Close-up of an Asian woman in glasses, looking into the camera as the sun sets behind her.
Image credit: Ian Nicole Reambonanza on Unsplash

This is the fourth article in NPQ’s series titled Building Power, Fighting Displacement: Stories from Asian Pacific America, coproduced with the National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD). Authors in this series highlight stories of comprehensive community development in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities across the United States.

How does a refugee community organize itself? The nonprofit we hail from, United Cambodian Community, was formed amid a crisis. 

Long Beach, CA, a port city of over 450,000 people located 25 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, is home to the nation’s largest Cambodian refugee population. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, over 300,000 Cambodian refugees immigrated to the United States as survivors of the Cambodian genocide, at least 20,000 of whom settled in Long Beach. 

Refugees came in two waves. The first wave came in 1975, the same year that the Vietnam War came to an end; our organization, United Cambodian Community Center, was founded by members of this first wave in 1977. The second wave arrived in 1981.

The trauma is never far from the surface. But so too is the creative spirit.

In the 40-plus years that followed the arrival of those 20,000 Cambodian refugees, a lot has happened. Early on, the community established itself enough to have its own cultural center, known as Cambodia Town. These days, in Long Beach, you will find Cambodian art walks, night markets, and other community gatherings. Cambodia Town itself includes a one-mile-long commercial corridor in Long Beach’s Eastside neighborhood that is home to many Cambodian businesses, including restaurants, jewelers, beauty salons, grocers, clothing stores, tailors, and more. 

At the same time, our community continues to have our struggles—from the ongoing intergenerational trauma that one might anticipate from a community of survivors of genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime that killed two million people in Cambodia between 1975 and 1979; to the contemporary threats of displacement and gentrification. The trauma is never far from the surface. But so too is the creative spirit. 

Below is our story: one of organizing a community-based economy amid threats both old and new.

Our Community’s Legacy of Intergenerational Trauma

Most Americans have heard of the Cambodian genocide; the refugees that made their way to the United States lived it. But a few details are worth recalling. 

During the Vietnam War, the United States released an estimated 540,000 tons of bombs within Cambodia as part of the US military’s Vietnam War strategy, killing between 150,000 and 500,000 Cambodian civilians in the process. Cambodians were so terrorized that they turned for help to the Khmer Rouge, a repressive and punitive political organization. 

Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge made everything much worse. Political figures, professionals, teachers, Buddhist monks, and people from various ethnic minority groups were executed. If you were educated or even looked like you were by wearing glasses, you were destroyed. Eventually, two million of Cambodia’s eight million people were killed. Think about it; this was one quarter of the nation’s entire population, gone.

The atrocities may seem remote to some, but not to the survivors—people in our community, many of whom were children at the time and are now in their late forties or early fifties. They tell stories of suffering, of fleeing from refugee camp to refugee camp, of escaping over borders and in boats.

Why did so many survivors come to Long Beach? Some Cambodian students had arrived in Long Beach previously to study, and they became a core of support for survivors fleeing the country. Eventually, more and more Cambodians heard about this and emigrated to Long Beach. At the time, property was affordable, and some refugees started their own businesses.  

Here in America, surviving victims and perpetrators (the youth forced to commit atrocities) live together in a culture still beset by racism. Can we learn to trust one another? What do survivors need to claim space and build lives in this country? How do you help a population to heal?

Developing Effective Responses to Trauma

Healing takes place over time and in many forms, and there are many ways to approach trauma—from direct community health and counseling support to job training. Most critical, however, is reducing resident isolation by doing things together, connecting, and collaborating.

One example is an arts program that is based on the well-established concept that arts participation relieves stress, boosts academic success, and provides healing through self-expression and socioemotional learning. About seven years ago, UCC launched Living Arts, which is open to youth of any culture or race, ages 14 to 24. Participating youth help us in outreach events, get paid an hourly wage as interns to pass out information, run children’s art programs, paint murals, and facilitate public-participation art projects.

But building community and overcoming trauma is not easy. In the 1990s, Cambodia Town was riddled with gang violence. Many community members—mostly male—were arrested, jailed, or killed. Many of them simply moved out of the state. At the time, many in our community did not realize what was going on. 

It has taken many years to develop more effective responses. One challenge has been to build relationships with others for the same vision for our community—Latinx people, African Americans, and other Asian American and Pacific Islander allies. 

A wakeup call came in December 2018 when KH Market, a 22-year-old grocery store, was threatened with closure.

Building a Local Economy

Over the decades, Cambodia Town has faced many challenges. Some came from traumatic events. Many Cambodian-owned businesses (and Latinx-owned businesses, too) in our community were damaged in the fires and vandalism that accompanied urban uprisings in 1992 in response to the police beating of Rodney King, and again in 2020 in response to the police murder of George Floyd. But often, the violence of gentrification is more permanent, and therefore more damaging. 

A wakeup call came in December 2018 when KH Market, a 22-year-old grocery store, was threatened with closure due to gentrification-induced rent increases. At the time, the store owners, along with 32 other small businesses in the plaza, received a notice that their businesses would be demolished to make room for a fast-food drive-through in a community that already lacked access to healthy and quality food. The small business owners and residents, supported by UCC, organized to keep their businesses open, including an online petition with over 20,000 signatures from community members. KH Market stayed open for a while. The signature campaign gave the store an additional two years of life, including a period of negotiations to try to find a middle ground that preserved the store within a new development, but ultimately in 2021, the store was forced to close, unable to meet landlord demands for increased rent. 

In the meantime, mobilized Cambodia Town residents and small businesses built a plan for the long term to proactively invest in the neighborhood to prevent gentrification. The residents, small businesses, and community-based organizations formed the Cambodia Town Thrives coalition. This group increased community capacity to lead community development and planning by partnering with organizations with similar values, including National CAPACD, Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), and Long Beach Forward. The coalition members participated in community tours of Little Tokyo and Chinatown in Los Angeles to better understand the challenges in these neighborhoods with gentrification and best practices for equitable community and economic development. 

Through a nine-month community vision planning process, the Cambodia Town Thrives coalition engaged over 500 community stakeholders.

One key strategy to build equitable development is creative placemaking. According to the American Planning Association, creative placemaking is a “process where community members, artists, arts and culture organizations, community developers, and other stakeholders use arts and cultural strategies to implement community-led change.” The Cambodia Town Thrives coalition has taken creative placemaking a step further. We refer to our goal as place- or culture-keeping, as Cambodia Town and other ethnic enclaves already have an established community and local economy that needs to be expanded and integrated with the city structure and support.

Motivated by this vision, in 2020 and 2021, the community developed the Cambodia Town Thrives plan, in which residents prioritized community values for equitable community and economic development. Through a nine-month community vision planning process, the Cambodia Town Thrives coalition engaged over 500 community stakeholders—including residents, parents, business owners, renters, and youth. Community members used arts, murals, and spoken word to express their vision for a healthy, thriving neighborhood.

In the community plan, residents identified six core values: community, culture, safety, affordability, nature, and community ownership; and six priority program areas of affordable housing, education, business, health, arts and culture, and safety.

Through the partnerships that the community planning process helped consolidate, Cambodia Town residents have been able to not only share their visions, but plan for what they would like our neighborhood to be like in the future, outlining desired community goals, such as additional green space, a youth center, safer streets and security, and healthy community markets. Specific identified program priorities stemming from that planning include initiatives to provide affordable housing with community support services, youth education tied to social enterprise development and job training, and neighborhood greening through tree planting and vertical gardens.

Another path to reclaiming space within the community has been to create a small night market that celebrates the arts and our community of chefs and entrepreneurs. This is a way to both claim and highlight our spaces. Initially, the night market was held once a month, which we have chosen to call a “marklet” because of its scale; the event takes place on half of a block on both sides of the street, buttressed with the use of our own parking lot. The market quickly became a leading Cambodia Town showcase for local vendors and a great time for the community to get together. But it has required a lot of logistical work to pull off. As a result, it is now held quarterly to make sure all partners can give their best when organizing a market night.

Cambodia Town Night ‘Marklet’. Photo courtesy of UCC

Building our local economy has not been easy. Some Cambodians take different types of jobs, while others dream of owning their own businesses. Our nonprofit helps those who are entrepreneurs with grants and loan applications, education on business law, financial literacy, vendor licensing, and other needs, with a small grant from the city of Long Beach and the state’s Social Entrepreneurs for Economic Development program. These grants enabled UCC to help new businesses purchase materials and equipment, as well as cover business startup costs. 

Chad Phuong of Battambong BBQ is one community business owner who has benefitted from these supports. Phuong started out in the medical field but lost his job during the COVID-19 pandemic. He followed his culinary passions, creating Texas-style barbecue with Cambodian-influenced flavors. He started his restaurant as a pop-up. It grew fast and he soon needed a food truck. UCC helped Phuong with getting a cash loan to purchase a food truck and launch his business as a full-time endeavor. Today, Battambang BBQ operates multiple truck locations and has a thriving private catering business; he also participates in the community night market.

Another community business owner is Ana Heang. Heang, a Cambodian American woman, is the sole owner of Planet Water, which offers phone services and other goods (including dollar-a-gallon bottled water). Her main customer base is Cambodia Town’s low- to moderate-income community. Her business was hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic, but UCC was able to support her business with financial counseling, literacy training, and technical services to apply for various grants. When she received one of the grants, she was back on her feet. 

A Roadmap for Our Future

The Cambodian community in Long Beach continues to strive for visibility and to sustain the small businesses, art, and other activities that are central to it.

Today, the comprehensive research and community planning project, Cambodia Town Thrives, makes clear how much residents cherish Cambodia Town and offers a roadmap for our community’s future development. This roadmap also serves as a broad framework for all of our development work.

What does Cambodia Town need most urgently? At the top of our list is affordable housing. With the median income for the area at $38,000, far below that of Los Angeles County generally, homeownership remains out of the reach of most Cambodian residents. And rising rents have burdened residents with unreasonable costs, often resulting in people doubling up to cover living expenses. Gentrification has only exacerbated this problem. 

Of course, housing is not the only need. Health and safety are also important concerns. Only a small percentage of Cambodians have health insurance, and the area offers limited access to fresh, affordable food. 

Community building work can be difficult, but it is also rewarding, and the sense of community among residents is stronger than ever. “There isn’t another place where I don’t have to explain myself,” one resident shared. “It’s the closest I’ll get to the motherland.”