The father extended his cupped hands in supplication. In them, he held a small amount of discarded rice from the field. He asked the overseer, pleadingly, respectfully, “Uncle, it’s only a little, and my family is hungry.”
The older man made an indefinite gesture of impatience that Youleng Heng chose to interpret as permission. Happily, he took his pittance of a treasure home to his mother, wife and son. It was a small win in the fight to stay alive. But Heng didn’t know he might die for the rice.
It had started in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge communists entered Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia (also called Kampuchea). They were flush with the arrogance of their victory in the civil war that deposed the military government. Heng, 29, was one of millions caught in the net of insanity that Pol Pot (a nasty piece of work) and his Maoist zealots inflicted on that historically tranquil Buddhist land.
The Khmer Rouge were clear as to their intent — revenge and ideological cleansing. Murder was an everyday occurrence. Heng recalls some rebels-turned-rulers stopping a family in the street and accusing the man of being an army soldier. Despite the wife’s frantic protests that he was not, the man was pulled off to the side of the road and shot, and his body left where it fell.
The Khmer Rouge were suspicious of the capitalist inclinations of Cambodians who lived in the cities, and decided that some hard living in the countryside might imbue them with proper socialistic sensibilities. Or kill them. Whichever worked.
Many urban dwellers were murdered on a whim as unreformable. The Khmer Rouge wanted to rid the nation of Western influences and return to their fantasy of an agrarian, commune-type culture. They didn’t mention country cooking, because there was darned little to cook.
Consequently, millions of Cambodians were pushed into farmland made infamous as the “killing fields” by the movie of that name. The land already could harvest only enough to feed those who farmed it. Inevitably, because of starvation, disease and executions, perhaps 2 million people, a quarter of the population, died in almost four years of that frenzy. No one counted the bodies; they only knew whose faces were never again seen.
Heng proudly took his pitiful amount of rice home to parcel out a few grains to his Chinese-Cambodian wife, Mengchou, their infant son, and his parents and in-laws. Later that day, Heng’s survival antenna picked up that he would be accused of stealing the rice, and his life was in danger. Wisely, he went to the nearby river to hide under the pretext of hunting for frogs.
Soon, two men came to his house looking for him. They carried twine with which to bind his hands, a certain sign of execution. They went away with the threat of returning later.
His mother went to the camp commander to plead for his life. She was not the man’s first tearful supplicant, and he was practiced at giving a hard glare for an answer. However, the mother had brought what little jewelry she owned and offered it to the man’s wife, who — praise be to Buddha — liked it, and who then asked her husband to spare Heng’s life. The man reluctantly agreed, but “only this one time.”
For four years, Heng and his family staved off starvation by scrambling creatively for food — fish, frogs, roots and whatever else could be eaten without vomiting. Around them, thousands died from a diet that fell below survival limits. However, it wasn’t just lack of food.
Disease is the opportunistic partner of starvation. As the lack of nutrition breaks down immunity defenses, microbes invade. The result: Starvation as a bringer of death often stands in line behind disease.
Many of Heng’s relatives died or were killed, but two, especially, bring a faraway look to his eyes. He recalls having to watch his baby girl die. “She have like diarrhea and fever and no medicine.” He sighs at the memory’s return. “She just die.”
His voice softens when he talks of his father’s death. “It’s kind of very sad, so sad. My dad, before he die, he just say, ‘Can you go to find a piece of meat about this big?’” Heng spreads his fingers to indicate a one-bite morsel. “Then after he got the meat, he eat, he die. He like happy, he can close eye.”
Today, the Hengs own the Golden Donuts shop on Governor Drive in San Diego’s University City, but that’s now. …
In 1975, before Cambodia turned upside down, Heng was a nurse’s assistant in an army hospital in Phnom Penh. When the Khmer Rouge took over, his life expectancy took a doleful plunge. Given his job, he became an automatic execution candidate.
“Because I’m work for the hospital of the army; everybody like a teacher or who work for the government, they take you right away and kill.”
Just like that?
“Yeah, just like that. I’m scared at that time and sweat, yeah.”
Heng attempted to convince his interrogators in the half-argue, half-plead voice of the powerless that he was a common worker. They demanded to know why his skin was not dark from the sun and his hands not calloused from manual labor. Somehow, he sneaked through their net.
In the forced exodus to the countryside, Heng says it became a death march for many. “Some big family have a lot of kid. Have a lot of parent, old people, and they stop to rest because their old people can’t walk very far. Pol Pot soldier push them, ‘Go, go, go, go, go.’ The family, they say, ‘Please, because my mom or my dad very old cannot walk.’ But the soldier beat them with club and gun.”
In the camp they and many thousands of others were sent to, each family had to cobble together a small bamboo hut to crowd into. The food grown in the area couldn’t possibly stretch, and there was no ground or tools to effectively grow more. But even with a horde of starving people, the Khmer Rouge maintained rigid control.
Heng explains how by recalling an incident. “The Khmer Rouge, they like make a rule if they find out someone who steal something, they take you and kill you right away. I saw one guy, he have two kid and his wife and another baby and he know they hungry, and then the guy, he go to steal (a single ear of) corn. Then the Khmer Rouge, they catch him and then tie him up and kill him.”
It was common for Khmer Rouge soldiers to look for younger women, daughters or wives, and rape them. Then, rather than have it reported (for whatever good that would do), they would kill their victims.
From the time they took over, the Khmer Rouge had a deteriorating relationship with their original patrons, the Vietnamese communist government. In December 1978, open war broke out, and the battle-hardened Vietnamese rolled through the Khmer Rouge like a Minnesota snowplow.
In the ensuing chaos, those in the camps like the Hengs scattered. He and his family were among the many who headed for Thailand and its refugee camps, which, of course, were soon overflowing. His father-in-law’s family hit gold and was accepted for immigration to the U.S. by the luck of a draw — literally.
The Heng family was expelled from Thailand and had to return to Cambodia because of overcrowding. For two months, they scratched out survival in a border village, then returned to a new camp in Thailand where they awoke every morning with hope, and went to bed every evening with despair. Finally, Heng wrote a letter to the U.S. Embassy that said, as he remembers, “We are Cambodian people. We run away because we don’t like to live in communist regime, so we want to go to the country who have like a freedom.”
In the camp, Heng volunteered to assist the medical personnel and earned the attention of some of the staff, an American nurse, especially. With their help, and the fact that he and his family could be sponsored by his father-in-law, now in the U.S., the family was granted entry to this country, where they arrived in 1980.
Heng’s mother elected to stay in Cambodia, where she died in 2004 at age 95.
Once settled in San Diego and with the help of welfare, he enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes and eventually was trained as a teacher’s aide, and assisted with Cambodian children. The problem was, there were no paychecks during summer vacation, and he had no savings to fall back on. His only source of outside income was from the aluminum cans he assiduously collected from about the moment he stepped off the plane.
Oh, and he changed his name from Youleng to Henry. If he’s going to be an American … in for a dime, in for a dollar.
At this point, we follow Henry Heng’s steps on the familiar path of the enterprising immigrant. It started with an offer from his sister-in-law: “She say, ‘You want to learn how to bake donut?’ I say, ‘Yeah,’ and then she bring me here to learn how to bake donut.”
I look around the backroom of the Golden Donuts shop where we sit, and ask: This very place?
“Yeah, this place. Her cousin was owner. About one month, I know how to bake, and then they buy another donut shop in Rancho Bernardo. Then they want me to go to work over there for baker.”
After one year in the Rancho Bernardo shop, he returned to Golden Donuts in 1984. The next year, Heng says the owner, a fellow Cambodian, asked, “Hey, you want to buy the business here?” “I say, ‘Oh, I want, I like it, but I don’t have enough money to do that.’ And he say, ‘Can you find about $3,000?’ I say, ‘Oh, let me try,’ and then I borrow the money from my sister-in-law and my mother-in-law.”
The rest is history, and that is why we sit today in the cramped owner’s suite, amid the pots and pans, of Golden Donuts. Mengchou is handling the counter out front that offers trays of sugary things at which I make the crossed-finger sign to ward off evil as I pass by.
There is steady traffic of familiar-acting patrons buying coffee, donuts, éclairs — curse you, chocolate temptress! — and bear claws.
The familiar road to immigrant business ownership was successfully traveled by the Hengs: low investment, acquirable skills and long hours for the whole family.
Mengchou, 60, and Henry, now 67, have raised three children here: the boy who was born in the Cambodian camps and two daughters born in the U.S. All three have completed advanced education and are in business — but not donut shops.
The Hengs probably don’t know much American history. But American history knows them. Their story fits right into the chapter titled, “The American Way.”
Henry and Mengchou aren’t rich, but they don’t owe us anything. They’ve paid their dues.
Fred Dickey’s home page is freddickey.net
His email is firstname.lastname@example.org