Siang Bacthi, former Executive Director
We mourn the loss of our Executive Director.
August 20, 1953 – December 10, 2021
Siang was born in Muang Sai, formerly in the Tai Federation or Muang Tai and now a part of Northwest Vietnam, on August 20, 1953 to Nho Bacthi and Hinh Baccam. She was the youngest child of six: Chap Baccam (sister), Luang Baccam (brother), Nat Bacthi (sister), Sack Baccam (sister), and Sing Baccam (sister). At 8 months old, she and her family became refugees in Hanoi, Vietnam where they lived for about one year.
From Vietnam, she and her mother and siblings were escorted to Laos by the French with other Tai Dam families. Unfortunately, her father, Hinh Baccam, died while in Hanoi. Siang attended the Ecole des Soeurs (School of the Nun), a private Catholic school from age 5 to 16 when she graduated. There she learned French and English. The story of how she enrolled at the school must be told and is the beginning of how it shaped her life.
Even at the young age of 5, Siang knew that she wanted to learn French and English. She made it known to her family by crying for hours and being vocal about what she wanted. Father Langer from Ecole des Soeurs took notice of her while she was near the school campus. He stopped to talk with her, she then proceeded to tell Father Langer that she really wanted to attend school there, but she couldn’t afford to do so because she didn’t have a father, thus, couldn’t afford the tuition. She was able to win over his heart and convinced him to enroll her at the school without having to pay tuition. That same day, she recruited a relative and convinced her that she should attend school there with her. They then went to Father Langer, who accepted both of them to attend without having to pay tuition. This was the start of how Siang learned to ask for what she wanted/needed and at the same time, she also learned how to advocate and help others.
After Siang graduated, she worked briefly as a teacher at Aurore school. She taught a variety of subjects to elementary children. Shortly after, she went to work for ADO, American Agricultural Development Organization of USAID, where she earned certificates to become their library journalist and a secretary. While working at ADO, she founded a school at the age of 18. English and many other subjects were part of its curriculum. This school was funded by a Laos-American Association. The school had five teachers and they taught children in grades second to fifth grades. Siang also made sure that scholarships were provided to the children and families who couldn’t afford it as a way to pay it forward.
In 1975, Siang and her family made their way across the Mekong River from Laos to Nongkhai, Thailand along with other Tai Dam families shortly before the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam because they knew Laos would fall next. She then moved to Iowa as part of Governor Ray’s program to bring the Tai Dam refugees to Iowa later that same year. Shortly after resettlement Siang knew the Tai Dam people needed to have connections. She made it her mission to find a way to preserve the Tai Dam’s history and culture. In Iowa she worked briefly for the State of Iowa. However, she soon realized that her passion needed to be about working to preserve and promote the Tai Dam and helping our families and communities. In 1979, from her basement room, self-funded, Siang started a newsletter called Our Soul or “Chai Tai,” which included important information for our Tai Dam families and community members who recently resettled across Iowa. This was a very popular newsletter as it was a way for the Tai Dam to connect and feel close to home again. Not only did the newsletter include important information about resources, but it also included fun, short stories to help keep them from feeling home sick and to keep their spirits high as so many families were separated and didn’t yet have the means to easily visit one another.
In January of 1984, Siang, other Tai Dam and American friends founded the Tai Studies Center (TSC), which was created to research and publish Tai history and literature, to preserve and promote Tai culture, to support students in higher education, to promote the common welfare and wellbeing of Tai people, and to promote intercultural understanding and cooperation in the community. Siang has served as the voluntary executive director of Tai Studies Center since its creation.
Through the TSC, she published “No Where to Stay,” a condensed version of Tai Dam history which is now translated into three different languages – Tai Dam, English, and French. Other histories and legends as well as Tai Dam-English lessons have been published. Everything is available through YouTube and TSC’s website and are connecting Tai friends and relatives throughout the world.
In 2003, Siang was the visionary for the Tai Village Inc (TVI), which she founded with help from five organizations and Tai Dam communities and families worldwide which included France, Thailand, and America. TVI purchased 120 acres of land north of Des Moines, Iowa. TVI has cleaned up this once known junk yard and built three Asian-styled gazebos, a small shrine, a sports-court, a festival stage, pergolas, and an entrance gate. In 2013, she visualized and helped turned the Robert D. Ray Welcome Center into a reality. The center includes a museum. It also provides office space for meetings, family gatherings, area for traditional dance rehearsals and family reunions.
Based on one of the Tai Studies Center purposes, “to promote the common welfare and well-being of the Tai people,” Siang and the TSC Board Members explored the idea of helping the Tai Dam elders. In March 2012, TSC received an Iowa Medicaid Enterprise license to operate under the Medicaid Elderly Waiver program as an agency provider, under the name “Asian Home Care” (AHC). Through this agency, with the care and assistance of family members and friends, our elderly, and disabled community members can stay healthy and independent at home.
Since 2012, Siang attended the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in New York City. She wanted to know how TSC could help the Tai still living in northwest Vietnam. Under the TSC, Siang led the way to create an organization called Aid to Tai People (ATTP). ATTP was created to spread awareness about the Tai People who still live in the Northwest Vietnam, where the Tai Country or Muang Tai was located. Although Vietnam’s economy has improved drastically, the people who live in this area, including the Tai Dam still live in poverty and face many hardships.
Since the inception of these organizations – Tai Studies Center, Aid to Tai People, the Tai Village, Inc., Asian Home Care, Siang remained at the heart and soul of them and has kept them moving forward. She worked tirelessly, passionately without any compensation until her last breath.
Siang was a legendary woman, who lived ahead of her times. She was a woman of action, and she didn’t sit back to watch things unfold. Siang was not only known as being a leader to many, but also as a mentor and inspiration to every single person who she came across.
Siang always had a positive outlook on life. In the mornings, she would often wake up her family with “Every day was a new day” song that she would sing while she strolled downstairs. She did not waste a single day, let alone a single second, with worries or being idle.
She always had great ideas of how to have fun and she always found a way to incorporate education into the fun. For example, she encouraged many of us while we were teenagers to learn how to read and write in Tai Dam, our native language which is, unfortunately, being slowly forgotten.
She organized various events to recognize and celebrate higher education raised funds to help those in need near and far. Siang helped the Tai Dam veterans who fought as allies with the French to be acknowledged and received veteran compensation for their services.
In 1990 and 1992 Siang visited Thailand and Muang Tai to keep in touch with her native roots. She travelled across the US and France to promote the Tai Dam people. Her passion had always been for the greater good of the people and communities.
Not many people know this, but she was also an artist. She drew portraits, created plays, and wrote Tai Dam music and lyrics. She organized and created two Tai Dam music albums, one of which was called Sai Phon or the “Raining Storm.” The idea for this title came from the blood shed of the Tai Dam at Dien Bien Phu, the famous battle between the French and the Tai Dam allies against the communist, which ended in the loss of Tai Dam sovereignty.
Siang organized dance troupes throughout her years and kept us motivated and inspired to keep our traditions going. These dance troupes performed at many lunar new year celebrations as well as festivals such as the Tai Village festivals.
Siang lived life to the fullest. She was inspirational to so many. She was wise and rich with intelligence, love, and creativity. She was one of the most self-less people that I’ve ever known. Even though, she was diagnosed with a rare blood disease more than 20 years ago, which included monthly blood transfusions that kept her alive, she never once complained or used it as an excuse. She followed her heart in helping others and the community. Siang had faithfully, graciously, and happily fulfilled her job here on earth. Siang will forever be in our hearts.