Hundreds of marchers stood at the ready in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town on Sunday morning, little girls twirling parasols and men and women in bright traditional dress, sitting in horse-drawn carriages.
There was an air of anticipation as thousands of Cambodian Americans lined both sides of Anaheim Street for the start of the Cambodian New Year parade in Long Beach.
Members of one drum troupe couldn’t contain their excitement, breaking out in Khmer song and dance as they stood in position.
They had, after all, been waiting three years for the festivities to begin.
A young group of dancers, swathed in brilliant green and red silks, performed the traditional “blessing dance” that marks the opening of every Cambodia celebration, tossing pink and yellow rose petals across the street’s median to bring good luck and bless the gathering.
Finally, as two blasts of confetti fluttered through the air, they marched.
The parade, which runs down Anaheim Street through the heart of the ethnic enclave, has for years been a point of cultural pride for the community. But after fundraising and logistical struggles forced the event to go dark two years ago, organizers scrambled to keep a promise that 2014’s Year of the Horse would mark its return.
“This is our neighborhood. This is our Cambodia Town. To do a celebration in our hometown gives us pride,” said Monorom Neth, president of the Cambodian Coordinating Council, which sponsors the event.
The Cambodian New Year, which runs from April 13 to 15 this year, is rooted in the Hindu calendar and traditionally marks the end of the rice harvest season. For the Cambodian community in Long Beach, the largest in the country, it has become a signature event that celebrates the country’s rich traditions and provides an outlet for positive energy for many whose passage to America was forged out of the pain of war.
“It’s a renewal,” Neth said. “This is one way we rejuvenate ourselves and bring back our pride” after decades of pain.
Neth and others set out months ago to find sponsors for the parade, which is funded entirely through donations from local businesses and individuals.
Three months ago, organizers had no permits and were still several thousand dollars short of breaking even. Finally, with some last-minute donations secured, they were able to proceed.
The Cambodian New Year parade has had no shortage of challenges over the years. In 2005, when the event was first held, leaders initially scheduled the celebration on April 17, the 30th anniversary of Cambodia’s takeover by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime, and to many a painful day of remembrance.
Protests over the date split the community, made up largely of survivors of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide, and organizers ultimately rescheduled.
More conflict arose a few years later, when many decried the invitation of a top Cambodian official, whose ruling party had been accused of human rights violations. And in 2009, costs to put on the parade nearly doubled after the city stopped subsidizing police and fire services for the event.
Strapped for cash, the Cambodian Coordinating Council used funds from its popular New Year celebration, which charges an entrance fee, to pay for the parade.
In 2012, organizers announced they could no longer keep it going.
“For it to not happen was a big blow,” says Susan Needham, an anthropology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills who has studied the Cambodian community for 25 years.
Needham has helped organize a Cambodian cultural festival for the last six years that features ancient Cambodian arts such as giant leather shadow puppets and Cambodian martial arts, many of which were banned and nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror. But, Needham says, the parade has special significance to Cambodian Americans.
“The parade makes a statement of presence … that Cambodians really do have a place in Long Beach and have had a significant impact in Long Beach,” Needham said.
Melinda Kuoch, a 23-year-old Long Beach resident and parade volunteer, said this year’s parade marks the beginning of a new era for the neighborhood.
“Those two years when it wasn’t there, it felt like we were not united,” she said. “This year everyone came out and showed that we can come together and be very strong.”