Suwannakoon has written a book about the H’mong tribal people,
but somebody should write a book about Pongkaset. When we had
coffee recently, I suggested that he should write his memoirs,
but Pong said that such a book could only be published after his
death, and he’s not eager to go!
He was raised in Chiang Mai. His family is
Christian, so Prince Royals College was the logical choice for
secondary school. He’s part of a group of sixty-something men
who refer to themselves as “Amnuay’s Gang”, a reference to
Dr. Amnuay Tapingkae, who taught at the school while they were
there. From the grins I notice when they say it, I get the
impression that Dr. Amnuay was as much mentor as teacher. They
must have been a handful, but they’ve all succeeded in life.
Pongkaset went from PRC to Bangkok Christian
High School, graduated and went to the U.S. to study. His
studies took him from a small college in Missouri to a music
conservatory in Washington, D.C., where he majored in music
theory and composition. Summers were spent working in a meat
packing plant in Omaha. In response to my question, he laughed
and admitted that he eats neither steak nor sausage today. Music
was not to be his livelihood, though. His flair for languages
took him to the Thai Embassy in Washington, and a series of
fortunate events opened door after door for him.
He first worked in a division of the Thai
Embassy that provided oversight to all of the students from
Thailand who were studying in the United States. Then the U.S.
State Department sent out an inquiry for escort/interpreters for
visiting foreign dignitaries, and he applied for the position.
The State Department had a program in which foreign officials
were invited to the U.S. for 45-day tours of the country. The
visiting officials could choose their destinations, and young
Pong was assigned to escort the Thai visitors. He traveled all
over the United States and Puerto Rico, and saw the sights. He
even attended Broadway shows. At one point, his group went to
south Texas and was escorted into Mexico for a fiesta by a group
But Thailand called, and Pongkaset came home.
Air America was operating in Udorn, and he had an opportunity to
serve as a Thai language interpreter for helicopter pilots. The
pilots supported H’mong forces that were fighting the
Communists. In addition, helicopter flights regularly provided
food and supplies to the H’mong villages where most of the
adult men were away fighting. When Air America helicopter pilots
began training H’mong pilots, Pongkaset was sent to language
school. He studied H’mong language several days a week, and
soon joined a group of interpreters who spoke Lao, Vietnamese,
Chinese, Cambodian, Burmese and Thai. They helped coordinate the
information regarding Communist activities in those countries.
Pongkaset’s very wise teacher saw to it that his student also
learned about H’mong culture, and the research for his book, Chao
The war began to change in the late 1960s
when the North Vietnamese sent in new combat forces that
threatened the H’mong in their mountain strongholds. The
tribal people suffered terrible casualties, and by the end of
the year were unable to recruit replacement troops. By the early
1970s a fairly steady stream of H’mong refugees were crossing
the border into Thailand. Pushed out of their mountain homes,
they had no skills to earn a living in the lowlands nor would
the war allow them the luxury of learning new skills. The
military base at Udorn was shut down at the end of June 1974,
and Pongkaset went to work for the U.S. Consulate there. He
sometimes enjoyed the same role that he had formerly played at
the Thai Embassy in Washington, but in reverse. Visiting U.S.
officials in Thailand now required his assistance as
But the increasing stream of refugees meant
that the U.S. Consul – and Pong – had a new role providing
assistance to the United Nations in screening and approving
refugees for resettlement. He spent hours interviewing H’mong
refugees, and learned more about their culture and their wartime
experiences. He had no idea that these interviews were providing
additional research for a future book.
Thousands of H’mong were resettled in the
U.S. The annual H’mong meeting was located in Fresno,
California this year, a testament to the numbers in California.
But there are many H’mong in Minnesota and Wisconsin, too, as
well as other places. As so often happens, the originally
settled refugees struggled with the differences in language and
culture. Then there was the crossover generation that spoke both
H’mong and English. Now there is a generation of U.S.-born
H’mong young people who speak only English, a sad loss of
When Pongkaset left Udorn, he moved to
Bangkok to work with the Pearl S. Buck Foundation on behalf of
Amerasian children. But writing called, and he moved to a part
time position that enabled him to support his family while
writing. Pongkaset has written two books. Of note to English
speakers is Chao Fa, which is a fictionalized
history of a H’mong village during wartime that incorporates
his vast knowledge of H’mong culture as well as his
familiarity with the effects of war on tribal people. The other
is published only in Thai, and is loosely translated Adventures
into Fantasy Land. This is a book for teenagers and young
adults, and has won two literary awards in Thailand.
This year, Pongkaset will be a gentleman
farmer. A plot of hill land that he has owned for many years
finally has access to water, and he plans to grow Arabica coffee
there. I am delighted. The coffee we’ve been drinking is
bitter, and I look forward to sharing a good cup with him in the
future while we again catch up on his life.
For further information on the Secret War in Laos, refer to
William M. Leary’s work at www.cia.gov