What can a handful of documents left behind in a safe deposit box reveal? In the case of Kuy So, it is the story of a refugee from Cambodia who passed through Richmond, Virginia, on his way to Long Beach, California.

The Library of Virginia is closed to the public, but we can still observe Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month virtually!
Check back each Friday this month to see the next entry in this series or access them all here.

On 5 May 1920, Kuy So was born to Ming Kuy and Tuochi Pich in Battambang, Cambodia.1 At the time, Cambodia was ruled by the French with very little resistance. World War II brought occupation by the Japanese. Immediately following World War II, France and Vietnam fought each other in the First Indochina War. Cambodia gained its independence from the French in 1953, and their independence was solidified by the Geneva Accords that ended the First Indochina War. Civil War began in Cambodia in March 1970 when Prince Norodom Sihanouk was removed as head of state and created his own government in exile.

Refugee from Cambodia to California

Immigration Photo, ca. 25 March 1981.

Virginia Department of the Treasury, Unclaimed Property, Accession 52014, Box 4, Lot 410 (250078), Papers of Kuy So, 1981-1983, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA; Lab #20_0646 028.

At the same time, Cambodia became involved in the Vietnam War when it tried to force Vietnamese communists out of Cambodia, and the country was invaded by South Vietnam and the United States in May 1970. The Communist Party, also known as the Khmer Rouge, emerged as the victors in Cambodia—now Democratic Kampuchea—and assumed a tremendous amount of control over Cambodian citizens beginning in April 1975. In an attempt to create a utopian agrarian society, the Khmer Rouge killed those who were educated and relocated the population from the cities to more camps in rural areas that had deplorable conditions.

Ultimately, 20% of the population was lost to executions, disease, or overwork. In December 1978, Cambodia was invaded by Vietnam, which created its own regime, the People’s Republic of Kampuchea. This allowed the country to begin to rebuild.2

Beginning in the mid-1970s, 500,000 Cambodians fled to Thailand.3 The first wave of immigration was in 1975 and consisted mainly of employees of the Cambodian government who were working abroad. A second wave in 1978 was composed of refugees from Cambodia during the time that the Khmer Rouge was in power, with a final wave came after the Khmer Rouge’s defeat in 1979.4 The primary places of resettlement were Australia, Canada, France, and the United States.5

Kuy So was part of the third wave of refugees, one of 160,000 Cambodian refugees to settle in the United States between 1975 and 1994.6

A New Life

On 25 March 1981, at the age of 60, Kuy So was under consideration as a refugee to the United States. He arrived in Thailand on 28 December 1981 and borrowed a handful of household items for use during his stay in Chon Buri: a pot, a stove, and a mosquito net. On 30 October 1983, he left Thailand and arrived at Richmond International Airport. He was admitted to the United States as a refugee in the care of the United States Catholic Conference, which had loaned him $480 to cover the cost of his journey. The Refugee Resettlement Program, which was based at 811 Cathedral Place in Richmond, agreed to help him to find employment.7

Unidentified Envelope.

Virginia Department of the Treasury, Unclaimed Property, Accession 52014, Box 4, Lot 410 (250078), Papers of Kuy So, 1981-1983, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA; Lab #20_0646 027.

Kuy So eventually made his way to Long Beach, California.8 In the mid-twentieth century, the Cambodian and United States governments sponsored a program that allowed Cambodians to study in California colleges and universities and then return to Cambodia. Some students remained in California and befriended the Cambodian refugees who arrived at Camp Pendleton, later forming the Cambodian Association of American to welcome many more Cambodian refugees to Long Beach.9 Eventually, Long Beach became home to one of the largest populations of Cambodians in the world—approximately 20,000 people today—in part because of the Cambodian Association of America and the United Cambodian Community, Inc., which provided support for refugees ranging from health care to job training.10 Kuy So passed away in Long Beach on 12 December 1995.11

Unclaimed Property

A handful of documents were left behind in a bank vault in Virginia that document Kuy So’s journey, including photographs of Kuy So, a record of his borrowing household items, documentation for a loan to finance his travels, documentation of his journey to the United States, and a letter from another Cambodian refugee in the Philippines, Ouk Nguon.[1]

Unclaimed property from banks, estates, or other repositories may come into the possession of the Virginia Department of the Treasury. Any records that are considered archival are transferred to the Library of Virginia. The papers and other items are filed by lot number, and each lot has a catalog record.  The files may be viewed in the Archives Research Room.

In honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, an exhibit of unclaimed property from Kuy So and Barbara Ann Hunt (Duk Hyun Kim Hunt) of South Korea will be on display in the Library of Virginia’s Local History and Genealogy Room when the Library reopens to the public. An online version of the exhibit is also available.

-Cara Griggs, Reference Archivist

Footnotes

[1] Ancestry.com, U.S., Social Security Applications and Claims Index, 1936-2007 [database on-line] (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015), Entry for Kuy So, 12 December 1995.

[2] David P. Chandler and Leonard C. Overton, “Cambodia,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2019), https://www.britannica.com/place/Cambodia; “Indochina Wars,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2016), https://www.britannica.com/event/Indochina-wars; Julie Lun, “How and Why Did Cambodians Settle in Long Beach, California,” Respect Ability September 7, 2017, https://www.respectability.org/2017/09/how-and-why-did-cambodians-settle-in-long-beach-california/.

[3] David P. Chandler and Leonard C. Overton, “Cambodia,” in Encyclopaedia Britannica (Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc., 2019), https://www.britannica.com/place/Cambodia; Susan Needham and Karen Quintiliani, Cambodians in Long Beach, Images of America (Charleston, SC, Chicago, IL, Portsmouth, NH, and San Francisco, CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 17

[4] Julie Lun, “How and Why Did Cambodians Settle in Long Beach, California,” Respect Ability September 7, 2017, https://www.respectability.org/2017/09/how-and-why-did-cambodians-settle-in-long-beach-california/.

[5] Susan Needham and Karen Quintiliani, Cambodians in Long Beach, Images of America (Charleston, SC, Chicago, IL, Portsmouth, NH, and San Francisco, CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 7, 17.

[6] Julie Lun, “How and Why Did Cambodians Settle in Long Beach, California,” Respect Ability September 7, 2017, https://www.respectability.org/2017/09/how-and-why-did-cambodians-settle-in-long-beach-california/.

[7] Photograph of Kuy So with identifier MR02842, ca. 25 March 1981; Card Listing Borrowed Household Articles, 28 December 1981, Refugee Data Center form for Kuy So, 15 September 1983; Promissory Note for Kuy So, ca. October 1983, Virginia Department of the Treasury, Unclaimed Property, Accession 52014, Box 4, Lot 410 (250078), Papers of Kuy So, 1981-1983, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

[8] Ancestry.com, U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [database on-line] (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2014), Entry for Kuy So, 12 December 1995.

[9] Julie Lun, “How and Why Did Cambodians Settle in Long Beach, California,” Respect Ability September 7, 2017, https://www.respectability.org/2017/09/how-and-why-did-cambodians-settle-in-long-beach-california/.

[10] Susan Needham and Karen Quintiliani, Cambodians in Long Beach, Images of America (Charleston, SC, Chicago, IL, Portsmouth, NH, and San Francisco, CA: Arcadia Publishing, 2008), 7, 79; Julie Lun, “How and Why Did Cambodians Settle in Long Beach, California,” Respect Ability September 7, 2017, https://www.respectability.org/2017/09/how-and-why-did-cambodians-settle-in-long-beach-california/.

[11] Ancestry.com, U.S., Social Security Death Index, 1935-2014 [database on-line] (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc., 2014), Entry for Kuy So, 12 December 1995.

Header Image Citation

Photographs of Kuy So, Virginia Department of the Treasury, Unclaimed Property, Accession 52014, Box 4, Lot 410 (250078), Papers of Kuy So, 1981-1983, Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA; Lab #20_0646 028.

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