West of the highways where city and country meet, nothing seems out of the ordinary: a boy chasing a herd of chickens in his front yard, neat roadside homes, aging trailer parks, stretch fields, work truck drivers and luxury cars pulling over. at the agua fresca stand, its canopy blocking out the scorching sun.
But still, the Cambodian temple surprises. It rises above the flat terrain – red, orange, gold, green – surrounded by bare-breasted angels, whitening in the sun.
Dragons arch over the entrance to the grounds where Danny Kim wrestles with a huge banner for Fresno Cambodian Nights.
Modeled after its lively counterparts in Cambodia, the night market was launched in 2021 and immediately captured the attention of the world. A Cambodian from Australia wrote a song about it. A Cambodian-French family came to see it firsthand. Khmer community in Long Beach, the largest in the country thought about starting my own.
Nothing like this has happened before in the US. The night market is a way to connect with the past and share Cambodian culture with the future.
“We are the first generation that can think beyond survival,” said Kim, a Fresno police sergeant whose family came to the United States 36 years ago.
Near the bandstand, a group of people danced in a circle to Khmer music, dreamily twisting their fingers and twisting their wrists.
Kim, 47, knew that anyone his age or older had experienced one of the most brutal genocides of the 20th century.
From 1975 to early 1979, the Khmer Rouge under Pol Pot killed a quarter of Cambodia’s population, between 1.5 and 3 million people. Determined to create a classless agrarian society, the regime first executed artists, teachers, musicians, dancers (only four Cambodian ballet dancers survived). The goal was not only to end life, but to destroy culture, family ties, and everything that once had value.
However, some somehow survived and escaped, and on a summer night in Fresno they moved to the music that the regime was trying to silence forever. Some had grandchildren.
Kim was 1 month old when his family was transferred to the Khmer Rouge death camp. They endured a harrowing, long-distance rush and then a desperate journey to Thailand.
He grew up in a rodent-infested refugee camp until his family immigrated to the United States when he was 11 years old.
His memories of his early days at his family’s house in Texas are like a dream – oversaturated with colors: clean and shiny people, his first bite of a crisp apple and an ice-cold sip of Budweiser beer (no one in his family knew Americans). drank only for adults). He literally thought he was in heaven during his first car ride.
Then the memories fade. His family lived in a tiny cockroach-infested apartment in Long Beach. His parents and their Cambodian neighbors locked themselves in, only going out for government checks and groceries. He did not know English and did not understand why the teacher did not want to talk to him.
He remembers the shock of the first attack like it was yesterday, curled up in a ball, tasting his own blood.
“Before you can save the world, you must save yourself.”
– Danny Kim, founder of the night market in Cambodia.
The boy who jumped on him yelled, “Go home!” as he continued to kick. After that, the jumps blur – there were too many of them.
As a child, he initially wanted to be a police officer because he wanted to arrest teenagers who beat him up. But he also never believed he would graduate from high school.
There were 200 applicants on the day he took the police academy exam. He didn’t see anyone else who looked Asian.
This will never happen, he thought. He finished in 11th place and was accepted.
By then, he already knew what he was looking for. He wanted to be a link for his community.
He wanted to bring Buddhist principles to the work of the police, showing empathy and respect.
He wanted a profession and enough money so that his family would always live in a safe area.
“You have to save yourself,” he said. “Before you can save the world, you must save yourself.”
The only thing he never wanted was to return to Cambodia. But he could not refuse his father Savunn Im.
Kim’s father returned to his homeland every year, but in 2014 he told his son that he was too weak to travel alone and needed his help.
They went to the village where Kim was born and to the place where his uncle was executed. Im was a monk near this village before he met Kim’s mother, Seo-eun-wen, and gave up the monastic life.
Father and son visited the night market in Siem Reap, which is the tourist gateway to Angkor Wat, a temple complex built in the 12th century. There was music, a huge amount of street food beckoned, the place was filled with people from all over the world and laughter sounded.
It was Kim’s moment of persuasion.
“When you think of Cambodia, what do you think about? Genocide,” he said, answering his own question. “But there was a common Cambodian life and community here.”
Kim swore on the spot that he would bring a night market to Fresno.
He addressed the leaders of the temple. They said no. They were afraid of commitment and strangers.
But leaders change.
Kim tried again and found support the next time.
On Friday night, a man tossed 10-foot stalks of sugar cane into a coffee grinder to get freshly squeezed juice. The meat sizzled on the grill loud enough to be heard over the music. Other vendors sold papaya salads and pakhut sticks, fried fish stuffed with lemongrass and other herbs. The valley breeze carried the smell of smoke and spices.
Kim joked with the vendors and bowed to the monks. He was wearing shorts and flip flops, but a few gang members said to him in a friendly way, “Hi Sgt. Kim.”
He said they wouldn’t be a problem because their parents were merchants and if the market was closed it would cost their families money.
“People feel safe here,” he said.
He hopes the event, which takes place on the first Friday of the month, will eventually become a weekly event with a diverse crowd.
“When people know each other, they are less afraid and less violent,” he said. “Sea? I think like a cop.”
Sorit Hok, 37, arrived and immediately ran into her uncle’s brother by marriage. She said it has become a place where you can come knowing you will see family and friends.
Hock’s parents brought her to the US when she was 2 years old. She thought she had escaped the shadow of genocide—she was a music-loving former college DJ and a successful college-educated entrepreneur in San Francisco. But when she got home, she was shocked at how old her parents had become.
She turned her life around and came back to help them with their donut shop during the pandemic.
Hock has become a radio reporter for a local station and is working on a project about the trauma of the Cambodian community due to the genocide.
“A lot of people here are not okay. There’s a lot of pain there,” Kim told her. “They say there is always light at the end of the tunnel. But this only works if you’re not stuck in the middle of a tunnel. You have to give people something to pull them forward.”
Soma Norodom came over and introduced herself.
Hawk flinched at the name.
Norodom is a Cambodian princess who grew up in Long Beach. Her father, a member of the Cambodian royal family and a pilot who helped the Americans during the Vietnam War, was one of the first Cambodian refugees in 1975.
He came to Fresno in 1987 to start a relief organization to help the second wave of refugees find housing, jobs and support.
Norodom said that her father’s dying wish was for her to return to Cambodia and claim the role of princess. She tried, but she was kicked out. She said she felt she was where she was supposed to be.
“His true legacy is here,” she said.
“The old ones were dying and there were no new leaders until Danny. He supports our culture in this country and I want to help.”
As the sun set, painting the sky with orange streaks, the temple’s newly appointed abbot, dressed in orange robes and carrying an orange iPhone case, said he hoped the Cambodian nights would bring more people to the temple to sit in the shade of the Bodhi tree. to the beauty of the lotus flowers and perhaps take one of the incense sticks that are always waiting and pray for peace.
The young cousins took turns riding the hoverboard. Women in colorful dresses strolled through the rice fields planted near the temple.
On the dance floor, a giggling group practiced the steps of that global party reserve, the electric slide.
In a way, it was a modest event—less than a dozen vendors and a few outside the Cambodian community were in attendance.
Kim had to leave early to get ready for his usual night shift.
He would trade his Angkor Wat tourist jersey for a crisp blue uniform. He briefed half a dozen officers who looked so young that if they were actors, they could be playing high school students.
“Remember to use your mental judo there,” he told them. “Words and sympathy. Let’s keep everyone safe.”
It will be a long, stormy night, and he will once again wish for the day’s schedule.
But as he left, he stopped for a moment and looked at the night market.
Khmer music played, people danced, and life went on.
Do you understand the scale of this? he asked. “Only that we’re here together.”