UCLA students come together through documentary filmmaking to highlight the growing gentrification of Cambodia town in Long Beach.
By Kitty Hu (UCLA, 2020)
In November of 2018, community members in Long Beach discovered the city’s plan to demolish the East Anaheim Plaza and replace the area with housing and retail development. Business owners had approximately two weeks to prepare before the scheduled demolition by the Long Beach City Planning Commission.
Documenting Community Voices
"Ever since I was a little kid, I remembered going to that plaza for groceries at KH market, eating at restaurants or accompanying my mom for her haircut," says Brandon Soun, a fourth-year Asian American studies student.
"My dad used to work at a Vietnamese restaurant there and our family benefited from assistance provided by a social services agency in the plaza," recalls Lan Nguyen, a recent Asian American studies M.A. graduate. "This place so integral to us is now being threatened."
Through the EthnoCommunications class at UCLA, Soun and Nguyen connected to create an emergency PSA about what was happening in Cambodia town in Long Beach. With overwhelming community response against the plans to demolish the plaza and business owners beginning to build a legal case, Soun and Nguyen decided to document what unfolded over the next few months.
People Power on Screen
The film, Cambodia Town: Not for Sale (2019), includes a wide array of voices from members of the community to business owners from the New Panda restaurant and Van Thuan Phat herbal shop. However, Nguyen explains that it was a challenge initially to have people share on-camera, though many were willing to speak off-camera. Ideally, the filmmakers would have liked to build relationships with community organizations and businesses over time to establish greater trust before filming. But the uncertainty of the demolition created a sense of urgency to capture what was happening at that moment.
"There’s not just Cambodian shops in that plaza, but also Chinese and Vietnamese businesses," Soun comments. "It was important to document the community forum." At the forum, people of all ethnic backgrounds rallied together to support the Cambodian community in hopes of building ethnic solidarity.
"I think films that address social issues often just show how sad the situation is and showing people as victims," says Nguyen. "We received feedback from community organizers that they appreciated how people in the film were not portrayed as victims but rather as fighters protecting their space."
Both Nguyen and Soun continue to pursue documentary filmmaking and have since worked together on other projects, including a short called "#PardonMaria," created in collaboration with API Rise, a nonprofit organization that works with Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Americans who were formerly incarcerated.
As of now, the plaza demolition hearing has been postponed indefinitely, but the future is still uncertain. Community organizations and business owners have formed a stronger organizing network in Long Beach to ensure that communication lines remain open.
However, it is increasingly difficult for small businesses to stay afloat with the ongoing pandemic. This especially affects the future of ethnic communities already struggling with waves of gentrification. "Because of higher rents and business owners unable to afford overhead costs, small businesses are at a much higher risk of shutting down," says Soun. "It’s pretty scary because we want these places to stay in our community. We would rather have mom-and-pop businesses like Cambodian- or Asian-owned business than big corporations."
"The plaza felt like a part of my identity and my home and I tried my best to convey that through the film, not just for myself, but for other Khmer people and those who feel the same way I do," Soun elaborates. "It was very inspiring to see everyone's collective organizing efforts to preserve our shared spaces."
Cambodia Town: Not For Sale from Brandon Soun on Vimeo.