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

Chad Sammeth, former project coordinator and community organizer at UCC, says he believes things are changing. While the older generation once dwelled on the problems, the new generation is tackling them head-on.

"We've assimilated," he says. "We're more American than we are Cambodian, but we're still very much Khmer. What's really special now is this sense of pride. It's a regrowth, rebirth, resurgence of pride that we didn't quite have before. With social media, we're able to connect and converse more than ever. For a long time, it's been very insular. But now we're branching out, working with the black, Latino and other communities. The barriers are coming down."

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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

Freedom ain't free . . .
We came a long way far country over sea,
We came a long way for this opportunity.
Freedom ain't free . . .

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On a Saturday morning, Ly and a team of young Cambodian Americans are at the Art Theatre in Long Beach, shooting a PSA for the inaugural Cambodia Town Film Festival. Planned for September of next year, the event aims to be a forum for emerging filmmakers either of Cambodian descent or working with Cambodian themes, including family, migration, justice and the human condition.

"We've just lit a fire under people and are challenging people to find their voices," says Caylee So, who joins Ly as co-coordinator of the festival. "All of our parents' and grandparents' stories are starting to fade. What we want to do is keep their stories alive, keep the torch going. A lot of films from the Golden Era of Cambodian cinema were burned during the war. We're in a position right now to create a new legacy."

A graduate of Chapman University's Dodge College of Film and Media Arts, So won a Directors Guild of America award for her student film Paulina, which tells the story of a 17-year-old girl living in the Cambodian gambling community. The 31-year-old says those in her generation want to create something of their own, whether it's through film, art, music or writing. "The older generation wants to get past old wounds, but we're separated from it enough to take what they've gone through and learn from it and grow from it," she says. "We're about promoting the evolving Cambodian culture."

Many find themselves desiring to head back their parents' country for the first time. Sammeth recently left his job at UCC to travel with a documentary crew in Cambodia. Of what's happening in Cambodia Town, he simply says, "The next five years are gonna be really exciting." 

Ly, too, continues traveling back and forth to Cambodia to volunteer with schools and families in need. He recently went on a 17-campus college tour, speaking about censorship, freedom of expression, corruption and the abuse of power. Now he's the executive producer of Suspicious Minds, the sequel to Enemies of the People, a 2009 British documentary that stands as one of the most important films ever made about Cambodia. 

For Ly, it has been a journey of truth and resilience.

"I do love my people, and I do love my community," he says, staring at the place he calls home. "No matter where I go, I'll always end up back here."

This article appeared in print as "The Healing Fields: The next generation of Long Beach's Cambodian-American community steps up to help its elders—and itself."

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