Home>Feature>Northern California activist builds a temple for San Jose Cambodian population

Northern California activist builds a temple for San Jose Cambodian population

Lyna Lam dives into politics to create a home for the Khmer Krom

By Ken Kurson, September 28, 2022 6:00 am

A rendering of a Buddhist temple proposed for the Evergreen community in San Jose.

UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a more nuanced explanation of the Khmer Krom community and its relationship to the broader Cambodian Khmer population.

Northern California is getting a look at exactly what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object. At issue is the effort to establish a Cambodian Buddhist temple in the Evergreen community of San Jose to serve the spiritual and community needs of the local Khmer Krom population, which at 6,000, is among the biggest diaspora populations of Cambodians in the United States.

The immovable object is the automatic NIMBY reflex. The irresistible force is Lyna Lam.

In February of this year, a Khmer Buddhist Temple Foundation called Wat Khmer Kampuchea Krom submitted its fourth plan to the City of San Jose. Having held several community meetings, accommodating the desires of the usual “build nothing” types, and painstakingly bringing aboard many elected and appointed officials, they’re seeking to build a beautiful, bespoke architectural gem at the corner of Ruby Ave. and Norwood Ave.

The Temple project is the culmination of a long-time dream of founder Lyna Lam, who formed A Khmer Buddhist Foundation, to serve the needs of one of the poorest and most traumatized—and least likely to attract media attention—of any refugee group in the nation. Lam has lived in the Bay Area for over 40 years; her family lived through a painfully turbulent period in Cambodian history, and spent two years in a refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating to California. She worked her way through some of the toughest language, cultural and poverty barriers the American immigrant experience has to offer, ultimately rising through SF’s startup scene. She eventually married serial entrepreneur Chris Larsen, who has founded several companies and is currently the chairman of San Francisco fintech developer Ripple.

California Globe asked Lam how she got involved with this project. “I never thought I would end up building a temple. That was not my goal. But the current temple is also in San Jose and it’s just a small house the community converted into a temple, and through the years, the usual problems emerged. A lack of resources and not setting up the right governance, and that was no exception with our temple. Some corruption went on and a lot of fighting, and whenever there’s a problem they would call me and I would send our lawyers over and help them straighten things out. Eventually, I just got tired of it. The last time that it happened, I was like, ‘Okay, enough. I’m just going to start brand new. We will build a true temple for the community.’ We need a real temple anyway, and that’s how the whole temple idea came about.”

And now Lam has added to that classic American story by embarking on that most American of adventures — the political action committee.

Mony Nop, a realtor and former police officer, is a candidate for mayor of Livermore. His candidacy is being supported by a donation from the foundation established by Lyna Lam, the force behind efforts to build a Buddhist temple in San Jose. (Photo: monyformayor.com)

According to Steven Tavares, writing in the East Bay Insiders substack, Lam has “contributed $50,000 this week to help the campaign of Livermore mayoral candidate Mony Nop.” Nop, also a refugee from Cambodia, became a police officer and a Realtor. He ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2020 and is now facing off against former Livermore mayor John Marchand.

It’s worth shedding some light on a nuance regarding a people who are often described simply as “Cambodian”—or, painting with an even broader brush, “South Asian.” Over 90% of the population of current-day Cambodia identifies as “Khmer” and speaks the language Khmer. Those known as Khmer Krom refers specifically to ethnic Cambodians from the southwestern part of Vietnam. Many Khmer Krom speak both Vietnamese and Khmer. The 6,000 or so who winded up in San Jose represent the largest collection of Khmer Krom in the United States. Some Khmer Krom describe the sense of not quite feeling part of either community.

“We are not truly Cambodian but we are not truly Vietnamese. It’s almost like we are not accepted,” one Khmer Krom told the Globe. “It’s just really strange. The Vietnamese people say that we are not Vietnamese. The Cambodian say we are not Cambodians.” So that makes the difficulty the community has faced in getting permission to build a temple all the more painful. The Globe asked Lam whether she felt any of the resistance to the temple – which boasts gorgeous, bespoke architecture from renowned firms Andrew Mann, and Siegel & Strain, was aimed at the ethnicity of this community. Lam wouldn’t play the race card, attributing the resistance to garden-variety NIMBY-ism.

“You know, we actually don’t have objections from the authority. These are all from the not in my backyard people. The mayor loves the project and has been a big supporter. Unfortunately, he’s going out but we’re also working with the incoming mayor, who is also very supportive, but these are neighbors that object to it, I guess understandably. They are worried about the traffic, the noise, whatever.”

The community is dealing with these challenges and addressing the concerns. That’s why there have been four revisions to the plans. “We called a community meeting where we let them know what the plans are and of course everyone just had all these objections to it,” Lam told the Globe. “And you know we took in their feedback and that’s why we keep making the changes. We modified the biggest thing that they had a problem with, which—I don’t understand why—is the underground parking. I want the temple to be beautiful, to be like a Zen place, a peaceful place with gardens and things like that and I don’t want it to be just a parking lot, so we were willing to do the underground but the proposed underground parking was the biggest problem for them, so we got rid of it.”

Lyna Lam detailed to the California Globe the many revisions the temple has made to accommodate the wishes of the local community while striving to meet the needs of the area’s Khmer Krom population. (Photo: Lyna Lam)

The objections weren’t limited to the parking lot. According to Lam, “The neighbors were worried about the length of the construction, the excavation, the dust. They came up with everything that you can think of, so I hired an incredible landscape architect where we are still going to have a beautiful temple [despite the many design changes]. And then after that they objected to the kitchen. They said the kitchen is too big. So we scaled that down too. There’s a group trying to stop the project, but we have had a lot of support, too.”

That support comes not just from elected officials but members of the community beyond the Khmer. The California Globe spoke to Faisal Yazadi, the President of the Evergreen Islamic Center, which is just down the street from the proposed temple. He gave the project his emphatic backing.

“I’m a man of faith and I’m a man of family,” Yazadi told the Globe. “Looking from those two perspectives, I don’t see how building this temple can do harm to any objectives that most of us have in this neighborhood. If you go from one end of Ruby Avenue to the other, you start with a Korean church, then hit one of the biggest gurdwaras [Sikh temples], come a few blocks to my house of worship, and in between, you’ll have this Buddhist temple. Given the diversity of the community, if anything, this will bring the community together.”

The current, more modest plan proposes that eight monks will live on the Evergreen Temple grounds. According to the proposal, “Weekly weekend service will bring an estimated 50 visitors who will be accommodated by onsite surface parking. Special events will also periodically take place with attendance of up to 300 people.”

With the plans slightly downsized, community support growing and the recent wade into politics, the temple looks to be finally on the verge of breaking ground. Regardless of the size of the building, Lam has big plans for its mission.

“I want it to be more than just a religious place to come and worship. It should be a place that the community can come together to support one another. A place where we can teach the young kids the language and our history and traditions, and to provide leadership and resources to other temples if they need it. We’re putting together a list right now of all the temples here in America, not just Khmer Krom but all Cambodian temples. I want to work with them to meet the needs of the community. Cambodians have not always succeeded as a community and I think part of it is we are somehow not working together, not building each other up. I want to change that. By working with the temple to see what the needs are within the community and how can we help.”

During the Cambodian genocide of 1975-79, Lyna Lam’s father, Quang Lam, traversed the entire country of Cambodia on foot. Twice. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for California Globe)
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15 thoughts on “Northern California activist builds a temple for San Jose Cambodian population

  1. Well, Ms. Lam has a lot of wisdom and class. She does not believe in saying/playing the race card. So, I will do it for her. Her backyard NIMBY neighbors, many of whom are BLUE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT voters, are a bunch of hypocritical racists.

    1. Exactly. The elitists of Evergreen will never acknowledge it, but some “marginalized” groups are more equal than others.

    2. I’m in the backyard connected to the temple and a Vietnamese immigrant. Unless you plan to move to live next to the temple this size right next to you, dont call people racist if you don’t know. The same street that is directly affected includes one more Vietnamese, Indian, Phillips and another Vietnamese.
      Calling people racist without knowing facts is idiocy. All I see is billionaire money pushing an oversized project and make the neighbor swallow it.

  2. Ok. so let’s talk about the issue here. I live in a very diverse, quiet, residential (R1-5) neighborhood where this project located and I’m against the plan as it is presented now. This project and its intended purposes don’t fit into neighborhoods’ characters. It’s planned to attract and accommodate thousands of people with all the consequences/potential problems. Since they will have, at least, 8 live-in monks , it will be a full service facility. It will not be a “Zen ” place by any means, any open space will be covered by concrete, pavers, and fake grass. The lot has many big, mature trees, none will be spared. They plan to rent out the gathering hall (with much bigger capacity than the temple) for weddings, parties, conferences, etc. Mind you , this place is only 1.9 acres and they only have 60+ parking spots. It’s so small that the gathering hall only has approx.20 ft. clearance to next door neighbors in the back and 10 ft. to a neighbor in the middle of property who refused to sell. It only has one narrow entrance/exit and It’s located right on an intersection, causing a traffic nightmare. Ruby Ave. is no parking zone and Norwood Ave. is a narrow, two lane street. Plus, they ask to use the outdoor PA sound system in special events and holidays in their application. FYI, they have many holidays, two of them being celebrated 3 days straight each! So, this project will cause so many problems to communities. I understand Ms. Lam’s intention but this place is NOT the right fit for her intended purposes. The Larsen has all the resources to choose other lots, within 2-3 miles away, on the outskirts of neighborhoods for much cheaper price and way more beautiful view. I can’t comprehend why they insist on this small , unfit, oddly shaped lot for their grandeur project.”

    1. I totally agree. I am very thankful for her intention and generosity and community thought. But I think this space is too small for the project, and growing population. I think a few miles away would be more quiet and spacious like end of a road, Mckee Rd, Story Rd, Aborn Rd with the oversee of BayArea view.

  3. I have followed the proposed temple plans for a few years. I must say that there seemed to be some deception about the initial plans. The parking plans they had did not meet the estimated crowd sizes. The kitchen they proposed was big enough to feed an Army battalion. These plans were inconsistent with their claim of how few people would attend services. I agree that the objections are typical of white, hypocritical, liberals. But that doesn’t mean that the objections were not and are not valid. Their construction plans are simply inconsistent with their statements on crowd sizes. Even hypocritical, white liberals have the right to object to a massive intrusion into their neighborhoods.

  4. It is so interesting that you mention “white” liberals being hypocritical racists, Peter. The only color that I mentioned was “blue”. But thanks for your comments and admissions.

    1. Playing the “race” card is so wrong. If one looks at the demographics of Evergreen, you’ll find it’s mostly ethnicities that are non-white, that is, Indian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Cambodian, Latinx, and yes some European folks. Objectively, this temple is a huge square peg trying to fit into a small round hole. Look at the parking spaces, density of people, traffic flow near a busy intersection, and you would rationally object to placing this large footprint Temple within a R1-R5 residentially zone area. Evergreen has many wide open spaces that have accommodated places of worship such as the Sikh Gurdwara and The Point Church on Gurdwara Ave, Evergreen Islamic Center on Ruby Ave. and the Light of the World Church of Quimby Ave. Evergreen welcomes places of Worship. It’s a part of who we are. The question is not “if” but “where” the Temple should go.

  5. The one who wrote this article, Ken Kurson, failed to write where this project located. This is the address: 2740 Ruby Ave. San Jose, CA 95148. Plus, as a journalist , shouldn’t he contact the neighbors in order to get a balance reporting? Oh yes…Well.. he is a New Yorker, living thousands miles away. So how did he write about an issue in my neighborhood , just a small part of San Jose?
    By the way, I’m not interested in discussing “race”, “racist”, “religion” because that’s not even an issue in my neighborhood, especially in this particular matter. Check zip code 95148 demographics, google it will ya?

  6. This map supports my description of the Evergreen district as BLUE LIBERAL DEMOCRAT. Whether or not individuals are hypocritical and racist has little to do with their SKIN color or ethnicity or the neighborhood where they happen to live. No group or neighborhood is immune from racial or cultural prejudice. These can exist anywhere. To believe that your neighborhood “does not have this problem” is naive.
    https://bestneighborhood.org/conservative-vs-liberal-map-evergreen-san-jose-ca/

  7. I suspect this article is a result of neighborhood political activity of our own and perhaps the petition with over 800 signatures opposing the projects’ location for very good and real reasons. Ms Lam is the wife of a billionaire with unlimited resources and has utilized two lobbyists, lawyers, PR folks and of course money and influence to push this project. Whereas the neighbors are just that, ordinary families from diverse areas and backgrounds, teachers, factory workers, high tech folks, blue color, white color, students, retired people. Many are active as leaders and volunteers building unity, safety, inclusion, and activities to better the community. There is not an elitist among us. To say the race card wasn’t pulled, well, it actually was…in a public meeting, meant for public comment on constructive feedback about the project which, by the way is our right. The article lacks context and assumes a few very bold assumptions. One would expect better treatment of neighbors by the entitled developer knowing very well what a great neighborhood that are wanting to move into. There is no positive in continuing to villainize the community.

  8. Mrs. LAM claims her people were not accepted by more powerful rulers and took full advantage of their power. Well how ironic she and her billionaire husband are doing the same thing, using their power and money/bribe to build the temple in a location which is not suitable (requires re-zoning). The original parcel was only approved for 6 new houses, this shows that the temple will need to be downsized. Also, she claims she is addressing the neighbor’s concerns buy meeting with them. She & the PR firm lied every meeting. Initially they claimed there will be no weddings, the EIR plans included weddings. Shame on her and the temple priest/monks for lying to everyone. The author should just do a google map search, and see that there is a house in the current lot. The San Jose City officials have all been bribed and are corrupt, any 5 year old can see this is not the appropriate lot for a temple.

  9. Re-read this again since the article was updated.
    Question, How again, does serving 6000 people of San Jose as the article indicates correlate to 300 persons at a time at a new temple in Evergreen on 1.86 acre with a private home, not part of the project smack in the middle? Three hundred is still sizeable for this small lot. But to leave no room to grow to actual serve those 6000, what are they thinking? And what is really the number who will be served there? This is getting even more worrisome.

  10. I live directly across from the lot that they are wanting to build this proposed Temple. I can say that this residential intersection is not designed or meant for the extra traffic. We have cameras at our house, and can say that we see accidents happening almost on a weekly occurrence. It is a real traffic concern. This could be a multi-year construction project, which would cause noise & dust for the surrounding neighbors like myself. I am Vietnamese and am also an immigrant, so this has nothing to do with race as the article may lead one to believe.

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