Cambodia Town hero final

Welcome to Cambodia Town

Meet 10 of the nearly 20,000 Cambodian Americans living in Long Beach, California—the U.S.'s oldest and largest Cambodian diaspora

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Words by Samantha Pak

More than a laid-back Southern California coastal city, Long Beach is home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. One of the few destinations in the U.S. where signs—in the jewelry stores, restaurants, and donut shops along East Anaheim Street, between Atlantic and Junipero avenues—are written in both English and Khmer. In Hollywood, everyone’s linked to Kevin Bacon. For Cambodian Americans around the country, it’s Six Degrees of Long Beach. If we don’t have roots here, we definitely know people who do.

The first Cambodians came to Long Beach in the 1950s as university students. But the majority arrived as refugees following the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia starting in 1975, displaced during a genocide that killed 1.5 million to 2 million Cambodians (about a quarter of the country’s population at the time).

Those who arrived around 1975 ended up in this neighborhood largely due to redlining, which made it hard for Black and brown people to live anywhere else in the city. Folks like Kalmine Ly, who was among that first wave, may have only known about five or six other Khmer families, but despite the small numbers, they found and supported one another. “It was hard because we lived here, but our minds were in Cambodia,” he says. “We had everything to eat, but on the news, Cambodia was not good. It was heartbreaking for the Cambodian people in Cambodia…We knew about it, but we cannot do anything.”

Once the Khmer Rouge fell in 1979, roughly 158,000 more Cambodians ended up in the United States, nearly 95 percent as refugees of the Killing Fields. Though they didn’t settle exclusively in Long Beach, Cambodians and Cambodian Americans now make up about four percent of the city’s population (a little more than 18,000 out of about 466,000), compared to 0.1 percent of the U.S. population.

Designated officially as Cambodia Town in 2007, the mile-long stretch of East Anaheim Street is more than colorful murals and bilingual signage. The Cambodian culture embodied here is a plethora of Khmer restaurants serving up bowls of kuyteav and plates of loc lac; it’s second-generation Cambodian Americans buying incense at the corner store for their Buddhist offerings at home; it’s Khmer language classes offered at the local high school; and it’s the extensive Khmer collection at the neighborhood library. All signs of how this community is more about its vibrant future than its traumatic past.

These are the faces of Cambodia Town: 

Richer and Sithea San

Samanta Helou Hernandez

Richer and Sithea San
Ages: Richer, 58; Sithea, 55
Immigrated to the U.S. in 1981
Occupation: Richer, project coordinator at Pacific Asian Counseling Services in Long Beach; Sithea, community outreach and data lead at Pacific Asian Counseling Services

Richer, on their relationship in the early days: “I noticed that she and I have a lot of common interests. We survived the Killing Fields. We’re not the smartest students in the class or in the school. We don’t have a lot of money or all of that. But we have this thing of caring. We always try to share information and knowledge with friends…The Khmer Rouge taught us, without us knowing it, taught us to be kind, to be mindful, to try to be a good citizen of where we live, and help others that need help. And that is why these few fundamental beliefs brought me to meet Sithea, my wife, and to do what we have been doing.

 

James Tir

Alborz Kamalizad

James Tir
Age: 32
Born in San Jose, California and moved to Long Beach at age 1
Occupation: Food influencer on Instagram, highlights Long Beach restaurants

On growing up in Long Beach: “I [was] raised in a donut shop. I remember going around and poking holes in all the donuts and interacting with all the customers. That was the cool part because it was very culturally diverse, all the people who would come through. So I gained that appreciation for the world outside the Khmer community through that.”

 

Kalmine Ly

Samanta Helou Hernandez

Kalmine Ly
Age: 76
Immigrated to the U.S. in 1975
Occupation: Retired since 2010 (previously owned and ran an office equipment repair shop)

On seeing Cambodia Town’s evolution: “Before, we just (had) nothing. We just blended in. But right now, we have our identity. We’re Cambodian. We can say we are Cambodian. We live here. This is our town. This is our place. Before, we just tried to survive. [Now], we have the right to live in this place. We’re not so afraid anymore, you know?”

 

Audrey Kong

Samanta Helou Hernandez

Audrey Kong
Age: 16
Born and raised in Long Beach
Occupation: Student at Wilson High School (going into 11th grade)

On the diversity of her hometown: “I feel very lucky to have so many people of all ethnicities, all this diversity around me, because I don’t really feel left out. There are other people like me around. It helps me try out other things, from other cultures, like different types of food. When I have friends of other ethnicities, I hang out with them, I see what their culture’s like. At their places, their families, their different cultures. How they live differently from my family.”

 

Christina Nhek

Samanta Helou Hernandez

Christina Nhek
Age: 36
Born and raised in Long Beach
Occupation: Senior librarian at Mark Twain Neighborhood Library in Long Beach (in Cambodia Town)

On building Khmer collection at the library: “Slowly, it was recognized that we had a large community here and that we really needed to have the materials that reflected the community. I’m so proud of this collection. I know that I’m never going to have another opportunity [like this] in my professional lifeI feel pretty lucky. I don’t get tired of talking about the collection because representation means so much more now in the culture of ‘wokeness,’ right? What was everyday and normalized for me now is mainstream, and I want to take the opportunity to promote it as much as I can with any avenue [possible].”

 

Darith Ung

Alborz Kamalizad

Darith Ung
Age: 58
Immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, Canada in 1982, immigrated to the U.S. in 1992
Occupation: Khmer language teacher at Wilson High School in Long Beach

On teaching Cambodian American students: “It’s truly an honor and a privilege to be the teacher of the only Khmer class in the entire [Long Beach Unified School District] and perhaps in southern California. [I am truly proud] to be doing that, to give students a chance to learn about their history, the culture and the language. Because I do not only teach the language, I also teach the history and the culture. It’s truly, truly, a blessing.”

 

Linda Reach

Alborz Kamalizad

Linda Reach
Age: 36
Born and raised in Long Beach
Occupation: Campus security at Snapchat

On the roles of being a Cambodian American woman: “I’m in the learning stages of [Khmer]  culture, so I’m still grasping certain aspects of it. I struggle with being feminine and struggle with being ‘too strong.’ Some traditional Khmer folks, they would always be like, ‘Linda, you have to be a lady. You can’t do this. You can’t do that. There’s going to be days where I’m going to be strong, there’s going to be days where I’m going to have to act more like a guy would. And it doesn’t sit well with my mom.”

 

Chad Phuong

Samanta Helou Hernandez

Chad Phuong
Age: 50
Immigrated to the U.S. in 1980
Occupation: Owner of Battambong BBQ in Long Beach

On the importance of cooking: “Food has been an integral part of me since I was a young person. So I’m trying to pass on this knowledge to other people, especially Cambodian Americans. [As] the third, fourth generations, sometimes we lose our identity. And I think food is the only way to keep our identity alive—just like other minorities who came to the U.S. [But] you can always make things better. You can incorporate different flavors. And when you cultivate that culture and that bond, you create a place where you can build your own table. To sit at a table of brotherhood, of sisterhood, that’s how you bring people together. It doesn’t matter if you’re Cambodian, or American, or African American. I wanted to represent that in America.”

 

Susana Sngiem

Alborz Kamalizad

Susana Sngiem
Age: 37
Born and raised in Long Beach
Occupation: Executive director of United Cambodian Community

On what it means to be Cambodian American: “Our generation is starting to define what that means for us. It is a balance. You look at the Khmer culture and see what are the key values you want to keep and continue on within your own family. And then also deciding what the key values from the American culture [are] that I want to continue and build. What it looks like to merge these two together to keep that balance.”

Published on June 29, 2022

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Words by Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.

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Photography by Alborz Kamalizad

Alborz Kamalizad is a visual artist who moves between photography, animation, documentary filmmaking, and illustration. He was born in Iran, raised in the USA, and currently works as the visual journalist for Los Angeles’s NPR affiliate, KPCC/LAist. He has created video journalism for Mother Jones Magazine and various forms of content for the United Nations, The Nature Conservancy, The Natural History Museums of Los Angeles, MasterClass, and the Getty. You can find more information at alkamalizad.com or on Instagram at @alborzk.

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Photography by Samanta Helou Hernandez

Samanta Helou Hernandez is a multimedia journalist and photographer covering culture, identity, and social issues. She's published with LA Times, Playboy, and PRI "The World," among others. In 2017, she launched "This Side of Hoover," an ongoing visual archive of gentrification and resilience in East Hollywood. Her work has been exhibited at The International Center of Photography in New York City and The Mexican Consulate of Los Angeles.