Most are in their 20s, some their early 30s, and they’ve clearly known each other a long time. They are truck drivers, landscapers, construction workers—the speediest routes to something like a living wage for immigrants with strong backs and ample determination. Young women often drift in, singly, in pairs, or with boyfriends; for all the conspicuous male bonding, no one seems to mind or harass them. In early evening, parents sometimes bring their kids; tonight one toddler watches enthralled as his dad spins a can of coconut juice on a wobbly stool seat, then tries the trick himself; a school-age girl watches the lyrics roll by on a karaoke video. She’s the granddaughter of Sameth Yim, the third partner, who’s stopped by to replenish the beer supply and eat a bite before returning to the clothing and sundries shop she runs three blocks away. Sameth sits quietly, setting out cards in a crossed circle that looks like a fancy solitaire variation and is actually a mode of fortune telling, then turns to the picture-decked wall with a faraway look, as though she sees something there that others don’t.
When football’s not on, the three TVs play karaoke. The videos—showing cooing lovers, moping solitary men, Cambodian pastorales, and Californian cityscapes—are new. But the songs they enact are mostly old: classics from Cambodia’s musical heyday, the peaceful, fondly remembered “prince time” of the late 1950s and 1960s, before the killing began and the country collapsed. A painting hanging by the stage depicts the singer who epitomized that period, just as the Beatles did ’60s England. His name was Sin Si Samouth; Many Uch calls him “the Frank Sinatra of Cambodia,” but he was also its Elvis and Bob Dylan. Samouth could rock and croon, melding traditional Khmer tunes with Latin rhythms and screeching guitar. He got himself thrown in jail for his protest songs, and outgrowled Dylan in a Khmer version of “House of the Rising Sun,” transmuting its untranslatable lyrics into a lover’s lament. Many Uch is surprised to learn that Samouth’s Khmer version of the J. S. Bach–inspired Procol Harum hit “Whiter Shade of Pale” wasn’t the original: “It fits with the Cambodian beat,” he explains. Its mournful keening also suits the Cambodian mood, and Many’s and Sin Si Samouth’s experiences in particular.
Samouth refused to flee in 1975, when the neo-Maoist Khmer Rouge overran a Cambodia shaken by Vietnam War spillover, massive American bombing, and a U.S.-supported military coup. The Khmer Rouge initiated a reign of terror unmatched since the Nazi Holocaust, exterminating ethnic and religious minorities, the educated elite, and anyone else who stood out or stood up. As many as 1.7 million people—a fifth of Cambodia’s population—perished, including its Frank Sinatra.
After Vietnamese troops toppled the Khmer Rouge in January 1979, the United States responded with strategies both cynical and compassionate. It let the Khmer Rouge keep Cambodia’s United Nations seat and encouraged China and Thailand to support their counterattack on the Vietnamese-installed government in Phnom Penh. At the same time, the U.S. admitted about 150,000 Cambodians who’d wound up in Thai refugee camps, along with a million refugees who’d fled Vietnam and Laos after Communist victories there.
Most of the patrons at Chea’s Place were born after Sin Si Samouth died; they left Cambodia as young children and grew up on South Seattle’s mean streets. And yet they sing his paeans to the homeland they never knew, in a language many cannot read and whose inflections have changed markedly since his day. One even offered Slogn Hean, another partner in the pool hall, four times what he’d paid for the portrait of Samouth. “But I can’t sell it,” says Slogn, with the trademark grin he cracks to express everything from delight to weary resignation. “It belongs here.”
On another night, Many and his older brother Chan, a man with a heavy heart but the dashing looks of a movie pirate, sing along to Samouth together, their eyes half-closed and expressions rapt. “Many has the voice, not me,” grins Slogn, who never sings. At 38, Slogn’s nearly a decade older than most of the others here; arriving in America at the advanced age of 16, he retained an accent and missed out on much that has defined their lives: school, hip-hop, gangs, guns, cops, jails. But he beams as the younger guys belt out tunes from the old country. He dashes about, replacing their beers, and pauses to play a game of pool—the lucky host who can enjoy his own party. This, rather than any profit to be made selling beer and pizza, is what drives him to operate the pool hall. “It was just a social thing, not for money. [Many] made good money already, I made good money. We thought, ‘Why we need to make more money?’ We just thought we could make a place where Cambodian kids can go, not get in trouble, maybe learn something, maybe want to go to Cambodia.”
Be careful what you wish for; going back is a fraught question and a bitter prospect right now, for Many Uch and many young Cambodians.