From prayers to new year wishes to traditional songs and dance, the 13th annual Cambodia Town Parade and Culture Festival celebrated Cambodian heritage in familiar ways—all except for being in person.
Dozens of people logged onto YouTube on April 24 to watch the festival for the second year in a row due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cambodia Town Inc., a nonprofit, hosted the showcase, featuring performances from people in Long Beach and Cambodia, as well as leaders from CTI to the city of Long Beach including Mayor Robert Garcia.
This year’s theme is diversity in the Cambodian community, according to Richer San, who is on the board of directors at CTI. His wife, Sithea San, is also on the board as a chairwoman.
According to Richer, a lot of the productions put on this year will focus on minority groups in Cambodia. One such group is the Cham people, who are an ethnolinguistic group in Cambodia and Vietnam, many of them practicing Islam.
“The Cham people are an important group in Cambodian culture, but you don’t hear from them often,” he said. “We are able to show how beautiful their culture is, and how beautiful all of Cambodia’s culture is.”
CTI is also working hard now to promote their culture in light of recent hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
“The attacks against Asian Americans are unjustified and this is something we need to work together as a country to fix,” Richer said. “For us, we want to share our culture and educate the general community on who we are. This is our home too, we are Americans and have contributed to our society just like everyone else.”
CTI had set up a GoFundMe for the event and has received a few sponsorships this year to help hold a second virtual parade. The organizers plan on using the money raised from the GoFundMe to buy more materials to make Sampots, a traditional Cambodian clothing, as well as other Cambodian clothes and decorations.
Funds are also sent to CTI’s team in Cambodia who are filming productions for the upcoming virtual festival, as well as help people in need.
Ever since 2005, CTI has hosted the Cambodia Town Parade and Cultural Festival and has put on a festival annually since 2008. Its initial goal was to share their culture and have their district officially designated as Cambodia Town, which happened in 2007.
“We started the parade to really bring people in to promote Cambodian culture to Long Beach and the world because most people don’t know what Cambodian culture is,” Pasin Chanou, the chairman of CTI at the time and current treasurer, said. “We wanted to show that we have a long history, and now we are part of the community and are here to contribute.”
Floats would travel through Long Beach, celebrating Cambodian culture. Dancers performed along side the floats and Cambodian musical and theatrical productions were put on.
The 2020 parade was set for April 4, three weeks after the country went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. The event was put on hold, and CTI was left wondering what to do.
“We postponed the event initially for a month instead of canceling it because we thought things would get back to normal after a couple of weeks,” Sithea said. “We didn’t have a backup plan because we didn’t think we would need one. We were 99% ready to have the festival, but no one could have predicted how long this would go on for.”
As weeks turned to months, CTI was scrambling to figure out a way to have a festival. The festival was usually funded by sponsorships and donations from local businesses in years past, but with the coronavirus pandemic, many sponsors pulled out. Sithea and her husband began discussing going virtual for 2020.
“Just like a lot of people, we did not know how to do virtual, so we talked to some companies who could help us do that, but we did not realize how expensive it would be,” Richer said. “These companies were charging anywhere from $200 to $300. We didn’t have that kind of money, and we were running out of options.”
With no other options, CTI was ready to make the hard decision and cancel the festival to hopefully return in 2021. That is when Sithea said God intervened and sent her a “miracle” in the form of Robert Collins, a videographer.
Collins is a Long Beach native who married a Cambodian woman and fell in love with the culture. He attended the festival in years past and had even volunteered to help out a couple of times. He came to CTI and offered his videography skills for free.
“Robert saved the festival last year,” Chanou said. “If we were to have selected another videographer, putting the festival together would have been much more difficult, and probably wouldn’t have happened at all. With Robert, he already understood our culture and what we wanted to do, which made it a lot easier.”
From July to September, CTI recorded a total of 40 productions. According to Sithea, the team put in over 150 hours of work to get everything put together with a new goal date of Sept. 27. The work was stressful, and the team did not know if the hard work would pay off.
“I couldn’t sleep those couple of months because of all the stress and anxiety I felt,” Sithea said. “We didn’t know if this would work at all. That is the point I guess, because expressing your culture is not simple, because it is an entire culture.”
As the date got closer everything seemed to be coming together. A week before the festival however, CTI experienced a huge loss. One of its original members, Pasin Chanou’s sister, Rosana, passed away.
“It was a major loss for us,” Richer said. “Without her, CTI wouldn’t be what it is today, and Cambodia Town might have never been recognized. We dedicated our first virtual parade and festival entirely in her name.”
Even with the devastating loss, CTI still prepared for its September date. The team uploaded the video to YouTube and set it to premiere at 6 p.m., where everyone in the United States could eat dinner and watch, and everyone in Cambodia could eat breakfast and watch.
“We were so nervous, even throughout the entire day, but it turned out way better than I expected,” Sithea said. “The work everyone had put in showed off in a big way and everyone who watched told me they loved it.”
Paris Barraza contributed to this article.