Cambodia Town is now on the map
Sithea San fled the killing fields in Cambodia as a teenager and found refuge in Long Beach, where she attended college, got married and bought a house.
Now, more than a quarter-century later, San finally has a place that she and thousands of other native Cambodians say they can call home.
A strip of Anaheim Street was officially named the nation’s first “Cambodia Town” earlier this month -- the most recent cultural designation in a county that is home to Little India, Little Tokyo and Historic Filipinotown.
City and community leaders say the designation not only will recognize the contributions of Cambodians, but also will help revitalize the neighborhood by attracting more businesses, visitors and tourists to the area. San and others are making plans to put up Cambodia Town signs and set up a business improvement district and are considering building a community center and a memorial to those who died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
“Now we have the name,” said San, chairwoman of Cambodia Town Inc. “Now we have to make it happen. We have the responsibility to make the place nice.”
Long Beach, known as the Cambodian capital of the United States, is believed to have the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of the home country. Some of the first Cambodians in the United States were students who attended Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s as part of an exchange program. Waves of refugees followed in the 1970s as they escaped the Khmer Rouge regime, which took the lives of more than 1 million people. According to 2000 census figures, about 20,000 Cambodians live in Long Beach, but community leaders estimate a larger population.
Cambodia Town runs along the Anaheim corridor, from Junipero Avenue to Atlantic Avenue. There are already scores of Cambodian-run businesses on the street, including jewelry stores, restaurants, travel agencies and fabric shops.
At Monorom restaurant Tuesday, a lunchtime crowd ate Cambodian noodle soup while Khmer-language music videos played on a television. Owner Sopha Nhoung, who came to the area more than 20 years ago, said he was proud to finally be recognized.
“They have Chinatown, Koreatown, Thai Town,” Nhoung said. “We’ve been living here for a long time. We deserved this.”
Down the street at Angkorwat Art, Sopheap Samrieth said he signed a petition that supported the designation. But his main reason was to draw customers.
“It will bring more people here,” said Samrieth, as he pointed out paintings depicting the ancient temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. “It will generate more business.”
The drive to get a Cambodia Town began in 2001, when a few community members began meeting to talk about the possibility.
The leaders brought the issue to the City Council last year. Some critics expressed concerns that the designation could lure more gangs to the area and that it would exclude Latinos and African Americans.
But Cambodian leaders argued that the title would help the entire city by making the street safer and cleaner and by developing the neighborhood into a regional destination.
Naming the area Cambodia Town would also highlight immigrants’ cultural heritage and encourage youths to get involved helping their community, San said. In June, the city of Long Beach commissioned a survey that showed wide support for the cultural designation. On July 3, the City Council voted 8-1 in favor of naming the stretch Cambodia Town.
Councilwoman Suja Lowenthal, who voted for the designation, said the new name is a welcome mat for Cambodians, as well as for others who want to experience something different in Long Beach.
“We are leveraging a very unique destination,” she said. “What makes Anaheim [Street] different is this collection of shops, stores and businesses that happen to be mostly Cambodian American owned.”
Not all of the businesses on Anaheim Street are Cambodian. Manny Caldera, manager of La Bodega Market, said the name wasn’t important to him.
“As long as the business is good, it doesn’t matter,” said Caldera. His store caters to Latinos. “They can name it Cambodia Town or any other.”
Veasna Kiet, 40, who runs Phnom Penh Express travel agency, said the new name makes him proud. “We live far away from our country,” he said. “Now we have a hometown here.”