A Colorful Cambodian Community Day Festival
By: Sam Prasad Jillella
Performances of traditional and contemporary Cambodian music and dance, Southeast Asian cuisine, arts and handicrafts, and a handmade scale model of the Angkor Wat temple, the majestic structure that graces the Cambodian flag, provided visitors with a firsthand glimpse of the country's unique architecture.
ALEXANDRIA, VA — Every August, Cambodian Americans with a common interest in promoting Cambodian culture and heritage, host the Cambodian Community Day (CCD) Festival. At this year’s festival, visitors saw traditional Cambodian arts, crafts, paintings and souvenirs, classical, folk and social dances, and Cambodian food.
According to the 2010 U.S. Census, more than 276,000 persons of Cambodian descent live in the United States. Ben Bao, president of the CCD, told ASIAN FORTUNE that approximately 12,000 Cambodians live in the city of Alexandria. He estimated that more than 2,000 Cambodians attended this year’s festival, which was aptly themed “Cambodia, the Beautiful,” on Aug. 19, at the Ben Brenman Park in Alexandria, Va.
“This day is about Cambodia. We celebrate the culture and heritage of Cambodia,” said Bao. “We want to strengthen our voice in America so that people will know us better. It’s about our ancestors who made Cambodia a powerful nation of Southeast Asia. We do this so Cambodians who are born in the U.S. will know their heritage and pass it to the next generation.”
According to its website, the CCD seeks to integrate the Cambodian culture into American society, and the purpose of the decades-old festival is to bring Cambodian and American families and communities together to “recognize Khmer achievements, strengthen Khmer voice and cultures, share Cambodian heritages, and to have fun.”
“This year is very special because we have been able to inspire a lot more volunteers, and have been able to attract a lot of revellers,” Bao said, adding that the CCD organizes year-round fundraising events to host the festival. It is also cosponsored by the Arlington County, the City of Alexandria, and several Cambodian organizations.
Cheryl Lawrence, a supervisor in the Alexandria Department of Recreation, Parks and Cultural Activities, has worked with the CCD in the past 10 years.
“Alexandria has a rich ethnic culture. We have Afghans, Irish, Armenians, Iranians, African Americans, Native Americans, and many others, who are proud of their own cultures,” Lawrence said. “We all want to pass our heritage to our children. I love the Cambodian food, music, and dance. I love the rich Cambodian culture.”
The country of Cambodia is in Southeastern Asia, bordering the Gulf of Thailand, between Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos. It has a population of about 14.2 million, according to 2009 estimates. The official language is Khmer though a small percentage of people speak English and French. About 95 percent of the population is Theravada Buddhist.
Legend has it that the land of Cambodia was ruled by Naga who built an empire under the sea. The land was ruled by the Indian Empire. One day, Neang Neak, a daughter of the
Naga king, was bathing by the seashore. Her beauty caught the eyes of Preah Thong, a young Indian prince visiting the area. Falling in love with the princess at first sight, the prince asked the Naga king for her hand in marriage. The king refused to give his permission unless the prince defeated Naga’s most powerful warrior. The prince won the contest, and the marriage took place. Keeping his word, the Naga king swallowed the water to uncover the land that is now known as Cambodia and gave it to the newlywed couple as a wedding gift.
Throughout Cambodia’s long history, religion has been a major source of cultural inspiration. Over nearly two millennia, Cambodians have developed a unique Khmer belief from the syncreticism of indigenous animistic beliefs and the Indian religions of Buddhism and Hinduism.
According to Bao, this year’s festival highlighted 800-1500 AD, known as the Angkorian period, when Cambodia reached its zenith to become the most powerful nation in Southeast Asia. During this time, many kings had built several thousand monuments, many of which still exist in Cambodia today.
“We work to empower our community, bridge distances, heal rifts and build bonds,” wrote Bao in a festival brochure. “Today is a day to promote Cambodian culture to the next highest level.”