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Cambodian Merchants Flee Gang Violence, Extortion in Long Beach

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chhuong Kang recently moved to the San Gabriel Valley. The idea, he said, was to make it more difficult for gang members to follow him home from the jewelry store his family owns in Little Phnom Penh, the Cambodian business district along Anaheim Street in Long Beach.

Neang Chey said he closed the Phnom Penh Market on the same street six months ago after a group of suspected gang members toting guns ordered 30 customers to lie on the floor while they ransacked the cash register.

And Tommy Nou, who owns a Cambodian restaurant on Anaheim Street, says his business has dropped by 60% in the last year because of customers’ fears of gang violence in the neighborhood.

“People are afraid to come down,” said Nou, who is considering relocating to a safer place.

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After 10 years of relative peace and prosperity, difficult times have hit the once-flourishing business district carved out by this city’s Cambodian-American community, one of the largest in the country. Although some of the reasons for the downturn are economic and social, experts say the most immediate is the rise of gang violence and extortion--a phenomenon that some fear could lead to the unraveling of what is generally considered to be a minor economic miracle.

“We are concerned,” said City Councilman Tom Clark, whose district includes part of the Anaheim Corridor where most of the Cambodians have settled. “We don’t want to see them leave or pull their businesses out. It would be a blow to the community.”

But Nou, who arrived in Long Beach 11 years ago as a penniless refugee, says that is just what is likely to happen.

“Right now, we are in a killing field again,” Nou said. “If the situation stays bad, everybody is going to leave.”

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In fact, it was the notorious “killing fields” of Cambodia that indirectly gave rise to the transformation of Anaheim Street from an anemic inner-city area to a bustling 2.5-mile stretch dotted with Cambodian-owned mom-and-pop markets, restaurants, travel agencies and clothing shops.

From 1975 to 1979, more than 1 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 settled in the United States.

City officials and Cambodian-American leaders have long estimated the Cambodian population of Long Beach to be about 40,000. Recently released census figures place the number at closer to 17,000, a figure some leaders dispute.

Cambodians came to the Anaheim Corridor--a low-income, largely minority area in central Long Beach--primarily because of the low rents. From 1987 to 1988, the number of Cambodian-owned businesses in the area jumped from 87 to more than 300, according to Vora H. Kanthoul, president of the Cambodian Business Assn. Today, there are about 350. But after several years of prosperity, he said, business has recently taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

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Kanthoul attributes the downturn to a number of factors, including the general economic recession and the failure of most Cambodian-owned businesses to “mainstream” their goods and services by selling to non-Cambodians. But by far the most damaging development, he said, has been the emergence of gang activities in the area that have intimidated shopkeepers and customers alike.

For many years the neighborhood had been considered “home turf” by a variety of Latino gangs, according to police. About two years ago, they say, groups of Cambodian-American youths began following the Latinos’ lead by forming gangs of their own.

Florentius Chan, a local psychologist who works with Asian-Americans, attributes the phenomenon to, among other things, growing up without role models (many of the youths lost one or more parents under Pol Pot) in an American environment perceived as alien.

The youths quickly got involved in gang-related activities that have created serious problems for local shopkeepers and residents. About 21 months ago, open warfare broke out between Cambodian-American and Latino gangs--an ongoing conflict that has resulted in at least 10 deaths and more than 50 injuries since 1989.

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Cambodian-American gang members--estimated to number about 200--have routinely extorted owners of Cambodian businesses by demanding protection money and retaliating with arson, vandalism and armed robbery against those who will not comply.

Norm Sorenson, a detective in the Long Beach Police Department’s gang violence suppression unit, estimates that as many as half of the owners of Cambodian-owned markets and jewelry stores in the area have been victims of extortion at one time or another. The gangs prey on Cambodian business owners, he said, because they know that such victims--many of whom survived Pol Pot and have a natural fear of authority--are less likely to report the crimes to police.

In addition to undermining community morale, the gang violence has scared away customers in droves, resulting in major financial difficulties for some business owners.

Three months ago the situation had become serious enough to prompt owners of dozens of Cambodian-American businesses to shut their doors for a day while more than 150 protesters marched on Long Beach City Hall demanding greater police protection.

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One outcome was the recent addition by police of a neighborhood foot patrol, two uniformed officers who spend most of their time walking up and down Anaheim Street in a highly visible effort to suppress crime.

But more needs to be done, they say.

Chey, former owner of the defunct Phnom Penh Market, now owns two liquor stores, neither in the Cambodian neighborhood. He and his wife would like to leave Long Beach entirely, he says, but don’t have the money to do so.

Nou, on the other hand, insists that he will not be hampered by concerns about money. He plans on giving the city two more months, the restaurateur said, and if business has not significantly improved by then, he will close up shop and move somewhere else.

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“I’ll just start over,” he said. “I don’t care. I came here as a refugee with empty hands and I can leave the same way.”


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