‘The Mother of Cambodia Town’ Rosana Chanou, co-founder of Cambodia Town Initiative Task Force, dies of lung cancer

Rosana+Chanou%2C+%27The+Mother+of+Cambodia+Town%22+died+Sept.+22+of+lung+cancer.+She+was+instrumental+in+the+designation+of+Cambodia+Town+on+the+Anaheim+Street+corridor.+%28Illustration+by+Emma+DiMaggio+%7C+Signal+Tribune%29

Rosana Chanou, ‘The Mother of Cambodia Town” died Sept. 22 of lung cancer. She was instrumental in the designation of Cambodia Town on the Anaheim Street corridor. (Illustration by Emma DiMaggio | Signal Tribune)

Last Friday, Oct. 9, community members gathered to celebrate the life of Rosana Chanou, 69, who died of lung cancer on Sept. 22.

“She touched many lives in the community. She was an auntie to me and a mother to others,” Monorom Neth, vice-chair of Cambodia Town Inc. and longtime friend of Chanou, said. “Those that knew her best commonly know her as the Mother of Cambodia Town.”

She’s survived by her husband Pasin, their three children and spouses and three grandchildren.

Born in Cambodia in 1951, Chanou immigrated to the United States and made a home in Long Beach in the early ‘70s.

Nearly two decades ago, Chanou co-founded the Cambodia Town Initiative Task Force, where she was instrumental in the designation of Cambodia Town, a parcel of the “International City” on the Anaheim Street corridor.

“Without her, we wouldn’t have a Cambodia Town in Long Beach,” said Kerry Chhay, who often volunteered with Chanou at Cambodian cultural events. “She was always the last one to leave.”

When it comes to Cambodian organizing, it’s hard to find a group that Chanou wasn’t a member of. She was an honorary founder of the Cambodia Town Neighborhood Association, a board member of the Cambodian Coordinating Council, an organizer with the Cambodia New Year Parade Association and the treasurer of Cambodia Town Inc. until her death.

All the while, Chanou was working full-time as a software engineer at Boeing. The company, which matched all of her donations, also gave her a stipend for her volunteer work. She forwarded all the money to Cambodian nonprofits, like the Khmer Arts Academy.

“How many people would do that?” Neth said. “Her and [her husband] Pasin, never ever wanted to be recognized. Even if we offered it to them, they didn’t want it.”

“That’s why it hurts so much,” Neth said, his voice breaking in between words. “We lost a treasure.”

Linda Reach, a member of the Cambodia Town Neighborhood Association, worked directly under Chanou when she first began organizing in Cambodia Town. She described Chanou as a go-getter, someone who was motivated and dedicated to her community.

“She had a great smile about her,” Reach said. “When I learned of her passing, it hurt. It affected my concentration, but it motivated me at the same time. ‘We have to get back on track. We have to be strong.’”

“I know that [Cambodia Town] is not like the Downtown Area, where everything is a little more modernized and up-to-date,” Reach said. “But if you really come here, it’s a diamond in the rough.”

For decades, the area has been home to Long Beach’s Cambodian community, many of whom immigrated from Cambodia to escape the Killing Fields. The city has the highest population of Cambodians anywhere besides Cambodia itself.

Chanou’s work didn’t end with the official designation of Cambodia Town. She and the nonprofit went further, working to showcase Cambodian culture through festivals and community events.

“Without them, we wouldn’t have the freeway signs. We wouldn’t have the signs on the street. The cultural festival, all of these things are really being done by a handful of people,” Secretary of Cambodia Town Mariko Kahn said. “She was one of the key movers.”

Kahn described her as a perfectionist. “If she said she was going to do something, you didn’t need to follow up. It was going to be done, and done right,” Kahn said.

Her “do it right” mentality seeped into her daily life. Kahn recollected Chanou’s kitchen remodel, a task that quickly transformed into a two-year project to renovate her entire home.

Neth said he, Chanou and a group of friends would often go to karaoke to celebrate a successful Cambodia Town event. Neth remembered one particular instance at a karaoke restaurant. Chanou and her husband Pasin were singing a duet of a Cambodian song.

“A few of us were in the background, doing backup dancing. My wife posted it online to Facebook, and Rosana’s sister from Virginia wrote something that sticks with me to this day,” Neth said. “She said, ‘I don’t know which is worse, the singer or the backup dancer.’”

“She didn’t care. She just wanted to have fun,” Neth said. “She couldn’t carry a tune and I couldn’t dance to save my life, but we did it because it was fun. And that’s why I miss her, because she’d always get out of her comfort zone.”

After a moment, Neth reflected on his statement, “I don’t know if she had a comfort zone because she’d be the first one to do anything.” He remembers preparing for the Cambodian fish dance at an event, and the team had just received the costumes. Chanou was the first to put one on the outfit.

“She’s not very talkative, but she had a distinctive laugh,” Neth said. “If you walk into a room and hear a high-pitched laugh, that’s her.”

“That’s one thing I always remembered about her, was her laugh.”

Others, like Kahn, remember Chanou bringing fresh fruits and vegetables to board members. She was an avid gardener, and Neth remembers going over to her house to pick up fruit before her death.

“We were literally on the sidewalk and she just opened the door and we talked to each other,” Neth said. “It was a sad day, because usually we’d give each other a hug because I love her so much, but this time we didn’t get to see each other close.”

Neth and his wife would call Chanou’s husband to check up on her treatment. She had been undergoing chemotherapy during the pandemic. Her leadership and guidance was much-missed during the organization of this year’s Cambodia Town Cultural Parade and Festival.

“Her being gone, it leaves a void in the community,” Chhay said. “There’s no one like her, her caliber, to fill her shoes.”

At her funeral service on Saturday, Neth gave a eulogy.

“I got choked up. We were supposed to be mourning the loss of this great person,” Neth said. “I said, ‘No, we came here to celebrate the life of the Mother of Cambodia Town.’”