Come join the 2018 White Center Cambodian New Year Street Festival!

by Bao Nguyen
April 24, 2018

Cambodian New Year performance.

Growing up in White Center, one of the events I always looked forward to was the annual Cambodian New Year Street Festival. It was lively, loud, and fun and, even though I’m Vietnamese, the festival felt warmly familiar with its assortment of unique but easily relatable cultural traditions, foods, and customs – Vietnamese people also celebrate a traditional New Year based on the lunar calendar.

This year marks the 16th anniversary of the festival and I haven’t been to one in a long time. Curious about how the festival is going, I reached out to the Cambodian Cultural Alliance of Washington (CCAW), the community group responsible for the festival, to learn more about Cambodian New Year and the event itself.

I met with one of CCAW’s members, Peter Chum, at Golden House Bakery, the unofficial headquarters of CCAW, where the team gathers for meetings. As I walked in, Peter immediately – and excitedly – introduced me to Pharin Kong, who owns the bakery with his wife and who Peter calls “one of the OG” responsible for forming CCAW and this festival. Kong brushes away the superlatives and told me that Peter can do the interview himself. The shop was closing soon so Peter and I headed over to DubSea.

The organizing team of the 2018 Cambodian New Year Festival in White Center.

Peter exudes enthusiasm as he tells me about the festival and CCAW. Like me, he grew up in White Center and considers it home. While in middle school, Peter was in a program with SafeFutures, a nonprofit that empowers youth of color and youth from low-income communities. The program introduced him and other kids to older people in the community who would give them advice and guidance. He met Kong there and the two stayed in touch ever since.

“My family came to America in 1981 and we’ve always had these programs supporting us,” Peter explains. “I told myself that once I completed college I’d go back and give back to my community.”

He joined CCAW, which has about 15 members but no official titles as they’re “all volunteers and no one is getting paid.” The only thing close to a title are “core members” who have been there for many years and “regular members” who are newer to the team.

Cambodian dessert with sticky rice and banana wrapped in banana leaf.

Peter says that there’s a bit of a language barrier as the group is now intergenerational but they find ways to work together because what unites them is a common passion and love for the community.

“We want people to know that there are Cambodians here and this is our culture. We could be your neighbor, your mailman, and even your friend! The goal with this event is to display Cambodian culture in a beautiful way through art, food, and games.”

The event itself is a hodgepodge of activities.

For entertainment, there is a live band playing Cambodian music, a DJ, and traditional dance & instrument groups from around King County. There is also a banana eating contest and a dessert cooking competition. Food, of course, will be plentiful – Peter says to look for a new year staple, a banana and sticky rice dessert wrapped in banana leaf. The festival also serves as a resource fair, providing booths for organizations offering services to the community.

Cambodian New Year celebration.

In Cambodia, New Year is a 3-day affair that involves visits to the temple, volunteering and doing good with friends and family, and a ritual washing of the Buddha. But how do Cambodians in the U.S. celebrate it?

“Here it’s a little different,” Pater says through a hearty laugh. “We dance, we party, we drink, we karaoke. That’s the Cambodian American experience!”

He quickly follows up with a more sincere explanation of what this event means to the Cambodian community.

“This festival gives a voice to us; an identity. It gives me a sense of pride and validation that I’m a Cambodian American and I can be happy about that. It helps the younger generation know that their identity is important, their culture is important.”