From the Killing Fields to the Noodle House
When Mark Lau was ten years old, he couldn’t add one plus one. On the day he began the fourth grade at Adams Elementary School in City Heights, he had been in San Diego for only two months. Prior to his arrival, he had spent eight months in refugee camps in Thailand, and before that, three and a half years under Communist rule in Cambodia. Rather than attend school, he was forced to work for his daily bowls of vegetable soup and porridge.
Many of his memories from that time are vague.
“I remember there was a tray that we held, it was for rocks. So that’s why I keep telling my kids, ‘Daddy was moving rocks back and forth.’ We didn’t know what we were doing. I was six, seven years old.”
Lau remembers the rocks, but he doesn’t remember where he had to carry them or why.
Today, half a block west from the corner of University and Euclid, on the north side of the street, Lau works out of two offices in a family-owned building. One office holds his accounting and tax firm. In the other, he conducts his business as a real estate agent and insurance salesman. The same building also houses two of his family’s restaurants: 777 Noodle House and the Great Wall Express. Lau acts as financial manager for both.
In the open, cafeteria-like space of the Noodle House, Mr. Lau recommends customer favorites from the menu and offers water or tea with an efficiency that’s distant and ultra polite. He takes his responsibilities seriously. It’s evident in the straight line of his posture, the tuck of his buttoned-up shirt into ironed slacks, and the slight glaze of his eyes that says he has other places he needs to be.
But as soon he begins to talk about what he remembers from the time before he moved to the United States, his eyes become focused, and he leans in close to speak with sincerity and eagerness. Even his posture softens. The memories are important to him. What he remembers, he shares with his children. One story in particular stands out.
On Christmas Day, 1978, the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia, effectively ending the reign of the Khmer Rouge. Lau’s family was one of thousands that followed the Vietnamese through the country, hoping to find their way across the border into Thailand. Lau leans in close to describe his family’s arrival at a Vietnamese encampment too late in the day to be let in.
“We knew the Khmer Rouge was coming. But we did not make it. We were outside the fence, and we were exposed.”
Other latecomers dug trenches, but Lau’s family was too late even for that. They had no time to dig, so 13 of them, including Lau’s mother and his pregnant sister, hid under the wagon, which contained everything they owned.
“During this time, the bullets were flying all over our wagon. We were pretty much in the open battlefield.”
He describes lying face down under the wagon, too terrified to open his eyes. He remembers the sharp ping of bullets hitting the pots and pans in the wagon. The Khmer Rouge soldiers didn’t spare the civilians. They threw grenades down into some of the trenches and killed them.
“There were quite a bit of people that died that night,” says Lau. “They opened up a pregnant lady and they killed the baby.”
His eyes widen with emphasis on the importance of this detail.
He also remembers that, at one point, during a lull in the shooting, he felt a presence near the wagon, a Communist soldier maybe. He didn’t open his eyes, but he heard a voice say, “These people are dead.” Immediately afterward, another voice whispered, “Quiet.” The second voice was, he believes, a soldier who warned Lau’s family in order to help them. All 13 people under the wagon survived the evening.
“Something happened that night,” he says. “I think somebody out there was saving us.” But he’s not sure if it was a Communist soldier with a good heart or if some greater being was answering their prayers.
“You don’t know if there’s a God up there,” he says. “You can’t say that the Communist people were all bad. We heard two voices, so maybe somebody…” He doesn’t complete the thought, but he does go on to say that whether it was God or man, the 13 people under that wagon were deliberately saved.
After three exhausting attempts, Mark Lau’s family crossed the border into Thailand in 1979. Then, after seven or eight months in refugee camps, they arrived in City Heights on the sponsorship of a sister who had made it ahead of them. The relief, however, did not override the trauma of starting school at Adams Elementary two months later.
“The first day, I cried,” Lau says. “But my teacher, Mrs. Costello, she had this guy be my mentor. He kind of walked me around, and that made me feel a little bit safer.”
Lau didn’t speak any English at the time, so he and the boy communicated with hands, fingers, and gesticulation.
“The first year was tough. I couldn’t even add one plus one. They gave us a math problem, and I didn’t even know how to add up. A…B…C. I was learning everything from scratch.”
He attributes his success today to a Chinese mentor who worked with him every afternoon. By eighth grade, he was able to transition out of ESL classes and into the general population.
Back on University Avenue, at the Noodle House, Mark Lau says he loves City Heights. It’s where his childhood began. But he’s seen it change quite a bit over the years. For him, those changes mean the dissipation of the community he grew up in.
“We used to be more mixed, [a] melting pot: Chinese, Cambodian, Lao, African-American, Hispanic.”
The Asian community is shrinking, he believes, because of the improved financial situation of his peers.