Chhang Song delivers a speech at the official unveiling of the Cambodia Town sign in Long Beach, California. Photo by: MICHAEL BURR
Despite being 72 years old and living with the effects of a stroke, Chhang Song, a former Cambodian Information Minister, wasn’t a minute late in arriving to salute the recently installed Cambodia Town sign in Long Beach, California.
Wheelchair-bound, he gave a moving speech at the official unveiling of the sign on July 16, saying he was very proud and excited to be able to observe the historic event. The signs, which are visible along several streets and highways in Long Beach, are a visual representation of the resiliency and determination of the millions of Khmer currently living outside their home country.
“I wanted to say ‘thank you, Long Beach’. I wanted to embrace and thank the young men and women who made the birth of Cambodia Town possible in America,” Chhang Song says.
Having served the Cambodian government between 1970 and1975, Chhang Song was fortunate enough to have left the Kingdom bound for the United States, Virginia specifically, before the Khmer Rouge took hold of the capital in 1975. Obviously, millions of others weren’t so lucky. If being captured, murdered or put to work wasn’t one’s fate, fleeing the capital for refugee camps located near the border of Thailand was another.
Come 1978, thousands of those displaced fled to the US in search of some form of safety, security and the possibility of a better life, and Chhang Song was part of the effort to have these people rescued.
“We succeeded in having the Dole-Solarz Amendment passed by both houses of the US Congress in 1978,” says Chhang Song, who later moved to Long Beach to assist with the refugee resettlement. “By virtue of the Dole-Solarz Amendment, a total of 150,000 Cambodians who fled Pol Pot and lived in border camps in Thailand were processed for admission into the US.”
Chhang Song says the areas in which these Cambodians resettled were initially horribly depressed, though the community worked together to clear rubbish, organise self-help services and establish non-profit agencies and law offices. A new way of life was slowly becoming a possibility.
More and more Cambodian-run businesses popped up around the neighbourhood, including doughnut shops, car repairers, jewellery stores, restaurants, beauty salons, pharmaceutical clinics, fabric shops and supermarkets. Khmer culture also began to thrive with the construction of Buddhist temples, Khmer language centres and library programmes which focused on the Kingdom’s rich history.
Sithea San, a survivor of the Cambodian genocide who narrowly escaped the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime by crossing the landmine-riddled border into Thailand to settle in a United Nations refugee camp immigrated to Long Beach with her family in 1981. Upon arrival she spoke no English, yet went on to become fluent and graduate from high school in 1986. She then went on to tertiary study – a time which would change her own, and many others’ lives.
While studying for her bachelor of science in business management at California State University, Sithea San helped organise the first Cambodian Cultural Show through the college’s Cambodian Student Society. It was due to this event she says she developed a burning desire to continue to promote the development of a Khmer community in California.
“From these beginnings, my commitment to preserve and share my cultural traditions became the driving force for my work within and on behalf of the community,” she says.
While in the process of organising the Cambodian Cultural Show, Sithea San met her husband, Richer San, and in 2001 the pair was invited to attend a community meeting organised by the Cambodia Town Initiative Task Force. The meeting was intended to garner support for the establishment of the Cambodia Town Economic Development Project, both from members of the public and local politicians.
Now 44, Sithea San has been the chairperson of community-based organisation Cambodia Town Inc. since 2005, and says the establishment of the Cambodia Town Economic Development Project has been the most challenging experience of her professional life in the US, not least because of a complete lack of funding.
“There were no funds available to hire consultants or staff or for expenditure on publicity or public relations. This all-volunteer effort was built and funded from the ground up,” explains Sithea San, adding that the project also experienced strong opposition from certain sections of the Long Beach community.
“The critics … said the establishment of the Cambodia Town Business and Cultural District would result both in inter-ethnic gang wars between the Cambodian and other ethnic communities, and the isolation of the Cambodian community from the rest of the local communities in Long Beach,” she says.
Cambodia Town Inc. and its board members persevered, however, and spent countless hours lobbying elected officials and municipal staff, as well as leaders of other ethnic communities. Finally, after seven long years and with a 1000-strong crowd packing the council chambers, the proposed resolution of the Cambodia Town project was brought before the city council for approval on July 3, 2007.
Members of the council voted eight to one for the establishment of the Cambodia Town Business and Cultural District and the rest, as they say, is history.
While it did take four years and additional fundraising, in February of this year, Cambodia Town Inc. received approval from the city council to install the Cambodia Town signs. Come July 8 and the first two signs, erected on Anaheim Street, were installed, marking the district’s western and eastern boundaries. July 16 then saw a traditional Khmer ceremony take place, complete with blessings by Buddhist monks and a rendition of the Khmer Wishing Dance, while the remaining three posts were erected. And that’s not the end.
“We are currently collaborating with Long Beach city officials to install 14 additional signs marking the district’s northern and southern boundaries,” Sithea San says, adding that she anticipates the completion of the project by the end of this year.
It’s been a long process, one not yet done, but one that holds significance for thousands of Cambodians. In 2005, the US Census Bureau reported that the number of Cambodians residing in the US was 241,025. And according to Chhang Song, Long Beach is today believed to be home to some 50,000 of them, the highest concentration, he says, of Cambodian immigrants living outside Southeast Asia.
Chhang Song believes now that Cambodia Town, while being primarily a cultural district, will also attract businesses geared toward Khmer communities and facilitate exchanges between Cambodians, between Cambodians and other communities, and between America and Cambodia on a global scale. He says that due to this, Cambodia Town’s official existence will go on to make for meaningful economic, cultural and educational advancement for Cambodians living in the United States.
“I feel that, from this moment onward, cultural, business and other forms of trade and exchange will no longer remain the same for the Cambodians [in Long Beach].”