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'Just trying to grow up.' Cambodian refugee sees his Tacoma childhood in new photo book

News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. logoNews Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. 3/3/2021 Matt Driscoll, The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)

Mar. 3—The photos capture a time and a place — specifically, the vibrant culture and life emanating from a single Chicago street corner in the early 1990s.

For Silong Chhun — a Cambodian refugee who grew up 2,000 miles away on Tacoma's Eastside — they could just as well tell the stories of his youth.

That's why Chhun, 42, is drawn to the photographs, he says. In black and white, they document the life he recalls during a time filled with both immense struggle and beauty. The photos don't show his friends or his family, but they might as well.

It's a period Chhun — who co-founded of the Khmer Anti-Deportation Advocacy Group and now works as the digital communications manager at Pacific Lutheran University — often describes paradoxically.

Looking at the images — which fill the pages of the recently published, limited-run photo book "On the Corners of Argyle and Glenwood" — he recalls the underlying bleakness of survival and assimilation in the same breath as the nostalgia he holds for this chapter of his childhood.

"Looking at these pictures, it really reminds me of a time when there was a lot of uncertainty, because we didn't know what the future held," said Chhun, who collaborated with Seattle-based photographer Stuart Isett for the book that features Isett's nearly 30-year-old photos.

"But there's a lot of fun, there's a lot of camaraderie," Chhun continued. "There's joy in the struggle. There's joy in the pain."

It's just one of the things Chhun wants people to take away from the book, which he provided the words for and helped to curate along with New York-based photographer Pete Pin, who sequenced the photos.

Broadly, Chhun hopes the book will help to "humanize" the immigrant experience in the United States while also resonating for Cambodians like him, who were thrust into this country in the wake of genocide and civil war and, in many cases, left to fend for themselves.

"In order to move forward as a community ... I think we have to know where we come from and where our roots are," Chhun said. "The book is really trying to show that we're a family, and that refugees are people, not a burden."

Like thousands of Cambodian refugees, Chhun arrived in the United States with his family in the early 1980s. After U.S. bombing during the Vietnam War destabilized Cambodia and helped give rise to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime — which was ultimately responsible for the death of roughly 2 million people between 1975 and 1979 — Chhun's family settled in Tacoma Housing Authority's low-income Salishan development.

Halfway across the country, Isett began photographing the Cambodian refugees that lived near his apartment in Chicago in 1991.

As the book's title suggests, this took him to the corner of Argyle and Glenwood on the city's north side, where many of the refugees had settled in circumstances not unlike the one Chhun's family faced in Tacoma.

The project became all-consuming, Isett recalled this week, ultimately spanning three years for a young grad student getting his footing in photography.

At the time, Chhun would have been growing into adolescence, or — as Isett tells it — "like a 10-year old boy in the back of the room" in one of the book's photos.

"He definitely represents the next generation of Khmer," Isett said of Chhun, who he met and befriended prior to collaborating on the project.

Having studied Southeast Asian history, Isett said he was drawn to photography of Chicago's Cambodian refugee community by the desire to document a particular moment in history. It helped that he spoke Thai, he recalled

Three decades later, Isett said he's thrilled that the work is being rediscovered, either online or through the new book.

The greatest satisfaction comes when refugees like Chhun discover it and "recognize this moment in their lives," he said.

"That's the most important thing and the most rewarding thing, as opposed to getting (pictures) hung up in a museum and everyone sits around and sips wine and cheese and goes, 'Good work,' and you get a prize," Isett said.

Looking back on his life and at the photos that make up the book, Chhun said he's struck by the resiliency of a population that survived almost unfathomable bloodshed in their homeland.

The new life refugees encountered in the United States was scored by poverty and disillusionment, and even as a boy walking to middle school the threat of gang violence was ever present, he recalled. More recently, some Cambodian refugees have faced the threat of deportation for crimes they committed long ago.

Still, many young people found a second family on the streets, Chhun said. At home, the traditions brought from remote villages were clung to and cherished. Outside the front door, those growing up in an unfamiliar urban environment formed bonds of protection, friendship and survival, developing a culture influenced by hip-hop and the struggle that surrounded them.

"Flipping through the photos now, you see ... dancing, and people getting married, and home-made tattoos. You see camaraderie, family, and just trying to figure out how to love," Chhun said

"The photos ... are really a metaphor for the common Cambodian American experience, of just trying to grow up."

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