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Cambodian-Americans in Atlanta See Opportunities in Small Businesses


A customer gets her nails done at a Star Nails salon.

A Cambodian-owned nail salon on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia is almost full by noon on a Sunday.

Since early morning, workers are busy polishing and painting nails for their clients.

This is a popular job among Cambodians living in the U.S., a difference from Cambodia, where this sort of work is less popular.

Kong Chansokun has been running the business for nine years and has employed 15 staff.

Sitting at his desk in front of a collection of multi-colored nail products, he explained that many Cambodians who have migrated to the United States do not have the qualifications to be “a doctor or a lawyer or running a big business,” so instead they have to do blue collar work.

“There is no way [to earn a living] other than doing this nail salon job,” he said. “It does not mean that this job pays well and others don’t. The reality is that we don’t have higher knowledge and this job does not require much knowledge.”

Chansokun is among a generation of Cambodian Americans who have started their own small businesses instead of seeking employment with others.

Another small business owner, Vinny Chhay, has run an auto shop since 2006. Chhay was a high school soccer player but decided not to pursue a career in sports after graduation.

“Should I work for others? No, I don’t want to work for others,” he said.

Tony Oum shared similar thoughts. He has owned a truck business for 12 years.

“In Georgia, some Cambodians began to start up their own businesses,” Oum said. “In the past, many of them simply drove trucks for companies.”

Oum has had many jobs, from working in a restaurant to driving a truck for an American shipping company, before saving up enough money to start his own business. He advises other Cambodians to take the chance.

“My belief is that if we work for others we can just survive from one paycheck to another,” said Oum. “We are living a simple life like others, which means we have a car and enough meals, but we cannot be rich. If we want to be rich with a brighter future and get things as we want like big houses, we have to start a business.”

Kong Chansokun, owner of Star Nail salon.
Kong Chansokun, owner of Star Nail salon.

He earns between $2,000 and $3,000 a week from his business.

There are more than 10,000 Cambodian Americans living in Georgia, and most of them live in Atlanta’s southern Riverdale city, in Clayton County.

Activist Nem Chhoeung is pleased with the apparent improvement in the lives of people in his community.

“If we look at the new generation, we see that their competency is much higher than the older one in both their English language skill and intelligence,” said Chhoeung, who is president of the Khmer Town Association. “Therefore, they are able to communicate well with customers. That’s why starting a simple business like nail salons and beauty supplies is not hard and does not require higher skills.”

Chhoeng’s next expectation is for the growth of a Cambodian Town that the community has recently set up.

“I hope that the Cambodian Town will raise our face further to show that the new generation doesn’t simply do simple jobs, but we are able to start our own businesses to pay tax to the government,” he said. “This is a crucial contribution that I want to see in our community.”

Another attraction in Riverdale city is a new Cambodian shopping center, just 10 kilometers from Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The center now has a few grocery, jewelry, beauty supply stores and a restaurant owned by Cambodians. The owner, Vanh Xieng Lee, hopes that many more Cambodians will come to the center to make this a strong business in Riverdale.

A Cambodian-Lao born in Stung Treng province of Cambodia, Lee has been selling grocery here for the past 30 years.

“A few friends of mine and me put our money together to buy this shopping center to make it the symbol of Cambodia Town,” Lee said. “Now is the time that Cambodians should move to Georgia and open shops like gift shops and restaurants like in Cambodia. They should know that the real estate prices here are still cheap and there are good business opportunities.”

However, owning a business is not without challenges.

“Opening a shop is easy, but the hard part is finding people to work for us,” said Chansokun, the nail salon owner. “This is the main challenge.”

The Cambodian community in Georgia is relatively small compared to other prominent Cambodian communities, such as in Long Beach, California and Lowell, Massachusetts, even though there has been a sharp increase in the past decade.

This report was produced in collaboration with VOA's Khmer Service.

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