Hong Do, owner and co-founder of Phnom Penh, a Cambodian restaurant in the Laurel district of Oakland. Credit: Amir Aziz

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When Hong Do, 56, and his family arrived in Oakland from Cambodia in 1981, they weren’t sure how they were going to make a living. “None of us had any skills at all,” said Do.

Four decades later, Hong and his family own and operate a successful restaurant, Phnom Penh Restaurant, with locations in Oakland and Alameda. The Oakland restaurant, on 3912 MacArthur Blvd. in the Laurel neighborhood, is run by Hong and his wife Zhen Do; the Alameda location on 1514 Webster St. is operated by his younger siblings, Ty and Linda Do. The original location, opened by their parents in Oakland’s Chinatown in 1983, closed in 2017.

Both of the current locations, which mainly relied on dine-in orders before the pandemic, have had to adjust. Hong kept the restaurants afloat by having them prepare meals for the Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants. The nonprofit, which is based in East Oakland, partnered with World Central Kitchen to provide free meals during the pandemic to Cambodian and South Asian community members.

Sophal Yin, an outreach worker and translator at the center, recommended Phnom Penh to World Central Kitchen because she loved eating at their old Chinatown location. “This is what my people need during this time, food from their home,” said Yin. “Maybe we can’t go to Cambodia right now, but we can still give them food.” Another popular restaurant, Cambodian Street Food, is also providing meals.

Most of the food assistance is going to Cambodian seniors who came to Oakland in the late-1970s to escape violence at the hands of the Khmer Rouge. “These are all genocide survivors,” said Yin, a survivor herself. When the pandemic began last spring, she said, many Cambodian elders began hoarding basic food items like rice because the situation reminded them of the starvation they experienced during the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.

The Center for Empowering Refugees and Immigrants is currently operating a food drive two days a week and providing grocery shopping services for the elderly. Yin said the need for these services in Oakland’s Cambodian community, especially among the elderly, is great. “Some of them have six, seven grandchildren and are unemployed,” she said.

Hong, whose own family left Cambodia to escape the war, feels good providing the meals to his people during a difficult time. “It’s touching to know that you can do something,” Hong said, “to impact their lives a little bit.”

This writer instantly became a fan of Phnom Penh after sampling their dishes. The samlaw machhou, a traditional Cambodian soup served with chicken or seafood, had a perfect balance of sweetness, tang, and spice.

“Phnom Penh is so good,” Yin told The Oaklandside. “I told Hong that anyone who tries it once will be hooked.”

Separated by war, united by food

Hong’s family are Chinese Cambodians—Cambodian citizens of Chinese descent—a prevalent ethnic group in the country. His father Kuon Do fled China shortly after World War II to escape communist rule. His mother Quach Do is half Chinese and half ethnic Cambodian. Both his father and grandfather were merchants in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.

Hong’s uncle, George Do, was the first to arrive in Oakland in 1979, and sponsored his relatives through the Refugee Act of 1980. The Do family left Cambodia to escape persecution from the Khmer Rouge government, which brutally killed millions of citizens between 1975 and 1979 in what is known as the Cambodian Genocide. The country was also in the midst of a war with neighboring Vietnam, a bloody conflict that started in the late 1970s and ended in 1989.

While Hong’s elder siblings worked factory jobs to support the family, George Do invested in a storefront on Eighth Street in Chinatown. He originally planned to open a restaurant with a friend, but a disagreement made him reconsider, and he ended up going into business with his older brother Kuon Do, Hong’s father, instead.

“Starting a restaurant was the best investment because it doesn’t require much capital,” Hong said. “One of the reasons we’ve lasted so long is because everybody chipped in, and also because everybody wasn’t demanding a paycheck.”

Despite sharing a last name, the Do family didn’t know each other extremely well prior to starting their business. That’s because the family, along with many others in Cambodia, had been separated and forced to live in different camps by the Khmer Rouge. Hong’s sister, Linda Do, likened the experience to the 1984 film, “The Killing Fields,” which follows the story of two journalists covering the Cambodian genocide. “It was 100% worse than that,” she said.

The Do siblings were divided based on age: Linda was three years old and stayed with her parents, while her older siblings went to different camps. The Khmer regime allowed families to reunite once a month, Linda said, for what she referred to as “family bonding time.”

The family remained separated until Hong and Linda’s parents managed to get in touch with George in 1979, who had fled to Thailand and sought asylum in the U.S. shortly after. According to Hong, their father thought it was best to send family members to the U.S. in groups. Hong’s parents were the last to arrive in Oakland, where they were all reunited in 1983.

Linda and her brother Ty were still in high school when the restaurant opened. Once school let out, they would finish their homework, then go to work at Phnom Penh. “It was fun but it was tough,” recalled Linda of those early years. “Either you make it or you break it.”

Working with her brothers and sisters every day, said Linda, helped strengthen their family bonds. But she had no intention of staying in the service industry forever. “When I got to college I told my parents, ‘Mom and dad, this is it! I’m done working in a restaurant,’” she said.

Linda studied biochemistry at San Francisco State and worked as a laboratory technician and dental assistant for several years before getting married and having children. It was then that she decided to return to the family business. “When you’re self-employed you have more free time, so I got to spend more time with my girls,” she said. Returning home also meant spending more time with the rest of her family, especially her brother Ty. When the Chinatown location was still open, she said, the two siblings could often be found there, eating bowls of noodles together.

Hong also had no plans of working at Phnom Penh forever. He had just finished high school when the restaurant opened, and attended San Francisco State while working part-time as a waiter and cashier. “Originally I didn’t want to stay in the restaurant business, but I would come home and see my parents were tired,” said Do. “I felt very guilty about that and started helping, and eventually got stuck there.”

Hong remembers working seven days a week from morning until night in the early days of the business. Now with a family of his own, he’s made peace with his decision to remain there. “Now that my kids are in college,” he said, “It’s best to keep going.”

Phnom Penh Restaurant is located at 3912 MacArthur Blvd. It is open 11 a.m to 8 p.m, Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m to 8:30 p.m, Friday and Saturday; closed on Sunday.

Ricky Rodas is a member of the 2020 graduating class of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Oaklandside, he spent two years reporting on immigrant communities in the Bay Area as a reporter for the local news sites Oakland North, Mission Local, and Richmond Confidential. Rodas, who is Salvadoran American and bilingual, is on The Oaklandside team through a partnership with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities.