In Cambodia Town, moving beyond the ‘killing fields’ and into success
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 Reap 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 2007, 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% 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 2006, 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, Visoth 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.
“The killing fields was five years. We have a 3,000-year-old culture. We were kings. We made some of the greatest wonders of the world,” Khoul said.
Khoul, who boasts a “Made in Cambodia” tattoo on his neck, wants Cambodian identity to be a source of pride, not an excuse for failure. He hates that it’s common for Cambodian restaurant owners to describe themselves as Thai or Vietnamese on their signs, fearing that Cambodian cuisine is unmarketable.
Khoul isn’t too concerned about what will happen with the killing fields memorial on Anaheim Street. He makes memorials with patient movements of his tattoo gun, turning pain into inky portraits of lost relatives, temples and gods.
After the United Cambodia Community lost its headquarters in 2008, the nonprofit moved across the street to the second floor of a much smaller building.
There, above a liquor store, beauty parlor and accountant’s office, the organization continued its mission, offering English and citizenship classes to Cambodian seniors, academic tutoring and Cambodian arts and culture programs — albeit with a vastly reduced budget.
In 2015, Susana Sngiem, a Long Beach native and second-generation Cambodian American, became the executive director of the United Cambodia Community at the age of 30. Last week, the organization held its 40th anniversary gala at the Long Beach Convention Center.
A Cambodian band played as guests streamed through the door, women in sleeveless ball gowns showing off Cambodian tribal tattoos and men with kramas, Cambodian scarves, draped over tuxedos.
In the back, Ouk and a kitchen staff composed of his friends prepared three courses of upscale food for 500 people. It’s the first time he’s seen Cambodian food served on tablecloths, by uniformed waiters, to people wearing their finest clothes.
“The vision to see your culture grow. The vision of a Cambodian strong!!!” he wrote in one of 12 exuberant posts on Instagram that night.
It’s the first Cambodian event at the convention center. Renting a room seems like a modest milestone, but not for the people inside it. The room shows the Cambodian community as it sees itself: prosperous, proud and looking forward. It’s a room full of all of the things the killing fields took away, a vision of first and second generations working together.
Soth and the Cambodian veterans have secured more than half the money they need to build the killing fields memorial they dreamed of more than a decade ago. They hope to open in 2019, on April 17, the day the killing fields began.
Last year, the Cambodia Town board collected enough signatures to launch a business improvement district. They’re planning to clean up the neighborhood and install a gateway like the one at the entrance of Chinatown in Los Angeles.
Phanith Sovann, a Cambodian singer-songwriter, closed out the gala with a song.
“All Khmers, please remember the roots of our great country,” she sang in lilting, delicate Khmer.
Then Sovann switched to English. Familiar chords from an old Louis Armstrong song echoed across the hall.
“I hear babies cry, and I watched them grow/They'll learn much more than I'll ever know/And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”
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