Cambodian Artist One Of Many Immigrants Welcomed To Long Beach
The City is a participatory member of Welcoming America, a national network that strives to make more American cities more inclusive of immigrants. The week of September 17 is Welcoming Week, and InsideLB took the opportunity to talk with Sayon Syprasoeuth, a Long Beach resident and immigrant from Cambodia who arrived in America in 1979 at age 12. Sayon is involved with Long Beach's Cambodian community on many fronts. An accomplished artist in several mediums, Sayon earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from California State University, Long Beach in 203, then went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts degree from Claremont Graduate University in 2007.
InsideLB: What does America mean to you?
Sayon: I really fit in different categories; being an immigrant, being an American, being a person who cares about this country. When people like myself came into the country in the late '70s, we just assumed America was going to be our temporary home. It took me years and years to realize, "Wait a minute: There's so much opportunity in this country to do all the things I want to do." I took the responsibility for myself to become a naturalized citizen and to voice for those who are voiceless, and to educate those who are in the position I was in, to let them know that there's the opportunity to absorb all this country has to offer. I'm really passionate about Long Beach. When I first came to this country in 1979 with my family, we went to Iowa. I lived there for two years, sponsored by the Lutheran Church, and was surrounded by wonderful people. I always saw America as this "hero" place. And when I came to Long Beach in 1983, there was already a Southeast Asian community, which was great.
InsideLB: So your entire family fled the Killing Fields of Cambodia in 1979. Where did you go first?
Sayon: We lived in a small town in Thailand first, illegally. The local people didn't like us. There was pressure from the Mayor of the town so we had to go into the refugee camp, where we stayed for a year and a half.
InsideLB: You were 12 years old when you came to America. Did you speak English?
Sayon: Not at all. The church group that sponsored us had so much patience with us, tolerating a family of nine people who spoke no English. I'm sure it must have been very frustrating for them. We were from the countryside of Cambodia. To use the kitchen, the toilet, the gas stove...I'm surprised we didn't burn the house down. We stayed in Iowa for about two years.
InsideLB: What brought you to Long Beach?
Sayon: We came to Torrance first: We had a family member there. Then we came to Long Beach because we had other family members who were moving out this way. I did live in Orange County for about 10 years but came back to Long Beach four years ago.
InsideLB: Tell me about the United Cambodian Community (U.C.C.).
Sayon: The U.C.C. was founded by local leaders in the late '70s, trying to band together to help get people assimilated, help them get signed up for social services, that sort of thing. The U.C.C. is now a nonprofit organization and I am currently employed by them.
InsideLB: Can you share your involvement with Living Arts Long Beach?
Sayon: It's a six-month program that provides after-school art classes to students. It's totally free. Materials and stipends are available. It's for students from high school age to 25 years old. The artists who give the workshops are also paid so it's a very well-rounded program. People are encouraged to come in and get exposed to art. We've done silk screening, we've done collage, we visited an architecture studio, we've had music class, moviemaking class. It's a hands-on program. We've had field trips to museums, the Long Beach Opera, and the Long Beach Symphony.
InsideLB: Tell us about Global Hybrid and why it’s important to the Cambodian Long Beach community?
Sayon: My neighbor Denise Scott founded Global Hybrid. She invited me to come in and participate. It's basically an arts exchange program from Long Beach to Cambodia. We would mount a show in Cambodia, encourage local Cambodians to make art, and have dialogues with them. Then we would bring the show back here to Long Beach. The reason this is really important is because I cannot shake my past, escaping the Khmer Rouge and the genocide. A lot of people in Cambodia who were sympathetic to western art and ideology were killed off, so we do Global Hybrid to encourage artists to make work, to foster that activity.
InsideLB: Can you tell us about the mural you painted at the corner of Anaheim and Dawson streets as part of the Cambodia Town Mural Project, which was funded by the Arts Council for Long Beach and the Port of Long Beach?
Sayon: Yes, that was last summer. Originally, I was "volun-told" to do it by the director of the U.C.C., which turned out to be a really good thing. It was a great opportunity to challenge myself. I organized five meetings with the community to find out what they wanted to see in this mural. In the mural there are many elements of the Motherland; dancers, lots of the animals that are going extinct in Cambodia, like the dolphins in the Mekong River, the sea turtles, cranes, buffalo, elephants. There are also some national flowers in the background.
InsideLB: Why do you like Long Beach so much?
Sayon: I grew up here and have so many friends and family here, but it's also because in the last (five or six years) the arts have been really booming here, as far as murals and the City working with the Cambodian, Latino and African-American communities, just trying to open their arms up to everybody. It's really exciting right now. They're saying, "Hey, your voice is important and is included." The Arts Council of Long Beach is doing that as well, putting art into neighborhoods that have been really isolated before.