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A TASTE OF CAMBODIA : Indochinese Businesses Revitalize Once-Anemic Area in Long Beach

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

When Mony Nou and his mother opened the Angkor Market in 1979, it was one of only two Asian markets in Long Beach. Situated in a 400-square-foot building on Anaheim Street, the place eked out a living selling mostly Cambodian food to Cambodian customers. “Downtown was boarded up,” recalls Nou, 28, a Cambodian refugee, referring to the economically deprived inner-city area northeast of the city’s booming waterfront. “We had to struggle a bit.”

Today the market covers 3,300 square feet and grosses more than 20 times what it did nine years ago. And because of competition from other Asian markets, it has had to broaden its product line to serve non-Asians, who now make up one-half of its clientele.

Location a Plus

Chan Kang, a former Cambodian soldier who escaped to the United States in the 1970s, worked as a school custodian for seven years before opening the Golden Land Jewelry store in 1986.

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“Business is good,” said Kang, whose shop employs seven people. While 70% of his customers are Cambodian-Americans, he said, the rest are of Thai, Vietnamese, Laotian, Korean and Japanese descent as well as some non-Asians.

“This is the best location,” Kang said of his spot on Anaheim. “This is the heart of the Cambodian community.”

Both merchants are part of the flood of Southeast Asian refugees who have settled in Southern California in recent years. And now they are part of an Asian-spurred revival that, among other things, is remaking the face of this city’s once-anemic central area. Although the change has been wrought by a variety of Asian groups, the most dramatic explosion has been seen among the city’s Cambodian residents whose businesses have jumped from 87 a year ago to about 300 today.

“I remember driving through the neighborhood and hoping that my car wouldn’t break down,” said Vora Huy Kanthoul, president of the recently formed 50-member Cambodian Business Assn. “It was a quiet and sad area. Now we’re seeing a gradual move from welfare rolls to business owners.”

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Said Brent Hunter, president of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce: “It’s been a positive influence. I think it’s healthy.”

The story of the economic rebirth of what has historically been one of this city’s most poverty-stricken areas has its beginnings on another continent in another decade. From 1975 to 1979, nearly 3 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people died or were murdered under the regime of Pol Pot, one of the most brutal dictators in history. Since then, more than 136,000 Cambodian refugees have fled to the United States where an estimated 40,000 have settled in Long Beach, creating the largest concentration of Cambodians outside the country itself.

Unskilled and often uneducated, many ended up on welfare at first. Unlike some other Asian groups, Kanthoul said, “Cambodians are not traditionally business-oriented. Cambodia is agricultural. No one needs to work too hard to survive.”

But America was different. “What changed was the necessity,” he said. “You don’t do too well on welfare, so they got jobs, but the jobs weren’t well-paying. So what’s the best way to take care of your family? You go into business.”

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They chose Anaheim Street for two reasons, Kanthoul said. First, it contained many vacant business properties available at low rents. And second, it was at the center of the burgeoning Cambodian community from which most of the new businesses’ initial customers would emerge.

Those who could borrow their start-up capital did so. Others relied on the ancient Asian custom of forming “money pools” with friends or relatives thus enabling themselves, in effect, to borrow money with no established credit.

The results are visually telling. Drive down Anaheim Street from Long Beach Boulevard to Redondo Avenue--a 2.5-mile stretch known locally as the “Anaheim corridor"--and you’re likely to see as many signs in Cambodian as in English. The Cambodian-owned businesses in the corridor range from markets and restaurants to auto body shops and pharmacies. About 80% of the Cambodian businesses in the area, Kanthoul says, sell doughnuts.

But the going has not always been easy.

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Many Fold Quickly

Of every 20 businesses started by Indochinese refugees each month, one recent national study showed, 18 were likely to fail during the first year because of a variety of ills including poor management, undercapitalization and the “ethnocentric orientation” that prompts nearly half of them to deal primarily with customers who are themselves Indochinese refugees.

The same thing happens in Long Beach, according to Kanthoul. Relying too heavily on members of their own ethnic community for sustenance, he said, many of the seven to eight new Cambodian businesses opening each month disappear in relatively short order. More than a few enterprising owners, he said, have made careers of opening and closing new businesses.

The “ethnocentric” isolation has, to some extent, also affected relations with the larger non-Asian business community.

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“The part that isn’t so successful,” complained Hunter of the Long Beach chamber, “is the communication between (the Cambodian) sector of the business community and the rest of the business community. They haven’t been mainstreaming in terms of traditional kinds of involvement. We’ve got to have better communication to work with them more closely.”

The Cambodian Business Assn. is attempting to aid the process, Kanthoul said, by placing representatives in key civic and business organizations citywide and by encouraging Cambodian merchants to diversify their businesses to appeal to a larger cross-section of Asian and non-Asian customers. Among other things, he said, the association is looking for funding for a proposed one-year, high-saturation public relations campaign aimed at the non-Cambodian community that would encourage joint ventures and investment from outside.

Some Are Changing

“We mainly cater to our own people,” he said, “and that’s not healthy. This is a welfare economy--a lot of our businesses depend on welfare checks.”

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To escape that syndrome, many Cambodian business owners are beginning to sell or service products that they imagine will appeal to a larger cross-section of customers. At Care & Quality Auto Center Inc., for instance, the owners say they are making a concerted effort to cater to the newer high-priced cars more likely to be found in the garages of residents who have been here longer than most Southeast Asian refugees. As a result, they say, a business that once depended heavily on the patronage of refugees now serves a clientele that is 95% non-Cambodian.

In general, shop owners say, service-oriented businesses are weathering the transition better than those that are product-oriented, unless the products are non-ethnic.

While many Cambodians say they prefer shopping at Cambodian-owned stores to avoid the language barriers normally encountered elsewhere, non-Cambodian customers tend to look primarily for bargains and convenience.

“It’s cheaper,” said Thomas McMillan, 45, walking out of the Angkor Market recently with two loaves of white bread. “I can get two loaves for a dollar.”

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Said Edwin Gardiner, 39, after purchasing a Pepsi float from the Cambodian-owned Daily Cafe Donut & Ice Cream shop: “These people are good to us, and they do service for us. They cash our checks.”

Competition Hurt

One merchant who seems to have taken the call for diversification seriously is Samath Yem, owner of the Khemara Market. Since opening four years ago, Yem said, he has served a clientele that was 99% Cambodian by offering national food staples ranging from the betel leaves enjoyed by Cambodian senior citizens to the ginseng roots traditionally used for tea.

For the first three years, business was good, Yem said. Then it slacked off, badly hurt by stiff competition from several newer Cambodian markets that had opened in the area.

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Yem’s response was to divide his store in two. In one section can be found the Cambodian food he has always featured and which most of his customers have come to expect. But the other half bridges the cultural gap that he believes has long isolated him from the larger community. Here, clearly separated from the betel leaves and ginseng roots, is an array of familiar ethnic-neutral items ranging from American-made jeans to Japanese-made artificial flowers.

“The food is for Cambodians,” Yem explained, “but the gifts are for everyone.”


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