Curry, Karaoke, and Curly Khmer Letters: an Afternoon in Long Beach

Long Beach’s Cambodian community is one of the latest ethnic communities of California to gain official recognition in the form of geographic nomenclature: Cambodia Town. It has also been informally called Little Phnom Penh, and the differences with the real Phnom Penh make for an interesting contrast. In Long Beach, traffic abides by stoplights, no tuk tuks prowl the streets, and motorcycle drivers don’t stop to try to pick you up for a fare. Sorry to all you fried tarantula connoisseurs: you probably won’t find a-ping in Long Beach (I tried).

Apsara Center strip mall

Some estimates put the Cambodian population of Long Beach, California at around 50,000, but that is a difficult figure to discern from the area’s spread-out layout, unlike, say, the Chinese in New York City’s Chinatown. Wandering through the latter, with its sweet smell of roast pork mingling with the stinging stench of rotting bok choy on the sidewalk, with its puddles of pig blood and antifreeze pooling next to the curb, you won’t mistake it for another neighborhood.

And in Little Phnom Penh? There’s nothing little about it. The blocks along the main street of Cambodia Town, East Anaheim Street, are spread out and barely walkable, although I walked them anyway last weekend. Lined with generic Middle American strip malls and parking lots, the place could be Houston or Orlando. Most storefronts are set so far from the street, and the restaurants are so spread apart, you cannot smell the food. It’s a Cambodian community in the context of Shopping Center America.

Local LA indie-Khmer band Dengue Fever will be playing Fri Nov 12, after I've already left for the East Coast. DF covers some of the classic 60s and 70s Cambodian rock songs.

Nor is the strip exclusively Cambodian. Cambodian-owned restaurants, jewelry stores, auto repair shops alternate with Mexican hair salons and grocery stores. Peeking down side streets, I heard tubas and bass drums of Mexican bands that had squeezed themselves into suburban front yards. Parking lot charcoal pits were grilling chorizo and other critters, offering the only distinguishable scents on the street.

The sidewalks of Anaheim Street were deserted except for drunks, beggars, and the occasional teenager zipping past on a bike. And me. Empty buses cruised by regularly and efficiently. I was able to count the riders on each blue line metro carriage at Anaheim Street on one hand. Apparently, the life of Cambodia Town is not in the streets. You have to go inside for that.

So I did. I walked into the K H Market looking for Kampot pepper, a deliciously spicy peppercorn from the Cambodian towns of Kampot and Kep, but only found somewhat similar peppercorns from Thailand. Pre-made waffles had been wrapped in plastic and laid out, a remnant of colonial French Indochina that made it to Long Beach. I loitered a little in the store so I could suck up the smell of fish paste, sweet curry spice, and a hint of overripe tropical fruit.

Across the street, I walked into Sarika Entertainment, a Cambodian music and video store, where the young owner Jack Lor played me samples from his 60s and 70s Cambodian rock compilations. Such music, a curiously delicious melding of Khmer melodies with Western instrumentation and arrangement, rocked out Cambodia until the Khmer Rouge regime crashed the party in 1975 by killing the musicians during the regime’s paranoid, nationalistic rampage. As if to say “screw you” to the Khmer Rouge, the music remains, albeit it’s a little warbly from source tapes copied an unknown number of times.

The singing of Sin Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Serey Sothea live on

Several companies have aimed to clean up the tracks, which usually involves adding unnecessary drum machine programming and some karaoke-esque keyboards on top. For the most part, I don’t care for the extra tracks, but I can understand why they are preferred: much of modern Cambodian pop makes heavy use of the same sampling and programming instead of live instrumentation. Despite the extra tracks on the reissued compilations, the hauntingly beautiful vocals of Cambodian singers Sin Sisamouth, Pan Ron, and Ros Serey Sothea still cut through. And at the price of 5 CDs for $10, you can always cut out the overproduced songs you don’t like, and you will still be left with hours of groovy Cambodian psychedelia.

Shave Ice.

My last stop was Siem Reap Restaurant, owned by Chinese Cambodians. Which makes them Chinese-Cambodian-American, for hyphen lovers.

fish amok @ Siem Reap restaurant

Plenty of little bones in these tender frogs legs

The flat screens above the tables played a karaoke DVD of re-makes of the same classic Cambodian songs I had bought, each video complete with smiling dancers and Khmer words changing colors along the bottom. My wife and my father met up with me for a table full of fish amok, beef skewers, and frogs’ legs in green curry and lemongrass.

Curry, karaoke, and curly Khmer letters: I almost felt as if we were back in Phnom Penh, until I emerged onto the street and the strip malls of Long Beach told me otherwise.

About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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