First Annual Cambodian Heritage Day Showcases Minnesota’s Cambodian Community

Asia ASEAN The Mekong

The Minnesota History Center hosted a vibrant celebration of culture and community as Minnesota embraced the spirit of Cambodia on Cambodian Heritage Day!

The Minnesota History Center celebrated Cambodian Heritage Day for the first time on the 23rd of September 2023. The purpose of the ceremony was to introduce Minnesotans to diverse aspects of Cambodian culture through native cultural performances, traditional foods, and antiques.

The event included a variety of performances that engaged hundreds of locals in St. Paul and even encouraged some to travel long distances to experience this event. A prominent role that some participants volunteered for was as cultural interpreters, where they were tasked with researching the Khmer Empire and writing descriptions of historical and cultural components for members of the broader community. One volunteer who had this duty also dressed up for an Angkorian Fashion Show as a Queen of the Khmer Empire.

Additionally, some participants dedicated themselves to music-related activities. The Wattanak Dance Troupe – a group founded to preserve Cambodian folk and classical dance – prepared immensely for the event, and their performers showcased dances such as the Robam Chuoy Chay Chomtong and Robam Prey Proseth. As the evening progressed, various songs were sung, including "Magnolia of Pailin" performed by Somnang Kong and "You Will Regret" rendered by Ny Khem. Traditional foods were served for people while watching these performances, including Cambodian meat skewers and sweet snacks with sesame.

Kim Sin, a proponent of the Cambodian community in Rochester, stated to KAAL – the ABC affiliate for Southeast Minnesota and Northern Iowa – before the festival that his culture has a lot of charm and beauty. With the varied cultural activities people experienced, that charm seemed to be felt.

Exploring the Local and National Tapestry of US-Cambodia Relations

Minnesota is home to a significant number of Asian Americans, where Southeast Asian ethnicities – Hmong, Vietnamese, Lao, and Cambodian – make up nearly 60 percent of the state’s Asian population of 313,233. Within that subsection of the population, Cambodian Americans are a smaller group, but still have a population of 12,000 primarily concentrated in the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The current population of Cambodian Americans in Minnesota can be traced back to the initial wave of immigrants who arrived in the state during the 1980s. Most of them were refugees fleeing violence and genocide carried out by the Khmer Rouge. Nowadays, more have come on visas tied to employment and family. This recent history of Cambodian immigration to the United States is evident through data, where in 2013 it was found that only 41% were US-born while 59% were born abroad.

Cambodian Americans were quick to set up roots in Minnesota and established vibrant communities with a growing cultural influence. One of the starkest indications of this expanding presence was the establishment of the Buddhist temple of Watt Munisotaram, the largest of its kind in the United States. This temple aims to communicate and ensure the longevity of Cambodian traditions in Minnesota, where earlier this year, Magha Puja – a holiday marking the gathering of 1,250 of Budda’s first disciplines – was hosted at the religious site. Likewise, the Lao, Tamil, and Cambodian communities have celebrated their version of New Year at the temple for many years. Significantly, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz became the first sitting governor to visit Watt Munisotaram to celebrate its 35th anniversary in August 2023.

At the national level, the United States and Cambodia have had a deep commitment to sharing and protecting their respective cultures. For example, both countries have signed agreements aiming to persevere heritage sites and prevent smuggling of artifacts from Cambodia. As part of these initiatives, the United States has contributed $6 million to the upkeep of Cambodia's historic attractions and collections, which include Angkor Archaeological Park and the Phnom Bakheng Temple – two major heritage sites which hold importance to Cambodian Americans, many of whom are Minnesotans. Such national partnerships paired with local celebrations like the Cambodian Heritage Day exemplify the continued importance of Cambodian culture to the United States.

Cambodian Americans in Minnesota have faced extraordinary challenges, particularly those who fled the upheaval in Cambodia during the 1970s and 1980s. Despite these hardships, they have tenaciously upheld their traditions and established a dynamic diaspora community. Their growing influence has culminated in the establishment of Cambodian Heritage Day, which will be commemorated in the state for years to come.

Shubhankar Agarwal is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student at American University’s School of International Service, where he is focusing on global governance, economic, and gender issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

Matthew Willis is a Young Professional at the East-West Center in Washington. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, majoring in International Relations, Economics, Government, and East Asian Studies.