via CAAI News Media
Written by Jim Potts
Tuesday, 23 March 2010
Local businessman escaped Cambodia for U.S. ideal
The rags to riches story has almost become cliché, however, Keo Chao’s story is not rags to riches but rather from tragedy to triumph.
Some immigrants come to the U.S. because of famine. Some come for political asylum. Keo Chao came to the U.S. to escape — a path led him to become a business owner in Bossier City.
Chao lived in Cambodia during reign of the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge rebels took control of Cambodia they evacuated the cities.
“When the communists took over it was slavery for three-and-a-half years. They evacuated all the people from the city to live in the jungle,” said Chao.
While the Khmer Rouge Rebels occupied the cities, Cambodians had to work rice fields.
“We lived in the jungle and all we did was plant rice and you had work seven days a week. I was about 14-years-old at that time,” said Chao
Estimates vary when it comes to how many Cambodians died during this period. Some say 2.5 million; some estimate 1 million — roughly one out of eight Cambodians. Many Cambodians died of execution, disease or starvation. Chao claims to have eaten rat, snakes and other vermin to stave off starvation.
“[Rat] does not taste that bad. When you’re hungry it tastes good,” said Chao.
In 1979, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia. While the Khmer rebels fought the Vietnamese forces, Chao took the opportunity to escape into Thailand. He traveled by land until he crossed the Thailand border where he lived in a refugee camp.
Although safe, Chao compared the camp to a prison.
“You had to stay in the refugee camp. You could not go anywhere, you had to stay there and wait for the Red Cross to give you food,” said Chao.
Chao lived for three years in the Thai refugee camp until the Red Cross sponsored Chao’s immigration to the U.S. in 1982. The Red Cross sent him to live in San Francisco, Calif.
Although out of Cambodia and the refugee camp, Chao found himself in a new country with no money.
“I would go through trash cans and dumpsters, dig through the trash and find some aluminum cans and trade them in,” said Chao. “Sometimes I would find a loaf of bread. I did not know anything about bread being out of date in America. I thought, ‘Dang, this country is so rich they throw away a loaf of bread and don’t open it. ‘”
Eventually Chao found work as an electronic assembler. He worked during the day and at night took English classes. On weekends he sold seafood at the local flea market.
He worked as an assembler for 20 years until a friend told him about running a Raceway gas station franchise.
Chao could have run a franchise in California but chose to come to Bossier City where he runs the Raceway on Old Minden Road.
“It’s a lot cheaper over here money wise. You make about the same amount of money as California,” said Chao. “I am really proud of myself right now. I would never think I would own this kind of business in my life.”
Chao has two children, both born in the U.S. His son currently attends the University of California — Berkley and his daughter attends Airline High School.
“They are Americanized,” said Chao. “I don’t care what country they are (from) as long, as they are doing good, I am proud of them. I like the American way anyway. It’s freedom, freedom of choice.”
Chao does not regret coming to the U.S.
“In Cambodia you have to know an insider to do business. If you have a business you have to pay the insider, it’s corrupt,” said Chao. “Here, as long as you pay taxes, you are good to go. In America, if you work hard there is a lot of opportunity. As long as you work hard, you have it made in America.”