On a recent Sunday, dozens of people floated through an outdoor market in White Center where vendors sold skin care products, baked goods and shipping services under black tents. The fried scent of traditional Cambodian food wafted through the air, and hip-hop blared from speakers inside of an art space called Forever Foreigner. Despite the rain, it was a convivial scene.
On that Sunday, Forever Foreigner owner Bunthay Cheam held the inaugural $unday $wap Meet — a monthly outdoor market featuring Southeast Asian businesses, musicians, vendors and community organizations. The mid-March event was designed as a gathering space for the Southeast Asian community and as a way to highlight their impact on the local economy, culture and history, Cheam said. It also marked part of a larger effort of Khmer people to elevate their voices in White Center, an area where they hope to bolster a sense of community. The next monthly event will be held Sunday.
The renewed focus on White Center, with Forever Foreigner at the helm, is what brought chef Theary Ngeth to $unday $wap Meet as a food vendor. A line wrapped around the alleyway with people eager to purchase a plate of her stuffed chicken flavored with onion and spices, as well as sticky rice wrapped around mung bean and pork belly.
Cambodian-born Ngeth is the owner of Theary Cambodian Foods, a food stall inside Tukwila’s Spice Bridge food hall, where the meals are based on her family’s memory of traditional Cambodian cuisine. Ngeth grew up in a Thai refugee camp before arriving in the U.S. as a young teen.
Participating in the swap meet helped her feel connected to the diaspora community. It was a place where she could build new memories.
“It’s a huge gap-filler for people,” Ngeth said.
A nod to the traditional street markets in Cambodia, the event also hearkened back to Kent’s Midway swap meet, an outdoor market at a former drive-in movie theater that ran from 1971 until 2004. The Kent market was where Cheam bought his first video games and hung out with other Khmer families as they did their back-to-school shopping on summer weekends.
“For a lot of us that came in the ’80s and ’90s, it has an element of nostalgia,” Cheam said.
According to 2019 Pew Research data, Seattle has the third highest Cambodian population in the country, with 18,000 people, trailing behind only Los Angeles and Boston.
The White Center area holds significance for Cheam and others in the diaspora. After the migration of a wave of refugees to Washington in the 1970s and ’80s, a large swath of the county’s Khmer community moved to a subsidized public-housing development called Park Lake Homes in White Center, according to Cheam. But then in the early 2000s, the apartments were torn down and replaced with a mixed-income development called Greenbridge, which scattered the Khmer community throughout South King County.
Born in a Thai refugee camp, Cheam came to the United States at 10 months old and grew up in Seattle’s South End. In his youth, White Center held a sense of belonging; it was a place where he could find other people who looked like him. Cheam hopes the community art space and swap meets will restore a sense of pride in White Center for the local Southeast Asian population so they can be in control of their own narratives. While Cambodians are often lumped into the “model minority myth” of Asian Americans, Cheam said, in reality, Cambodians have lower access to education than the national average.
“People have a hard time humanizing us,” Cheam said. “So, the more storytellers we can get out there, the more we can center ourselves and tell our stories the way we want to tell it and own it. That way we can fight for what we deserve.”
Inside of Forever Foreigner, checkered garments called krama that are used as scarves, bandannas or hammocks were on display by the entrance. A flyer posted to the wall advertised a multiyear storytelling project between Cheam and community organizer Felicia Rove-Chamreoun that centers on the stories of people displaced from Park Lake Homes. Cheam recently gained a beer and wine license and hopes the space will be used for performances, open mics, and as a community center in the future.
“This event really shows that our community is really hungry to come together and support,” said Stephanie Ung of the Khmer Community of Seattle King County.
Ung and her aunt helped revive the community organization in 2018 after several years of dormancy. They held classical dance classes for youth in White Center until the organization’s building was sold at the end of the following year.
During the pandemic, the organization grew to serve more people than ever before — over 300 families — by scheduling vaccine appointments and holding virtual meetups for youth. Khmer Community of Seattle King County gave away bags filled with school supplies and snacks to Khmer youth at Forever Foreigner at the end of January. In mid-March, they worked with Public Health — Seattle & King County to vaccinate 300 people, mostly Khmer, at Beverly Park Baptist Church. Throughout the pandemic, the organization bought culturally-relevant groceries including lemon grass and fish sauce at Khmer-owned stores, and distributed them to the families the group serves at churches, temples and through home deliveries.
The organization is raising money with the hope of creating a community center with a kitchen and a technology lab in White Center.
“We want people to learn the history of Khmer people and why we’re in this area,” Ung said.
As Cheam and Ung focus on building a physical sense of community in the familiar White Center, other Khmer groups are adjusting to the pandemic by holding virtual events until early May for the Cambodian New Year that fell between April 13-16.
To celebrate the new year, the Khmer Student Association at the University of Washington will livestream prerecorded performances on Zoom on May 1, from 5 to 7 p.m. This year they’ll be performing a play that is an adaptation of a Cambodian myth, as well as a mixture of classical, folk and modern dances.
The nonprofit Cambodian Cultural Alliance of Washington held a virtual event on April 24 instead of its usual outdoor market. The organization’s 19th Annual White Center Cambodian New Year Street Festival featured a raffle, traditional dancing and a food demonstration that was livestreamed on Facebook.
Before the pandemic, the organization held a daylong outdoor festival in White Center that drew thousands of people. In the morning, Buddhist monks from surrounding temples would sit in a row as festivalgoers offered them food in their alms bowls. Staff from community organizations, independent financial advisers and small businesses from White Center were at booths throughout the festival. Traditional dancers performed on stage, and attendees scarfed down as many bananas as they could in an annual banana-eating contest.
“Now that people have left [White Center], they still come back for the festival,” Sophal Hamaker, a longtime volunteer with the organization, said.
Pharin Kong, founder of Cambodian Cultural Alliance of Washington, lived in White Center for over 30 years. While older Khmer adults have lived in the area for decades, Kong said, a new generation of young people are hungry to create spaces where they can learn about and share their culture. Kong opened up Golden House Bakery and Deli in 2005, which served as a community center of sorts in the area until it closed down a few years ago.
Kong hopes that more Cambodian businesses will crop up in the area so that several generations of Khmer people can gather to “make it feel like White Center is your home.”