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Using Drake’s ‘Controlla’ to get Philly its own Cambodia Town

There are plenty of covers and remixes of Drake’s summer hit “Controlla.” This one is sooooooo Philly.

It’s a parody version done in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. Comedian Hella Chluy (government name: Phanit Duong) shot it around 7th street, in South Philly’s Cambodian stronghold. He serenades his video girl with promises of local dining, from street food to a meal at Khmer Kitchen when he’s got the guap.

“I’m cravin’ durian,” he sings. (Thanks English subtitles!)  “I wanna take you to the Khmer jawn.”

The name of Duong’s version, “Cambodia Town” is timely. He tells Billy Penn it’s a nod a movement to make Cambodia Town the official neighborhood name. After they shot the video Friday, they went directly to a Philadelphia Cambodia Town meeting, he says. “We just kind stopped by and showed love,” Duong recalls.

K. Naroen Chhin, a board member with the Philadelphia Cambodia Town group, says the idea has been floating around for years and points to the efforts of Sarorng Sorn, former executive director of Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia (CAGP). But, “only in the last few years did things start shaping up,” he says. The group is even newer: Philadelphia Cambodia Town had its first formal board meeting three months ago almost.  What they’re seeking, for starters, is resolution from Mayor Jim Kenney or from City Council christening the area with the city’s seal.

Their timing, it must be said, could prove excellent. On Friday afternoon, Mayor Jim Kenney joined Indonesian Ambassador Budi Bowleksono and a crowd of the city’s Indonesian community and raised that nation’s flag on City Hall’s North Apron. Kenney will join the Consul General of Ukraine, Igor Sybiga, in raising the Ukranian flag in the same spot today.

Duong himself lives in Brooklyn, and hails from Seattle originally. He’s in Philly on the regular because he works with Camden-based videographer Jeff Lek, who goes by Planetary P.

“It’s all like fresh home cooking,” he says of the video’s ode to the food vendors in Mifflin Plaza. He loves that there’s a Cambodian laundromat in the neighborhood; he loves that there’s a Buddhist temple. “It just feels like a little village.”

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“You don’t see a street like that anywhere else in the East Coast except for Lowell, Massachusetts,” explains Sokmala Chy, the current executive director of CAGP. Analysis of Census data shows that the Delaware Valley has the fourth highest tally of any metropolitan area. The Greater Boston statistical area that includes Lowell has the second highest.

And don’t get Duong started on the food. Or actually, get him started: He talks about meat skewers, papaya salad, lemongrass and sugar cane.

“I would kill for a Cambodia Town in Brooklyn or somewhere, you know?” Duong says.

It only makes sense that his character is a smitten food truck worker in the video. He says asking the folks at Boba and Co. if he could play one of their employees came totally on the fly. Why “Controlla,” though?

“It grew on me. I like Drake as an artist, but I didn’t really like the whole album. Controlla kind of stood out because of the dancehall vibe. It’s just a feel good beat. It’s something I sing in the shower, like ‘Controolaaaaaaaa.’”

He knew he could it make funny. “Just [thinking] one day like, I need to make this into a parody. And [the lyrics] just came out.”

Doing videos was a hobby of his, Duong explains. But then some of them went viral. Now, he’s racked up nearly 16,000 subscribers on YouTube, and gets booked for events in cities where you can find a Khmer enclave. “Cambodia Town,” which they released Saturday, the day after they shot it, has more than 230,000 views on Facebook. The YouTube one has more than 3,500. The latter is the one with English subtitles.

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Chhin is pretty thrilled with how the parody clip turned out. “Just to see that going that viral and putting Cambodia Town on the map, it really set a precedent for other Cambodia Towns across the nation, for other communities that might want that,” he says.

Philadelphia Cambodia Town recently kicked off a bi-weekly street cleaning program. The next clean-up will start Saturday at 10 a.m. A resolution is what they’re working on now, but signage, a statue, street name or monument are things they’re considering as later goals. “It’s still a work in progress,” Chhin says. “We’re still unpacking what Cambodia Town means for the city— what does it mean as a Cambodian living in Philadelphia?”

He doesn’t think the Cambodia Town story has been fully understood. In the early ’80s, many Cambodians came to the U.S. as refugees escaping civil war and auto-genocide.

“The war on drugs, war on poverty, war on people of color— our resettlement was really horrible,” he remarks. The model minority myth has cast perceptions way off, he says, referencing Asian stereotypes of successful math whizzes: “It really undermines the true experience of the community.”

A sense of oncoming gentrification has added another layer of questions to this. “How do we hold true to our history, and our community and our experience when we’re getting pushed out?” he asks.

Chy says recognizing the neighborhood could allow them to compete for more grant funding to improve the corridor. Plus, it could help make the area “a tourist spot at some point” in the way that Chinatown already is. The name campaign, she says, “is the next part of our vision of moving our community forward.”

Chy loves how beautiful the corridor looks in Duong’s clip.

“Others might see it as a distressed area,” she says. “The way that they depicted the area— that’s the way we see it.”

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