Oum Ry and his daughter, Zochada Tat, with California State University, Long Beach professor Sophea Seng, at a book signing event celebrating the release of “I Am Oum Ry.” Photos by Abel Reyes.
In the heart of Cambodia Town, Oum Ry wakes up every morning at 8 a.m. and heads to his gym, the Long Beach Khmer Kickboxing Center, where he’s been teaching Cambodian style kickboxing pradal serey for the past 30 years. The small gym houses a few punching bags, a hand made kickboxing ring, and Ry — who carries an important history and legacy.
Ry, a former international champion kickboxer, embarked on his journey from his humble beginnings living with monks. Overcoming the perils of genocide and gang violence, he forged his path from Southeast Asia to the United States. Ry’s spirit and talent in kickboxing wove together a story of survival, pain, and determination that led him to be the owner of a renowned gym.
“I don’t think about my life because everything has since passed but I think it was a good idea to share my life,” Ry said. “I still remember everything, but everything has changed now for the better.”
In the kickboxing ring, the sound of a bell means the ending of the round, but this time it’s marking the end of another chapter in Ry’s life. Ry’s life unfolds within the pages of “I Am Oum Ry,” a raw biography penned by Zochada Tat, his daughter, and family friend Addi Somekh, chronicling Ry’s life as kickboxer, the effects of the Cambodian genocide, and the story of his family’s life thereafter.
Tat navigates a challenging yet significant relationship with Ry, shown through her profound recollection of her father’s more than legendary life.
In the book, Tat grapples with the intricacies of her role as the daughter of a kickboxing legend, traversing a path that intertwines personal growth, understanding, and a deep appreciation for her father’s extraordinary journey.
“My relationship with my father is the most important thing in my life, but also the most intricate and maddening,” Tat writes in the book. “Everything about my dad is a walking contradiction. He’s complex, yet so simple.”
Through a series of poignant interviews with Ry, Tat and Somekh embark on a profound experience, reliving the extraordinary life of the country’s most famous champion and the harrowing tales of the Cambodian genocide that began after his career.
The book delves deep into the dark chapters of this history, meticulously chronicling the atrocities, the untold suffering, and the resilience of the Cambodian people.
“I knew that there’s no bottom to human misery. It could happen to anyone at any time,” Somekh said. “However, I never met somebody who actually had witnessed all that and lived through it and still has those nightmares.”
Within a mere two months of Khmer Rouge’s occupation, Ry’s infant daughter contracted malaria, rapidly falling gravely ill. With no access to medicine or sufficient sustenance, after a two-week battle, their daughter died, and Ry buried her not far from where they slept.
Tat then writes about encapsulating the intricate tapestry of emotions that have been woven between her and her father over the years. She details the layers of their bond, and illuminates the profound impact her father’s presence has had on her own journey of self-discovery.
“The book has brought me a lot closer to everyone I know, just because people know more about my story now,” Tat said. “It’s even gained us some traction for the gym which helps us out.”
The Long Beach Khmer Kickboxing Center first opened its doors in 1987, nestled within the heart of a Cambodian community, the gym has stood as a bastion of strength, resilience, and unity in the community.
Beyond the disciplined art of pradal serey, this hallowed space has become a transformative place, shaping the lives of generations. Countless young men and women, guided by Ry and the gym’s trainers, have found solace within its walls.
The gym’s influence extends beyond the confines of the training mat, reaching into the depths of the community and Long Beach’s history. For thirty years, the gym has honed champions like Moun Samath who became a champion at 21 years old for the International Kickboxing Association, but has also implemented impactful programs, including gang interventions.
“I think people keep coming back to the gym because I’m a good trainer,” Ry said. “Different types of people from the U.S. come because I bring a lot of experience.”
As the gym approaches its four-decade milestone, its legacy within the Cambodian community is undeniable. However, amidst the release of the book and a wave of accolades, this year has presented unforeseen challenges for Ry and his family. Ry received a notice from the City of Long Beach, mandating that they must relocate the gym by the end of July, which they have done.
The location where the gym was is said to be used to open a new homeless shelter, a decision that was made before notice was given to Ry and his family. The notice had left them puzzled after receiving accolades and recognition from the city just a year ago, on its 35th anniversary, for the impact the gym has had on the city.
Despite the initial shock and disappointment caused by the city’s decision, Ry and his family remain resilient and steadfast in their commitment to adapt and embrace the challenges that lie ahead. One thing that Ry has maintained when looking for a new location is that it must be in Long Beach.
“The changing of locations is going to be really good for everyone I hope,” Tat said. “I’m really looking forward to it and I’m still shocked that my dad said he was excited for it too,” she added, reflecting on Oum’s evolving outlook towards the gym’s relocation.
Another decision that weighs heavily on everyone’s minds is who will take over the gym after Ry. Despite being 79 years old, Ry shows no signs of stopping. However, the pressure of passing the torch grows stronger with each passing day.
Ry holds a deep desire for his daughter to assume control of the gym, carrying on his legacy and continuing the work he started. However, Tat approaches the proposition with caution, fully aware of the immense responsibility and the weight of expectations.
But as Oum and his daughters engage in discussions about the gym’s future, they navigate a delicate balance between preserving the gym’s rich history and ensuring its continued growth and relevance.
Together, they contemplate the best course of action, recognizing that the decision holds the potential to shape not only their lives but also the lives of those who have found solace, inspiration, and belonging within the gym’s walls.
The new location for the gym is at 1038 East Anaheim St. in Long Beach. This story has been updated to reflect this.