South Philadelphia is a living map of the city’s immigrant history. Multilingual store signs, restaurant names, plaques announcing medical, legal and professional services reflect a rich variety of names and places of worship become a visual narrative of a complex immigrant life.
As I roam through Philadelphia, usually on weekends, camera and reporter’s pad in-hand, in a constant quest to know my city better, nothing really prepared me for the sight at the corner of Sixth and West Ritner Streets.
There, in an exuberant display of gold and red, stands the Preah Buddha Rangsey Temple in all its splendor, framed by a very decorated cement fence. Murals, bas reliefs and sculptures dedicated to celebrations take up the whole corner and almost half a block.
Life size sculptures, illustrating different stages in the life of the Buddha, spill onto sidewalks and across the street to welcome an increasing number of worshipers. This temple, a religious sanctuary for Philadelphia’s Khmer community, says it has a congregation of between 3,500 and 4,000 members.
Inside the temple, which also serves as an important community services center for Cambodian and other Asian immigrants, you find a labyrinth of ample rooms, each housing a variety of altars with sculptures of Buddha and allegorical murals paintings of Cambodian landscapes, lots of colorful sculptures and rich fabrics that invite to prayer, celebration and conversation.