Sithea San: Alumna Works to Build Community in Long Beach’s Cambodia Town
As a founder and now chair of the board of directors for the fledgling Cambodia Town ethnic district in Long Beach, Sithea San (Class of ’91, B.S., business administration) continues to live by the words of a professor she fondly remembers from her days at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Kosaku Yoshida, Ph.D., told his finance class that the obstacles throughout the journey are not what matter, but the end result.
Located along Long Beach’s Anaheim Street between Junipero and Atlantic avenues, Cambodia Town received its designation from the Long Beach City Council on July 3, 2007, after years of planning, organizing and controversy. There were many who believed the designation would ignite gang rivalry and create strain among those with different racial backgrounds. However, with the designation and a multicultural board, the tensions have somewhat subsided.
“Diversity helps,” says San of her board members, who are of Latin, Caucasian, Japanese, African American and other ethnicities. “We share with people that Cambodia Town is not just for Cambodian people. It belongs to everybody because the golden objective of Cambodia Town is economic development and, of course, to preserve the Cambodian culture,” she explains.
San uses the Cambodian New Year Parade, which will be taking place this year on April 6, as an example of how Cambodia Town contributes economically. Thousands of people come in to watch the parade; those people patronize restaurants along Anaheim Street, and as San describes, “on that day restaurants are all full…Last year some [restaurants] ran out of food. We don’t care if it’s Cambodian food, American food or Mexican food, on that day everybody is doing good.”
Issues surrounding the Cambodian New Year Parade are not without debate either. There are members of the community that are unhappy with certain participants. But, because the Cambodia Town board is only part of the parade’s organizing committee, San and the board are able to keep their focus on the upcoming celebration.
“Basically we stay focused.” San says of the controversy. “We have respect for other people’s opinions. It’s OK, you can have disagreements. To me, Cambodia Town is just one organization in the parade.”
Pointing to her husband, Richer San, the Cambodian New Year Parade chair, she continues, “It’s more of a task on him, because he is in charge of the parade.”
Richer San (Class of ‘91 B.S., business administration) is one of the driving forces behind the establishment of Golden Coast Bank, the first Cambodian-run bank in the United States, located in Long Beach near Cambodia Town.
“We believe if you want to develop anywhere you need a bank behind that. I’m really proud that we’re able to have the first Cambodian bank and the first Cambodia Town in the United States and I think Long Beach should be proud,” Sithea San says.
Much like with the designation of Cambodia Town, Golden Coast Bank had its detractors as well. The Sans and many other contributors prevailed and now Golden Coast bank contributes to economic development in the city’s Cambodian com-munity.
San learned to push past these obstacles, she says, from Dr. Yoshida, but she is no stranger to tribulation. At the age of 13, she came to America to escape the Khmer Rouge regime. Her family walked for days to Thailand in order to leave the killing fields of Cambodia.
“My family walked all day, I don’t remember how many days,” San recalls.
She and her family stayed in two refugee camps along the way. There, San and her sisters learned the traditional folk dances of Cambodia. In 1981 her uncle, who was living in Long Beach, sponsored the refugeed family and they came to America.
San and her husband met while attending California State University, Long Beach. The two helped put together the first Cambodian Culture Show in 1987. “That’s how I got to know my husband; I trained him to dance,” she recollects excitedly.
After primarily attending CSULB, San and her husband transferred to CSU Dominguez Hills because classes were more accessible, allowing them to graduate by their goal date. The plan was to take classes at the Dominguez Hills campus and transfer back to CSULB for graduation, but Sithea San says, “We fell in love with Cal State Dominguez Hills, both of us, and we stayed to graduate from there.”
And, using the philosophy imparted to her while at CSU Dominguez Hills, San can now look back at the formation of Cambodia Town and say, “We don’t look at the cost, the obstacles... You look at the end of the day, the bottom [line]. People try to slow us down…but in the end we got the Cambodia [Town] designation…That’s why I say I fell in love [with CSU Dominguez Hills] because of one professor’s words. And, we’re [still] using them. It works.”
For additional information on Cambodia Town, visit their Web site at www.cambodiatown.org.
For information on the 4th Annual Cambodian New Year Parade, visit www.cambodiannewyearparade.com.