“Cambodia Town of Lowell” by Dr. Sengly Kong

The following article appeared in the latest edition of Khmer Post USA and is reposted here with with permission of Khmer Post and of the author, Sengly Kong, Ph.D., who is the chair of the Cambodia Town committee.

In 2010, the City of Lowell designated a Cambodia Town in order to officially recognize the Lowell Cambodian American community’s contribution over the past three decades to revitalizing the partially blighted lower highland neighborhood and to elevate interest in the area’s stores and restaurants, attract new businesses, bring in tourists, and increase civic pride.

The designation was a timely response to the aspiration of the community and businesses as reflected in their positive responses to a brief survey in early 2010 conducted by the Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association (CMAA) of the greater Lowell. In October 29, 2011, a Cambodia Town Committee, an organization of volunteers, was set up with the support of the Cambodian community and businesses; and the Committee works closely with the City and other community based organizations to advance a vision of economically, culturally vibrant and prosperous Cambodia Town of Lowell.

Lowell is home to the second largest Cambodian American community in the United States after Long Beach, California. According to Richard Howe, co-author of a book: Legendary locals of Lowell, Cambodian refugees were attracted in large numbers to Lowell by relatively plentiful jobs in the mid 1980s and the already vibrant Cambodian community in the city. According to the 2010 US Census, Lowell has about 22,000 Cambodians; however, it is widely agreed that Cambodians in Lowell were seriously undercounted. Community leaders, who live and work for decades in the community, estimated that there are approximately 35-40,000 Cambodians about one third of the city population; the estimate is quite consistent with extrapolated school enrollment data. As the result, Lowell has a large proportion (20.2%) of Asians compared to only 5.3% statewide and also has a high proportion (14.8%) of Asian-owned business versus 4.5% statewide (Census 2010).

There are at least 200 Cambodian American businesses of all sizes and kinds most of which are concentrated in the Cambodia Town. Cambodian restaurants are ubiquitous; each offers a variety of authentic ethnic dishes, and it also tends to have its signature dish based on customer preference. For example, customers usually like a sour beef stew (Samlor Machu Sach Koa) at Red Rose restaurant or roasted duck at Phnom Penh restaurant or steamed soy sauce Tilapia (Trey Cham Hoy) at Mekong restaurant or Rice Field Sour Fish Soup (Samlor Machu Srae) at Piphup Thmei restaurant. All ingredients are authentic and found at local Grocery Supper Markets: Phnom Penh Market on Branch Street, Hong Kong Market on Westford, and Bangkok Market on Chelmsford Street etc.

Authentic jewelry stores are also omnipresent throughout the Cambodia Town. You can find, for example, Asian Jewelry on Westford Street, and Phnom Pich Jewelry or Pailin Jewelry or Apsara Jewelry on Middlesex etc. You can buy necklace with lucky charmed pendant or bracelet with artistic design or earrings of Angkorian style or contemporary Cambodian fashion. During summer weekends, you can see traditional wedding receptions at Cambodian restaurants with bride and groom wearing a set of dazzling jewelries; wedding crown, costumes, and changing each set every hour throughout the evening. Traditional wedding is customarily organized in two parts; the first part is organized in a morning at a bride’s home with invited monks chanting blessings for a couple. The reception is generally held in the evening with invited guests from both sides: the bride’s side and the groom’s. If interested, one can also buy traditional costumes, jewelry, lucky charms, and other souvenirs at local costume and souvenirs shops throughout the Town.

Religion plays important roles in most Cambodian American life. From birth to death, Cambodians involve Buddhism one way or another. Buddhist monks are, for example, invited to chant blessing for a newborn although this practice is rare nowadays. There are usually Buddhist ceremonies throughout a year: Phjum Ben, New Year, funeral etc each of which involves monks chanting blessing. Three Buddhist temples offer religious services in Lowell; one temple, known as Glory Buddhist temple, is located in the Cambodia Town off Chelmsford Street while two others, Trairatanaram and Khmer Lowell Temple, are in neighboring community. There are score of other cultural entities that make Lowell Cambodia Town culturally vibrant. Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association provides culturally appropriate social services; Metta Health Clinic of Lowell Community Health Center provides culturally competent healthcare services; Angkor Dance Troup and Tep Niyum Musical offer classical and folk dances for various occasions etc.

In sum, Cambodia Town offers great opportunities for tourists to experiences authentic cultures and for investors to invest in new businesses, and for Cambodian Americans to be proud of. Visiting the Cambodia Town of Lowell gives you not only great memorable experiences, but also help promote sustainable economic growth that would help this former refugee community to realize its vision of economically, culturally vibrant and prosperous Cambodia Town.

The Lowell Cambodia Town can be easily accessible from either I-495 exit 35 A-B-C or Route 3 or I-93; it can also be accessed through a 40-minute ride by commuter rail from Boston’s North Station.