Thursday, March 8, 2012

A Community of Pride

            Hailed as the most ethnically diverse large city in the United States, Long Beach is also home to the largest Cambodian population outside of Southeast Asia. By the 1980s Long Beach gained its title as the “Cambodian capital of the United States”. There is no single reason or event that contributed to the establishment and growth of the Long Beach Cambodian community, but several local, national, and international factors have played a vital role over an extended period of time. 
Today, there is believed to be over 50,000 Cambodians living in the Long Beach area, with many settling around Anaheim Street. With committed individuals working together to help cultivate their heritage and culture, the Cambodian community continues to grow and develop within the city.
            To better understand this influx of Cambodians into Long Beach, a quick look at history takes us to 1961, when California State University, Long Beach admitted four Cambodian students into their Industrial Arts program. This international educational program was founded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, which brought students to U.S. universities to train in industrial arts and agriculture. These were the first known Cambodians in Long Beach, with California State University, Los Angeles, UCLA, and USC also admitting students into their schools.
Most of the students returned home after completing their degrees in hopes of pursuing a brighter future. Those who stayed, however, ended up making Long Beach and other areas in United States their new life and home, and have been credited for establishing the same for thousands who followed.
            The second wave of Cambodian immigrants came in 1975, when the Khmer Rouge, a radical communist regime led by Pol Pot, took control of Cambodia after five years of civil war. About 4,500 were evacuated to the United States to Fort Chafee, Arkansas and Camp Pendleton, California. 
At that time, only about ten Cambodian families and a few students were known to be living in the Southern California area. A group quickly mobilized to come to the aid of the new arrivals and became known as the Khmer Solidarity of America. The new organization helped many of the families who arrived in Camp Pendleton locate in Long Beach, and offered them entry level jobs and relatively inexpensive housing. In late 1975 the organization was renamed Cambodian Association of America. 
The CAA is still very active within the Cambodian community of Long Beach, and is the oldest and largest Cambodian organization in the United States. Most recently, the CAA has helped in promoting the Cambodia Town Initiative.
This initiative is one of several projects within the Cambodian community of Long Beach which individuals have contributed years of combined efforts to materialize. It is not simply an erection of labeled signs along Anaheim Street that people are excited about, but a strong sense of pride that this movement speaks for, and progress that it anticipates to promote.  
            “It's a great honor to have the official "Cambodia Town" recognition”, says Cambodian Town Initiative Chair, Pasin Chanou. “This brings joy and pride to the community, and businesses to local merchants.”

One of the first erected Cambodia Town signs
on the corner of Junipero and Anaheim St.

            Chanou has been on the board of the Cambodian Town Initiative Task Force since it was first established in August of 2001. The CTITF consists of ten members, six of which, including Chanou, have worked for The Boeing Company in Long Beach and were also part of the Cambodian Friendship Network. 
Together, the small and mighty group of ten has worked relentlessly to gain support and funding for their initiative. Despite challenges and lack of recognition over the years, this initiative, which would designate the areas between Junipero and Atlantic avenues along Anaheim Street as “Cambodia Town”, was finally put on Long Beach City Council Board’s agenda in 2006.
            “Unfortunately it was only approved by two council members at the time, and we needed at least five to approve it to get it passed,” says Chanou. “They told us to go back and do more research.”
            Due to the great diversity in Long Beach, some were concerned over what the designation and signs might suggest to other ethnic groups in the community. With several Hispanic owned businesses in the area, Long Beach council members were skeptical over its approval and concerned that it may lead to a backlash and increase segregation within the city.
            Nonetheless, when the group came back on July 3, 2007 their “Cambodia Town” initiative was finally approved, and on February 15, 2011 the initiative to have “Cambodia Town” signs placed along Anaheim Street also passed. 
            Owner of Rio Rosas Bar on the corner of Junipero and Anaheim Street says that he sees no problem with the signs. “Everyone gets along here and I’ve never had any problems,” says Salazar. “I’ve owned this bar for 34 years and I’m friends with a lot of the other business owners. If they want to put up signs, I’m fine with it.”

Rio Rosa's Bar Owner Rafael Salazar and his wife Sara.

            Just a block away, SSB Video store owner, Kathy Nu expresses more of a concern over the safety and cleanliness in front of her store and along the street. 
“In the last three years I’ve heard of several robberies from neighboring store owners, and had my purse stolen out of my hand one evening when I was closing,” says Nu. “It’s scary here sometimes, and I feel I’m constantly cleaning up trash from people who get off from the bus stop in front of my store.”
            Along with seeing more customers, Nu says that she would like to feel a better sense of safety where she works, and believes it can be cleaner along the street. 
            The Cambodian Town Initiative Task Force is currently working on developing the Cambodia Town Business Improvement District (CTBID), which would work towards improving cleanliness, safety, and business promotion within Cambodia Town.
“We must be approved by the majority of the businesses and the Long Beach city council,” says Chanou. “Once the CTBID is established, we can use the money from assessment to provide the added services.”
Just this week, the CTITF’s request to have Caltrans post “Cambodia Town” signs on the 710 Freeway at Anaheim Street passed unanimously. 
            “The Cambodian King has even recognized our efforts and says that even though we may not have had many victories in Cambodia, we sure are making accomplishments in Long Beach!” Chanou laughs proudly.
            The CTITF, along with several other organizations within Long Beach continue to make strides and efforts in helping to better the Cambodian community, and look to the future with high hopes and promise.

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