By JeanMarie VanDine | Photos by Alexiz Gomez
So —you think you know the LBC? Have you been to our city’s Cambodia Town? This part of town is also known as Little Phnom Penh or Little Cambodia and is located in the one-mile area in a business corridor along Anaheim Street between Atlantic and Junipero Avenues. The truth is Long Beach boasts the largest population of Cambodians outside of Cambodia, a country located in Southeast Asia.
Tragically, from 1975 to 1979, an estimated 2 million Cambodians perished in their native land. To the horror of Asia and the world, communists known as the Khmer Rouge tyrannized the country, executing thousands of innocent people, and forcing them to live in “re-education” camps. Nearly a fourth of the population was subjected to brain-washing, torture, disease, and forced labor. Children were separated from their parents and often forced into becoming child-soldiers or informers for the new regime. Often referred to as the Cambodian Holocaust, the Cambodian Genocide, or the Killing Fields, memories from this intense trauma remain in many of the surviving immigrant families. Consequently, in order to survive, these victims fled to the United States and other Western countries, with many finally settling here in Long Beach.
SETTLING INTO A NEW COUNTRY
Coming to Long Beach offered these immigrants an opportunity to settle together and start new lives. Leaving the country was crucial, especially to religious leaders, doctors, teachers, and members of the previous military, who were targeted by Pol Pot, the new and merciless leader of Cambodia. In addition to the United States providing asylum, it also offered services unavailable in Cambodia such as open-heart surgery and many other life-saving procedures.
However, most Cambodians faced intense challenges in their new homeland. Sayon Syprasoeuth, one of eight siblings sponsored by a church group, immigrated to Elkader, Iowa, where his family were the only Asians in their new city. In spite of the difficulties with learning a new language, facing freezing temperatures, losing many relatives, and enduring culture shock, Sayon and his family eventually moved to Long Beach. Thereupon, he earned a BA and MFA from CSULB and Claremont College. He currently works as the Program Manager for Living Arts Long Beach at United Cambodian Community and is a contributing artist in the Cambodian community. His art work may be found at www.sayonart.com.
Another immigrant, Julie, at age 5 fled her country and flew to Chicago with her family where her aunt underwent emergency heart surgery. Julie originally had 11 siblings. “However, all but 3 of us were murdered by the Khmer Rouge,” she explained. Years later, Julie moved to Long Beach and worked as a waitress at Sophy’s Restaurant for over 20 years to support her 4 children. Having little money, Julie chose this job so she could take home leftovers the generous owner, Sophy, provided. Now her adult daughter, Jasmine, age 25, has followed in her mother’s footsteps, waiting tables at the same restaurant while attending Long Beach City College to become an accountant. Jasmine adds, “The Cambodian community and this restaurant always look out for each other.”
RESOURCES ABOUT CAMBODIA
If you would like to learn more about the history or cultural background of our Long Beach Cambodian community, there are numerous helpful resources available at The Mark Twain Public Library at 1401 East Anaheim Street. “Our library houses the largest public collection of Cambodian books in Khmer and English languages in the United States,” says Christina Nhek, head librarian. Two wellknown books that share compelling stories of Cambodian survival and immigration are Lucky Child: A Daughter of Cambodia Reunites with a Sister Left Behind, and First They Killed My Father, both by author Loung Ung. The last aforementioned book was also made into a film in 2017, which portrays the brutal re-education camps through the eyes of a 5-year old child. Another film, The Killing Fields, a classic from 1984, is the true story of the struggle of an American journalist, Sydney Schanberg, trying to depict the real “unsanitized” news in Cambodia, and his intense effort to save the life of his interpreter and Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran. Unable to secure safe passage to the United States, Dith falls into the hands of the Khmer Rouge. The film follows Dith’s harrowing journey through starvation and near-death.
Librarian Nhek also recommended 2 shorter books presenting Cambodian refugees and their business success stories: The American Dream, With Sprinkles by Mayly Tao and The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World by Ted Ngoy. I found each of these shorter reads absolutely informative and inspiring.
You may also learn more about Cambodian culture by exploring some of its unique foods. You will find some of the eateries in Cambodia Town and others in various parts of Long Beach. For a casual breakfast or lunch, head to the popular Phnom Penh Noodle Shack at 1644 Cherry Avenue. In business since 1985, this friendly family-run restaurant entices you with fragrant steaming bowls of fat noodles served with your choice of juicy sliced pork, beef, or chunks of squid and fresh fish. Or you may enjoy stir-fry noodles with broccoli, carrots, egg, and house garlic fish sauce.
If you’re more interested in lunch, dinner, or wish to entertain a large party, try Sophy’s Restaurant located at 3240 East PCH. I especially enjoyed the traditional Somlaw Machu Kreoung Soup made with lemongrass, tamarind, and eggplant, either eaten in a bowl or served over rice. The menu is 8 pages long with many choices of Cambodian or Thai cuisine. A regular customer for over 20 years, Emanuel Thomas remarks, “What brings me back to Sophy’s are the people, the owners, the warm family. They have all adopted me and call me Uncle Emanuel. Plus, the food is delicious and reasonably priced!”
If you’re in the mood for a picnic, stop at Riverside Supermarket at 1842 East Anaheim Street where you may shop for fresh vegetables and prepared Cambodian favorites. Why not expand your culinary world and try some fried bananas, taro root, beef sticks, or fried fish at reasonable prices? I particularly enjoyed the homemade and unusual Pineapple Rib soup.
If you’re craving sweets, stop by KNEAD Donuts and Tea with one shop located at 3940 East 7th Street, and its sister store located at 5105 East PCH. I couldn’t resist purchasing a dense but fluffy donut filled with a demitasse-sized portion of rich chocolate Nutella. And honestly, this is the best donut I’ve had in my entire life!! Opened in 2017, by using the highest quality ingredients and offering huge croissant sandwiches made to order, the owner, Huey Behuynh, has created a perfect spot to grab a cup of tea, a boba drink, or splurge your sweet tooth!
Check out the Cultural Events and Education article on page 62, to view upcoming Cambodian events including Long Beach Cambodian Restaurant Week, Cambodia Town Parade & Culture Festival, and Khmeraspora, a Cambodian musical experience.
Don’t miss out! It’s time to explore Cambodia Town, its history, people, and culture. Come out and gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of our diverse and colorful city of Long Beach!