’s performances at the Million Xang Grill ever third Friday between 7pm and 10pm. He also features many other emerging and established Innsmouth artists, attracting youth with his eclectic selection of rappers, poets, singers, and performance artists. Performances are free, but donations are appreciated.