The Cambodian American 1.5 Generation Oral History Project
This exhibit is based on 15 oral histories of Cambodian Americans who were children when Cambodia was overtaken by the Khmer Rouge. These vivid survivor accounts were recorded by Pacific Asian Counseling Services (PACS) as a project titled “Cambodian Americans – Oral History of 1.5 Generation” (CAOH). It was funded by the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health through the Mental Health Service Act (MHSA) as part of the Asian Pacific Islander Underserved Cultural Communities (API (UsCC) capacity building projects. The concept was first developed by Cambodia Town and implemented by PACS to incorporate a mental health perspective.
The 1.5 generation of Cambodian Americans was purposefully chosen to fill a gap in mental health services. While many oral histories were collected from survivors throughout the US in the early years following their arrival, the children of the Killing Fields have been largely overlooked. The CAOH project defined the 1.5 generation as children born in Cambodia between 1963 to 1969 and who came to the U.S. between 1980 to 1986. Now adults, and in some cases with families and children of their own, their oral histories provide an opportunity to learn about their childhood before and after the Khmer Rouge, memories of their trauma and losses, and their journey to the U.S. It was also a goal of the CAOH project to explore factors that contributed to their survival, coping skills, challenges to their well-being, and the ongoing impact of early childhood experiences and emigration on themselves and their families. It offers a realistic view of what happened as well as a message of the quiet courage and hope for future generations.
The CAOH project was coordinated by Mariko Kahn and an executive team made up of Dr. Susan Needham, Sithea San, and Robert Carleton of Akara Films. The oral historians who conducted the oral histories of the 15 narrators were Dr. Karen Quintiliani, Suzanne Im, and Tola Livesey.
We are greatly indebted to our 15 narrators who so graciously shared their memories and experiences: Julie Sopia Daniels, Dan Durke, Rom Hoy, Bokanika Kan, Danielle Khim, Sophy Khut, Dr. Christina Lee, Kam Lou Lopez, Monorom Neth, Sara Socheata Pol-Lim, Namoch Sokhom, Bonavy Som, Clark Tang, Janet Panhchakrong Vanniroth, and Sithy Yi.
The oral histories will be housed in the Historical Society of Long Beach under the direction of the Cambodian Community History and Archives Project (CAMCHAP).
Interested individuals may access the oral histories by registering online with CAMCHAP at https://hslb.org/visit/collections/.In addition to the oral histories, narrators shared precious photos of their lives which will also be archived.
Cambodian Americans Oral History of 1.5 Generation Project Historical Background
Cambodians were forever changed by the brutal takeover of their country by the communist Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. The Khmer Rouge forces, led by Pol Pot, wanted to return Cambodia to an agrarian society. To accomplish this, they systematically cleared the cities and executed anyone suspected of having been aligned with opposing regimes or influenced by western culture. All institutions, including religion, markets, banks, schools, and hospitals were eliminated.
To prevent uprisings, families were placed into labor camps that separated them by gender and age. Everyone suffered mental and physical abuse, malnutrition, exhaustion from overwork, and the lack of healthcare. In addition, there were frequent sessions of torture and executions. Children were expected to spy and report on the alleged suspicious or “disloyal” activities of their family members and neighbors. By the time the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and brought an end to the Khmer Rouge control in 1979, it was estimated that nearly two million Cambodians died.
Cambodians who survived the “Pol Pot time,” as it is often called by Cambodian refugees, knows of, or witnessed the death of family members and friends by execution or starvation.
However, the turmoil and pain did not end. Starving and fearing more persecution at the hands of the Vietnamese, hundreds of thousands fled to the Thai-Cambodian border where refugee camps established earlier began to overflow. Once in the camps, they often faced abuse by Thai soldiers and an uncertain future. Their only hope was to be chosen for resettlement in a country that accepted Cambodian refugees such as Australia, Canada, France, or the United States. Each person had to be sponsored to qualify and this could take months or years.
The arduous process of rebuilding lives and reconstructing cultural traditions began in the camps. Temples were built so ancient rituals of merit making and honoring the dead could once again be practiced. Classes in Cambodian folk and court dance were part of daily life for many children and youth so cultural connections were strengthened and carried on. Since the education of all children was halted during the four years of Khmer Rouge rule, many were once again able to have limited access to classes in Khmer reading and writing, as well as English. And most importantly, families were often able to reunite in the camps and learn what had happened to other family members.
Colin Grafton Border Camp Photographs
Included with this exhibit are photographs taken by Colin Grafton, a British photographer who worked in Cambodia from 1972-1975 and in the Thai refugee camps. Born in London, England, in 1947, Colin traveled overland to Asia in 1969. He taught English and took photographs in Laos (1970-72) and Cambodia (1972-1975).
Grafton returned to Thailand as a volunteer worker in the Cambodian refugee camps. He worked as an English language advisor for ACCU (Asia/Pacific Cultural Centre for UNESCO) in Tokyo and produced several photo exhibitions on Laos & Cambodia. He returned to Cambodia on a visit in 1992, became a frequent visitor, and settled there in 2014.
Since then, he and his wife Keiko have worked on exhibitions and projects at Bophana Center, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Meta House. They are now preparing a photo-book version of “Dancers.”