HomeAsian Americansសួស្តីឆ្នាំថ្មី ​​Sousdei Chnam Thmey! Cambodian and Khmer communities greet new year

សួស្តីឆ្នាំថ្មី ​​Sousdei Chnam Thmey! Cambodian and Khmer communities greet new year

By Jia H. Jung, California Local News Fellow

On the morning of the 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade & Culture Festival on Sunday, April 7, locals and out-of-town visitors gathered in Long Beach, California, finding parking wherever they could in the colorful residential blocks radiating from the mainline of East Anaheim Street. 

For many, the parade and festival were a sequel to the Sankranta traditional celebration of the solar new year, which occurred the day before at Long Beach City College.

16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
Observing the interfaith ceremony prior to the parade. Photo by Jia H. Jung

Barred from shortcutting through an immaculate Long Beach Transit lot where red buses stood dormant in diagonal lines, a slow but sure trickle of spectators made their way down flower-laden side avenues with names like Gardenia and Rose. 

At the Riverside Supermarket, they took a left and walked eastward, passing merchants of stuffed animals, cotton candy, plastic bubble-blowing guns, and Cambodian flags. 

Where the street met Cherry Avenue, rows of monks sat in folding chairs. They wore layers of cotton, linen, silk, wool, and quilted-down padding in hues ranging from mustard gold to blood burgundy. Some looked meditatively ahead while others fiddled on their smartphones. Striped Buddhist flags stood sentry behind their backs.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Flanked by the public all along the thoroughfare that was shut to all traffic until the afternoon, Long Beach officials and luminaries of the Cambodian American community stepped up to a podium and addressed VIPs in a half-filled seating area with plush rugs afoot. 

The speakers commended how Long Beach remains the largest Cambodian community in the U.S. and emphasized this year’s theme: “Celebrate a Culture of Unity and Peace.”

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

The most recent 2022 American Community Survey data updating the 2020 U.S. census estimated that 39,876 of a total 280,862, or 14%, of people of Cambodian descent across the country live in Long Beach. In Long Beach, whose overall population is 437,166 – 1.5 times more than the entire Cambodian population in America – residents who identify as Cambodian/Khmer make up 9% of the city.

For being the largest cultural gathering of Cambodians in the world outside of Cambodia itself, the Long Beach festivities took decades to come into existence.

16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
Sovanna Pouv, field representative for State Senator Lena Gonzalez (D-CA) of Senate District 33. Photo by Jia H. Jung

Most of the first Cambodian and Khmer community in the U.S. was built by refugees who fled the Khmer Rouge genocide after the Communist group, led by Pol Pot, seized control of Cambodia in Apr. 17, 1975. The takeover happened five days after the U.S., which had grown its presence in Cambodia throughout the Vietnam War era in its attempts to counter Communism in the Southeast Asian region, evacuated Americans and select Cambodian allies from the country.

The kidnappings, extrajudicial killings, mass executions and concentration camps lasted until the regime’s defeat in 1979. Vietnamese forces killed 1 out of 4 people in the Cambodian population and sent over 158,000 refugees in the first wave of Cambodian migration to various points in the U.S.

For the strong Cambodian community in Long Beach, the business and cultural district of Cambodia Town became a vision years later on Jun. 15, 2001. On that day, the United Cambodian Community (UCC) organization hung a few banners that said “Little Phnom Penh” on street light poles at the present-day site of the parade and cultural celebration. 

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Community organizations began meeting about what to name the area. Cambodia Village, Khmer Town, Little Cambodia, and Little Phnom Penh were some of the choices. The Cambodia Town Initiative Task Force (CTITF) emerged, working for years to get the Long Beach City Council to formally designate the 1.2-mile stretch of Anaheim Street from Atlantic to Junipero Avenues as Cambodia Town. The council approved CTITF’s proposal in 2007 – the rest is recent history.

Repping the Long Beach Kick Boxing Center, est. 1987 by Oum Ry. Photos by Jia H. Jung

A Cambodian-themed parade, the first to take place outside of Cambodia, had already begun in 2005. The Parade and Cultural Festival as it is known today commenced in 2009, when California State University, Dominguez Hills developed an exhibition of Cambodian arts and handicrafts in collaboration with Cambodia Town. 

Mayor Rex Richardson of Long Beach wished everyone a happy new year in Khmer. Video by Jia H. Jung

Now in 2024, 50 community groups, politicians, personalities, and businesses lined up behind the interfaith ceremony, extending in a vibrant train from St. Louis Avenue past Dawson, Raymond, and Junipero avenues, all the way to Stanley, where plastic barricades marked the end of the preparation area. 

YouTuber Rick Kh គោប្រាក់, from Cambodia, excitedly made the rounds with the group, chatting people up with a microphone the size of a miniature pom pom. He later appeared in the procession, waving gleefully from a white Tesla Model X with falcon doors.

16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
Rick Kh, a YouTube personality from Cambodia, in a Tesla Model X with flowers hanging from its falcon wing doors. Photo by Jia H. Jung

Linda Boonyuen Owens, a documentary producer, interviewed sources for her feature-length film about leadership in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town. 

Being of Khmer background and living in Long Beach since 2020, she told AsAmNews that she sees April’s Cambodian new year celebrations as the community’s way of keeping the culture alive across generations.

Documentary producer Linda Boonyuen Owens creating a film about leadership in Cambodia Town. Photos by Jia H. Jung

“I’ve been shooting this story for almost two years,” said Owens. “What’s clear to me is that there’s a changing of the guard happening. The new generation raised here are redefining what it means to be Khmer.”

When the ceremonial speeches ended, event workers rolled up the rugs and whisked away the chairs to make way for the parade.

Other highlights included and were not limited to a monk cruising by in a hot red vintage convertible sports car, real estate agents waving gigantic flags from the top of an open jeep, a double-decker bus of the Arts Council of Long Beach, sprouting with long balloons, a float of the Long Beach Airport bearing a model plane, Khmer Girls In Action shouting “the people united will never be defeated!”, and a contingent of the Cambodia Town Film Festival coming up in September, and the Romvong Team of Long Beach, wearing flowers in their hair and red satin “Stop The Hate” sashes over their left shoulders, dancing down the street in perfect formation.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

The grassy fields of MacArthur Park at East Anaheim Street and Gundry Avenue where the half-mile march and its spectators dissipated were bordered by booths of organizations, vendors and community-building brands like Khmmunity. The arts council provided a long table where children could engage in arts and crafts. 

The Long Beach Police Department, which had passed out gold badge-shaped stickers that people slapped onto their pet dogs, hosted a recruitment center. Several police officers mingled with exuberant locals at the fringes of the fields.

In a category of her own was Soma Serei Norodom, a Cambodian royal princess raised and educated in Fresno, CA who returned to Cambodia to work as a philanthropist and newspaper columnist at the Phnom Penh Post. She humbly sold copies of her autobiographic books Royal Love (2023) and Royal Rebel (2016), and warmly invited passersby to take photos together without pressuring them to buy.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Inside the Manazar Gamboa Community Theater adjacent to the park grounds, distinguished Cambodian ceramist Yary Livan displayed his wood-fired vases, mugs, and pieces, and hosted a workshop entitled Revitalizing the Tradition of Ancient Angkor Ceramics.

He had traveled all the way from Lowell, Massachusetts, the site of the second largest Cambodian/Khmer community in the U.S., where he teaches at Middlesex Community College and works out of Western Avenue Studios and a gigantic wood-fired kiln in a field.

Master Cambodian ceramist Yary Livan at the potter’s wheel. Video by Jia H. Jung

Before his presentation, he shaped pieces at a foot-operated potter’s wheel while carrying on conversations with audience members and visitors. At one point, he asked someone to find him a plastic knife so he could etch designs into the wet clay without leaving his station.

Outside the room, long tables displayed Livan’s creations, from unique coffee mugs to vases of ancient design worth thousands of dollars in value, some on sale via the QR code taped up to the wall and volunteers ready to help.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Long lines for select food vendors gave people a chance to converse while waiting for the payoff of delectable fare. A truck operated by Sophy’s, a go-to restaurant of the Long Beach Cambodian community, offered juicy lemongrass beef skewer sets with rice, fried dumplings, and papaya salad, and a bin of num kom, pyramids of sticky rice cake dumplings with fillings of grated coconut and palm sugar, tightly wrapped in verdant banana leaves.

Under cover of a tent, athletes from Long Beach Kick Boxing Center gave demonstrations of kun khmer, or pradal serey, Khmer kickboxing. They represented the first Khmer kickboxing gym in the U.S., opened in 1987 by champion kickboxer Oum Ry – also a survivor of the Khmer Rouge genocide, the journey of a refugee, and 1990s gang violence in California.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Cross-cultural performers were in the lineup as well as performers of traditional arts. Women with garlands hanging from their necks represented Kekaiulu Hula Studio of Torrance, California with a showcase of Polynesian dance.

Meanwhile, an afterparty ensued at the taproom of Trademark Brewing, where the beer company had a Cambodian rice lager called Choul Muoy (Khmer for “bump one,” as a toast) on draft. Shady Jerky had a table and gave generous samples of their house-made brittle beef snacks and warehouse-made chewy jerky in flavors like lemon pepper, carne asada, ghost pepper, Carolina Reaper, and Spicy Chamoy.

Out in the beer garden, Battambong BBQ grilled by pitmaster Chad Phuong, also known as the Cambodian Cowboy, sold out of his goods by mid-afternoon.

  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
  • 16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung

Shlap Muan (“chicken wing” in Khmer) came through with wings sprinkled with tangy “Cambodian Dirt” dry rub or smothered in creamy, non-dairy Water Buffalo sauce. Pivotal Moments 360 provided a photo booth with costumes for people to add to the small Cambodian flags they held, sometimes by the teeth.

Deejay Chounna Carter and emcee Tony Te spun modern Khmer music hits and throwbacks and hyped up the crowd, which did the Madizone line dance, ‘the Electric Slide of Cambodia,” to the song Neary Sexy by Cambodian musical artist Preap Sovath.

16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
DJ Chounna Carter, foreground, and emcee Tony Te in the beer garden of Trademark Brewing. Photo by Jia H. Jung

For other tracks, people moved in rom vong (dance circle) formation of Khmer folk dancing with simple hand movements to dance, hip-hop, and country beats. One celebrant explained that the flowing hand movements represented the releasing of best wishes with one hand and the simultaneous collection of best wishes with the other.

Doing the “Madizone,” line dance, proclaimed ‘the Electric Slide of Cambodia,’ to musician Praep Sovathe’s song Neary Sexy. Video by Jia H. Jung

On the sidelines of the astroturfed dance floor, children chased each other gleefully with soap bubble machines or jumped into and out of family members’ embraces while old timers of Long Beach shared reflections of their families’ journeys.

16th Annual Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival 2024 Long Beach Cambodian New Year Jia H. Jung
A mural presiding over the beer garden of Trademark Brewing. Photo by Jia H. Jung

A community member in his early fifties remarked how much the vibe in the city had changed since the days of street warfare by the Asian Boyz gang that began in Southern California in the late 1980s to protect Cambodian refugees and the Tiny Rascal Gang that originated in Massachusetts for similar reasons in 1980, with an emphasis on youth. 

He said that the gangs were still around in this very safe space of joy and harmony. But no one was there to make trouble.

Taking the Cambodian flag to the dance floor. Video by Jia H. Jung

As the sun went down, people ranging in age from their twenties through their fifties rose from the picnic tables where they had spent hours sharing memories of the past, reveling in the present, and discussing what they looked forward to in the future. They went on to sing karaoke at nearby businesses or cook steaks at a local’s house and sing in comfort among close friends.

Either way, this New Year’s Day all night.

Dancing in the dusk. Video by Jia H. Jung

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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