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Rapping the Message of Long Beach's Cambodia Town


In 2011, the 20-block stretch of Anaheim Street from Atlantic to Junipero in Long Beach was officially declared "Cambodia Town." A large blue sign commemorates this on the districts borders. While the LBC's neighbor to the north, L.A., has districts like Thai Town, Little Armenia, Little Ethiopia, Koreatown, Little Tokyo and many more, the equally diverse Long Beach is known for Bixby Knolls, the Pike and Belmont Shore. Once known as "Iowa By-The Sea," the Cambodia Town designation is truly historic: it's the first ethnic district in Long Beach to be officially recognized by the city.

For stakeholders in the Long Beach Cambodian community, this is epic. Dating back to a cadre of Cambodian students that attended Long Beach State over three decades ago, the Long Beach Cambodian community has grown to have the largest concentration of Cambodians anywhere outside of Cambodia. They are especially thrilled to call Long Beach home, since they were forced out of Cambodia under murderous conditions.

Though I was born in Long Beach, most of what I know about Cambodia Town I learned from Prach Ly. Prach came to Long Beach from Cambodia at age 5 and has been here ever since. In 1999, just out of Jordan High School, Prach recorded a bilingual hip-hop album that described the horrors of Cambodia's Killing Fields. Prach had listened to his elders stories and retold them in a hip hop vocabulary. Furthermore he blended English with his native tongue, creating a tour-de-force unlike any other Long Beach hip-hop artist. Somehow the album was bootlegged and taken to Cambodia, where it went viral.

With his music Prach was telling stories that had only been whispered. His public breakdown of Cambodian history was groundbreaking on many levels. Soon Prach was revered in his homeland and in demand around America, on both the university lecture circuit and underground hip-hop scene. I met Prach in 2003. On two separate occasions he has given me personal tours around Long Beach. In Fall 2011 he drove me down Anaheim Street.

Cambodia Town Parade | Photo from cambodiantown.com
Cambodia Town Parade | Photo from cambodiantown.com

The Cambodian community in Long Beach is centered on Anaheim Street, with another Cambodian enclave in North Long Beach. The stretch of Anaheim Street is certainly the symbolic home. One of the first places Prach drives me to is the United Cambodian Community (U.C.C.) office at Anaheim and Dawson. We walk upstairs and he introduces me to Chad Sammeth, the Project Coordinator and Community Organizer at U.C.C. He conducts workshops on "Financial Literacy," as well as always being available for any questions anyone in the Cambodian community may have. He has helped many Cambodian immigrants read contracts, open a bank account, read the fine print on financial forms, and so on. I saw several Cambodian grandmothers thank him wholeheartedly on their way out the door.

The U.C.C. was recently funded by the California Endowment, and Chad is one of three full time employees. "The other two happen to be my personal heroes and mentors: Sara Pol-Lim (Executive Director) and Raymond Chavarria (Project Director). I love what I do. I am surrounded by people who are driven by passion and purpose," he says. He explains his motivation, "One of my major sources of inspiration comes from our elders -- Killing Field Survivors. During the Khmer Rouge regime in the early '70s, they were forced to leave all things familiar to escape death. Families were separated and scattered around the globe. In the past 30 years they struggled with language barriers, cultural barriers, social and economic barriers, emotional and mental trauma. I would be lying if I said that I understand what they went through.

"The atrocities they experienced are beyond my comprehension. To a large extent, our elders are still a maimed and fragmented generation. To say the least, they've been through a lot and they are tired. They just want to hold on to what little joy they have left. We as children often forget that our parents are people too. They have done their part in giving their children a second chance at life. Now it's up to us, the next generation, to become their success stories."

Prach and Chad are walking the walk. Prach travels the college circuit performing his hip hop and lecturing on Cambodian history, while Chad stays home in Long Beach handling the day-to-day operations at the U.C.C. "Prach and I met at a community function several years ago. It didn't take long for us to become close friends, because we are both doers. We are kindred souls working towards a common goal to serve a healing community. We make a good team," said Chad, describing their partnership.

Cambodia Town is lucky to have these two young lions working so hard. The district's future is promising, but the built environment along Anaheim Street in its current state -- mostly low-slung older buildings housing several Cambodian restaurants nestled between carnicerias, used car lots, laundry mats, Pho spots, and Smog Check Centers -- could use some attention. The decaying streetscape is waiting for new life.

The U.C.C. office has a large window looking southwest onto Long Beach's skyline. Chad looks out the window often, imagining Cambodia Town's future. He would like more pedestrian life, outdoor restaurants, a small park, and even some public art. He has a vision to merge architecture, sustainability and urban design. He sees Cambodia Town as a destination district, much like Retro Row on 4th Street or Belmont Shore, serving as a cultural and financial hub in the middle of Long Beach.

Prach Ly in Cambodia Town | Photo by Matt Cohn
Prach Ly in Cambodia Town | Photo by Matt Cohn

An avid surfer and a magnanimous man to all people, Chad is as committed to his community as he is to the waves. He loves Long Beach's diversity. He wants new people to know about Cambodia Town. With much fervor he conducts monthly walking tours, inviting guests to "come taste the flavors of Cambodia." Along the way he shows a mural of a traditional Cambodian Buddhist Temple and explains that the Mark Twain Branch of the Long Beach Public Library has the largest collection of Cambodian books in America.

"I have a message to my peer groups," Chad says. "Ages 40 and under: We have little to no excuses not to succeed. We now live in the information age, an era of self-made teenage millionaires. Lacking a college degree or conventional education is no longer a valid excuse. If you can't find a job, create one. Technology has leveled the playing field of opportunities. The only barriers and boundaries that exist, are the ones that we allow to exist. We are just as capable as those who are making headlines because we have access to resources too. Our people have had a rough history. We cannot change the past, but we can change how we feel about it, learn from it and move forward. Let's move forward... together!

"Get off the sidelines and onto the field. We need more teammates. If you don't understand something, ask. If you don't agree with something, suggest. If you criticize, be constructive, not destructive. Eliminate the doubts and suspicions that grind down at our progress. Rumors and gossip to a community is like cancer to a body. Instead, let's nourish the hearts and minds of our generation with encouragement and optimism. It's been over 30 plus years since we arrived in America, we've come a long way from refugees. We've made strides in recent years. It's time we make leaps and bounds."

After hanging with Chad, Prach Ly and I ate at a Cambodian Restaurant called "Sophy's" on Pacific Coast Highway, just north of Anaheim Street. In just under three hours Prach treated me to a great meal, he showed me his family's Buddhist Temple, the mural by the library and most importantly introduced me to his comrade Chad. Together they look at Long Beach's skyline and imagine the future.

Here's to young leaders like Prach and Chad, they are the next generation of L.A. Letters.

Top photo: Prach Ly in Cambodia Town, by Matt Cohn

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