In Cambodia Town, Moving Beyond ‘The Killing Fields’ And Into Success

By Frank Shyong Los Angeles Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) About 50,000 people of Cambodian descent live in Long Beach, the largest diaspora of Cambodian people outside of that country. In 2015, 30 year old Susana Sngiem, a Long Beach native and second-generation Cambodian-American, became the executive director of the United Cambodia Community. An organization helping to empower entrepreneurs and artists grow the culture in the community.


Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, one of the better-known restaurants in Long Beach's Cambodia Town, opened in 1985 in a tiny dining room with four tables.

Tan's aunts and uncles worked in sandals, with no air conditioning, on a floor slippery with grease. The menu was simple: some noodle dishes from a village outside Siem Riep and a few side items.

Cambodians came from all over, squeezing shoulder to shoulder at laminate tables to slurp bowls of noodles and pork soup that cost just a few dollars.

"People would come here and forget all about their grief, and just relax and remember the things that made them happy. It was a place for healing," said Tan, whose father worked as a waiter.

His older relatives, refugees from the Killing Fields, the five-year campaign of terror and genocide in the 1970s that left nearly 2 million Cambodians dead, thought in terms of survival. And so for two decades, despite its popularity with locals, the restaurant never changed or expanded.

Five years ago, Tan and his brothers bought the restaurant.

They doubled the size of the dining room and installed non-slip floors and air conditioning. Tan kept the recipes but courted the attention of food critics and framed their reviews on the restaurant's walls. He launched Facebook and Instagram accounts and partnered with an investor to serve their food at a second restaurant in San Jose.

Tan and his brothers dream of a kind of success that their parents never imagined: franchising, becoming CEOs and making millions of dollars.

"Sometimes it's like the sky was too high for them," Tan said. "But we are still trying to get to the top."

About 50,000 people of Cambodian descent live in Long Beach, the largest diaspora of Cambodian people outside of that country.

In 2006, city leaders dubbed the 1.2-mile stretch of Anaheim Street where many of them settled Cambodia Town. Many Cambodians saw the designation as chance to build a new home free from their homeland's painful history.

But today, Anaheim Street is still largely the same sun-baked cluster of liquor stores, gift shops, jewelry stores and restaurants it was in 2007. And the past seems to hang on every step toward progress.

In 2005, the Cambodia Town board, a volunteer organization, scheduled a Cambodian New Year parade on April 17, the Saturday closest to the actual date of the holiday. That angered Cambodian army veterans, who mark that day as the beginning of the Killing Fields.

The board moved the parade to a different date, but the hard feelings didn't go away. The genocide in Cambodia had left millions dead, but it also created a culture of suspicion among its survivors, fueled by a widespread experience of trauma. A Rand Corp. study of Cambodian refugees in Long Beach found that 90 percent of those surveyed had friends or family killed in the genocide.

The distrust followed them to America and touched everything, from planning parades and erecting memorials to development in Cambodia Town.

A Cambodian-owned bank, which would have brought loans and investment to Cambodian entrepreneurs, closed after just two years. It was hard to persuade a community of refugees conditioned to mistrust government to give a bank their money.

Then a community center with classrooms, event space and after-school programs built by the United Cambodia Community, one of the neighborhood's oldest nonprofits, passed into the hands of a local business owner after the nonprofit's finances fell into disarray.

A proposal for a Buddhist temple that would have converted a cluster of old bungalows and apartments into an ornate shrine a few blocks from Cambodia Town collapsed amid accusations over mismanaged funds and a lawsuit.

Some, such as Paline Soth, an activist, even protested the designation of Cambodia Town, fearing that identifying the neighborhood as Cambodian would attract gang violence. They accused the board of being too cozy with the regime of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom they hold responsible for the Killing Fields. They protested the annual parade when Hun Manet, Sen's son, was invited to attend.

Pasin Chanou, chairman of the Cambodia Town board, said that many in Cambodia Town believe it's important for a community of immigrants and refugees to have a connection with their homeland. They must make peace with Hun Sen's regime to move forward, Chanou said. In Long Beach, along Anaheim Street in their new hometown, there is much work to do, he said.

"People know us as victims. But we want our people to be proud again," Chanou said. "We've talked about it enough. Let's talk about something else."

Soth said he now regrets opposing the designation of Cambodia Town.

"I shouldn't have stood in the way of what my people wanted," Soth said.

But moving on isn't so easy for everyone, he said. For many Cambodians, remembering their pain is the only thing that lessens it.

"We lost half a nation. You cannot even fathom the sorrow of the people. That's why this name, the Killing Fields, must be remembered," Soth said.

In 2007, the city awarded a tiny piece of land at the entrance to Cambodia Town to the Killing Fields Memorial Foundation, a group formed after the parade protest to raise money for a memorial.

A decade later, the land is still empty.

At Phnom Penh Noodle Shack on a recent weekday, Visouth Tarak Ouk, a former Cambodian gang member and the executive chef at the Federal Bar in downtown Long Beach, hefts a large orange squeeze bottle and dots sauce onto a carrot-and-turnip slaw. The slaw accompanies a slider seasoned with kreung, a Cambodian lemongrass paste.

Here the unity that seems to elude Cambodia Town's first generation is on display.

The dishes are prepared and served by Cambodian-American volunteers. Bottles of Yeak hot sauce, brewed by a local Cambodian-American, set each table. Mea Lath, a second-generation Cambodian-American dance instructor from the Khmer Arts Academy, performs an apsara dance. A local Cambodian artist's work adorns the walls.

Ouk is part of a close-knit group of young Cambodian-Americans in Long Beach who are trying to turn the page on their parents' traumas.

They bonded amid the chaos of the gang violence that defined Long Beach in the 1990s, dodging bullets and beatings on the way to the bus stop. They often grew up knowing only the barest outlines of their parents' pain. Their family trees are full of missing branches that they learn never to speak of.

The violence they grew up around gave rise to gangs but also to painters, rappers, chefs and tattoo artists like Bandit Khoul.

"Nothing is going to happen in Cambodia Town until the younger generation steps up," Khoul said.

Khoul is one of the few second-generation entrepreneurs who have achieved enough financial success to shape the neighborhood's future. He can pay for booths at community events, donate artwork for charity auctions and sponsor a table at a nonprofit gala.

He was born in a refugee camp and arrived in the U.S. with his parents in 1983.

As his parents mowed lawns, manufactured computer chips and struggled to forget the tragedies of their war, Khoul walked to school on streets patrolled by gangs. He was shot twice and learned how to use a gun.

Art was his preferred distraction. He idolized the television painter Bob Ross and got into graffiti.

His parents never spoke of what happened in Cambodia, so he did his own research and discovered far more than suffering.

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