How a local artist has found his power within the Long Beach Cambodian community.
Sayon Syprasoeuth, 53, has lived in Long Beach since the ‘80s, but he arrived from Cambodia by way of Iowa. As Cambodian refugees, he and his family were sponsored by a local church.
“We were the only Asian family in Iowa and everyone else was white as snow. They were wonderful people, but we were just completely in culture shock,” Sypraspeuth said. In 1984, his family eventually made it to Long Beach to join the growing Asian community.
Since then, Sypraseouth has been on a journey working his way through his own experience of culture shock and trauma. Art became his mode of processing. Art also opened a door for his role as a leader, engaging with his community to help those that find themselves in similar situations where he once found himself.
In the last few years, Sypraseouth has connected with his community by registering eligible voters, helping every community member be counted in the census, and even providing art therapy to help others process their trauma. But all of those initiatives didn’t come naturally to him.
“When I came to this country, I was 8. I really didn’t know how to engage, participate in the community,” he said. “I internalized a lot of the survival instincts of just being invisible. When you are quiet and invisible, you really don’t get picked on, you know?”
The willingness to put himself out there for his community came once he began working at the United Cambodian Community (UCC) of Long Beach about seven years ago. He started by teaching art to the local youth, but has since then expanded his work outside of his art. In partnership with other local organizations, Syprasoeuth and the UCC mobilized the whole community to make Long Beach history.
“I think we have a lot of voting civic power, especially in the Cambodian Community, in terms of registering and physically going out there to vote. They really see that it makes a difference. In District 6, that area just elected Councilwoman Suely Saro,” he said.
Councilwoman Saro was elected to represent District 6 in the November 2020 elections. She is the first Cambodian American to be elected for any position in the entire history of the city of Long Beach.
When asked about the most recent wave of anti-Asian hate crimes, Sypraseouth made it clear that he believes elected officials have the power to make a difference, making that historic election of District 6 that much more significant.
“I think we continuously should be engaged and active until our voices are heard,” he said. “We commemorate, we go out there and we protest. But I think we have to really hold the leaders’ feet to the fire and really bring the community together,”
Outside of working with UCC, Sypraseouth’s imprint on the community is visible by his public art. His two most recent murals are found in Cambodia Town. One at the UCC (2201 E Anaheim St.), and the other at Serenity Care Health Group (2100 E Anaheim St).
The murals themselves are a symbol of the vibrant community. The designs come together as a communal effort, and local artists volunteer to help create the artwork. They speak to Sypraseouth’s purpose.
“Anything is possible for everyone. It’s not just for me to be able to do these things. I used to think that it was not possible for me, like it was limited. But until you make the connection and build bridges and build a network, then that’s when things start happening,” he said. “So you first have to just go out there and get out of your comfort zone and start doing things that you want to do.”