The American dream is alive for children of Cambodian refugees in California as they seek to break free from shackles of the past
Anaheim Street in Long Beach is home to the largest Cambodian population outside Cambodia. Its first-generation residents were just happy to escape the Khmer Rouge’s Killing Fields, but its second generation have other ambitions
Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, one of the better-known restaurants in Cambodia Town, Long Beach, California, 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 laminated tables to slurp bowls of noodles and pork soup for 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,” says Tan, whose father worked as a waiter.
His older relatives – refugees from the five-year campaign of terror and genocide in the 1970s that left nearly two 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.
A Phnom Penh Noodle Shack Instagram post
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“Sometimes it’s like the sky was too high for them,” Tan says. “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 the country.
In 2006, city leaders dubbed the 2km stretch of Anaheim Street Cambodia Town. Many Cambodians saw the designation as a chance to build a new home, free from their homeland’s painful history.
But today, Anaheim Street is still largely the same as it was in 2007, a sun-baked cluster of liquor stores, gift shops, jewellery stores and restaurants’. And the past seems to hang on every step towards progress.
The Phnom Penh Noodle Shack
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In 2005, the Cambodia Town board, a volunteer organisation, 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 Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror.
The board moved the parade to a different date, but the hard feelings didn’t go away. The genocide in Cambodia left millions dead, and created a culture of suspicion among its survivors, fuelled by the widespread experience of trauma. A Rand Corporation study of Cambodian refugees in Long Beach found that 90 per cent of those surveyed had friends or family killed in the genocide.
The distrust followed them to the US 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 centre with classrooms, event space and after-school programmes built by the United Cambodia Community, one of the neighbourhood’s oldest non-profits, passed into the hands of a local business owner after the non-profit’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 at the designation of Cambodia Town, fearing that identifying the neighbourhood as Cambodian would attract gang violence. They accused the board of being too cosy with the regime of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom they hold responsible for the atrocities. They protested against the annual parade when Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s son, was invited to attend.
Pasin Chanou, chairman of the Cambodia Town board, says that many in Cambodia Town believe it’s important for a community of immigrants and refugees to have a connection with their homeland.
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They must make peace with Hun Sen’s regime to move forwards, Pasin Chanou says. 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,” Pasin Chanou says. “We’ve talked about it enough. Let’s talk about something else.”
Paline Soth says he now regrets opposing the designation of Cambodia Town.
“I shouldn’t have stood in the way of what my people wanted,” he says.
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,” Paline Soth says.
In 2007, 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, Visouth Tarak Ouk, a former Cambodian gang member and the executive chef at the Federal Bar in downtown Long Beach, 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.
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The dishes are prepared and served by Cambodian-American volunteers. There are bottles of Yeak hot sauce, brewed by two Cambodian-Americans, at 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.
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Visouth Tarak 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’ trauma.
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,” says Khoul.
He is one of the few second-generation entrepreneurs who have achieved enough financial success to shape the neighbourhood’s future. He can pay for booths at community events, donate artwork for charity auctions and sponsor a table at a non-profit gala.
He was born in a refugee camp and arrived in the US with his parents in 1983. As his parents worked in gardens, 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 idolised 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 says.
Khoul, who has 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 non-profit moved across the street to the second floor of a much smaller building.
There, above a liquor store, beauty parlour and accountant’s office, the organisation continued its mission, offering English and citizenship classes to Cambodian seniors, academic tutoring and Cambodian arts and culture programmes – albeit with a vastly reduced budget.