A legacy of Cam­bo­dian geno­cide: Jewelry shops

Pre­cious gems helped refugees build South­land busi­nesses, but it’s not all glit­ter.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Frank Shy­ong

On a spring day in 1975, as Kh­mer Rouge forces launched a coup that would un­leash four years of geno­cide in Cam­bo­dia, Jerry Young grabbed a fist­ful of jew­els from his store and f led for his life.

He walked and hitched rides to the bor­der of Thai­land, where he waited days be­fore re­unit­ing with his fam­ily in a camp.

“I was so scared. I ran,” said Young, 68. “I was so lucky.”

When they moved to the U.S., those jew­els — a few cut ru­bies and sap­phires — be­came the seed fund­ing for a busi­ness that has be­come com­mon in Cam­bo­dian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties: the jewelry store.

There are now hun­dreds of Cam­bo­dian-owned jewelry stores across South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, home to more than 50,000 peo­ple of Cam­bo­dian de­scent, the largest such pop­u­la­tion out­side the South­east Asian na­tion.

The stores are one of the lega­cies of the Cam­bo­dian geno­cide and the eco­nomic up­heaval that came with it.

About two dozen stores are packed into a Chi­na­town strip mall, and about 30 more crowd the down­town jewelry district. Cam­bo­dian jewelry stores line Ana­heim Street of Long Beach’s Cam­bo­dia town, clus­ter in a Fuller­ton strip mall and dot Or­ange County’s Lit­tle Saigon.

Cam­bo­dian jewel­ers have be­come well known in

the busi­ness. The Youngs are the of­fi­cial crown jew­eler of the Miss Cal­i­for­nia USA pageant, and Young’s son Peter de­signed the crown.

In the piece, di­a­mon­den­crusted pat­terns form stars for Hol­ly­wood and waves for the ocean. In the cen­ter is a blue sap­phire. It rep­re­sents one of the jew­els his father brought with him as he fled Cam­bo­dia.

There isn’t any sin­gle rea­son for the pro­lif­er­a­tion of Cam­bo­dian jewelry stores. But a large pro­por­tion of jewelry store own­ers, like Young, are eth­ni­cally Chi­nese Cam­bo­di­ans from the min­ing prov­ince of Pailin, which con­tains sev­eral gem mines.

Chi­nese Cam­bo­di­ans were among the first to flee the coun­try when Kh­mer Rouge forces seized the wealthy prov­ince’s as­sets. Their back­grounds and con­nec­tions in the jewelry in­dus­try helped them start busi­nesses in Amer­ica as refugees.

Cam­bo­dian jewelry stores in par­tic­u­lar have served mul­ti­ple pur­poses for an im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion made of refugees with a strong dis­trust for gov­ern­ment in­sti­tu­tions. They help peo­ple store and ex­change wealth in its most cri­sis­proof form: gold.

“It’s a much more fa­mil­iar and trusted in­sti­tu­tion,” said Khatharya Um, a pro­fes­sor of so­ci­ol­ogy at UC Berke­ley. “It pro­vides in­di­vid­u­als with greater con­trol over their wealth.”

Cam­bo­dian peo­ple have stored their wealth in gold long be­fore the Kh­mer Rouge, Um said, and that prac­tice is com­mon in other Asian so­ci­eties.

Nearly 2 mil­lion peo­ple died in Cam­bo­dia’s killing fields as a re­sult of ex­e­cu­tions, star­va­tion, tor­ture and over­work.

The vi­o­lence in­stilled in refugees a strong dis­trust of in­sti­tu­tions, one they brought with them to Amer­ica, Um said. The Kh­mer Rouge gov­ern­ment elim­i­nated cur­rency, and many Cam­bo­dian refugees re­mem­ber cut­ting sliv­ers of gold to buy food and medicine in camps.

It might ex­plain why there’s no Cam­bo­dian Amer­i­can bank, but so many jewelry stores. Farm­ers and refugees from ru­ral back­grounds were not used to us­ing banks, Um said.

Af­ter stops in Guam, Hawaii and Camp Pendleton, Young and his fam­ily ended up in Bellflower. A friend, also from Pailin, loaned them some jewelry in­ven­tory, and in 1978 Young opened Tory Jewelry Co., later re­named Inta Gems & Di­a­monds, the first Cam­bo­dian-owned jewelry shop in the down­town district.

The jewelry stores spread through the same tightknit fam­ily net­works that Cam­bo­dian refugees used to dom­i­nate South­ern Cal­i­for­nia’s dough­nut in­dus­try and take over the Louisiana Fa­mous Fried Chicken chain.

Their pro­lif­er­a­tion ac­cel­er­ated dur­ing the 1980s, Young said. He and his fam­ily sup­plied gems, gold and ad­vice to prospec­tive shop own­ers, and Young’s fam­ily mem­bers opened seven other jewelry shops.

In 1987, Long Ta and his wife, also jewel­ers from Pailin, opened their first jewelry store in Chi­na­town. They helped fam­ily mem­bers open nearly two dozen other stores in the Chi­na­town swap meets.

“It’s a small town. Every­one knows every­one,” said Chay Leang Lim, owner of Golden Gem Jewelry Co., lo­cated in the same space as Young’s first jewelry store.

On a re­cent week­day at Thai Sam­nieng Jewelry in Long Beach’s Cam­bo­dia Town, Madi Thai waits with­out much hope for cus­tomers. En­tire days and weeks can pass with­out the door bells jin­gling.

The sparkling cab­i­nets of jew­els in his store give the im­pres­sion of pros­per­ity. But work­ing in a lux­ury in­dus­try has not brought him a lux­u­ri­ous life­style, Thai said.

“I’m not get­ting rich off of this,” Thai said. “I make enough ev­ery month to pay bills and buy my fam­ily some things, and then it’s gone.”

While Cam­bo­dian jewel­ers in Chi­na­town, down­town Los An­ge­les and Fuller­ton have thrived serv­ing a di­verse, in­ter­na­tional clien­tele, jewel­ers in Cam­bo­dia Town serve mostly Cam­bo­di­ans and lo­cals, said Charles Song, former pres­i­dent of the Cam­bo­dian Jewelry Assn. of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

Cam­bo­di­ans usu­ally buy more jewelry be­cause they use it to store wealth, but there isn’t much wealth in Cam­bo­dia Town. About a third of Cam­bo­di­ans in Long Beach’s Cam­bo­dia Town live in poverty, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent UCLA study — twice the poverty rate of the county. And busi­ness has taken a hit as more refugees have grown ac­cus­tomed to us­ing banks and re­duc­ing their jewelry con­sump­tion, Song said. Com­pe­ti­tion from In­ter­net re­tail­ers has not helped.

Thai, who ar­rived in Long Beach in 1987 as a 12-year-old refugee, is hop­ing that later gen­er­a­tions will find liveli­hoods be­yond dough­nut shops, chicken restau­rants and jewelry stores.

“Some­one will break through some­day,” Thai said. “It just takes time.”

Cam­bo­di­ans own four of the 10 bricks-and-mor­tar jewelry stores in Long Beach, ac­cord­ing to city records. But there used to be more than a dozen Cam­bo­dian jewel­ers on Ana­heim Street, Song said. The jewelry as­so­ci­a­tion also shut­tered a few years ago when its lead­er­ship moved on to other ven­tures, Song said.

Own­ing jewelry isn’t as im­por­tant in Amer­ica, Song said.

“Now it’s for plea­sure, not for eat­ing ev­ery day. So peo­ple are buy­ing less,” he said.

Song was one of the few Cam­bo­dian jewel­ers who had no Pailin con­nec­tion. He learned the busi­ness from friends and rel­a­tives, and opened Ph­nom Pich Jewelry on Ana­heim Street in 1997.

His seed money was a pay­out from a dong ting ,an in­for­mal lend­ing club that Cam­bo­dian fam­i­lies con­trib­ute to in or­der to get lump sums larger than any fam­ily could ac­cu­mu­late on its own.

Dur­ing the geno­cide, he says, jewel­ers, and any­one with ed­u­ca­tion, money or sta­tus, were tar­geted. He barely es­caped with his life. Song and other Cam­bo­di­ans opened jewelry stores to sur­vive, not get rich, he said. That’s why Cam­bo­dian jewel­ers help one an­other.

“I don’t know why I’m still here. But I be­lieve in des­tiny, and I have the proof. I’m sit­ting here to­day,” Song said. “I went through the killing fields. I want every­one to have the same op­por­tu­nity.”

Gina Fer­azzi Los An­ge­les Times

JERRY YOUNG, 68, in­spects a blue sap­phire at Inta Gems & Di­a­monds. His shop is the first to be owned by Cam­bo­di­ans in the jewelry district of down­town L.A.

Pho­to­graphs by Gina Fer­azzi

CAM­BO­DIAN jewelry shops help im­mi­grants store and ex­change wealth in its most cri­sis-proof form: gold.

JERRY and Con­nie Young opened Inta Gems & Di­a­monds in the jewelry district of down­town L.A.

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