The road to Long Cheng Livestock Market is littered with the bones of stockyards gone by. South St. Paul was once home to one of the world's largest livestock industries, where thousands of people processed millions of cattle, hogs, sheep, and goats during its 122-year history. The final meat dealer closed in 2008 in the face of changing market forces and the decentralization of the industry.
Well, almost the final.
On a typical Tuesday afternoon, a freshly killed pig, goat, and sheep hang on the open kill floor at Long Cheng. The goat's horns have been severed, with blood-red stumps glowing like cigarette cherries where they once grew from the creature's skull. Its eye sockets look uncannily like the cartoon Xs that indicate death in cartoons.
A few middle-aged men lounge in plastic lawn chairs on the other side of the glass, casually, as if they were watching a not-very-interesting game of Sunday afternoon football.
On the other side of the observation floor, multiple rows of silver basins stand empty. "These are for processing your own chicken," says Yia Vang. "White families go to Dairy Queen, and Hmong families come here," he says. While he's joking, he's not, really. "Asian families do everything together, whether we want to or not," issuing a mock shudder.
Vang is a thirty-something Hmong chef who moved to the Twin Cities from Wisconsin about seven years ago, after his family immigrated to the United States when he was five. He's one of over 60,000 Hmong immigrants who now call the Twin Cities home—Minneapolis-St. Paul is in fact home to the largest urban Hmong population in the world. Vang and his family have been coming to this market to procure animals for food, as well as for important roles in shamanistic religious ceremonies, for as long as he can remember. It's the only market of its kind in the state servicing this large community.
"They do very well," he says.
Beyond the kill floor, a flimsy swinging door obscures about a dozen wooly sheep awaiting their turn with fate. They fidget nervously in their close, penned-in quarters. Beyond them, a couple of dozen fat pink pigs wait for their turn on the disassembly line. A farm-y smell mixed with blood hangs in the air. While unpleasant, it is not the unpleasant odor of rot, but more specifically of death. Aside from some piles of just-sheared lamb's wool—with still-attached gobs of wobbly red skin—the compact space is tidy.
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While contemporary Hmong do not subscribe to any single belief system, Vang explains that many Hmong believe each human has multiple spirits. If the body becomes ill or depressed, it's sometimes thought that a spirit has left the body. In order to return the spirit, an animal may be sacrificed for the body to become well again. A shaman is called to perform the ritual.
In the excellent PBS documentary Split Horn, filmmakers Taggart Siegel and Jim McSilver beautifully profile a Wisconsin-based Hmong family with a patriarch named Paja Thao. He's a shaman who himself becomes depressed, and the family ultimately gathers from their homes scattered across America to participate in a ceremony which includes the sacrifice of a cow, to call the spirit back to his body. After the animal is used in the ritual, it makes for an enormous feast to feed the extended family. As the film depicts, it is feared by some American Hmong that the ceremonies will decline and die off as younger generations become Americanized: "This new generation, if they feel hurt, if they feel any pain, the new generation will probably take it [sic] to the hospital," explains Paja's high school-aged son in the film, as the camera cuts to Paja chanting over a still-breathing bird. "They take what the doctor says, you know, they take a medicine instead of doing a ceremony with a chicken. It would just be more convenient."
"White families go to Dairy Queen, and Hmong families come here"
Back in St. Paul, a few minutes west of Long Cheng, Legacy Funeral Home is housed in a low, cinder block building just beneath a highway overpass. Its enormous parking lot is typically full every weekend, accommodating the hundreds of guests attending four-day Hmong funerals. The Hmong believe that specific ceremonies must be performed to guide the deceased's soul to the ancestors. Again, thanks to the close alignment of animal and human spirits in the religion, a chicken may be sacrificed to assist in the guidance, or to appease the spirits. Similar rituals take place when a baby is born, to welcome to the baby's soul into the world or to notify the spirits of a new soul.
"We want to make sure the baby is covered," Vang tells me. A red string may be tied around the baby's arm to signify blood, notifying the spirits that an animal has been sacrificed. In some cases, the shamans themselves visit Long Cheng to choose the animal for sacrifice.
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I narrowly missed an actual slaughter thanks to timing, and I'm secretly grateful. But for some immigrants, buying cellophane-wrapped meat at a grocery store is as strange as the slaughterhouse is to me. I've never thought of a farm animal's spirit as being closely aligned with my own. But when I think of those jostling sheep, just a thin membrane from death, it occurs to me that perhaps I should.