A man walks across the boarded up space of La Lune Thmey, a now-closed restaurant in Cambodia Town in Long Beach, on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2021. La Lune Thmey ended its lease in December 2019. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

More than just a restaurant in the heart of Long Beach’s Cambodia Town, La Lune Thmey was a cultural hub that for decades hosted weddings, parties, and in 2019, a dinner for a City Council race that would later culminate in the election of the city’s first Cambodian council member.

Leaders in the Cambodian community, though, worry that the restaurant’s quiet closure in December 2019 may have been the beginning of the loss of one of the city’s most well-known and identifiable corridors, particularly as developers see potential in the area.

“It appears that businesses are disappearing one by one,” said Charles Song, who was born in Cambodia and survived the genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, and like thousands of others, found a new home in Long Beach.

The loss of La Lune Thmey is “heartbreaking,” said Councilwoman Suely Saro, who celebrated her wedding there. In late 2019, a party for her City Council campaign turned out to be the last event the restaurant held.

Since then, another staple in Cambodia Town has likewise closed. In May, KH Market, located at a nearby plaza, shuttered despite community attempts to save it. The family could not afford the higher rent, Pichivy Pang, a member of a Cambodian family that owns the business, said in an interview at the time.

KH Market, whose owners are from Chinese-Cambodian and Thai-Cambodian descent, sold hard-to-find Southeast Asian items and groceries for the surrounding community for 15 years. Cambodia Town native Lan Nguyen lamented the closure.

“They were a holder of culture for the community,” she said.

Over the decades, Nguyen said she has seen several other Asian businesses close down, such as a Mien market on the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Anaheim Street. (Mien people are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia.)

“That was a market that I grew up going to, but now it’s a 7-Eleven,” she said.

Susana Sngiem, executive director of the local nonprofit United Cambodian Community, said her organization has internally tracked the status of small, Cambodian-owned businesses in Cambodia Town over the course of the pandemic and found that 5% of them have closed. Half of all the small businesses in the area, not just Cambodian-owned, are on the brink of closing down, she said.

“What we see is a mixture of small businesses closing due to the pandemic, but also due to future development that’s going to happen in Cambodia Town,” Sngiem said. Many landlords are seeing the era of the pandemic as an opportunity to sell or develop their land, she said.

As a result, many small businesses are being “pushed out,” Sngiem said, when a property owner sells, wants to redevelop or increases rent. Other businesses closed temporarily and have not been able to reopen.

It’s a loss that goes beyond economic impact, according to Sngiem. In Cambodian Town, the small businesses don’t just contribute to the area financially. “They keep our Cambodian culture alive within our neighborhood,” she said.

In an emptying grocery store, a local customer selects a drink to purchase during the last days of operation of KH Market, a business in Cambodia Town in Long Beach, on Thursday, May 27, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

A cultural center

Long Beach is regarded as home to the nation’s largest concentration of Khmer people outside of Cambodia.

Thousands of Cambodians immigrated to Long Beach over the years, establishing a 1.2-mile  cultural and business corridor along Anaheim Street, between Atlantic and Junipero avenues. Cambodia Town is now adorned with visible cultural markers like Khmer scriptures spelling the signs of the storefronts in the native language spoken by workers and patrons.

Today, nearly 20,000 people of Cambodian descent live in the city.

Aside from serving Phnom Penh noodles, the restaurant La Lune Thmey provided an atmosphere that made people feel at home. From the decorations to Khmer music to Cambodian cuisines, Song said it carried significant cultural value.

“I fell in love with the place,” said Song, who had frequented the restaurant for as long as he can remember. He remembers seeing his elders walk to the plaza two or three times a day. It was a very open space that would hold about 350 guests.

Song said the restaurant also served as a place for political mobilization. He hosted fundraisers, local candidate races, redistricting efforts, and a celebration of the emerging Cambodian power in the city.

He remembers the night as something beautiful: it was an event where politicians from different backgrounds came together under one group.

“I’ll probably remember it for the rest of my life,” Song said.

Saro, who said she’s been going there since she was a kid, saw the ownership be passed along between members of the same family that owned it. She said it’s difficult to prevent closures when the property is privately owned, and her office’s involvement in such matters is limited.

“But to the extent that I can, it is definitely in that realm of support, programs, grants, services that we can offer to support and navigate through things like this,” Saro said.

The United Cambodian Community has also given out more than $300,000 in grants and loans to help businesses pay down debt they accrued during the pandemic, in hopes of helping them survive.

A picture of a photo shows Sovijaya Saro, right, kissing Suely Saro, left, surrounded by people during a wedding reception inside La Lune Thmey in 2008. Photo courtesy of Suely Saro.

Fear of gentrification

Song, a leader in the city’s Cambodian community, blames gentrification for displacing businesses or pricing them out.

Three years ago, two commercial properties, Poly Plaza (which housed La Lune Thmey) and East Anaheim Plaza, were at the center of controversy in Cambodia Town when plans to demolish small businesses and redevelop the space surprised residents and local politicians.

Concerns over the demolition of La Lune Thmey, KH Market and Poly Burgers, even drew criticism from Mayor Robert Garcia, resulting in developers halting the plans.

Development updates were, for the most part, left in limbo due in part to the pandemic. But the businesses have still suffered. With its closure in December 2019, La Lune Thmey was the first to go.

Jakobo Onofre, senior property manager for Charles Dunn Real Estate Services, Inc.—the managing agent for the owners of Poly Plaza—said that “the parties mutually agreed to terminate the lease” but did not provide a reason why. The restaurant had operated at the site since 2007, he said.

As retail habits change, redevelopment plans remain unclear

At Poly Plaza, Poly Burger, a fast food restaurant bustling with high school students on a daily basis, is the last of the three staples standing. For months this year, business owner John Oh did not know what the fate of his business would be.

Onofre, meanwhile, said via email that plans for the redevelopment of the plaza are still unclear but that for now, they’ll keep Poly Burger as “a valued tenant of the center.”

Onofre said Oh agreed to a new five-year lease with Poly Burger in October of 2019 to relocate to a new space within the future project before the pandemic triggered shutdowns that impacted businesses financially.

“As a result of COVID-19, we were forced to put the revitalization project on hold as we dealt with tenant emergencies and reevaluated whether the project was still viable due to the dramatic change in consumer behaviors that impacted retail centers nationally,” Onofre said.

He said they worked individually with every tenant and did not evict anyone during the pandemic. Instead, he said they worked out deals such as rent reductions with tenants occupying smaller spaces.

Onofre said they are still “not ready to proceed with the entitled plans as the market dynamics continue to change.”

“With retail habits continuing to change, we need to be sure that the approved plan will continue to be feasible,” he said.

The owners of La Lune Thmey, husband and wife Pros and Lee Chea, have now transitioned to solely running their other business, a takeout spot in Signal Hill.

Today, you can find Lee Chea in a cap and polo shirt serving food behind a counter at Chinese Combo, on Willow Street and Cherry Avenue.

While it’s unclear if La Lune Thmey will ever return, Lee Chea said she has a sister who owns Little La Lune, a spinoff restaurant on Pacific Coast Highway near Sherman Place in Central Long Beach. Many patrons dine and order takeout from the restaurant, maintaining a buzzing Cambodian identity in the city.