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

They settled into run-down apartment buildings, often cramming multiple families into single units, and began opening businesses on an eastside strip of mostly vacant lots and abandoned storefronts. (A smaller community would eventually migrate to apartments off Minnie Street in Santa Ana, where they remain today, while others moved to Little Saigon, where you can still spot the occasional storefront signs in Khmer alongside Vietnamese.) The area would become known as New Phnom Penh, a place where Cambodian refugees could pick up essentials such as coconut milk and dried tamarind from the market, visit a Cambodian-owned tailor or auto-body shop, buy Cambodian jewelry, or take their kids to Cambodian-language school. They converted houses into Buddhist temples, launched Khmer-language newspapers and television stations, and celebrated Cambodian New Year with traditional song and dance. 

But they didn't live in isolation. While parents went to work, many children got swept into the underworld of violence and crime that plagued Long Beach during the 1980s. "Youth were confronted by the ethnic racial hierarchy of poor neighborhoods with scarce resources," says Karen Quintiliani, co-director of the Cambodian Community History and Archive Project, a research initiative she runs with anthropologist Susan Needham inside the Historical Society of Long Beach. "There was conflict that erupted in the school with Mexican gangs and Central American gangs."

Essentially, Quintiliani says, "they were entering another Killing Field." 

More Khmer Girls in Action
John Gilhooley
More Khmer Girls in Action
Chrissy Sam, a member of Khmer Girls in Action
John Gilhooley
Chrissy Sam, a member of Khmer Girls in Action

Ly was born in a Cambodian concentration camp during the final year of the Khmer Rouge reign. His mother had to keep the pregnancy a secret, he says, which wasn't difficult because captives were on the verge of starvation and forced to wear black to camouflage themselves. It was monsoon season when she went into labor, and when it was time to give birth, her friends took her to a nearby forest so officials wouldn't hear Ly cry.

As with other survivors, the family evacuated to Thailand and was eventually sponsored to come live in America. It first wound up in Jacksonville, Florida, and then El Monte, before finally settling in Long Beach, where the family hoped to reunite with friends and relatives who had been lost in the massive escape.

Ly remembers living in a run-down apartment building on 69th Street and Long Beach Boulevard, mostly occupied by Cambodians on welfare. "It was a refugee haven," Ly describes. "Like an entire Cambodian village."

It was also a neighborhood ridden with danger. "Kids would run around and play hide-and-seek and see drug dealers and prostitution in their buildings," Ly describes. "We'd see bodies get chopped up and put into trash bags. I became immune to gunshots. It excited me, like, 'Ooh, where's that coming from?'"

As a teenager, after coming home from Jordan High School, he started watching guys rap in the park. They battled one another with freestyle lyrics, and Ly would sometimes join in. He got good at it and started making some cash at parties and clubs.

One day, in his older brother's garage in Florida, Ly started rapping about life on the streets. "I was like, 'Fuck you this; fuck you that.'" His brother was shocked at the anger inside him and sat down with him that night.

"It was one of those moments I can't ever forget," Ly says. "He started talking about the Killing Fields. He said, 'I know what you're going through, but if you think you have it hard, sneaking out of the camp was an automatic death sentence. We had to kill monkeys and eat beetles and swim across rivers to take food to Mom.' He started telling me all these stories that my parents never talked about. I was like, 'What am I doing with my life?'"

When he got back to Long Beach, Ly started working at a karaoke store that sold Cambodian titles. He started talking to regular customers and would simply ask them about their experiences with the war. Finally, he worked up the courage to ask his mother about her past.

"She didn't want to talk," Ly says. "She was afraid that I might grow up with hatred or seek vengeance. I told her I just wanted to know the truth. 'America is built by immigrants, and we all have different backgrounds, and I have to know who I am to be me. A tree can't grow without roots. I have to know my upbringing, so I can branch out and maybe seeds grow.'"

After he learned about the secret world, he started writing.

*     *     *

I know, I know, it's hard to disguise, but it's the truth.
And if we don't talk about it, it'll be forgotten.
And I'll be damned if I let that happen.
You see its barely even mentioned,
Barely in school textbooks,
How do you expect the kids to know?
Some don't even believe their parents,
Some just don't care at all.
Post-traumatic stress, silently, they cry.
Casualty of war, no cure but to slowly die.
Some claim Khmer pride, not knowing about their past.
Identity crisis and generation gap.

—From "Hidden Truth, Open Lies"

*     *     *

There's a reason why Chrissy Sam doesn't go camping.

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