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Sue Needham: Professor of Anthropology Co-Authors Book on Cambodians in Long Beach



Photo by Joanie Harmon

Sue Needham: Professor of Anthropology Co-Authors Book on Cambodians in Long Beach

Sue Needham, professor of anthropology at California State University, Dominguez Hills, co-authored the pictorial history book Cambodians in Long Beach with Karen Quintiliani, assistant professor of anthropology at CSU Long Beach. The book, whose photographs are culled from the private collections of members of the Cambodian community, is scheduled for publication later this month by Arcadia Publishing, as part of its Images in America series.

Needham and Quintiliani have been working with and conducting research in the Cambodian community in Long Beach, Calif. since 1988, when Needham was still an undergraduate at CSU Long Beach. Needham describes the need for such a book as a way of giving back to the community that has been a long-term research focus for herself and her colleague.

“We were having lunch one day and we were saying, ‘Somebody needs to write a history of this community,’” she recalls. “And as we sat there, we realized there wasn’t anybody else, it [needed] to be us.”

Cambodians arrived in large numbers in the United States after the withdrawal of the American military from Southeast Asia in 1975 following the Vietnam War. The Cambodian government had been overthrown by a communist movement called the Khmer (Cambodian) Rouge, and for four years, an estimated two million Cambodians were executed in what are known as the “killing fields.” The survivors of this genocide were drawn to Long Beach in Southern California by friends and relatives who already lived there, establishing the largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia.

After a six-year campaign for designation as an ethnic enclave by the City of Long Beach, a section of Anaheim Street, where Cambodian refugees first settled in the 1980s and currently the location of many Cambodian-run businesses, was officially named Cambodia Town. Needham, a linguistic anthropologist, whose continuing research is on language, identity, and history among Cambodian-Americans, serves on the board of directors of Cambodia Town, Inc. She credits the influx of Cambodians for revitalizing the neighborhood.

“That part of Long Beach was a very depressed area with boarded-up and burned-out buildings,” Needham says. “It was not a very nice place when the Cambodians got there. It’s much nicer now and I think those businesses will stay there as long as there are people who are patronizing them. [Cambodians] come from Orange County and greater L.A. to shop. There are restaurants, jewelry stores, tailors – everything to serve their culture. They can also get other goods and services from Asia cheaper here because of the ports.”

For the last two summers, Needham has taken groups of her students to visit Cambodia, introducing them to a country few Americans have visited outside of military duty. This cultural/educational opportunity is part of a partnership agreement CSU Dominguez Hills has with Pannasastra University in Phenom Penh. Needham taught a class on Cambodian history at Pannasastra, focusing on the establishment of the Cambodian empire, Hinduism in ancient Khmer culture, and the country’s most important temples.

“One of the things I wanted to learn more about was that ancient history, because it’s so important to Cambodians today,” she says. “I’m currently writing a history of the community in Long Beach and when I ask friends where I should start, they all say, ‘You have to start with Angkor Wat,’ which is the largest religious temple in the world. And most Americans don’t know anything about it. I’d been to Cambodia twice already and had been to Angkor Wat once, but I didn’t feel satisfied with my level of knowledge. So I thought if I taught this class focused on that, that would require me to do all of the research and become familiar with it.”

Prior to their visit, students from the Anthropology Club at Dominguez Hills raised funds to purchase supplies for the schoolchildren of Cambodia, which they delivered to Phnom Den Primary School, located near Phenom Penh.

Needham and Quintiliani are currently working on an academic text on the history of Cambodians in Long Beach. According to Needham, the lack of a history of Cambodians in the United States stems from the fact that the founding members were refugees of war. She says that apart from providing a cohesive record of the community, it is dedicated to giving the younger generation of Cambodian Americans a validation of their heritage.

“As we started working on [the book], we found that the younger generation growing up really wants this because their parents don’t talk about what happened in Cambodia, they don’t really know why they’re here,” says Needham of the upcoming textbook. “They don’t feel a sense of rootedness or history in the United States.

“Unlike an immigrant population that plans and says, ‘Yes, we identify with the American Dream and we want to be here,’ most Cambodians didn’t want to leave [their country],” she points out. “They still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a number of physical ailments as a result of what they lived through there. And the kids just don’t know [anything]. We’ve talked with the Cambodian student association at [Cal State] Long Beach, and asked them, ‘What would you like to see in a book like this? What would you want to hear?’ We got our feedback from them, and [decided], ‘Okay, we’re going to do this, this is what [this book] is going to be.’”

- Joanie Harmon

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Last updated Thursday, March 27, 2008, 11:31 a.m., by Joanie Harmon