A Side of Salt. One: Heang Chhun Ov. A Survivor of the Khmer Rouge.
*Update 8/19/11. Heang Chhun Ov has moved back to Cambodia indefinitely with his wife. I last saw him around mid-June and he told me that he was going on “vacation” for a few months – I knew he wasn’t telling the truth. It was his intention all along to raise money through the restaurant and move back to the same place he escaped from nearly 30 years ago. I am happy and sad at the same time to have met such an amazing man. I have been back to this restaurant and it really isn’t the same for many reasons.*
One of the things I wanted to focus on with the new direction on my site was the humanity aspect. A lot of people will write about food but seldom go deeper than a “this is what I ate today” review. I on the other hand, want to break through skin. After nearly six years of writing, I realized I had a more personal connection to food and the people behind the food. Food is what provides sustenance for life but it is also the common catalyst for almost every type of human interaction. Knowing that, its safe to say everyone has a story, and through photography, I am able to tell that story that I hope evokes a response. But sometimes, the best photography out there will eschew the most important details and underlying meanings. So with that, I’d like to introduce the first segment of my stories relating to people, food and life: A Side of Salt.
In 2001, I graduated from college with probably the most useless of all degrees: Asian American Studies. Even the career counselors in that department found themselves scratching their heads when I asked about my future opportunities. But in all fairness, I have to say that I learned a great deal about Asians in America and have applied a lot of the knowledge to my writings on this site. The one class that remains embedded in my mind is this Cambodian History class I was encouraged to take by my good friend, who is Cambodian American. I was completely oblivious to the history of Cambodia and if it wasn’t for my friend, I wouldn’t be writing this. As you can guess, 90% of the class content dealt with the tragedy that struck Cambodia from 1975 – 1979 by the Cambodian Communist party known as the Khmer Rouge. I’ve never seen so many people cry in a class. But I would not be surprised if this is the first time you’re hearing about the Khmer Rouge (Democratic Kampuchea) leader, Pol Pot, and his tyrannic rule over the country of Cambodia (Kampuchea).
Just to give you a perspective, in the four years of Pol Pot’s regime, he killed 1,700,000 people – his own people. After studying Marxism in France during his younger years and following the ways of Maoist China, Pol Pot came back to Cambodia with intentions of enforcing an agrarian and egalitarian model – where people would work agricultural-related jobs for the betterment of their country. Food would be served communally and education, money and status would be completely dissolved. This was referred to as “Year Zero” by Pol Pot, who referred to himself as “Brother Number One”. But anyone who stood in Pol Pot’s path was subject to execution. To fully employ a society devoid of education, class and occupation, he executed people that exhibited the slightest amount of intelligence or education. Anyone that had ties to Prince Sihaonouk’s former government was executed. Doctors, lawyers, architects, musicians, chefs, artists, etc – were either deleted on the spot or taken to concentration camps for “re-education”. But no one ever returned from these camps. Even if you wore glasses, a symbol of intellect, you were executed. Children were absorbed by the army and brainwashed to follow the ways of Pol Pot.
Pol Pot’s regime ended in 1979 when the Vietnam War spilled into Cambodia. From the time the Vietnam war began, no one really knew what was going on in Cambodia. Pol Pot knew that he could operate his regime (Democratic Kampuchea) in the cloak of a major ongoing war. The Vietnamese eventually drove the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge to the jungles, with Pol Pot fleeing for refuge in Thailand. The Democratic Kampuchea dissolved and became the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. Pol Pot died in 1988 at the age of 73, and the country of Cambodia would live in eternal fury knowing that he would never have to face the penalties of his crimes against humanity. But as you’re about to learn, life goes on.
About two years ago, I started frequenting a restaurant in Chinatown called New Kamara. For all of my life, I’ve been eating soup noodles because that’s all my dad would eat. In the 80s and 90s, he used to take me to Chinatown to eat at restaurants that served rice, porridge and noodles. Many of these are owned by Chinese people from the province of Chiu Chow/Chao Zhou, China. Historically known as traveling merchants and sojourners, you can find them living and working to this day in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia and Burma. There are three easy ways to detect a Chiu Chow restaurant. One is the multi-language menu – typically in Chinese, Vietnamese and Khmer (Cambodian). But some Chiu Chow Chinese know how to speak as many as 8 languages. Two, there are usually paintings commemorating Cambodia or the beautiful temples of Angkor. Three, you’ll see Chinese donuts on the tables during breakfast. These places are definitely not as popular as places that serve Chinese beef noodle soup or pho, but for most Southeast Asians, it’s pure soul food.
Long Beach, aka Little Phnom Penh, may be the major ethnic enclave for Cambodia Americans and refugees, but this restaurant here may be the second largest. New Kamara is more than your average B-rated Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. It’s also the home to a cohort of Cambodian men and women that spend most of their days gossiping or trying their luck at the Daily Lotto. I eat here at least once a week and although the owners and others don’t even know my name after two years, I can easily identify each of the 30-35 men and women that hang out here. Job or no job, they do have one thing in common – a gruesome memory of their motherland, Cambodia. It is safe to say that almost every Cambodian refugee here has lost someone to Pol Pot’s iron fist. For the longest time, I would look at each person and wonder what horrifying things they may have seen in their lives. I’d wonder if they would ever go back to their homeland. I find the food is tasty at New Kamara, but I think I may be more allured by the fact that it is run by a survivor of the Khmer Rouge. One day, I wrote out my objectives in a letter and translated it into Chinese using Google. I wound up enough coverage to walk up to the owner of New Kamara, showed him the letter and asked if he would share his experience in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. On a Friday afternoon, he obliged. The next time you jokingly use the “fuck my life” saying, consider this man’s life. This is Heang Chhun Ov’s account.
Heang Chhun Ov was born in Phnom Penh in 1959 and is of Chiu Chow-Chinese descent. He is the 5th of six children. His parents ran a mini market and when they became too old to work, he took over along with his siblings. Life was simple and peaceful. But in 1970, a dark and dismal storm formed over Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge showed presence in the country’s capital of Phnom Penh after overthrowing Prince Sihanouk. People didn’t know what to expect when Pol Pot came in and what exactly he had in mind for his “purification process” and installment of an agrarian model. Over the years, intellectuals, government officials and the affluent would start to disappear – but no one questioned anything. The “purification process” also meant the expulsion of non-Cambodian ethnic groups. At that time, many of the ethnic Chinese in Cambodia were enrolled in Chinese-language schools and Ov remembers when the ethnic language schools were slowly shut down. With no schooling, he only had his parents shop to run.
One day in 1975, everyone’s life changed as Pol Pot fully unleashed his regime. Over the megaphone, the citizens of Phnom Penh and neighboring villages were ordered to leave their homes. Pol Pot sent everyone out to the countryside in every direction with no food, electricity or money. Ov and his family, along with 30,000 others, walked a grueling 40 miles to a specified location. He said he walked for nearly 12 hours and they were limited to what they could carry in their arms. Almost everyone destroyed their photos, in fear that the Khmer Rouge would mistaken/assume a family’s true status. They were put into camps which were monitored heavily by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Everyone was too frightened and confused to question their authorities. People started to pawn off whatever belongings they could simply for rice grains. Jewelry soon held very little monetary value. Ov recalls people using grass and leaves to make soup and even eating reptiles and insects of all sizes.
No one knew what was to become of his fate. His mother’s brother and family unfortunately did not have the opportunity to flee towards the countryside. For whatever reason, his Uncle and one hundred other family members were executed with axes and asphyxiated with blue plastic bags one by one and tossed into a huge mass grave. This method was practiced heavily by the Khmer Rouge so that they would conserve bullets. Ov along with the 30,000 others would soon learn what the Khmer Rouge intentions were when people were being executed for no reason at all. Pol pot was exercising genocide.
One evening after working in the fields, he and four of his friends gathered around to talk about the Khmer Rouge. He was too scared to partake in the conversation and remained silent. The next day as he was working, he heard a crowd gather around something. He stopped what he was doing and approached the crowd. What he saw was a lesson to the public not to disrespect or impede the Khmer Rouge’s movement. On four wooden sticks were the impaled heads of his friends that he was with the previous night. Had he said a word about the Khmer Rouge, there would have been five sticks. Ov for some reason knew that the Khmer Rouge were disguised in civilian clothing and living amongst the masses. To this day, he does not know who was or wasn’t part of the Khmer Rouge and that it was best to remain silent.
Ov said that in the camps, families were divided up by age and fitness. The elderly were sent to do lighter, field work. Young men of any family were sent out in groups to do the heavy, field work. Children attended “re-education” camps, or better known as brainwashing camp. Because their parents had lived too many years “outside” of the Khmer Rouge’s philosophy, they targeted children and brainwashed them into believing that their parents were evil. Children were actually rewarded for turning in their parents if they opposed the movement. Some children were given the task of murdering their own parents, which they did without hesitation or remorse.
At the age of 16, Ov did not have to be “re-educated” and worked sapphire mines for more than 14 hours a day. He had been separated from his parents, with only a group of others his age to call his “family”. Twice a day, he had to share a can of rice no larger than a condensed milk container with 9 other men. He said it was barely one spoonful of rice and had never experienced hunger to the point of exhaustion and mental breakdown. Again, he would learn that the Khmer Rouge was serious.
One day, exhausted and starved to death, he saw that a Khmer Rouge soldier had left his unfinished food in a shed and went back to duty. He pretended to work near the area and when no one was looking ran into the shed to eat whatever was left in the bowl. Ov recalls that they were green long beans with rice. As he ate, two of his friends came into the shed and begged him for some food to eat. He took a few bites and gave them the rest. He said his friends had also taken a few bites and saved the food for others at the camp. That evening, those two friends were taken away by soldiers. The following morning, his friends returned with bloodied faces and bruised bodies. He then found out that his friends had given out his name during the interrogation for stealing the food. The KR knew that they had stolen the green long beans because only the soldiers were given that to eat. They then took Ov from the camp to a nearby KR base, bound him and beat him. Twice. He says he lifted his head up to find four rifles pointed at his face. A commander came out and walked towards him. But instead of speaking the native Cambodian language to Ov, the commander spoke to him in Chiu Chow Chinese. He told him he was starved to the point he had no energy to work. Ov had eluded death once, but was sure this time that he wouldn’t be so lucky. Instead of executing Ov, the commander sent him to a cotton field nearby to work. I asked why the Commander didn’t execute him. He said he sympathized because Ov was Chinese like him.
While working in the cotton fields, he could see his original camp. He also knew that his mother was there (father passed away in 1970) and probably needed assistance due to her old age. Even after evading death twice, Ov was still determined to defy the Khmer Rouge. One night when everyone was picking cotton, he planned his escape back in to the camp his mother was based at. When it was dark, he ran as fast as he could through fields, surrounded by booby traps and mines. When the sun appeared, he hid in brush until it was dark again. It took him a whole day to get back into camp and find his mother. But no sooner than he arrived, his brief reunion with his mother ended as he was sent off with three men and ten women to fish the Mekong River and supply food for the KR.
It was now 1978 and the Khmer Rouge had started to feel weak in the knees as they started to combat the incoming Vietnamese more and more. And it was a bloody battle according to Ov. He recalls one evening when he went to the Mekong River to wash his face. He knelt down and using two hands, formed a bowl to splash water over his face. But the water was thicker than normal and had an unmistakable odor. He backed up to see that there were actually 2,000 – 3,000 bodies in the water. Babies, children, the young, the elderly and KR soldiers floating face down in the river.
On the last day the Khmer Rouge occupied the fishing area, the soldiers decided to wreak havoc once more before retreating. They basically went up and down the river in their boats gunning down any one they could. People on shore, people on boats, animals – all gunned down. Ov saw the boats coming down the river and immediately jumped into the river for cover as their boat was hit by gunfire. He along with fourteen others swam into an area unseen by the KR. They stole a paddle boat and begun their escape to Battambang, a city about 160 miles from Phnom Penh. He said the journey took him and the rest of the group nearly five days to get into Battambang. The city itself was still ridden with the Khmer Rouge but if they had stayed at the fishing village, they surely would have perished.
In 1979, the Khmer Rouge had put either put down their guns or retreated into the jungles of Cambodia and Thailand – never to be found. During the end of the KR, Ov was separated from his family. The Cambodian survivors were admitted into refugee camps all along the Thai border. He said that the Red Cross came in and had sent his whole family to the United States. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t with them after escaping the cotton fields because he would have easily been on American soil. But this was the point in our conversation in which I looked at Ov and saw what a brave, determined man he was. With no money, no family and no soul left, he continued to persevere.
Although the Cambodians were under the protection of the Thai military, things weren’t wonderland. War brings out the ugliness in everyone. The Thais robbed families of their belongings, abused the helpless and raped females of all ages. If you tried to escape the Thai refugee camp, you were shot. At this point, you can’t help but wonder: would it be better to be dead or be alive?
I asked Ov how he made money – how did he survive? He told me he encountered a friend at the border who kindly lent him all the money he had, which was $8 Thai dollars. “What did you do?”, I asked. It was at this moment in his restaurant on Friday that I realized how far Ov has come. He bought a wok, some oil and a burner and with a smille, said “I sold Chinese donuts ( 油條; ).” Amazing, especially because his Chinese donuts are nicely done. In his very first day, he made nearly $30. He continued to do this for a year to keep himself alive and kicking and made a good amount of money.
One day while in the Thai refugee camp, he went to check out the Red Cross bulletin board. There the refugees could see posted letters from friends and relatives. Luck struck as he saw a letter sent from his mother who had made it to the United States, looking for him. Ov immediately contacted the Red Cross and applied for sponsorship and a possible flight to the United States. It took two months for the application to go through but he was given some seriously bad news. His mother had put down “Heang Chhun Hu” on his application, with “Hu” being the Chinese translation of the same Chiu Chow last name “Ov”. The embassy would not let him through due to possible fraud. Terrible.
But the story doesn’t end as we know with the fortunate Mr. Ov. He went back to the embassy and recalled a friend living in France. He contacted him and within a few days, found himself with a one-way ticket to Paris. In Paris, he spent the next four years working in a Chinese restaurant called Tai Sun in Arrondissement 18. He worked as a waiter and within a few months, the Chef asked him to work as a line cook. In 1985, he was allowed to fly to the United States and be reunited with his family. In 1986, he met his wife and continued to work in various Chinese restaurants all over the San Gabriel Valley, including the original Chiu Chow Chinese restaurant of the 1980s, Kim Tar, which continues to make some of the best packaged rice noodles around. In 2008, Ov and his wife purchased the current New Kamara restaurant, which had been owned by three other families, and named it after the now, peaceful motherland – New Kamara (Khmer).
Ov’s food is just done right. It may not be the best Chiu Chow food you’ll eat, but when you hear his story, you want to support him and his wife. At New Kamara, one of his best sellers is the fried leek cakes which are glutinous rice “mochi” stuffed with leeks and seasoning and then fried in a skillet. I remember one time a man and his wife came in to the restaurant. They were noticeably loud, difficult and picky. They spent a good fifteen minutes deciding on what to order, even having Ov’s wife describe all the dishes in the menu. They finally settled with the house-special fried leek cakes and some soup noodles.
About ten minutes later, I was in the middle of eating when I started to notice the couple and Ov’s wife bickering with each other. The wife was complaining that there was a strange taste to the leek cakes and asked what was in it. Ov’s wife told her that it contained leeks, garlic and finely chopped bamboo shoots. She wasn’t into the bamboo shoots and Ov gladly told her she could take the dish back. But this lady was a real piece of work. She continued to criticize the dish for having bamboo shoots and making rude remarks about the food and the restaurant for the next ten minutes. Ov eventually came out from the kitchen to address the lady’s concerns, yet she would not shut up. Then the woman’s husband outright said that he wanted to beat up Ov for making his wife unhappy and for making bad food. The other Cambodian men here started to stand up and push everyone back. From here an argument ensued and ended with the couple being escorted out by security and with a furious Mr. Ov. All I could think about was how unfair it was for that lady to attack Ov, especially knowing how much he had been through. Did she know how long it took him to get to where he is? How much pain and suffering he had to go through, only to be insulted by a woman who doesn’t like bamboo shoots? I got up to talk to him and said, “move on, you don’t need their business.”
And here we are, back at the restaurant owned by Ov. Like I said earlier in the posting, a Chiu Chow restaurant will exhibit something that reminds them of Cambodia. Yet after writing about Ov, its clear there are symbols of irony within this restaurant that reflect Ov’s life in Cambodia.. The painting on the left suggests a tranquil time in Cambodia obviously before 1975 when the soil wasn’t red from bloodshed. It reminds me of propaganda posters of China and North Korea that suggest an otherwise pleasant lifestyle citizens have. The calendar on the right has the Chinese word for “blessing” on it. With only two spoonfuls of rice to eat each day in the fields, Ov was now the one providing customers with food in his restaurant. The Chinese donuts here are done right and also what kept Ov alive and kicking. All of this – how fitting for a man who has seen hell everyday for over five years, evaded death nearly three times and lived to tell me about it.
You will probably never meet this man. And if you do, you will probably walk by and think nothing of him. But it’s amazing what you will find out if you spend the time to hear someone out. I thanked Ov for sharing his past with me and on the way home, I drove in pure silence – without my usual music. I couldn’t believe all I had digested. I thought about everything I had learned about the Khmer Rouge from college and realized how much more intense it was to hear it from an actual survivor. I felt down yet humbled and thought about the things I have in my life. The cliche of not taking things for granted could not be more appropriate than on this day. It’s clear that any place is better than Pol Pot’s Cambodia, but is Ov now living the American dream? I guess the most important thing is that Ov is able to wake up each day and live to see the next. Thanks for reading.
*If you or someone you know has a story relating to humanity, food and life and care to share it with me, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org . I’d love to hear your story, and I’m sure others too.*