Sithea San fled the killing fields in Cambodia as a teenager and found refuge in Long Beach, where she attended college, got married and bought a house.
Now, more than a quarter-century later, San finally has a place that she and thousands of other native Cambodians say they can call home.
A strip of Anaheim Street was officially named the nation’s first “Cambodia Town” earlier this month—the most recent cultural designation in a county that is home to Little India, Little Tokyo and Historic Filipinotown.
City and community leaders say the designation not only will recognize the contributions of Cambodians, but also will help revitalize the neighborhood by attracting more businesses, visitors and tourists to the area. San and others are making plans to put up Cambodia Town signs and set up a business improvement district and are considering building a community center and a memorial to those who died under the brutal Khmer Rouge regime.
Long Beach, known as the Cambodian capital of the United States, is believed to have the largest concentration of Cambodians outside of the home country. Some of the first Cambodians in the United States were students who attended Cal State Long Beach in the 1960s as part of an exchange program. Waves of refugees followed in the 1970s as they escaped the Khmer Rouge regime, which took the lives of more than 1 million people. According to 2000 census figures, about 20,000 Cambodians live in Long Beach, but community leaders estimate a larger population.
The leaders brought the issue to the City Council last year. Some critics expressed concerns that the designation could lure more gangs to the area and that it would exclude Latinos and African Americans.
But Cambodian leaders argued that the title would help the entire city by making the street safer and cleaner and by developing the neighborhood into a regional destination.
Naming the area Cambodia Town would also highlight immigrants’ cultural heritage and encourage youths to get involved helping their community, San said. In June, the city of Long Beach commissioned a survey that showed wide support for the cultural designation. On July 3, the City Council voted 8-1 in favor of naming the stretch Cambodia Town.
Veasna Kiet, 40, who runs Phnom Penh Express travel agency, said the new name makes him proud. “We live far away from our country,” he said. “Now we have a hometown here.”