Planting Seeds of Hope in the Killing Fields
Photo by Jerad Gallinger/Torontoist.
Angkor Restaurant, Toronto’s first Cambodian eatery, is set to shut its doors after twelve years of business. Founded by Chandaramony Eang in 1997, the Gerrard Street East fixture has had a good run, earning praise for its affordable and delectable fare.
But while Angkor is certainly not the only local enterprise to meet its end in the midst of the current recession, the reasons for its impending closure are more complex than a simple matter of economics. Eang, a Cambodian refugee who first came to Canada in 1985, is selling his beloved restaurant so that he can return to his homeland to help impoverished villagers through his charity, Aid for Victims of Cambodian Landmines (AVCLM).
Chandaramony Eang stands below a portrait of his grandfather inside his Gerrard Street East restaurant. Photo by Jerad Gallinger/Torontoist.
Over tea and pad thai on a snowy January afternoon, Eang explained how thirty years of war plummeted his country from prosperity into destitution. “Cambodia used to be a country that would [produce] a lot of rice and grain and sell it around the [region]: to China, Malaysia, Thailand, and Vietnam. Countries would buy from Cambodia. Now, because the landmines crippled the economy, Cambodians cannot even produce enough grain to feed themselves. My people used to sell grain around the world. Now they beg for food.”
Eang witnessed Cambodia’s descent into poverty firsthand. The son of a high-ranking military officer and the grandson of former Cambodian prime minister Penn Nouth, he spent his early years volunteering for the Red Cross, helping villagers fleeing a countryside beset by civil war. After Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge seized the capital Phnom Penh in 1975, Eang and his eight brothers and sisters were forced into slave labour in the infamous Killing Fields, where they dug graves for victims of the regime. “During the Khmer Rouge,” he says, “I [went] to sleep hungry, because they [only gave] you a little bit of food, and then they forced you to work all day, fifteen hour days.” Out of his siblings, only one sister and two brothers survived Pol Pot’s rule.
Although he was eventually able to flee Cambodia following the toppling of the Khmer Rouge by Vietnamese forces in 1979, Eang’s liberty came at a heavy cost. While attempting to avoid soldiers battling near the Thai border, he and another refugee triggered a landmine buried underfoot. His fellow traveller lost both legs to the ensuing blast and quickly succumbed to his injuries. Eang escaped with shrapnel wounds and was able to find his way to a United Nations refugee camp across the border. A fragment of the landmine remains embedded in the back of his knee, a reminder of his journey to freedom and of those who were not so fortunate.
Just as Eang still carries shrapnel in his leg, Cambodia’s soil is haunted by the injurious debris of its recent history. Foremost among these are Agent Orange, the infamous herbicide sprayed by American troops across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and landmines—as many as six million of them—buried throughout the country during three decades of bloody internecine conflict. These remnants of war have caused immense hardship for Cambodian farmers and their families, reducing crop yields, killing tens of thousands, and leaving many villagers with little to eat.
Chandaramony Eang poses with landmines found during his most recent trip to Cambodia. Photo by Chandaramony Eang.
Eang’s experience under the Khmer Rouge gives him insight into the plight of Cambodians today. “They go to sleep hungry like [I did],” he explains. “So I know. I understand their pain. I understand their suffering and [what] they’ve been through. So I’ve got to do something to go back and help them.”
It’s that desire to effect change that led Eang to create AVCLM in 2002. He estimates that he has put $400,000 of his own money into the registered charity over the past seven years and has taken out substantial personal loans to help fund the group’s work.
His financial sacrifice has paid off for the villagers receiving AVCLM’s assistance. During his most recent trip to Cambodia in 2008, Eang delivered farming equipment and a bicycle for local children, worked with the Cambodian Mine Action Centre to clear landmines from farmers’ fields, and financed the building of a high-tech well to reduce the need to travel through mine-ravaged jungles to gather water. AVCLM also provides seed, rice, and other necessities, and has purchased land on which Eang plans to build a model village for seven hundred Cambodians displaced by poverty, landmines, and development.
Angkor is currently on the market, and once it has been sold Eang will move to Cambodia to do non-profit work full time. But while he looks for a buyer, the restaurant remains open for business, and AVCLM is working on ways to raise funds for its projects. A cookbook featuring Eang’s secret recipes is in the works, and a concert and auction are being planned for the coming months. Watch for details on AVCLM’s website when it relaunches in the near future.
Thanks to reader Dan Naccarato for the tip.