Almost every weekend for four decades, a Cambodian market has popped up in South Philadelphia FDR Park. It has been a cultural touchstone for many Cambodian immigrants, refugees, and first-born Americans.
“My first time tasting of our Cambodian street food was here at the park,” said Sarun Chan, 37, who was born of Cambodian parents in a refugee camp in Thailand during Cambodia’s civil war, and immigrated to Philadelphia when he was 3 years old. He is now the executive director of the Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia.
He remembers as a kid getting his first taste of Cambodian barbeque on skewers in FDR Park, and sipping sweet, neon-colored cane juice out of little plastic bags through a straw.
“If you took photographs, if there were photographs back in the 80s, it looked like you were in Cambodia,” said Chan.
The marketplace, which is mostly Cambodian and includes other Southeast Asian vendors, has survived for decades, with vendors passing down their businesses to their children, with some formal organizational structure and little support from the city.
Now, the Philadelphia Department of Commerce has granted $100,000 to the Cambodian Association to set about planning how the marketplace can become a permanent part of FDR Park.
“The Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia and the Southeast Asian community have been driving economic growth and building Philly’s reputation as the big city with the richest and most diverse food scene in the country,” said city Commerce Director Anne Nadol.
FDR Park is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation. Park commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell said the Cambodian vendors need to be a sustained part of the park’s future.
“The fact that it has been sort of a pop-up market for decades – a pop-up you think of something that happens one weekend and goes away the next. This market pops up every weekend,” said Lovell. “If we want to ensure the long-term viability of this market, then we have to figure out where physically the market is going to go, and what infrastructure does this market need to continue to thrive and grow.”
The city has not always supported Cambodian vendors. Chan recalls when vendors selling grilled meat on the sidewalk were pushed out of other parks and neighborhood blocks.
“There were those negative times when it was shut down, and hearing stories of that elder we used to buy barbecue from, her charcoal grill getting shoved to the ground,” he said. “They’re elderly, you know?”
Lovell recalled becoming the city’s new Parks commissioner in 2016 and immediately fielding a call from an irate resident who demanded to know what she was going to do about the Cambodians selling food and wares in the park.
“One of the first calls I got was, ‘What are you going to do about this? We need to shut it down,’” Lovell said. “This is not something that needs to be ‘figured out’ in terms of pushing it out. This needs to be celebrated, built on, and expanded.”
The market may be weekly, boasting about 70 vendors, but it is not always regular. The vendors currently do not have access to running water, a power grid, or nearby bathrooms. Over the course of the year, they are forced to bounce to different locations within the 350-acre park, depending on the season and other park events.
“I always called it the Cambodian Diagon Alley,” said Chan, referring to the wizard marketplace in the Harry Potter universe, which is invisible to non-magical people.
“You have to ask around: ‘Hey, is the market open? Where is it at? Which tree area is it at?’” he said. “And the vendors would sell different things depending on the season. If they visited Southeast Asia, that would bring things back. You could get fresh crickets from Cambodia. All these things that you can’t find usually here in our Asian markets, you will find it at the market.”
The $100,000 grant will pay for a planning process to determine what kind of infrastructure the market needs, including resources to help vendors expand their businesses beyond FDR Park. Lovell said she would like to see vendors sell in other parks, or operate food trucks, or a brick-and-mortar store.
One of the first opportunities beyond the marketplace starts this weekend, at the annual Philadelphia Flower Show, a major event that will be held outdoors in FDR park for the second year, due to the pandemic.
Three vendors from the Cambodian market have been selected to be part of the concessions at the Flower Show. Chanthea “Bee” Nhep is among them, planning to sell Cambodian barbecue.
Nhep has been part of the weekly market for more than 10 years, having inherited the stall from her parents.
“One day my dad, he lost his job. They didn’t know how to make any other income,” she said. “They just set up a stall and started off from there.”
The business is now all hers. Aside from some help from her mother with marinating, Nhep says she is “all in.” She works full-time as a home health aide, spending her evenings preparing food to sell on the weekend. She said being part of the Flower Show is a big deal.
“This is very important. It’s my first big event and I’m very excited,” she said. “I’m very tired, exhausted. I’ve been preparing all the food and I’m ready. I’m ready to be in the Flower Show.”