One of the pictures hanging at Chea’s Place, painted in Cambodia from a photo taken in Seattle, shows a handsome, full-bodied woman, impeccably coifed and made up, in traditional dress and golden crown, beaming with maternal pride beside a young man in a tux with an incipient moustache and a ready-for-anything look. The woman is Sameth Yim, the quiet partner in Chea’s Place, in a happier time, and her then-16-year-old son Chea. It was she who first decided to buy the business, for reasons even more personal and deeply felt than those driving Slogn.
I first met Sameth in early 1989, thanks to an introduction—or more precisely, a deputation—from halfway around the world. A few months earlier, on an extended journalistic passage through Indochina, I’d run into some touring American professors in Phnom Penh; anything or anyone American was a rare encounter then in the nations of Indochina. Their local guide was excited to discover I lived in Seattle. Please, he asked, would I come meet his parents at their farm outside town, and would the tour leader bring his camera? Henceforth I was on a mission, bearing Polaroids of a white-haired couple, standing by their stilted house and jackfruit trees, and the letter they’d written to the daughter they had not seen in 20 years, who they heard had lately reached America and landed somewhere near Seattle.
In 1969 they’d sent their 11-year-old daughter Sameth to attend school and stay with an aunt in another part of Cambodia, which soon became a war zone. She and her aunt fled repeatedly, from Vietnamese incursions, American bombing, Pol Pot. When the Khmer Rouge took power, Sameth and thousands of other children were rounded up to be raised collectively and indoctrinated. In 1978 she was married, in a joint ceremony with 44 other arranged couples, to a man as lean and sere as she is hearty and warm. When the Vietnamese swept in, Sameth fled again with her new husband, hiding in mountain caves. In 1984 they reached America with their two children—a third was soon to be born. An Indian-American missionary they’d met in the camps invited them to Seattle.
“I come live in his house, go to church every day,” Sameth recalls. She applied for subsidized housing and wound up, as did thousands of Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees, where it was readily available: at the 569-unit Park Lake Homes, the King County Housing Authority’s largest project, just across West Roxbury Street from Seattle proper in White Center. That was where I tracked her down and handed her the letter from her long-lost parents. She seemed both grateful and relieved to learn they were alive, and a little apprehensive, as though she knew she now had more souls to support. Support her parents she did, as millions of immigrant children do, taking money to her parents, buying this and building that. Eventually she brought them to America.
When the Khmer Rouge took power, Sameth and thousands of other children were rounded up to be raised collectively.
Later I was invited down to Park Lake for family occasions: Sameth’s nephew’s “birthday party” (celebrated, as is traditional, at the one-year mark, when a child has fair odds of surviving) and a friend’s lavish wedding (with the obligatory seven dishes for good luck). Sameth was cheerful, blunt, and brassy. She compensated for shortfalls in her English with gestures, a damn-thetorpedoes disregard for grammatical niceties, and sheer insistence on being understood. In White Center’s little Cambodia, she often didn’t need English.
White Center wasn’t always that way. In the 1940s, when Park Lake’s modest tract houses were thrown up to accommodate incoming hordes of Boeing workers, and for decades thereafter, it really was white: “My sister and I were the only nonwhite kids in the high school, other than exchange students,” recalls Filipino community leader Sharon Maeda, who arrived as a child in 1956 when Boeing recruited her engineer father. “It was very much a redneck kind of area. Merchants would not serve my parents. My mother was afraid to let us walk down the street.” Even then, says Maeda, “White Center was a dumping ground. Everyone was passing through. No one wanted to stay.”
Three decades later, White Center was still a dumping ground, but it was a relatively easy place for industrious immigrants like Sameth Yim to get a leg up. The sliding-scale rent at Park Lake was so low, even low-wage workers could save money. Sameth cleaned houses and offices and got enough jobs to hire other cleaners—including Slogn, her future partner in the pool hall. She began making trips to Cambodia, transporting money and medicines from refugees to their families and buying jewelry, clothing, cassettes, videotapes, paintings, and knickknacks to sell here. She and Slogn opened a boutique a block off the main drag, beside a popular neighborhood hangout: a Cambodian doughnut shop that also serves rice porridge and superstrong coffee with condensed milk. Lavish Cambodian wedding dresses were an especially lucrative line; the burgeoning refugee community had a lot of marrying and celebrating to catch up on after years of fleeing and huddling in camps.
Sameth’s husband operated a landscaping business—good money, paid in cash. They were climbing the classic immigrant ladder. Then, in 1995, their Khmer Rouge–arranged marriage fell apart. He ran off with her gold jewelry and a young woman who worked in her shop; she stumbled into the maze of the American legal system. Sameth hired an attorney at an office nearby, but he withdrew three weeks before the divorce trial; he told me soon after that he couldn’t deal with the language difficulties, cultural differences, conflicting accounts, possible “fraud,” Sameth’s husband’s stonewalling, and her reluctance to “pursue him hard” for child support. “And,” he added, “I didn’t think she’d ever pay me.”
Sameth went into family court alone; her husband was represented by an attorney (young, Asian, and female). Even after the judge approved the divorce terms, Sameth thought they weren’t final because, she told me, “I don’t sign anything.” They were. She received custody of their three children, $25 a month in support for each (which he didn’t pay), and tens of thousands of dollars in credit-card debt. “The system is rigid,” said the lawyer who’d withdrawn from her case. “It works well for 90 percent of the people, but not all. These are the people who fall through the cracks.”
Sameth worked even harder; she continued running her store by day and took a night shift making cookies in a Vietnamese-run factory for $7 an hour, dozing when business was slow or the factory machines jammed. I bargained with the collection agencies and settled her debts; she paid back every penny without my ever asking. I sought no interest, but cartons of food—fried shrimp on rice, salted fish in spicy sauce—kept appearing mysteriously at my house.