The Healing Fields of Long Beach's Cambodia Town

The next generation of the city's Cambodian-American community steps up to help its elders—and itself

The Healing Fields of Long Beach's Cambodia Town

"Our future is fragile, our hope can break.
At any moment, be aware and wide awake.
We gotta be focused, time to concentrate,
like a Buddha on lotus, mind and meditate.
We here now in the Unified States.
The land of opportunity, outcome is what you make.
So full steam ahead, don't worry about the brakes.
A head full of dreams, that idea seems great.
We here now, too much is at stake.
It's a new kind of jungle, and different kind of struggle."

—From praCh Ly's upcoming album, Dalama 3: Memoirs of the Invisible War

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John Gilhooley
Long Beach's first Cambodia Town Film Festival Coordinators praCH Ly and Caylee So (center) with their planning committee at the Art Theatre
John Gilhooley
Long Beach's first Cambodia Town Film Festival Coordinators praCH Ly and Caylee So (center) with their planning committee at the Art Theatre

PraCh Ly drives his black Mercedes SUV down Anaheim Street in Long Beach on a warm Thursday afternoon, passing clusters of storefronts with barred windows and squiggly Khmer script. He gazes at the familiar businesses—fabric shops selling jewel-toned sarongs, DVD stores plastered with posters promoting the latest Cambodian titles, and restaurants serving up plates of fresh lok lak beef salad and bowls of mango sticky-rice pudding.

"Over there is where you go after coming back from the clubs," he says, pointing to the nondescript bakery-turned-nightspot Bamboo Island. "You can sing karaoke until, like, 3 a.m."

This is Cambodia Town, the heart of Southern California's Cambodian community, the largest such enclave in the United States, and one of the largest on Earth. And the 33-year-old Ly (he goes by praCh; the spelling is his own) is perhaps its most famous ambassador, a rapper who became an accidental superstar in a country he only knew about through library books and fragmented family tales.

"Just like any other community, we've had our struggles," Ly says. As he turns the steering wheel, he reveals the tattoo on his wrist: an image of the Angkor Wat temple beside a tank. "When people got here, they were literally fresh off the war and mentally all fucked-up. We've had to rebuild a sense of trust."

It's been five years since the Long Beach City Council formally recognized a mile-long stretch as Cambodia Town, running along Anaheim Street from Junipero to Atlantic avenues. Marked by bright-blue street signs, the official designation rallied a community previously branded only by the darkness of its past. Due to a historical stroke of chance, Long Beach was where thousands of refugees fled after living under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, during which time the lives of an estimated 1.7 million people were stolen through forced labor, starvation, disease and execution. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, bureaucrats, merchants, even those who were merely light-skinned or wore glasses, were murdered under the ruthless hand of dictator Pot Pol, who set out to create an idealized, agrarian communist society.

Having its own spot on the map was monumental for the community. "It gave us an identity," says Richer San, who spent years working with the city to create the ethnic district, one neighborhood leaders hoped would join the ranks of destination spots such as Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Tokyo, Thai Town and Little Saigon. "Before, the younger generation was ashamed to be identified as Cambodian. All they had heard of were the Killing Fields and didn't know we have a history that goes 2,000 to 3,000 years back. This empowered them and brought the culture back to Long Beach." 

Ly, whose upcoming album, Dalama 3: Memoirs of the Invisible War, reveals defiant tales of hope and strife from this "new kind of jungle," leads a growing movement of young Cambodian-Americans charged with propelling the community forward—not just in Long Beach, but across the globe. Today, as many as 70 percent of Cambodians worldwide are younger than 30, according to a survey by the Human Rights Center at UC Berkeley.

For many teens and young adults, however, the task comes with unforeseen cultural baggage.

They feel the reverberations from a war they never lived through, one that rarely gets discussed. "It is ingrained in the sorrow of my grandmother's eyes; it is sewn in the furrows of my parents' faces," describes photojournalist Pete Pin in his documentary project detailing the modern grief. "This is my inheritance; this is what it means to be Cambodian."

Decades removed from the genocide, community members still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Other issues also surround the group, including discrimination, poverty, alcohol abuse and deportation, issues most Americans are shocked to discover exist in a community that has been pegged as the "model minority" stereotype of Asian immigrants, but which many Cambodian activists know persist. Now they sit at a proverbial intersection. 

"We're like lotus—muddy and dirty at the bottom with a dark past," Ly says, his eyes looking straight ahead. "But we have a strong root. We're not victims. If anything, we're survivors."

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This is for the people,
fresh off the boat . . .
Welcome to the new world,
land of new hope,
some float, some fly,
many die along the way.
But we got to survive,
no matter what it takes.  

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Long Beach emerged as the American home base for Cambodians in the 1970s, after the U.S. military withdrew from Southeast Asia. Cambodian exchange students at Cal State Long Beach had already set roots in the diverse port city, and waves of evacuees started hearing about a growing Cambodian community.

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