MR. LONG BEACH: Cambodian’s Make a Home in Long Beach

Here is my Sunday column – along with this week’s Mystery Photo.

Q. How did Long Beach get such a strong Cambodian community? – Josh Stewart

A. Long Beach’s Cambodian population exploded after Pol Pot took control of that country in 1975.

First of all, who wouldn’t want to live here? If I were fleeing a country, I’d come to Long Beach – great weather, nice people and plenty of food.

But how the Cambodians picked the city isn’t that clear-cut. Officially there are about 20,000 people of Cambodian descent living in Long Beach, although many think the number is much higher. In fact, it’s believed to be the largest Cambodian population in the world outside of Southeast Asia.

In April 1975, after a long civil war, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia, forcing a mass exodus from the country. Many refugees made their way across the country’s northern border to Thailand and on to refugee camps, then on to other countries. Others made it to the United States.

Kimthai Kouch is the executive director of the Cambodian Association of America. He told me that when Cambodia fell to Pol Pot, about 150 exchange students who were already living in the Long Beach area were left stateless.

Those students worked together, out of a garage in Long Beach, to sponsor refugees from the war-torn country.

Kouch said the students picked Long Beach for two reasons: Its climate and, in 1975, the availability of cheap housing. The Cambodian Association of America still exists and is still based in Long Beach. The group provides social outreach to Cambodians in the area.

Every Khmer person has his or her own reasons for settling in Long Beach.

Sandy Turner, originally from Battambang, Cambodia, may have a very American-sounding name, but she was born Kuntha Kong. Her family left their village in 1979 and headed to the Thai border. Her sister had been injured by a bomb, and her dad was seeking help.

Her father, who speaks French as well as Khmer, was able to communicate with a journalist who helped them cross the border into Thailand and get help for his daughter.

The family moved to the United States in June 1980, when they were sponsored by World Relief and placed in Georgia.

With the promise of a job, an uncle who owned a gas station in El Monte invited the family to come to live with him in Long Beach. Turner and her sisters became U.S. citizens in 1987. The Cambodian girls, Kuntha, Kunthea and Naryphal, took American names and became Long Beachers Sandy, Sabrina and Emily. Sandy became a Turner when she got married.

Then there’s Chanta Bob, or Bobby, as his friends call him, operational manager at Sophy’s Restaurant. Fleeing the Khmer Rouge, Bob and his family made it to a Thai refugee camp in 1979. He spent two years there waiting for a sponsor. Eventually a Presbyterian church in Oregon brought him to Albany. Bob went to Oregon State and started working for HP.

In 2000, he ran into a Cambodian from Long Beach who urged him to move south. Bob said he was ready for a change. He remembers needing to get out of his comfort zone. Although Bob credits the large Cambodian community with helping him not lose his native tongue, he also remarked, “I didn’t realize (Long Beach) would just be a different comfort zone.”