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Community Features

Posh Bagel’s Anthony Lao Shares His Refugee Story

By Megan McDonnell, Jackson Confer, and Erica Miner

 

Menlo Park is undeniably small. With its one strip of a downtown on Santa Cruz Avenue, many of the restaurants and stores have become a part of the culture, directly tied to a sense of familiarity for those native to Menlo Park. Posh Bagel stands out amongst Menlo Park hubs, the perfect place for families, adults, and children alike to grab a bagel or the popular fad, boba tea.

Posh Bagel is a chain in the Silicon Valley, all owned by a family from Cambodia. Menlo Park’s Posh Bagel had its re-grand opening on July 23, 2011, after a fire shut it down in 2010, and has since been headed by Anthony On Lao, the owner’s brother and a Menlo-Atherton parent.

Lao has lived in the United States since 1985, yet his story spans Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines as well.

Sketch by Jackson Confer

Lao grew up in a small town in Cambodia, born in the late 1960s during a time of relative peace; after negotiating independence from France in 1953, Cambodia was a constitutional monarchy until a 1970 coup destabilized the country and launched it into civil war, with a US-backed republic fighting communist factions.

Women in small towns at this time typically raised a large family. Lao’s mother was no exception, giving birth to fifteen children.

“But right now, all that are left are three girls and two boys. My mom had fifteen kids. All [ten] passed away. You know we didn’t have all that kind of medicine. Some got sick, and died.”

In other cases, Lao’s siblings were not killed by illness, but by people.

“And then my older brother, he was killed by a helicopter. He didn’t speak English. The American helicopter and soldier with a Vietnamese soldier, they asked my brother to surrender, because they thought [he] was Vietcong. But at that time he [didn’t] surrender [because he couldn’t understand what they were saying], so he ran under a bridge. And they killed him.”

The Khmer Rouge, a Marxist-Leninist faction led by Pol Pot, managed to seize control of the government in 1975. The brutal policies that they enacted against their own people have come to be known as the Cambodian Genocide. Between 1975 and 1979, the Cambodian government killed around a quarter of the entire country’s population, about 2 million people overall, through executions, torture, forced labor, and starvation.

“If they kill him, they kill all my family. Pol Pot, like that. They killed a lot of smart people. They were looking for smart people to kill.”

The Khmer Rouge impacted Lao’s family as well. People were often placed in jail by Khmer Rouge soldiers for insignificant reasons, as the faction ruled with an iron fist with no toleration for dissent. Lao’s brother was one of those affected.

“1973 or ’74, it was my bigger brother. You know, Pol Pot, if they don’t like you, they take you to the jail and they almost killed him.”

“Sometimes they’d get jealous. Sometimes, my brother bought medicine. Some people, if they don’t like you, they catch you. The soldiers [would] catch you and put you in jail.”

“If they kill him, they kill all my family. Pol Pot, like that. They killed a lot of smart people. They were looking for smart people to kill.”

Lao’s family knew of the violence and mercilessness of Pol Pot’s regime and tried to save his brother in jail.

“My dad, he knows people who worked in the government, and they said, ‘Tonight, you have to leave to Vietnam.’ My dad said, ‘How about my son in jail?’. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it. Leave tonight. You have to go right away.’ So midnight, my father and us all, we leave for Vietnam. Pol Pot, if they kill one [person,] then they will kill the whole family. That’s the way they do. Even the kids, everybody; they kill everybody.”

All in an attempt to rid the country of Western influence, Pol Pot methodically eliminated people who would question the regime. The Khmer Rouge targeted intellectuals, clergy, and anti-communists in particular, and punished whole families rather than individuals, similar to modern practices in North Korea.

Upon the imprisonment of Lao’s brother, his family fled to the Cambodia-Vietnam border, where they lived for about a year. The instability of the Vietnam War and Vietcong regime threatened the area and especially affected the currency.

“[My dad] make a lot of money at that time. And one day my brother said, ‘Change all the money and keep gold and diamond.’ And my dad said ‘Ah, the money go up again! It go up again!’ And then in the morning the radio said the money changed. You know, in the Vietcong they always change. Every couple years, you don’t know. And then all the money was gone.”

Additionally, violence still pervaded the area.

“I saw with my eyes people, Cambodian people, it’s like doctors, teachers, lawyers, they crossed the border and tried to leave to Vietnam. But the Vietnamese people, they’d put them in jail. Government to government, they’d say ‘Give [me] my people, I’ll give you something else.’ So they trade. Sometimes Vietnamese people would go over the border, and Cambodian people would catch them and put them in jail. They trade, but when they trade they kill a lot of people. You can see it, you see it right away. When I [stood] on the border to pass over there, they killed right there. I saw it. Just like that.”

“They killed right there. I saw it. Just like that.”

“If they kill, they dig a big hole and fill it with a lot of people. They’d kill one by one. You close your eyes. A lot of people, even the babies. You see it, it’s really scary.”

Almost 24,000 of these mass graves, dubbed the “Killing Fields”, have been discovered in Cambodia, many of which are along the Vietnamese border where Lao lived.

The Laos next moved to Vietnam, near Saigon, where they lived for three or four years. In Cambodia, the genocide still raged as the government systematically eliminated large portions of the country’s population.

Lao began working in Vietnam, where his family first sold iced tea, and then ice cream.

In 1979, the Vietnamese government pushed the Khmer Rouge out of the Cambodian capital and established a new government in its place. However, Pol Pot’s forces continued to wage war in the countryside and controlled large areas of the country.

After this regime change, Lao’s family returned to Cambodia. Lao’s parents saved enough money to pay for someone to take his sister, her family, and 12-year-old Lao across the ocean to Thailand on a skiff to live in a refugee camp.

“Finally we find somebody who can take, you know, you have to pay them to take you to Thailand. So they took us to Thailand in a small boat. One day one night on the ocean.”

The success of arriving in Thailand was short-lived. “After we arrived in Thailand, so we jumped out of the ocean, and then we slept under the mountain over there. So in the morning, we went up to the street and the police, they saw us. [They] took us to the camp, small camp, and then a couple weeks later they take you to [Khlong] Sikhui.”

Initially hostile to the fleeing Cambodians, neighboring Thailand eventually caved in and set up camps for the massive influx of refugees caused by the guerrilla war still plaguing the rural areas of Cambodia. Khlong Sikhui was one of larger camps run by the Thai government. Lao’s group of six — his sister, her three daughters, and husband — shared one of the small structures characteristic of the refugee camps. Khlong Sikhui, for Lao, marks an unhappy point in his life, full of poverty.

“I lived there for three years. Living there was really hard. They [gave] you only five gallons a day of water. Dirty water. It was pumped from the river. They’d pump it up and give it to you to shower, eat, whatever.”

Lao lived on junk food, the only sustenance provided by the camp. The rest of his family still lived in Cambodia, unable to pay for their own traveling cost. Lao’s brother-in-law’s brother lived in France and would send support. This overseas support gave Lao the opportunity to earn some money, which he used to purchase higher quality food.

 

Lao demonstrates how the Thai soldiers would hang refugees. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

“At that time, we were really poor. My sister’s brother, his brother lived in France, so they would send him money. So at that time I worked for him. I just worked for any money.”

 

The authority at Sikhui demanded cooperation from the refugee inhabitants.

“Every morning they’d have you stand up at eight o’clock. They’d pull the flag up. So everybody had to stand up. You cannot sleep. If the security goes by, they saw you sleeping, you don’t stand up, they’d spank you. If you fight, they spank. They’d hang you up in the street, from the morning to the evening. That’s the way they do.”

“They had a fence. If you jumped out and went into the other street or to find something to eat or to get some money from somebody. If they catch you…they catch a lot of people, they catch a lot of people. You know, they take you all they way from [the distance of] Starbucks to here [Posh], and you almost died. They’d put you in jail. And tomorrow, up to when they raise the flag up, they tow everybody to come to see it. To say ‘Talk about this guy. He ran away from the camp, we [caught him].’ He got spanked. He’d [have] a big, big wound on his skin.”

One step out of order would result in this kind or similar punishment, no matter the age of the offender.

While in the camp, one of Lao’s friends would go and learn English, and then teach Lao what he had learned. Soon, though, Lao and his sister’s family were transferred to another camp in Vietnam, and then another. Each camp improved in quality and in freedom.

“All the third country, the IRS, they go to interview you, and then they accept you. Then you go to another camp. So you go to another camp for about six months, and then to [the other] camp. That’s like, freedom camp. It’s like freedom there. You can eat whatever you want, and you have money.”

“It’s like freedom there. You can eat whatever you want, and you have money.”

Finally, after a short time there, they were transferred to a very open camp in the Philippines.

“After six months later, we go to the Philippine camp. Everybody had to the start there. There is an ESL, and if you cannot pass, they will not let you go [to the United States]. There, you can go anywhere you want to go. It was like vacation time.”

In the Philippines, everyone received an English education, as well as practical skills.

“They teach you how to get a job, what to do when you get lost, how to go to ask to go back home, how to talk to somebody nice.”

Lao shows his photo ID from the Thai refugee camp. Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle.

Finally, in 1985, Lao and his sister’s family arrived in Los Angeles, California: the United States.

Lao enrolled in high school, where he worked at his education and received good grades. But his family in Cambodia was not concerned with his report card: they needed him to send money to bring them to the United States.

“I said, ‘How am I going to make money? I’m still in high school. I cannot learn no more. I cannot learn no more! You know, every time they send a letter, they ask for money to come over here. So finally I say, ‘Okay, I start going to do something for my family. Just slow down my studying. I’m going to learn how to make donuts.’”

“Okay, I start going to do something for my family.”

Lao found a job at a donut shop in Santana, and each day after school would take a bus for four hours to and from Los Angeles to Santana, where the donut shop was located.

The master at the donut shop, however, refused to teach Lao how to make donuts, preferring him to complete menial tasks such as mopping the floor and cleaning. Lao, determined to help his family, began watching the master carefully, learning the recipe by observation.

Soon an opportunity arrived for Lao to prove himself: the master confused work schedules and did not show up at the shop.

“Then accidentally one day, I showed up but he didn’t show up. It was so busy, and that time the owner said, ‘Anthony do you know how to make donut?’. And I said, ‘I know how to mix, I know how to fry, but I don’t know how to do all the stuff.’ The store was so busy. I went in the back and came out and said to the owner, ‘The dough is ready, sir.’ But the store was so busy, he said just put it down. I thought ‘Wow, it’s so busy, maybe if I keep bothering him he’ll get mad.’ So I tried to do it by myself. I’d [seen] the way to [do it] so I do the same thing. So by the time he almost run out of donuts in the front and he came back, I had done everything.”

Credit: Erica Miner / M-A Chronicle

After that, the owner began paying Lao full-time. Soon after, the owner recognized Lao’s commute issue, and solved it: he gave Lao his own car to drive to and from the shop. After saving up, Lao returned the owner’s car and bought one of his own.

Eventually, the balancing act of working several hours a week and attending high school became too much.

“I quit school. I feel bad that I quit school. ‘Cause of the money. That’s what I told myself, and my children. ‘Don’t [quit], because of money. Go get an education. It’s good for you. Don’t be like me.’ You know, I have all my family, but I don’t have nothing.”

After Lao dropped out of his high school, he began working full-time: not only did he work at the original donut shop, but he added two more jobs at other donut shops in the area. On Saturday and Sunday, his number grew even higher, working four jobs on the weekends.

“When I work, I work fast.”

Lao prides himself on his work ethic. It was this quickness that gave him the ability to devote so much of his time to making donuts and to save the money to bring the rest of his family over from Cambodia.

“I sent all the money for my family. So finally, they [were] all here.”

By this time, Lao had not seen his parents for five years.

“I missed my mom. And when they come here, they missed me a lot. So I worked hard and gave all the money to my mom.

Now looking back, Lao is grateful for the family he has, and their proximity.

“Now, that’s all I have. I’m happy. I have a good family. I have good kids. I don’t worry about money much, all I worry about is friends and family. Money, I cannot take with me, I live for family.”

Lao’s story is one of perseverance. After surviving the violence and destruction of his home country, and living in four different refugee camps, he has carved a path for himself and his family in the United States. Menlo Park is lucky to have someone so positive and inspiring at the center of our community.

Lao has gone back to Cambodia multiple times since leaving the country when he was 12. Thankfully, Cambodia is no longer the war-torn country of his childhood.

“Now, wow, it’s a lot of difference. A lot of difference. Now, it’s like freedom.”

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