In recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this entry is about the Long Beach neighborhood of Cambodia Town (ទីក្រុងខ្មែរ). To vote for other Los Angeles neighborhoods to be covered on the blog, click here. To vote for Los Angeles County communities, click here. To vote for Orange County neighborhoods, vote here.
Cambodia Town is a neighborhood in Long Beach’s East Side centered on Anaheim Street betweenAtlantic and Junipero. To the north is the neighborhood of Signal Hill. To the south is Carroll Park.
The first Khmer Student Association (KSA) in the US was established in 1959, when the population ofCambodia-Americans was limited almost entirely to small numbers of students attending USC, UCLA, Cal State LA, Cal Poly and Cal State Long Beach, most often studying agriculture or engineering. In 1975, one of the KSA’s members, David Viradet Kreng, helped organize assistance for the many refugees fleeing the genocidal Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Solidarity Association, later the Cambodian Association of America (CAA), included many people who helped evacuees and many future leaders of Long Beach’s Cambodian community.
After arriving at Camp Pendleton, many Cambodians settled in Long Beach’s de facto red light district, along and around Anaheim St, lured by cheap housing, proximity to Cal State Long Beach and soon, an increasingly Khmer community identity. 1976, the CAA held its first national conference in Long Beach. The following year, the United Cambodian Community established, also in Long Beach. In 1979, a second influx of Cambodians arrived in the wake of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia. Today, although the most recent census states that 20,000 Cambodian-Americans live in Long Beach, the actual number is estimated by some to be closer to 50,000.
Over the decades, many Cambodian businesses have popped up. In the bad old days, the area was plagued with considerable gang violence between the older, more established Latino gangs like the East Side Longos and newer Cambodian gangs like Tiny Rascal Gang (TRG). Now, though the violence has died down, Cambodia Town still feels pretty… gritty. The flocks of pigeons picking through the shocking amounts of garbage that litter the sleepy side streets does little to change that impression, despite Litter Free Long Beach‘s English, Khmer and Spanish language banners.
As with a lot of Los Angeles neighborhoods, there is little, architecturally speaking, to clue the passerby to the Cambodian nature of the neighborhood and most of the commercial corridor is lined with nondescript, single story shopping centers and the occasional run-down art deco building. But a significant number of Khmer signs, Cambodian and Buddhist flags, and a few examples of Asian-inspired architecture offer clues. And then there’s the nature of the businesses too. How Cambodia Town can support so many auto repair shops and jewelry stores is kind of baffling. There are also gift shops, Cambodian-American associations, pharmacists, restaurants, DVD stores and more markets (e.g. An Dong Market, Lee Hang Market, Riverside Supermarket, Seng Heng Supermarket, Kim Heng Supermarket, Kim Long Market, La Bodega Market, Queen City Meats, La Gaviota Meat Market, Saigon Market, Amigo’s Market, Bayon Market, KMP Market and Top Valu Market) than you can shake an elephant prod at.
Because of all this, Cambodia Town is well-known to Cambodian-Americans and most of the tourists hail from Fresno, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose and Stockton’s sizable (but smaller) Khmer communities, and not, for the most part, barang. Back in 2000, there were four officially recognized ethnic enclaves in and around Los Angeles: Chinatown, Koreatown, Little Saigon and Little Tokyo. In the decade that followed,Historic Filipinotown, Little Ethiopia and Thai Town also gained recognition. For years, Khmer had campaigned for a Cambodia Town or Little Phnom Phem but it remained only recognized unofficially, likeKosher Canyon, Little Bangladesh, Little India and Tehrangeles until 2007. That year it became the first officially-recognized Cambodian enclave in the US.
Cambodia Town is also home to a large Latino population and most of the bars in the area, like El Sauz, Mexcala Bar, Trojan III and Zacatecas, cater primarily to them. The restaurants evince more variety, including, of course, many Mexican, “Thai Chinese Cambodian,” and others, including Siem Reap, Lily Bakery & Food Express, Bamboo Island, Daily Sandwiches & Battombong, 24 Seven Donut (the only donut shop!?), Kim’s Deli, Fantastic Pizza, Thai Rosmanee, Pho Thanh Lich, Tacos Y Mariscos Puente, Pho Hanh, Cafe Phuong Vy (or Vi), New Panda, Chinese King BBQ and Long-Xuyen Billiards & Coffee.
The music scene in Cambodia Town is centered around live performance and, although I saw a couple carrying their tro down Anaheim, to catch performers like Lim Molyna, Chaiya, Chhim Sreyneang, Choeun Oudom, Chhom Chhorvin, Coleen Deekan, Darany, Dariya, Hem Vannak, Jolida, King Soriya, Meas Somaly, Phea, Pov Phirun, Rithy, Ram Roeun, Romaly, Sabda, Sok Srey Lalin, Sothy, Un Sophal, or others you should hit go to a venue like Golden Villa, New Paradise, Hak Heang or La Lune. There’s also a local Khmer rap scene, represented by artists like praCH Ly among others (I’m sure — hit me with additions).
Chhom Nimol “Bong Korng Deng Kluon”
The 1996 release of the compilation Cambodia Rocks ignited a microfad for kitschy (but good!) KhmerCircle music. In 2001, after returning from a trip to Cambodia, Ethan and Zac Holtzman formed Dengue Fever and recruited their Khmer singer, Chhom Nimol, after catching one of her performances in Cambodia Town.
There are several other ways to experience Cambodian culture in and around Cambodia Town. The firstCambodian Arts and Handicrafts Exhibition took place last year and may become an annual event. There is a parade down Anaheim on Cambodian New Year. The Anniversary of Cambodia Town’s Designationis recognized in July. There’s also the Khmer Arts Academy and the Kok Thlok dance troupe.
As far as film and Cambodia Town go, the only “movies” I could find shot there were of the Youtube variety — films like How Cambodians in the LBC Party, Pretty Khmer Girls in Long Beach, Cambodia Town USAand the Real Mad World Cambodia Town. However, although I don’t remember even mentioningCambodian Cinema when I was in film school (and recall only one Cambodian DVD ever passing through Amoeba’s Asian Cinema section), there are several DVD shops that carry thousands of Khmer titles, including Hawaii Video, TDA Video, Mary’s Video, Mayura Video, Sarika Entertainment, SSB Video, andRasmey Hang Mees. I’d guess that none have subtitles, but with some stores offering 22 DVDs for 20 bucks, how can you go wrong?
Darany & Dariya
Eric Brightwell is a writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities; however, job offers must pay more than slave wages as he would rather write for pleasure than for peanuts. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store,Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.