MYS Oregon to Iberia

Everybody comes to Mekong Bistro

With music and dancing and dining and a welcoming vibe, a refugee from Pol Pot's Cambodia has created a gathering place for Southeast Asians and others in greater Portland.

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The Mekong River Band, kicking things up a notch at Mekong Bistro. Front, from left: Saron Khut, Louie Roa, Wendy Ngyuen, Sophie Nguyen. Photo: Brooke Hoyer
The Mekong River Band, kicking things up a notch at Mekong Bistro. Front, from left: Saron Khut, Louie Roa, Wendy Ngyuen, Sophie Nguyen. Photo: Elizabeth Mehren

The dining room was packed, the tables laden with stir fry noodle dishes with names like Pad Kee-Ma, Pad Sa Eaw and Mi-Cha, a Cambodian fried noodle specialty. The young wait staff buzzed back and forth, delivering plates of Ak-Mak, a fish dish said to date back to the time when the first temples of Angkor Wat were under construction, almost a thousand years ago. Heaps of Cambodian-spiced meat and chicken circulated among diners.


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Suddenly, conversation stopped, as a man in a shimmering sequined jacket stepped into the room and began to sing. His voice was clear and strong as he worked his way toward the stage. Heads turned, spellbound by the sparkling sight and the smooth, silky sound. He might have been Moses, parting the waters, as he threaded his way between tables.

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With a brilliant smile and a huge voice trained in childhood at church in the Philippines, Louie Roa mounted the stage and joined the rest of the musicians. From that moment on, it’s not that the food at the Mekong Bistro was secondary. But the sounds of the Mekong River Band were definitely the main attraction.

As soon as Roa stepped on stage, the full-band music started, and dancers flooded the floor. There were men in tailored suits—even neckties, a post-pandemic rarity. Women wore glittery evening attire, some of it slinky and some with cascading skirts that swirled in circles as they spun to the sounds. The youngest dancers, probably in their early 20s, wrapped themselves around each other. All the way up to dancers who could be the grandparents of those sweet, lovey-dovey young things, couples twirled and swayed. It was as if someone had mixed some magic dance-expertise potion into the Ak-Mak.

And then the room exploded. Sophie Nguyen, a 34-year-old parent-educator who hopes to become an ESL (English as a Second Language) instructor, grabbed the microphone and channeled her inner Donna Summer. This was where women formed circles to dance around one another in an ancient, yet oddly modern display of solidarity. Just about everyone on the dance floor was singing along. Nguyen is not a large woman, but no one could overpower her big, commanding voice.

Chan Vu "Bon," drummer in the Mekong River Band, and his wife, vocalist Sophie Nguyen, relax between sets. Photo: Brooke Hoyer
Chan Vu “Bon,” drummer in the Mekong River Band, and his wife, vocalist Sophie Nguyen, relax between sets. Photo: Brooke Hoyer

How many people out there were, like me, thinking about the layers of meaning to that anthem, “I Will Survive”? How many people made the connection between the tall, handsome man pounding the bongo drums and the challenge of staying alive during the despotic regime of Cambodian dictator Pol Pot and his murderous Khmer Rouge militia?

Saron Khut, owner of the Mekong Bistro and founder of the Mekong River Band, much prefers to direct his attention to the restaurant that has become a social magnet for greater Portland’s Southeast Asian community (and others) than to think about his painful past. Khut has become a kind of cultural ambassador for Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, Burmese and Filipino residents around Portland. First, he opened the restaurant, at Northeast Siskiyou Street and 82nd Avenue. Then he created New Year’s in the Park, an outdoor celebration to mark the Southeast Asian lunar new year. Now he has hopes of constructing a Southeast Asian cultural center on property close to his restaurant.

Khut was just 5 years old when his father was taken one night in 1975 by Khmer Rouge soldiers. Jen da Chhoun was known in his village of Chonkala as Gru Jen, or Professor Jen. As a teacher and entertainer, he was an easy mark for the anti-intellectual, anti-arts-and-culture Khmer Rouge. “Taken,” in this case, meant rounded up to be killed—most likely, beaten to death.

Barely had his father been taken but that Khut’s mother, Sarouen, was sent into forced labor. Though educated in Paris and a friend of the intelligentsia there, Pol Pot dreamed of turning his country into an agrarian utopia. Working the fields—subsisting on little nourishment and toiling under merciless sun—was Pol Pot’s vision of true fulfillment for the masses he compelled to dress only in black, the same shapeless uniforms for men and women alike.

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Five-year-old Saron—then known by his birth name, Kacrna Saron Khut—was left to be the man of the family with his two sisters and their grandmother, Daum. After almost two years, the boy was so lonely for his mother that he set off on foot to find her. Miraculously, truly against all odds, he did reach the camp where Sarouen was living and working. Overjoyed to see her young son, Sarouen knew she had to find a safe haven for the child.

Along with banning bourgeois extravagances such as banking, private property and education, Pol Pot outlawed religion in Cambodia. As many as two million Cambodians are believed to have been killed at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, about one-quarter of the country’s 1975 population. Among those killed were more than 25,000 Buddhist monks. But in some small villages, monks were so beloved that they were protected. Sarouen knew of one such monk and sent her son to stay with him. They were not related, but Khut called the monk Uncle, an honorific.

One of the first things Uncle did was to change the child’s first name. Kacrna, which translated to “merciful,” may have been the name his father gave him, but it was too fancy, Uncle told the boy. And so he became Saron.

Saron Khut, owner of Mekong Bistro and founder the Mekong River Band. Photo: Brooke Hoyer
Saron Khut, owner of Mekong Bistro and founder the Mekong River Band. Photo: Brooke Hoyer

Almost five years had passed by the time Saron, his mother and his sisters managed to make a daring, overland escape to a Thai refugee camp. It was December, and the first words of English that Saron learned were the lyrics to “Jingle Bells.” The 9-year-old boy had had no formal education, so while he was at the camp, he also learned the Cambodian alphabet for the first time.

Maybe it was “Jingle Bells,” maybe it was the musical legacy of his father, but songs became Saron’s gateway to the English language after his family arrived in Portland, Oregon. He listened to the radio, singing along even when the words meant nothing to him. His all-time favorite sing-along tune was Michael Jackson’s “Beat It,” with “Thriller” and “Billie Jean” running close behind. At Dunaway Elementary School, his ESL teacher was a huge fan of The Carpenters. So, more singing along.

“I knew all the lyrics,” he said. “But I had no idea what any of the lyrics meant.”

In 1981, the year after Saron and his family settled in Portland, a cousin started a band called Bayon, or The Temple. Saron, just 10 or 11 years old, was a cross between a junior groupie and a tiny gofer. He traveled to Seattle and Tacoma with the band, helping them load and unload the equipment. He learned to play the drums, and by the time he was in high school, Bayon would let him take the mic to sing a couple of U.S. songs.

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Khut graduated from Cleveland High School with honors. His part-time job with Fed Ex while he worked his way through Mt. Hood Community College, and then Portland State University, led to a management position. From Fed Ex he moved to Intel, also in management.

But all the while, what he wanted to do was establish a gathering spot for Portland’s burgeoning, vibrant Southeast Asian community. Twelve years ago, in a small shopping plaza that he shares with a beauty academy, he opened the Mekong Bistro. He chose the name as a unifying symbol, because for more than 3,000 miles, the Mekong River flows from China, through Myanmar, Laos (also known as Lao Peoples Democratic Republic), Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. He wanted his restaurant to be a place of unity as well, “a place that connected everyone.”

From the start, there were karaoke evenings. Cajun, blues and jazz bands performed. Almost every week, a Vietnamese band with no name was on stage. On his mother’s 65th birthday, Louie Roa came and sang.

 Just to be clear, Khut had long wanted to form a band. But it wasn’t until last September that he started rounding up his players. They held their first get-together on Sept. 30. By mid-October, Khut said, they decided, “okay, we have a band now.” After three epic practice sessions, they nailed the roster of 32 songs that my husband and I—and everyone else at the Mekong Bistro—danced to at their debut concert, just before Christmas. Most were throwback tunes from the 1970s, ‘80s and ‘90s. But when Khut himself began to croon the words from Neil Sedaka’s 1961 “Oh Carol,” the entire dance floor erupted in one collective cha-cha-cha.

“My purpose, the main purpose for me in forming this band is to help promote the musicians so they can be known outside their own communities,” Khut explained. “I want to bring our community together. We are so diverse.”

Saron Khut, left, and keyboardist Michael Elson during a set by the Mekong River Band. Photo: Brooke Hoyer 
Saron Khut, left, and keyboardist Michael Elson during a set by the Mekong River Band. Photo: Fox Butterfield

For instance, he said, Louie Roa is so well-known within his own Filipino community that he was recently nominated for that country’s equivalent of a Grammy. “But outside of them,” Khut said, “no one has heard of him.”

Roa moved to Portland from the Philippines in 2006. He works in property management and calls Saron, just a few years his senior, his brother.

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“My brother from another mother—another mother country,” Saron quipped.

With players from Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and the Philippines—plus two non-Asian guys from the United States—Roa likens the band to “the United colors of Benetton. We are like the United Nations. We are united by music.”

One of those white guys, lead guitarist Jimmy Russell, typically plays music with different bands around town for four to six nights per week. “I’m deeply entrenched in the Portland music scene,” he explains. He got to know Saron—or “Ron,” as he is known to friends—by playing so often at Mekong Bistro. When he got the call about forming the Mekong River Band, he didn’t hesitate to agree.

“I love Ron so much, I would do anything for him,” he said.

The chemistry among the 10 players in the band was almost instantaneous, Russell said: “Very rarely have I joined a band where I felt a deep sense of community and family, immediately.” He thinks the secret of this cohesion is, “It was done by the community, for the community.”

Sophie Nguyen, her naturally dark hair tinted the color of a ripe strawberry, said she has been singing all her life. She was 12 years old when her family abruptly left Saigon. During the conflict known in Vietnam as the American War, her grandfather had been an officer in the South Vietnamese army. After South Vietnam fell to the North, his past made for many hazards and closed doors for Nguyen and her family. When her parents brought her to the United States, they told her they were going on vacation, not moving permanently.

“They were afraid that if anyone knew, I would get kidnapped,” she said.

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 Nguyen admitted she had her doubts when Khut contacted her about forming a band.

“I thought it was kind of nuts,” she said. “Like, how are you going to pull it off?”

But she tossed aside her reservations. “I like the idea of having, like, an Asian-American community,” she said. During their earliest practice sessions, she was drawn in still more. Over post-practice meals at the Mekong Bistro, she listened to stories from performers from elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

“As a Vietnamese, I only know my own country’s story,” she said. She had no idea, for example, about the suffering that had gone on in neighboring Cambodia.

“When Ron told me his story, I was really surprised,” Nguyen said. “I want the Southeast Asian community to be aware of what we have in common. Our stories are very similar—even our food.”

An evening at Mekong Bistro brings out the smiles and hats and happiness. Photo: Brooke Hoyer
An evening at Mekong Bistro brings out the smiles and hats and happiness. Photo: Brooke Hoyer

Khut, now in his early 50s, hopes for a band that will do shows as well as performing at weddings and cultural events. But that is only part of his grand plan for a Southeast Asian community center. He has the site picked out, on vacant land adjacent to the small strip mall that houses the Mekong Bistro. Posted in the restaurant are architectural drawings for a structure that will include a spacious community gathering area, suitable for banquets, festivals and special events. Upstairs he plans a hotel-like arrangement where visitors from overseas can stay while they attend those events.

In a way, the hoped-for community center represents an outgrowth of another of Khut’s unifying efforts for Portland’s Southeast Asian residents. In April 2015, he organized the first New Year’s in the Park, a giant celebration in Glenhaven Park to commemorate lunar new year in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. From an initial gathering of 3,000 people, the event soon grew to attract more than 10,000 celebrants. The pandemic imposed a hiatus, but for the past several years, New Year’s in the Park has been very much back in business. Khut sees the event—scheduled this year for April 27, once again at Glenhaven Park—as a way to promote engagement and awareness for Southeast Asian culture. Mountains of authentic cuisine are part of the jamboree, along with dance, demonstrations, children’s activities and sports. One such athletic contest is a game widely played throughout Southeast Asia called sepak takraw, or just tak raw for short. The name, “sepak takraw,” translates to “kick a rattan ball,” which is what opposing teams do, using no hands.

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At home, Khut is part of a small Southeast Asian diaspora as well. His wife, Jai Wang, is Laotian. They call their daughter Alison a Laobodian. Alison’s middle name is Jenda, after the grandfather she never knew, the grandfather murdered by Pol Pot’s troops. In 2021, at age 4, Alison started her own nonprofit, Operation Jenda, raising funds to build schools and libraries in Cambodia, Laos and other underdeveloped nations. (It’s possible that Allison got a little help with the 501c3 paperwork.)

It would not be accurate to say that Saron Khut has put his past behind him. He has raised money in the U.S. for Cambodian orphanages and water systems, and has returned to Cambodia many times. On one visit, he organized a village cleanup. Another time, he drove for hours on bumpy roads, slogging through jungles and swerving to avoid stubborn water buffalo, so he could present a check to the widow of a famous Cambodian singer. Sinn Sinsamuth, sometimes called the Cambodian Elvis, who was killed by the Khmer Rouge in 1976, leaving his wife and family in poverty.

Just part of the Mekong River Band, from left: Jimmy Russell, Wendy Nguyen, Sophie Nguyen, Minh Pham, Chan Vu "Bon," Saron Khut. Photo: Brooke Hoyer 
Just part of the Mekong River Band, from left: Jimmy Russell, Wendy Nguyen, Sophie Nguyen, Minh Pham, Chan Vu “Bon,” Saron Khut. Photo: Brooke Hoyer 

But Khut is equally fierce about the good fortune that brought him to Portland, and now, as a kind of de facto leader among the city’s Southeast Asian population. On the day, many years ago, when he was sworn in as a U.S. citizen, he teared up and thought, “This really is the land of opportunity.”

Back at the Bistro, Khut dismissed any suggestion that his band’s rendition of “I Will Survive” might hold some special significance for him. Nothing makes him happier than to see his restaurant and its dance floor bursting with men and women whose countries, not so many years ago, might have been at war with one another.

After all, he said, “We are all survivors.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Elizabeth Mehren is a writer and journalist based in Portland. She is the author or co-author of five books, including the forthcoming “I Lived to Tell the World: Stories from Survivors of Holocaust, Genocide, and the Atrocities of War.”

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