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Tim Thou’s house is crowded with traditional Khmer dance costumes and props
Tim Thou’s house is crowded with traditional Khmer dance costumes and props. BRENT CRANE

At home in Lowell

In the small Massachusetts city of Lowell, about 20 per cent of residents are of Khmer descent. Over the past three decades, they’ve brought the food, arts and even the political frictions of their homeland to ‘Cambodia Town’

On a mild spring afternoon in Lowell, Massachusetts, a small working class city 50 kilometres northeast of Boston, a Mothers’ Day gathering is under way. Children bounce a basketball on the driveway past the legs of parents who sit in lawn chairs and gab jovially in Khmer.

On a table are lunch offerings – rice noodles in a red basket, slices of pork in a tinfoil tray with bunches of mint, bean sprouts and peppers, a glass jug of coconut milk – all the ingredients for nom banh chok, a staple dish from the homeland, which for these Cambodian immigrants is very far away.

Lowell – with its freezing winters, historic churches and shuttered 19th-century textile mills – is nothing like Cambodia. Nevertheless, the town is home to the second-largest population of expatriate Cambodians in the US, making it one of the largest in the world.

“I feel that this is my home. I don’t have to go to Cambodia. I can live in Lowell and feel like I am in Cambodia,” says Tolayuth Ok, originally from Kampong Speu province and a Lowell resident since 2005.

Tim Thou with one of his long-time students
Tim Thou with one of his long-time students. BRENT CRANE

Ok is the vice president of a committee that manages Cambodia Town, an officially recognised Cambodian-American area of Lowell, home to many Cambodian-owned businesses.

While Long Beach, California, boasts the largest Cambodian-American population in the US, they make up a much smaller percentage of the city’s population than in Lowell. About 20 per cent of the town’s 100,000-strong population have Cambodian heritage, according to David Turcotte, a research professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts Lowell who has written extensively on the Cambodian diaspora there.

He said that unofficial reports even suggested that Lowell’s Cambodian population had recently surpassed that of Long Beach – the most well known home away from home for the Cambodian population in the US.

The immigrants’ influence on Lowell is apparent just walking down the street. The city has numerous Cambodian cultural centres, Buddhist temples and Cambodian restaurants. Many hardware shops, dry cleaners and travel agencies have signage in Khmer along with Spanish and English. Flyers advertise Cambodian music concerts and dance performances (popular Cambodian singers Preap Sovat, Khemarak Sereymon and Suos Songveacha have all performed in Lowell) on electricity poles and community message boards.

Lowell’s houses boast some typically Southeast Asian design features
Lowell’s houses boast some typically South East Asian design features. BRENT CRANE

The town’s annual Southeast Asian Water Festival, which pulls in more than 50,000 people a year and was conceived of by local Cambodians, is the largest Southeast Asian cultural event outside of Asia. So strong are the town’s Cambodian connections that Lowell Mayor Rodney Elliot signed a sister city agreement with Phnom Penh during a 10-day trip to the capital in January.

The influx of Cambodians started in the early 1980s, says Jeffrey Gerson, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Most came to the US as refugees via Thai border camps. The initial refugees who settled in Lowell and opened Cambodian-friendly businesses attracted many more to relocate from resettlements elsewhere in the country.

Several factors contributed to Lowell’s appeal to Cambodian refugees, explains Gerson. The “Mill City” had previously benefited from the arrival of thousands of immigrants during the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century and was especially welcoming to newcomers.

The Heng Lay restaurant is a meeting place for Lowell’s Cambodian community
The Heng Lay restaurant is a meeting place for Lowell’s Cambodian community. BRENT CRANE

The Lowell-based Cambodian Mutual Aid Assistance Association, a refugee service provider founded in 1984, offered educational, cultural, economic and social programs to the immigrants. And the cost of living in Lowell in the late 1980s and early 1990s was very low. The Cambodians came in droves and most found jobs as labourers at electronics factories.

Tim Thou, 57, was one of the first refugees to make it to Lowell in the early 1980s. By the end of the Khmer Rouge regime, Thou’s parents, uncle and four of eight siblings were dead. He spent more than a year in a Thai border refugee camp before gaining asylum in the US and was sent to the Philippines for six months to undergo transitional training.

Today, Thou has a wife and three daughters and is a celebrated figure in the Lowell community. He runs the Angkor Dance Troupe, a dance school and performance group that showcases elaborate and colourful traditional Khmer dance routines. At his house, ornate masks and headdresses line one shelf. Photos of costumed dancers line another. On the ground is a pile of red and gold robes that his wife made.

Nom Banh Chok is one of many Cambodian specialities prepared for community gatherings
Nom Banh Chok is one of many Cambodian specialities prepared for community gatherings. BRENT CRANE

Thou started his dance group soon after settling in Lowell and today they are one of the foremost Khmer cultural groups in the country. Several of Cambodia’s most respected dance masters have made the trip to Lowell to teach there. Thou and his instructors train young dancers from local middle and high schools, many of whom are second-generation Cambodians and know little about Khmer arts. For these children, the troupe acts as a gateway into the culture of their ancestors.

The troupe has performed its arsenal of folk and classical dance routines all over the northeast, including for Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and in the White House.

They’re currently planning a trip to Phnom Penh. All of this Thou accomplished while working night shifts full time at an electronics factory.

Cambodian men drink whiskey and beer at a Mothers’ Day celebration.
Khmer men drink whisky and beer at a Mothers’ Day celebration. BRENT CRANE

“So many times I wanted to give up,” he says. “But people kept telling me: ‘Thank you for doing this. We love what you are doing’ and that kept me going.”

Thou hopes to expand the troupe to include more top-rate instructors. He envisions turning Lowell into a hub of Cambodian performing arts.

But it’s not just cultural ties that bind Lowell to the homeland.

“Lowell is the centre of Cambodian politics in America,” says Ok. “Everything that happens in Cambodia affects things here.” All of the major political parties in Cambodia have supporters in Lowell, and party officials visit often, he says. CNRP leader Sam Rainsy is scheduled to arrive later this month to speak at a public forum on the culture of dialogue agreement signed between the CPP and CNRP last summer.

Long Beach’s diaspora community is also heavily involved in Cambodian politics, but the political environment in Lowell “may be” more charged, says Khatharya Um, an associate professor in the Ethnic Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley.

“The Cambodian community in Long Beach, California, is demographically more complex than many communities in the US, including Lowell,” Um says.

Tim Thou holds the only surviving picture of his mother.
Tim Thou holds the only surviving picture of his mother. BRENT CRANE

The diaspora in Long Beach includes post-genocide refugees, but also Cambodians who came to the US before 1975 for education and professional training, along with diplomats and high-ranking military officials, says Um. The community in Lowell, made up mostly of post-genocide refugees resettled in the early 1980s, is less educated, more traumatised and generally more polarised.

Sengly Kong, the president of the Cambodia Town committee, laments that the diaspora community is often split along pro-CNRP and pro-CPP lines. “We are so divided by homeland politics,” he says. “It’s really hard to get things done because people are always suspicious: ‘Oh he’s CPP, he’s CNRP,’ they say. And when that thing gets into the discussion, then people kind of divert from the main issue,” says Kong.

Rithy Uong, who served as Lowell’s first Cambodian-American city councillor from 1999 until 2006, agrees. “[Homeland politics] has seeped into the community,” he says. “It divides everyone apart, divides friendships, divides everything.”

When things heat up back in the Kingdom, the normally calm pot in Lowell starts to boil. As protesters repeatedly flooded the streets of Phnom Penh last year during anti-government demonstrations, the temperature in Lowell rose concurrently.

“People yelled at each other, they spoke badly about each other,” recalls Ok, who is pro-CPP. “Even some of my friends started to hate me. They said: ‘You support Hun Sen; you support the Vietnamese; you support the killers.’”

Despite the bickering over homeland politics, the diaspora in Lowell has been able to get big things done, especially when its comes to local politics. Uong was the first Cambodian-American to be elected to a US city council. Last year, Lowell resident Randy Mom became the first Cambodian-American to be voted onto the Massachusetts state legislature. And the Cambodian community is recognised as an influential political special interest group. More than one local politico has lost office from appearing too uncaring towards the Cambodians’ concerns.

But, Sengly stresses, people are not normally at each other’s throats.

Back at the Mothers’ Day gathering, the guests – who come from both CPP and CNRP leanings – seem to get along fine. One pulls out a bottle of top shelf whiskey. Shots are poured and passed around on a tray. “Happy Mother’s Day!” they all yell in English before draining their cups. A small US flag sticking out of a flower pot on the pavement flutters in the breeze. The conversation among the men starts back up again. They’re speaking Khmer.

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