The Healing Fields of Long Beach's Cambodia Town

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

*     *     *

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."

*     *     *

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.  

*     *     *

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.

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." 

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.

"One time, on a car ride with my mom, I was talking about how all my friends were going camping with their families in the summer," the petite 16-year-old recalls. "My mom didn't want to go. I was like, 'Why don't you like to go camping? Everyone else likes to go camping.' She just said, 'It reminds me of the past, and I don't want to remember the past.'"

A student at Wilson High School, Sam carries the weight of her mother's PTSD, which affects about 14 percent of Cambodian adults, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Sometimes, her mom will wake up crying after having nightmares about being in the Killing Fields. "She'll say, 'You were there, and they took you away from me,'" Sam describes. "I don't know what to say to that. I don't know how to help her. She doesn't want to talk, doesn't want to eat. I try to hug her, but she just pushes me away."

Clinical psychologist Sam Keo says that those who grow up around PTSD are likely to be affected as well. It's called "intergenerational transmission of trauma" and can extend for years down the ancestral line.

"There are different ways that kids respond," Keo says. "Some take on the role of a rescuer. They're still children but grow up as the adults—cooking, cleaning the house, taking their parents to the doctor. They become depressed because they've lost their childhood. Others become emotionally uninvolved and might turn to gangs and drugs. In both cases, they don't know why they act the way they act or feel the way they feel."

Keo, a Cambodian refugee himself, opened a practice in Long Beach geared toward the Khmer community. He understands PTSD because he has experienced it himself. One day, when he was a young boy in the concentration camps, his mother begged him to give some rice to his sick baby brother. But Keo was weak and needed that bit of food to get him through another day of work in the fields. So he refused. When he got back to the commune that night, his brother was dead, and his mother blamed him. 

It haunted him for decades. "Everywhere I'd turn, I'd see my mother and dead baby brother," says Keo, now 56. "In my flashbacks, my mother would say, 'If it weren't for you, your brother would still be alive.'" Once, the guilt was so intense that he started to drive off a cliff. He hit the brakes just before it was too late. 

He worked through the trauma through therapy and by writing a memoir, Out of the Dark, Into the Garden of Hope, which Keo released last year. He encourages his older patients to talk to their children about the Killing Fields. "If they ask, tell them," he says. "If you don't tell them, they'll create their own image, which can be worse."

These types of services—those by the community, for the community—help empower a generation straddling two cultures. "Nobody understands Cambodians except Cambodians," 16-year-old Sam says. "We're the ones who've had to suffer."

She's part of a Long Beach-based nonprofit called Khmer Girls In Action, a support system and leadership program for Southeast Asian young women. Inside a pink-walled room decorated with quilts and a flag that reads, "Powerful Sisterhood," girls bond over their personal struggles.

Patricia Tin, a 19-year-old student at Polytechnic High School, says she only recently found out she had an uncle. "When she was escaping, my grandma had to leave my dad's youngest brother behind because he was sick and she couldn't take care of him," she says. "He was just a baby. They never talk about it."

Kunthea "Mimi" Sin, an 18-year-old at Wilson High, says she has too much stress at home—her uncle was deported, and her brother struggles with alcohol issues. "I get truancy letters sent to my house," she says. "I can't make my grandma proud. Not only did I fail her, but I failed myself, too."

Last year, Khmer Girls In Action surveyed 500 second-generation Cambodian American youth in Long Beach and found that nearly half displayed symptoms of depression and 54 percent felt discrimination in areas such as language, racial profiling and educational attainment. A third of the respondents knew someone in their family or community who had been deported or is facing deportation.

"There's a misperception that we're part of the model minority," says Sara Pol-Lim, executive director of United Cambodian Community (UCC), a social-services agency in Long Beach. "People assume that because we are Asian, there should be no problem, that we have a mentality centered on economic advancement and higher education."

According to U.S. Census Bureau indicators, 54 percent of local Cambodian Americans live below the poverty line compared to 17 percent of the general Los Angeles/Long Beach/Santa Ana population. Still, the numbers may not even reveal the whole picture. The most recent census data show that 19,000 Cambodians live in Long Beach, but Pol-Lim says other estimates put that figure closer to 100,000.

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."

*     *     *

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 . . .

*     *     *

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."

The Healing Fields of Long Beach's Cambodia Town
John Gilhooley


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