Ly Cheng, re: Cambodian refugee life – Part one
Interview by Anne Morin
1 Disc, 39:07, 7 Tracks
TRACK 1 – 28:32
1:56 – DISCUSSION STARTS
ANNE: Where were we?
LYCHHENG: We left off where my parents met and where I came from. My mom and dad never met…
ANNE: they had a terrible marriage.
LYCHHENG: Very, very bad marriage from the start. My dad never appreciated my mom and my mom wanted to get a divorce so bad but later in life she told me she had a lot of brothers and sisters and she was the oldest one and if she gets a divorce nobody will come and marry her brothers and sisters. So she stayed married to my dad until they came to America. She finally get a divorce and it was an ugly one too.
ANNE: Tell me about leaving Cambodia and coming here.
LYCHHENG: We tried it twice before we made it here the first time we left was 1979. When the Vietnamese took over, when they won Cambodia from the Pol Pot regime, they told everyone they could live wherever they want, go find their families, parents, brothers, sisters, because during the Khmer rouge they separated people from their families. My family they sent me far away and my brother far away. They separated by age, certain ages go to certain camps. So when the Vietnamese took over Cambodia everybody was scattered, everyone was separated, so they said you can go find your parents. I was alone, my brothers were together, so I was able to come first.
ANNE: Tell me what was the journey from your parents to the camp like? Tell me about the camp.
LYCHHENG: I was, I don’t remember, about thirteen, fourteen. No, twelve. Because the war lasted almost four years and I was fifteen when the war broke.
ANNE: We need to go back further. When we last talked you were seven. And you were taking care of…
LYCHHENG: …my little brothers and sisters.
ANNE: While your mother…
LYCHHENG: Earned a living. She had to spend the night in another town to get good deals on vegetables and meat at a market and if she don’t spend the night there she don’t get good deals. And she would bring it to our village and sell them and that’s how she earned her living. Later on she met this family that sell lottery tickets so my mom stopped the grocery business and start selling lottery tickets for this guy, this family.
ANNE: There were problems.
LYCHHENG: There were problems. These policemen would come and bother her and she would report it to her boss and the boss would report to the captain and the captain would tell the policemen not to bother these people because they were under protection in a way. It was like bribe them. You pay for protection, like bribery . no one bug my mom after that and she can sell lottery freely.
ANNE: So you lived where?
LYCHHENG: We lived, at that time was in little village in Cambodia, a new town too, called bailan. New town in that territory was way, way deep to the forest, next to Thailand. And no houses had been built there, it was a new town. You had to cut down trees and build houses. And people go there because they can find rubies. Rubies and gold. And my mom, she couldn’t make a decent living where she used to live, which is the capital of Cambodia, Cumpeng. Then she moved to the second-biggest city in Cambodia, Capubong, and there it was hard to earn a living too. So when she heard about a town just got established and thousands of people rush over there, it kind of compares to the California gold rush, so she go there. And when we got there all of us got sick, brand new town so a lot of people got sick. Malaria.
ANNE: How long did you stay there?
LYCHHENG: I live there most of my life. The longest town I live in Cambodia. I was born in camunpeng and I was born there and lived there for a few months and then we moved to capubong and lived there a couple of years and I spent most of the time there until the communists took over.
ANNE: Then what happened?
LYCHHENG: I don’t really remember the hardship. But I remember a lot of good times there. Good time like my mom was able to make enough money to let us have some money to spend. We could go to the market and buy snacks to eat and we couldn’t do that before.
ANNE: It was better.
LYCHHENG: It was a lot better. A couple of years before the communists came we became very wealthy. One of three or four richest families there. My family was one, my uncles, and their friends. We controlled a lot of the town, controlled the political people like a certain age when you’re a guy they draft you to the army. My brothers don’t have to go because my parents buy the official off.
ANNE: What happened?
LYCHHENG: Changed when the communists came. I was happy. I didn’t know anything. They came, they make big parade and a lot of people. In town welcome them and they promise a lot of good things. They say they would take money from the rich and give it to the poor, divide equally, nobody is rich nobody is poor. So I was happy because the whole town’s happy. Party all the time. Activities would go all night before certain time. I think I was eight or nine. I have to find that out because I don’t remember. I have to find that out. So they promise us a lot of good things and then, not long, only a few days later they say you know, we have to clean up the town. In order to do that we have to have everybody move out of town for a few days to clean up the enemies, which is the old government officials. That’s what they said. They said everybody had to go. Then, a couple of days later they said okay, now only the people who don’t own any land have to go. The people who own land can stay. Then it keep changing day to day. Finally they said everybody had to go but only for a few days, you don’t have to lock your doors. Most people don’t take anything, only money or material things. T hey drive their car and think they would be back. But they never return and most rich people die first because they don’t take anything. For some reason my mom knew and didn’t take anything that wasn’t useable. So she took rice and sugar and sewing needle and blankets and that’s all she took. And she took some gasoline to burn at night. It came really useful.
ANNE: Where did you go?
LYCHHENG: So we went keep going. We have no destination, nothing. They just told us you go out of town and as we pass each town they have to go too. So everybody push back to the forest, like the main street. The people that live there they push back. And we are from the other side so we go straight and push back also. Some people would find their relative in the capital, very big mistake. They die first because no food there. No fruit trees. People who push back to the farms they still have banana trees, fruit trees, so they survive longer. Eventually they die too. So my mom and what happened, we were lucky for two reasons. My mom had knowledge. Before all this happened she had a dream. T hat’s another long story. She had a dream that said exactly what’s going to happen in Cambodia. In her dream they told her not to take anything, only take what you can use, eat, and don’t go near the city, go where they have a lot of fruit trees, where you can plant vegetable. In her dream, this old lady told her that section of the country where people live the most will die.
A; Your mom had who with her?
LYCHHENG: She had me, my two younger sisters, my two older brothers. And her.
ANNE: There’s six of you.
LYCHHENG: My dad. My dad and his family. His sister’s family have four kids and then his brother have eight children, so we all hang together. My mom, she doesn’t like that but that’s how my dad is, everybody together, they don’t separate. So his family wanted to go to the capitol. My mom refused to go, she say stay by the farm area. You go down to the city there’s no food to find. So they keep pushing, the Khmer rouge keep pushing the people to go forward and my mom refused. That’s very hard to do because they have to sneak sometime they have to walk backward. Thousands of people walking on the streets and they have to make excuses, oh my kids are sick, we are waiting for certain people. Always give them excuses so when finally my dad and my uncles friend.
ANNE: Keep that closer.
LYCHHENG: My dad and my uncles’ friend they own a big plantation next to Thailand so he say okay everybody go to his farm. So it’s not just my family, other families had their friends and mostly Chinese people. So he let us stay at his farm and we’re thankful. We stay there for about, I don’t think more than six months.
ANNE: And then?
LYCHHENG: We stay there. We built tents, little houses there. Stay there until we heard from the Khmer Rouge what they want us to do. so most of the land there, the Khmer Rouge took it so now it not really belong to my dad’s friends anymore and now they divide it, give it to each family a certain amount to plant rice, potatoes to make it efficient. So my family plant some potatoes and live there for five, six months. I need to get that straight too. After that they said well, you Chinese people live here still in all the hardship. They said the rest of the country, they have really hard life, they have to go to work and you guys don’t have to go to work, just plant a little bit of land provided by our government. They said no good you guys have to mix with the other races, not just Chinese on this plantation. So they kick us out again. Now they kick us out to a cotton plantation, which is about four miles from where we used to live. The plantation is by the freeway. So we went to live there and now they told us to go to the mountain, there’s three mountains there. They told us to clear all the mountains and plant cotton and corn. T here mountains, all the tree, everything’s gone and replace it with cotton.
ANNE: How many of you?
LYCHHENG: I think probably about five, six thousand people.
ANNE: How long did that take?
LYCHHENG: We lived there about a year.
ANNE: Did they give you food?
LYCHHENG: Not enough. At first we had plenty to eat. Their government changes too. It was Khmer Rouge but they had two parties. The first party was good but then they change to another party and it was very difficult. You couldn’t own a stove or have your own food, you had to eat in a cafeteria. They say we don’t need to own anything, everything is in the community. we don’t need to because they feed us. The first few months was okay and then they change their government and things get tight. They don’t feed us enough. Every day at four o’clock we would get up and stand in line. They would call our names to see if we were there. Sometimes if they call your name it means they’re going to kill you. They take you to a rehabilitation camp and you never come back. Those are the people that they said have bad history according to them.
ANNE: Any of your family?
LYCHHENG: No, fortunately no. but they did call my mom out of the line one time and scared the heck out of her. That was very tight, almost the end of their government, the Vietnamese almost took over. They called my mom and she said that’s it. But in my mom’s case they didn’t’ make it clear to her . they said no, my mom go talk to them and said tell me honestly am I coming back. And they said no, you’re just getting old and so we’re taking you to another workforce. They had a first workforce and a second workforce where you don’t have to clear the mountain, must plant rice.
ANNE: With you kids?
LYCHHENG: No they separate us already.
ANNE: You were with your father?
LYCHHENG: No, all of us girls of a certain age they took us out of the town. My six-year-old sister, they took her away too from my parents. All six years old girls. And the six-year-old boy that would live in a different camp. everybody separated by age. I was ten so they put me in a different camp and my brothers in a different camp.
ANNE: What was the camp like?
LYCHHENG: Very difficult. They work us like slaves. If you want to stay alive you keep your mouth shut and do what they want you to do.
ANNE: What about the girls you lived with?
LYCHHENG: Some are good. Some are bad, meaning they would report whatever we talked to them to the Khmer rouge.
ANNE: and then what?
LYCHHENG: it could result in death or punishment or your life would be harder. They’d hold your meal they wouldn’t let you eat.
ANNE: Can you remember one situation for yourself?
LYCHHENG: Yeah, I remember one situation, but they didn’t hold my meal, I was lucky. One time this lady, a Khmer rouge, she happen to like me and she want to make me into a supervisor to watch ten people and I remember I have a lot of envies people and they would say bad things about me. But I was so young I didn’t know anything, I do what I was supposed to do, what they want me to do.
ANNE: How did you know?
LYCHHENG: They would, every night we have meetings before we go to bed. They would say now tell everything to Angkar, that’s their government. So they would say things about me, complain about me.
ANNE: What would happen?
LYCHHENG: Nothing happen. They say anything. I was so scared, I was whatever they say I agree with them, I don’t fight with them. Because I kind of knew that because I have light skin and they prejudiced because of that, of who I am. They automatically think I have a good life, an easy life. They don’t like rich people, they don’t like people who are educated. They automatically think we are rich because we are Chinese. They complain about me but nothing come to it.
ANNE: Did you have a friend there?
LYCHHENG: I had two friends, sisters. The younger sister, Kausoi. She’s in California now, married and have kids. I have to answer my phone.
TRACK 2 – 0:30
LYCHHENG: And that’s how they find out about people and their lifestyle before they came.
TRACK 4 – 0:32
LYCHHENG: The other one you have, you like it?
TRACK 5 – 3:08
LYCHHENG: Is it working now? It is good distance?
ANNE: Keep talking.
ANNE: Start with your being in Penam Pen?
LYCHHENG: Yes, I was born there but I don’t live there. Just only a few months.
ANNE: Keep on going.
LYCHHENG: I lived there with my parents.
ANNE: Names & Ages.
LYCHHENG: My mom, her name is Su Engo. That’s her maiden name. And she’s 63 now. My dad, his name is Juyeng Tang and he died almost eight years ago. My brother Ko, he died about the same time my dad did. He would be 45 now. And then my other brother that live with me right now, he’s 44 or 45. Chieu. And then myself, Ly Chheng, and I use my initials, LC. And I’m 43 and I don’t have a man. And then, I have a few more sisters that are younger than me and brothers, but they are dead now. One, his nickname is TiTia. He doesn’t have a real name yet. He died when he was five years old from pneumonia. From lack of taking care of him, my mom was too busy earn a living and he went to the river all day and get sick. And then the doctor overdose him with shots.
TRACK 6 – 6:15
LYCHHENG: Oh, you know, my mom kept saying how powerful they were because most of their soldiers were kids, 10, 12 years old and the gun was so big they couldn’t carry the gun, and yet we were so afraid of them. No one would try anything to overturn the government.
ANNE: Now it’s working.
LYCHHENG: When they took me away I was living in the camp. oh, it was so unbearable.
ANNE: We’re on number six now somehow.
LYCHHENG: That’s all right, we go back and forth.
ANNE: Talk about where you were. How did they explain it?
LYCHHENG: They said everybody is independent. You do not depend on your parents. Now Angkar will take care of you. Anything your parents say against Angkar you come to us.
ANNE: Would you have done that?
LYCHHENG: Never. It never entered my mind.
ANNE: How did they do that?
LYCHHENG: They had meetings. Everybody had to go to meetings. They know how many children you have, how old they are. They say all the girls of this age have to be at the square in the morning. Some got away because of excuses but most of us were there. They said you go to live at this place that is mostly girls your age. That was like ten minutes walk from my parents live. We stayed there for quite a while. Then they sent us far away, it took two days to get to where we stayed. We went to the jungle to clear trees. They put us in a big truck. The truck that carry dirt here, gravel. Whole bunch of us in there. Then to a certain point they drop us off, camp overnight and we walk the rest of the way. Some places where we had to go clear it take two, three days walk. We would chop down trees, build irrigations. Now their theory is that even though I’m a girl I get the same amount of yard to clear as a big man. They say you eat as much as a man, so you work the same. So I was behind. some of my neighbors would help me.
ANNE: Do you remember them?
LYCHHENG: I remember some of them. They would help me. And sometimes I was next to someone who was mean and they wouldn’t help me. I would try to get there early to start early because if you don’t get done, you don’t come home.
ANNE: You were twelve?
LYCHHENG: I was twelve.
ANNE: How long did you stay?
LYCHHENG: Not long, because the whole Khmer rouge regime was three and a half years. I don’t stay anywhere for a long time. Three, four months at a time.
ANNE: Did you see the family?
LYCHHENG: No, you were allowed to see the family at death in the family and then at new years. And then they said no, if your family is sick there is no point to go, you can’t do anything, you’re not a doctor. Angkar has a doctor for them.
ANNE: We have to stop.
TRACK 7 – 0:02