Sunday, February 27, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.

Cambodian community builds pride

By Marc Ramirez

Seattle Times staff reporter

On a dimly lighted stage in a former nightclub, Sam Tea, 25, rapped the last lines of a song he'd written for his parents. Titled "New Day Tomorrow," it spoke of pride and struggle and other elements of the immigrant experience.

"All of us have gone through that, coming up from Cambodia and growing up here," said Tea, a member of Tacoma-based hip-hop group Second Language. "We just want to say we appreciate what our parents have done for us."

One generation, reaching out to another: That was the whole idea behind Cambodian Family Day, which took place yesterday at the Cambodian Cultural Museum and Killing Fields Memorial in White Center.

The center, which opened last May, was the creation of Dara Duong, a Cambodian refugee who lost 30 relatives to the genocide that claimed 2 million Cambodian lives in the late 1970s.

It was 1999 when Duong first returned to the country he'd left as a boy. During a visit to Phnom Penh's Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, he became aware of just how immense the human tragedy was.

Fearful that Cambodian youths growing up in America were largely unaware of the event, Duong began collecting images and artifacts documenting the genocide in his cramped SeaTac garage, intending to open a museum. Those images ? of mass graves and terror-stricken faces of people bound for execution ? now form the heart of the arts and culture center.

"Most people in America don't realize the huge and horrible genocide that happened there," says Shamra Harrison, a center board member who visited Cambodia in 2003 and decided she wanted to help Duong educate U.S. youths about the atrocities. "I was completely shocked this was something I had not heard about when I went to school."

Eventually, Duong envisions a $1.5 million cultural center and museum in a more visible location, but for now it sits along cramped 16th Avenue in White Center with other immigrant-operated businesses.

But it is community as much as education that Duong is after, which is how the second Cambodian Family Day came to be. The only time the community gathers is for Cambodian New Year in April, he said: "After that, everybody falls apart. It's very hard to get connected."

The first family day, held last month, drew 150 people. Aware that generational divides separate traditional elders from the young who embrace American culture, Duong made sure yesterday's lineup included youths performing both traditional arts and music as well as more modern rhythm and blues and hip-hop.

"Education is a two-way process," said Phatry Pan, representing the Rajana Society, a Cambodian arts group based at the University of Washington. "We hope you take what you've learned here today and take it back to the community."

Potluck-style snack foods lined a table near the center's gift shop while the crowd of about 100 mingled and watched the performances from rows of folding chairs. Among them were people such as Barbara Murakami, adoptive parents of Cambodian children who hoped to keep their kids connected with their birth-country identity.

"We want him to learn about his culture," she said of 4-year-old son Lee T. "He kept thinking he was going to Cambodia today."

"We all need to get in touch with our culture," said Sathia "Ted" Chet, a member of the hip-hop group Second Language.

Added bandmate Tea: "It's hard to sit back and let it go when you got grandmas and great-grandmas trying to talk to you and all you can say is, 'Yeah.' "

Marc Ramirez: 206-464-8102 or mramirez@seattletimes.com

Copyright 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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