‘Ginseng Roots’: Graphic novelist turns to his upbringing to tell the stories of central Wis. farmers

Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 10:04 PM CST
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Ginseng is not just a root, not to people in central Wisconsin, at least. It is a story of the people and places it grows, tying the individuals raised with it with an eternal knot, like Craig Thompson.

“I was working as much as 40 hour work weeks when I was 10 and getting paid a dollar an hour, which in my young brain translated to one comic book an hour.”

He lives in Portland, Ore. currently, but grew up on the east side of Marathon, about 10 minutes outside of Wausau. He said while he loved some of the grueling work pulling weeds and harvesting roots opposite his brother, they both dreamed that one day they would get out of the blue-collar work, one day getting to tell stories through comics.

Thompson is now a graphic novelist often gaining inspiration from his Wisconsin upbringing. He typically writes 600-page graphic novels but said he was at a point in his career where his work was not fulfilling in a way the physical labor of working a ginseng farm. With writers’ block and a craving to create a work of non-fiction, he went searching through his roots for inspiration. After spending time living in Los Angeles and continuously seeing “Hollywood people writing about Hollywood people,” he believed there was an opportunity to tell stories of people elsewhere in the country. His mind kept turning to ginseng and all of the stories that come with it.

“The pleasure of this project is it’s not just all coming out of my head, you know, it’s coming out of interactions, and conversations, and interviews.”

In 2019, he started those interviews talking with the people he worked for around Marathon decades earlier. He learned there were not many small farmers left.

“They had all gotten out of ginseng farming around the same time in the early 2000s because there was a big plummet of the industry.”

“It takes four to five years for it to reach maturity. You have to plan ahead, you have to do the work and it is a difficult crop to grow. There are fewer than probably 150 of us still growing it now,” Will Hsu, the president of Hsu’s Ginseng stated.

Hsu accepted Thompson’s offer to take part in his ‘Ginseng Roots’ project.

“Favorite part of my story there is probably our family history.”

Hsu’s parents, Paul and Sharron Hsu immigrated from Taiwan in 1969. A few years later, Paul Hsu’s mother in Taiwan became ill; he sent her ginseng and they believe the root was responsible for her recovery. It led them to attempt farming ginseng.

Will Hsu grew up doing all of the jobs on the farm from weeding, spraying pesticides and fertilizer, and harvesting roots. He ultimately left to gain higher education and started a separate career. At least a decade later, his father was diagnosed with cancer, so he came back to the farm and soon his father recovered.

Hsu’s Ginseng has since become one of the most well-known brands in the world. As part of the series, he also explained the role central Wisconsin plays in a global, specifically Chinese, market and the dynamics of world trade.

“You can’t find it anywhere else. So, that’s something special about ginseng and something special about being from Wausau, Wis.”

One of the smaller farms still around is a farm formally known as Vang Ginseng. Chua Vang, the owner and operator, now refers to it as Abraham Ginseng to honor his late father, Abraham Ga Yi Vang.

“I grew up doing it, you know. That’s all I know, ever since I was 8-years-old.”

His father was a child soldier, 15, in the Secret War in Laos during the Vietnam War. Vang details his father’s legacy and partnership with the CIA and his Hmong people during the war in the book. He and his pregnant wife were able to cross the Mekong River to a refugee camp. The two and their new baby, a girl, were sponsored to come to the United States as refugees and resettled in Tennessee.

The couple had more children there, including Chua Vang, but most of their extended family members were resettled in central Wisconsin. They ultimately moved up to the area after discovering ginseng was able to be farmed there.

“‘85, gave it a shot, you know grew an acre at a time and here we are,” Chua Vang laughed.

He said his father’s experience in the war caused him to be raised with great discipline and dedication. So, even if the job was difficult, and it made him miss his Saturday morning cartoons, he said it built his character.

“When my father approached me and asked me if I wanted to take over or not,” he said that was one of his favorite sections. “I think that part is one of the parts that I like in there and in the way that Craig drew it, he’s a great artist.”

Chua Vang and Will Hsu said the comic book series medium tells the stories in a unique way most other methods cannot capture, and it mirrors many of the lessons of ginseng.

“It teaches you the patience of ginseng,” Hsu explained. “You know, you read a comic book and now you’ve got to wait months for the next installment. Well, you plant ginseng seeds, you’ve got to wait years until you harvest something.”

It is much like a book, which Thompson said can take years to write and could be a complete flop, but that is the risk.

“It has to be a labor of love because of the sort of inconsistencies and the ups and downs, high risk of it, you know,” Thompson concluded.

There will be a total of 12 comic books that Thompson said he will eventually put together as one big graphic novel. Thompson said he wanted to keep the production of the series as local as possible, using a publisher in Minnesota and a printer in Eau Claire. The first nine in the series are available now at specialty comic book stores and online through the publisher, Uncivilized, at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retail stores.

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