Cambodia Town: Bringing Life and Culture to Anaheim Street
The streets were quiet. Dark rain clouds filled the morning sky. The outcome for the first annual Cambodian New Year Parade was surely unpredictable. But with a “rain or shine” attitude, parade organizers prepared for the celebration to go on regardless of weather conditions. About ten minutes before 10 a.m., the sun peeked through the gloom, shining over Anaheim Street. Shortly after, thousands of spectators lined up along the sidewalks to watch the first-ever parade. This April 2005 parade was an important stepping stone for the soon to be Cambodia Town
A year prior (in 2004), a group of people advocating for the Cambodia township asked city council for support, but the council responded by saying there is no activity on Anaheim Street, according to Sithea San, former Cambodia Town chair and one of the original founders.
“They knew they had to generate traffic, so the community got together and in 2005, we had the first new year parade,” she said. “[When the parade was over], everyone had tears because of after all the commotion, everyone enjoyed the parade.”
The idea of the township sparked in 2001 with a group of people wanting to bring their pride and heritage into the community with the largest Cambodian population outside of their homeland. Many Cambodians settled in Long Beach in 1975 after being sent to Camp Pendleton in Oceanside, California.
Former 7th District Councilwoman Laura Richardson supported the community’s choice in wanting to create the township, but only wanted the 1500 to 1800 blocks of Anaheim Street stretching from Peterson to Gardenia avenues.
“She wanted Cambodia Town in her district only,” San said. “[In October 2006], she proposed that, but they didn’t want that. Our community wanted from Junipero all the way to Atlantic.”
Many people showed up to city hall that day to witness the birth of the township. But instead, everyone walked quietly with disappointment after the meeting. They did not receive the parameters they wanted, which extended to the nonprofit United Cambodian Community (UCC) and other Asian businesses past Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that wanted to be included, according to San. However, things changed less than a year later.
“On July 3, 2007, designation finally happened,” San said. “We were all so happy. This is how Cambodia Town, Inc. happened.”
But before the designation, the township was not always referred to as Cambodia Town. The area was known “Cambodia Town Intiviate Task Force” until November 2005. During the town hall meeting dedicated to finding a new name, one of the determining factors was for everyone to able to pronounce the name, according to San.
“We picked ‘Cambodia Town’ because it is all-inclusive,” said First Vice Chairman, Monorom Neth. “It was unofficially referred to as Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia.”
The Cambodia Town parameters run about a mile-long from Junipero to Atlantic avenues extending two blocks to 14th and 11th streets. And although it is centered around one culture, it maintains its “all-inclusive” mindset when it comes to who’s a part of the town.
“There is no objection to other ethnic restaurants having to be part of Cambodia Town,” Neth said. “They all have the same idea to make the place clean, safe, beautiful, and bring more foot traffic so everyone benefits from it.”
The town receives many tourists from all over the world for the new years parade. Although the majority of tourists are Cambodians from out of state or the country, there are people from France, Australia and Holland. The surplus of people causes most restaurants to run out of food that day.
“All of the restaurants, whether it is Mexican or Jack in the Box, they sell out of food that day,” Neth said. “And big restaurants have a two hour wait time.”
But aside from the parade, the township wants Cambodians to connect with their root from teaching young women to lean the classical dance to teaching people how to read and write in Khmer.
“For us, we promote culture and business,” San said. “We don’t get involved in politics. If involved, we cannot promote culture, arts and business.”
According to Neth, about 90 percent of all businesses are “mom-and-pop” shops that have been here since the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“If there were big corporations, most of these small businesses will be out of business,” Neth said.
The first Cambodian owned restaurant and market, both now with different names and owners, sit next to each other on Anaheim Street and Raymond Avenue. Other businesses include pharmacies, various restaurants, jewelry and clothing stores.
The town also strives to be involved in the community by donating when possible. They raised over $150,000 over seven years to donate to Mark Twain Library community room. Both Neth and San highlight it is an accomplishment to be proud of.
Now, their next big project is to get a gateway for anyone who enters the township. Currently, there are small Cambodia Town signs around the perimeter and off the Interstate 710 Anaheim exit.
“They are trying to see if the city council can help them for the gateway.” San said. “ The signs on the freeway, around the boundaries, it is not city money. We paid for it.”
The gateway will make for the first in the city and plans are in the works to have a huge ceremony. Although there is no set date and it is still in the process, Neth hopes it will be completed with the renovations being made to Anaheim Street by the city.
“There is going to be more crossing walks, for example,” he said. “We want to make the area more safe so more people can come and visit.”