According to the Pew Research Center, there were, in 2019, about 339,000 Americans of Cambodian ancestry. More than one-in-three lived in just one state, California. Cambodians in California can be found in large numbers in cities including Fresno, Long Beach, Los Angeles, Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco, and Stockton. Yesterday, for Songkran, I posted an article about Thai Los Angeles. Metro Los Angeles is home, after all, to the largest population of Thai people outside of Thailand. Today, for the related holiday of Choul Chnam Thmey, I thought I’d write a piece about Cambodian Los Angeles — since Metro Los Angeles is similarly home to the largest community of Cambodians outside of Cambodia. Of course, Metro Los Angeles is also home to the largest populations outside of their respective homelands of Filipinos, Iranians, Koreans, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese — and the US’s largest populations of Burmese, Indonesians, and Mongolians. That’s why I describe Metro Los Angeles as the Pan-Asian Metropolis.
ETHNICITY IN CAMBODIA
Although the Khmer are the dominant ethnicity in Cambodia and most Cambodian Americans are Khmer, Cambodia is a multi-ethnic society. Other ethnicities present in large numbers include the Cham, Chinese, Hmong, Jarai, Kula, Kuy, Lao, Rade, Tampuan, and Vietnamese. Khmer comprise about 90% of Cambodians, though, and some people use Cambodian and Khmer interchangeably. I’ve tried my best to avoid referring to non-Khmer Cambodians as Khmer, though, usually referring to anyone with ancestral or actual roots in Cambodia as Cambodian (or Cambodian American, Cambodian Angeleno, &c).
CAMBODIANS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
The North Orange County city of Santa Ana is home to an estimated 1,500 Cambodians. Further away, San Diego’s City Heights neighborhood is known for its Cambodian population. Los Angeles’s Chinatown is home to a substantial and concentrated — if much smaller — community of Cambodians, by some estimates about 600. There are at currently just two Cambodian restaurants there, Golden Lake Eatery and New Kamara Restaurant. Many of Chinatown’s Cambodians are ethnically Chinese — as are many of the neighborhood’s Thai and Vietnamese. Ethnically Chinese Cambodians, Thai, and Vietnamese arrived in substantial numbers in the 1980s. Within Metro Los Angeles, however, the largest population of Cambodians — by most estimates about 20,000 — live in Long Beach.
CAMBODIAN LONG BEACH
The first Cambodians to settling in Long Beach began arriving in the 1950s, when children of Cambodian government officials and professionals began enrolling at California State University, Long Beach (Cal State Long Beach). The Khmer Student Association (now the Cambodian Student Society) was founded there in 1959. In 2010, there were an estimated 20,000 Cambodians living in Long Beach. In 2022, there were 579 Cambodians enrolled at Cal State Long Beach. The university has employed Cambodian faculty, too, including professors Darith Ung, Leakhena Nou, Phatana Ith, and Sophia Seng.
After the first wave of students — many of whom came to Southern California to study agriculture and engineering — the second have came as refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge, beginning with the fall of Oudong. Between April and November 1975, about 2,000 Cambodian refugees were processed at Camp Pendleton. The area along Anaheim Street was, by then, Long Beach’s red light district and many Cambodians chose that area for its cheap rents. And that area has, ever since, been the heart of the region’s Cambodian community.
In 1976, the Cambodian Association of America held its first national conference in Long Beach. In 1977, the United Cambodian Community was founded in Long Beach. Another wave of Cambodian refugees began after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in late 1978, in oder to oust the Khmer Rouge. Around 1994, immigrants overtook refugees from Cambodia, although overall emigration from Cambodia has lessened. Even more Cambodian Americans, since then, were born in the US. In 2000, a petition to designate a small section of North Long Beach as “Cambodia Town,” was rejected. A few years later, in 2007, Long Beach City Council unanimously approved its creation under the condition that the community also establish a Business Improvement District, the Midtown BID.
Just as immigrants and refugees have for decades, many young Cambodians joined and formed gangs to both protect and exploit members of their communities. Many of the earliest Cambodian gang members joined with Vietnamese gang members, many of whom were slightly more established by the time significant numbers of Cambodians began settling. Gangs like Asian Boyz (aka Long Beach Asian Boyz) formed in the early 1980s with members from the preexisting Vietnamese gang, Ultimate Wave Warriors, and the Cambodian Boyz. Some Cambodian members felt exploited by the Vietnamese and split off to form the Tiny Rascal Gang (TRG). In 1995, a seventeen-year-old member of TRG murdered five members of a Vietnamese American family living in San Bernardino during a home invasion. In 2002, the TRG’s leaders, Samreth Sam Pan and Run Peter Chhoun, were charged with multiple murders in several states. In 1997, Van Nuys Asian Boy Sothi Menh was extradited from Phnom Penh, where he’d fled to avoid facing five counts of murder committed in 1995.
Other Cambodian gangs of the ‘80s and ‘90s included Asian Posse, Crazy Brothers Clan, Eazy Boy Gang, Exotic Foreign Creation Coterie, Oriental Boys, Suicidals, and Oriental Lazy Boyz. Most were founded in Long Beach (or moved there). Oriental Lazy Boyz were based in the Alpine Hill area of Chinatown and neighboring Victor Heights. Like their Long Beach counterparts, they formed in the 1980s to provide protection from existing gangs. Eventually, they’d grown to include numerous cliques like Bloody Outlawz, Chinatown Side, Circle, Lazy Outlaws, Lokos, Victorious Heights, and Young Laziea. In 1996, OLBZs Indra Lim, Jason Chan, and Tak Sun Tan would gain notoriety when they were charged with the murder of a prominent Cambodian Angeleno.
HAIN S. NGOR
Haing Somnang Ngor was a well-known gynecologist, obstetrician, actor, author, and activist. He was born in Samrong Young in 1940 to a Khmer mother and Hakka father. In 1975, when the Khmer Rouge conquered Phnom Penh, Ngor hid his education (and even his eyeglasses) in order to not be punished for being an intellectual. Nevertheless, he and his wife, Chang My-Huoy, were sent to a concentration camp. There, she died in childbirth, because Ngor felt he had to keep secret his training that would’ve allowed him to save her with a Caesarean section. After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, he worked as a doctor in a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1980, he and his niece came to the US.
In 1984, Ngor portrayed journalist Dith Pran in The Killing Fields. In 1985, he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In 1987, he appeared in the Sammo Hung film, Eastern Condors. His memoir, Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey, was published in 1988. In 1993, he again acted, in My Life and Heaven & Earth. He was supposedly shot to death by three members of the Oriental Lazy Boyz during a robbery in 1996, because he refused to surrender a locket containing a picture of his deceased wife. There are some who believe that his murder was actually politically motivated. The Dr. Haing S. Ngor Foundation was incorporated in 1997 to aid Cambodians.
CAMBODIAN ANGELENO POLITICAL ACTIVISM
There’ve been too many Cambodian Angeleno activists to mention them all but two key figures, with very different approaches, including Chhun Yasith and Suely Saro.
Chhun Yasith emigrated to Long Beach in 1982, where he got a job as a tax accountant. In 1988, he returned to Cambodia where he joined the non-violent Sam Rainsy Party. After a year, he concluded that non-violent opposition was ineffective and in 1998, founded the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF). On 24 October 2000, he led a group of a few dozen fighters armed with rockets and grenades in an attack against the Phnom Penh government. On 17 April 2008, he was convicted in Los Angeles of having masterminded the failed coup and was sentenced, in 2010, to live in prison without the possibility of parole.
Suely Saro was born in a refugee camp in Thailand in 1980. Her family came to Los Angeles and then El Monte, before settling in Long Beach. She was the first person in her family to attend college and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree in Molecular Cellular Developmental Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz; a Master’s degree in Public Administration from California State University, Long Beach; and a Doctorate in Education and Organizational Leadership from the University of La Verne. On 3 November 2020, she became the first Cambodian American to hold political office in Long Beach, when she was elected to represent Long Beach City Council’s District 6. In 2021, the city council member’s office partnered with the Asian Empowerment Association to produce the event, Remembrance and Renewal: Honoring Cambodian New Year and Cambodian Genocide Remembrance Day.
CAMBODIAN CUSINE AND RESTAURANTS
Cambodian Cuisine has evolved over thousands of years, incorporating influences from many cultures with Chinese, Indian, and French amongst the most prominent. It share similarities with Lao, Thai, and Vietnamese cuisines. All countries in Southeast Asia except Laos are coastal and, not surprisingly, fish is prominent — although that it is especially freshwater fish is perhaps less expected. I’ve only eaten at a Cambodian restaurant, once, though, thirteen years ago — in Cambodia Town.
I don’t remember which it was but as I don’t follow an animal-based diet, I found it a struggle to find anything to eat. There are common non-animal ingredients, though, including many that were introduced (e.g. asparagus, bread, cassava, chiles, maize, papaya, pineapple, sweet potato, and tomatoes) was well as native (e.g. betel, Chinese kale, durian, jackfruit, kuy fruit, longan, mangosteen, milk fruit, rambutan, romduol, rose apple, sapodilla, tamarind, vine spinach, water morning glory, and watercress).
Cambodian American Cuisine, on the other hand, is even meatier, apparently, than the cuisine of Cambodia, with more chickens and cows making their way into dishes. Perhaps the oldest Cambodian restaurant in Metro Los Angeles is Phnom Penh Noodle Shack, which opened in 1985. If you want to eat something vegetarian that resembles Cambodian food, you might be able to get close by shopping for Cambodian ingredients at one of the region’s several Cambodian markets like Dong Mai Supermarket, Kim Long Market, Kun Heng Supermarket, Lee Heng Supermarket, and Riverside Supermarket.
Also worth mentioning are local hot sauce manufacturer, Yeak Hot Sauces, food writer James Tir (@lbfoodcoma), food writer Davy Khy (Love In My Belly), and food blogger wheresthafoodat.
Whether rightly or wrongly, many Cambodian Angeleno restaurateurs regard their cuisine as less accessible than Southeast Asia’s most famous cuisine, Thai. Sometimes, thus, Cambodian restaurants are marketed as Cambodian and Thai or even just as Thai. I’ve seen no study, but I suspect that a majority — certainly a plurality — of Angelenos have eaten Thai food in Los Angeles at least once… or at least eaten at a Thai restaurant (I did once dine with a culinarily sheltered friend at a Thai who wanted to order a Chinese dish, “just to be safe”). On the other hand, I would guess that a punishingly small percentage of non-Cambodians of any ethnicity have eaten at a restaurant serving Cambodian cuisine — so those hedge-betting Cambodian restaurateurs might have made the correct decision, financially, in billing themselves as Thai.
On the other hand, I would be very surprised if any Angeleno has not, at some point, eaten food from a Cambodian-owned restaurant… if, they eat donuts, that is, and if donut shops can be, for the sake of this argument, described as restaurants. Cambodians have long dominated Southern California’s donut scene. California Sunday Magazine estimated that there were over 1,500 Cambodian-owned donut shops in the state by the 1990s and this dominance seems to have begun with Bun Tek “Ted” Ngoy — the so-called “Donut King.” Ngoy arrived as a refugee, like so many, at Camp Pendleton — in his case, with his family, in 1975. Te, his wife Suganthini “Christy” Khoeun, their three children, two nieces, and a nephew all settled in Orange County where Ngoy worked as a janitor and gas station attendant. Noting the resemblance of donuts to nom kong, he got a job at a Winchell’s in Newport Beach. A year later, Ngoy bought a location of Christy’s, another donut chain, and Suganthini chose the name, Christy, a year later when she became a citizen. Ngoy began using pink boxes because they were cheaper than white. Plenty of ups and downs (and ups and downs) followed. If you want to know more read Ngoy’s 2018 memoir, The Donut King: The Rags to Riches Story of a Poor Immigrant Who Changed the World or watch Alice Gu’s documentary, The Donut King.
Traditional Cambodian music can be broadly divided into classical Cambodian music and Cambodian folk music. Classical Khmer music can be further divided into three genres, each associated with a corresponding dance: mahori, phleng kar, and pin peat. Arak is an ancient folk music that was used for religious and healing purposes. In the 1950s, pop music records from France and Latin America began to be imported into Cambodia which catalyzed a vibrant pop music scene exemplified by legendary figures like Pen Ran, Ros Serey Sothea, and Sinn Sisamouth; all of whom synthesized their various influences and intrinsic talents into a really heady, funky, fuzzy, surfy, psychedelic, brand of soulful garage rock — and many of whom (including Ran, Sothea, and Sisamouth) were murdered ( or otherwise “disappeared”) during the Khmer Rouge genocide.
Cambodian rock and pop came to Southern California with Cambodian refugees and Cambodian singers have long been fixtures of Cambodia Town’s nightclubs. Other Cambodians, especially those born in Long Beach and Los Angeles, picked up hip-hop and began making their own rap records. in 1996, a compilation titled Cambodian Rocks, led to many non-Cambodians discovering the deeply appealing pre-Khmer Rouge rock scene. In 2001, non-Cambodian brothers, Ethan and Zack Holtzman (TV’s Doctor San) began performing classic Cambodian rock songs. The recruited Radar Bros.’ Senon Williams, Beck’s saxophonist/flutist, David Rallicke, drummer Paul Smith and, ultimately, Cambodian vocalist, Chhom Nimol, to form the band, Dengue Fever. In 2014, John Pirozzi directed the documentary, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll. In 2020, Chinese San Franciscan playwright, Lauren Yee, debuted her play, Cambodian Rock Band.
Still, despite now widespread interest in classic Cambodian rock, contemporary Cambodian pop music remains under-exposed. With Cambodia Town’s nightclubs featuring a mix of local, Cambodia-based, and Cambodians from elsewhere in the diaspora, determining who is based in Los Angeles was, for me (who speaks not a word of Khmer), a challenge. I believe, however, that all of the following are based in Metro Los Angeles: Chhim Sreyneang, Chhom Chorvin, the aforementioned Chhom Nimol, Darany & Dariya (Darany Phang and Dariya Phan), Hem Vannak, Jolida Sar, Kin Soriya, Lor Borpha, Meas Somaly, Molyna Lim Yan, Povsolo Rithy, Phanith Sovann, Ram Reurn, Rithy Plong, Romaly, Sok Srey Lalin, Sam-Ang Sam, Sothy Eng, and praCH Ly.
CAMBODIAN ART & ARTISANS
Traditionally, the expression of Cambodian artistry is demonstrated in ceramics, kites, lacquerware, murals, silversmithing, stone carving, textiles, and weaving. In Cambodia, silversmiths are concentrated at the floating villa of Kompong Luong, near the former royal capital of Oudong. I suppose that the large concentration of jewelry stores in Cambodia Town — Heng Heng Jewelry, Little Phnom Penh Jewelry, Long Beach Gold and Silver Jewelry, Mkott Pich Jewelry, Phnom Pich Jewelry, Pich Kiri, Sovann Phoum Jewelry, Vi Mean Chey Jewelry, &c — is part of this tradition.
Representational drawing, painting, and sculpture in Cambodia can be traced back to the School of Cambodian Arts (now the Royal University of Fine Arts). Local Cambodian visual artists include Chanthou Oeur, Jun Wat, and Sayon Syprasoeuth. I think Silver Lake-based Phung Huynh deserves special mention. If you’re a Metro rider, as I am, you’ve no doubt seen and appreciated her station art. You may also know her from her graphite portraits drawn that use pink donut boxes as their canvas. Other Cambodian Angeleno artists and artisans include tattoo artist, Bandit Khoul; makeup artist, Pothmolita Dou; and fashion designer, Sorn Nonn.
Cinema developed rather late in Cambodia. Foreign documentarians made films there in the 1920s. The first Cambodian filmmakers — Ieu Pannakar, Roeum Sophon, and Sun Bun Ly — began directing in the 1950s. The 1960s were the beginning of Cambodian Cinema’s golden age, which lasted until 1974, when the Fall of Phnom Penh was imminent. After the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, Cambodian Cinema began, slowly at first, to make a measured comeback. One can buy Cambodian films at a dwindling number of shops, but I believe that Hawaii Video and TDA Video, both in Cambodia Town, are still in business.
Locally, there have been several Cambodian film figures of note, including director Caylee So (The Harvest, Remembrance and Renewal: Celebrating Cambodian American Stories, and In the Life of Music), filmmaker Dora Siyi Wu (Gone Exhibition, Seva: The Selfless Mission, and Care & Cure) actor François Chau (Lost, G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, and 21 & Over, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of the Ooze), and transgender activist and pornographic performer, Yasmin Lee, who appeared in The Hangover Part II. Former beauty queen, Soben R. Huon, appeared as herself on Deal or No Deal. The annual Cambodia Town Film Festival was launched in 2013.
CAMBODIAN LITERATURE AND CAMBODIAN ANGELENO WRITERS
Cambodia has a long literary tradition. The Hindu Ramayana was introduced to Cambodia by the 7th Century CE and formed the basis of the Reamker (រាមកេរ្). King Thommaracha II’s poetry, written in the 17th century, is still widely read and King Ang Duong’s 19th century prose is also celebrated. The 20th century introduced well-known modern works like the Venerable Som’s 1915 work, Tum Teav (ទុំទាវ), and Nou Kan’s 1942 work, Dav Ek (ដាវឯក). Literature and journalism predictably ended with the rise of the Khmer Rouge. After their reign ended, writers like Navy Phim, Pich Tum Krovil, and Vatey Seng began or resumed writing.
Young author Anthony Veasna So was a rising literary star from Stockton when he died in 2020 from an accidental overdose at the age of 28. Cambodian Angeleno writers include journalist Jean Trinh (Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Food & Wine, and Vice), poet Kunthon Meas (Sunsets & Regrets: A Poetry Collection), and author Sophal Ear, who is an Associate Professor in the Department of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College.
There are three broad categories of dance in Cambodia: classical dance, folk dance, and social dance. Classical dance is a highly stylized form that originated in ancient Angkor’s royal courts and is exemplified, in Cambodia, by the Royal Ballet of Cambodia (របាំព្រះរាជទ្រព្យ). Folk dances are less formal dances that reflect the various dance traditions of Cambodia’s various ethnic groups. Social dances are those dances common at social gatherings, including Cuban ballroom dances like the bolero and cha-cha-cha as well as the 1950s Middle Western line dance, the Madison. Locally, the premier Cambodian dance organization is Cambodian-American Performing Arts (CAPA). CAPA was founded as the Khmer Arts Academy (KAA) in 2002. The group’s focus is on classical dance. After twenty years, the KAA became CAPA on 1 April 2022. The artistic director is dancer and Master Teacher “Neak Kru” Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, founded KAA after leaving the Arts of Apsara to start her own company with her husband, John Shapiro. One of her pupils, Mea Lath, came with her and eventually graduated to instructor and Managing Director (succeeding Serey Tep) at the academy with her partner and Associate Artistic Director, Khannia Ok.
The biggest Cambodian holiday is Choul Chnam Thmey, the New Year, which is celebrated on either 13 or 14 April. The early November water festival, Bon Om Touk, is big in Cambodia, but is presumably limited to Phnom Penh. Pchum Ben is a long period of Ancestor veneration that takes place in autumn. The annual Cambodia Town Parade & Festival was established in 2005 and takes place near Choul Chnam Thmey.
Since 2004, the Aquarium of the Pacific has hosted Southeast Asia Day. Echo Park’s Lotus Festival dates back to 1975, and Cambodia has been the featured county, presumably, more than once — most recently in 2021 (when it was held virtually, due to the COVID19 Pandemic).
CAMBODIAN COMMUNITY ORGANIZATIONS
Organizations run by and serving the Cambodian Community include the Cambodian Family Community Center, the Homeland Cultural Center, Khmer Girls in Action, and United Cambodian Community
⁃ Cambodian Folk Stories from the Gatiloke by Muriel Paskin Carrison and Kong Chhean The Venerable (1987)
⁃ First They Killed My Father: A Daughter of Cambodia Remembers by Loung Ung (2000)
⁃ When Broken Glass Floats: Growing Up Under the Khmer Rouge by Chanrithy Him (2001)
⁃ Not Just Victims: Conversations with Cambodian Community Leaders in the United States, edited by Sucheng Chan (2003)
⁃ Survivors: Cambodian Refugees in the United States by Sucheng Chan (2004)
⁃ Reflections of a Khmer Soul by Navy Phim (2007)
⁃ Cambodians in Long Beach by Karen Quintiliani and Susan Needham (2008)
⁃ California Fool’s Gold — Exploring Cambodia Town (ទីក្រុងខ្មែរ), Long Beach’s Little Phnom Penh (2010)
⁃ Cambodian American Experiences: Histories, Communities, Cultures and Identities by Jonathan H. X. Lee (2010)
⁃ From the Land of Shadows: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Cambodian Diaspora by Khatharya Um (2015)
⁃ “The Heart of Cambodian Culture in America Beats Through Long Beach” by Sarah Bennett (2017)
⁃ “In Cambodia Town, moving beyond the ‘killing fields’ and into success” by Frank Shyong (2017)
⁃ Exiled: From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to California and Back by Katya Cengal (2018)
⁃ Refugee Lifeworlds: The Afterlife of the Cold War in Cambodia by Y-Dang Troeung (2023)
As always, additions and corrections are encouraged. Thanks!
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2 thoughts on “Pan Asian Metropolis — Cambodian Los Angeles”
A wonderful, detailed piece, Eric! Thanks for doing this (and for mentioning me).
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