From Buried to Living Archives
Illustration as a Vessel to Access Portals of Sound Memory.
A Culture of Hope in the Making — the Cambodian Case.
I grew up in a house where the days were ﬁlled with Cambodian 90’s karaoke songs — from VHS to CD-Rom, upgrading to DVD in the 2000s. My parents would leave the TV on in our basement and at the sewing factory, while we cut the remaining threads off of the freshly ironed clothing, before delivering them to customers. The imagery of people dancing romvong f1ំវង់ with fancy costumes adorned with sequins and glitter, in a studio ﬁlled with purple, fuchsia and turquoise lighting alongside artiﬁcial smoke, accompanied the electric guitar and keyboard. Whether it was this kind of visual or a romantic story from the rice ﬁelds, to Phnom Penh ភcំtrlញ or Siem Reap fuៀមf1ប, these music videos had their very own signature, with extreme, bold typography and a familiar repertoire that was sung on repeat. My parents played them endlessly, like my countless related and unrelated uncles and aunties did for large gatherings. Like my twenty cousins, I disliked this type of music when I was younger; I thought it to be kitschy and outdated.
I came across the original songs only this past year, while watching the documentary ﬁlm, Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll (Pirozzi and Saphan 2014). Through rare footage depicting the evolution of the music scene from the 60s to the 70s, for the ﬁrst time, I was able to put a face, a name, a voice, and a story behind the songs to which I grew up. These songs, which I had known as 90s karaoke remakes, illustrate the clumsy but tremendous efforts that survivors made to preserve and remember what was forced to be erased from collective memory.
The Khmer Rouge's autocratic regime lasted from 1975 to 1979, as a result of a history of invasions from Thai, Vietnamese, and French colonizers and further, US occupation. Artists, intellectuals and other citizens were eradicated, resulting in the loss of one-third of the population. According to Chheng Phon, a late surviving artist and Minister of Information and Culture: "There were 380,000 artists and intellectuals, and after Pol Pot’s dictatorship just 300 people survived (Sam-Ang 1990).
From vinyl records to the cinemas, the right to speak and sing, the four-year massacres eliminated 90% of Cambodian arts and culture (Hodal 2012). The Khmer Rouge believed artists posed a threat to their regime due to the power that pop culture has to gather and revolutionize people.
The annihilation of the arts meant an insurmountable loss of archives for Cambodians that served as both a reference and a language for navigating the future. Trapped in a past where lived experiences and imagination merged, just as trust and betrayal confusingly intertwined: "During the Khmer Rouge regime, people were trained not to trust each other. This has continued among Cambodians today" (Chhim Sotheara 2009). The psychosocial and ethnocultural death, coupled with the violence of the regime, caused the internalization of transgenerational trauma. "The disastrous effects of the war still haunt the Khmer people today. It is inscribed in our bodies, manifested in a genetic passage of PTSD and in families facing cyclical poverty and immense cultural divides and language barriers" (Ok 2017). For many survivors, divided by distrust and diasporization across the globe by 1980, the evolution of post-Khmer Rouge Cambodian identity became synonymous with a puzzle masked in nothingness, having to juggle the near absence of references and memories to bequeath: "This loss has been deeply felt across the spectrum of Cambodian arts, silencing a generation of mentors, dispersing elders into the global diaspora, and traumatizing many parents who might have shared cultural traditions with their children" (Khatharya Um 2014).
The Khmer Rouge regime also eradicated what constitutes the root of Cambodian culture: memory. The transmission of oral history has since faded into collective amnesia, leaving a black hole in ancestral heritage. The issues persist despite the advent of a new generation: "Many young Cambodian-Americans have grown up in the shadow of trauma - in silence or in stuttered speech or fragmented conversations. They grasp these snippets of history, but have very few ways to engage with them in a meaningful way" (Khatharya Um 2014). The gap between generations materializes the still-gaping wound of the survivors' muteness and geo-cultural disparities: "the Khmer community is riddled by geographical, generational and personal divides, and is far varied" (Barber 2014). The second generation of Cambodians entering the transmission phase through parenting or mentoring children and youth face an exponential race against time: what Cambodian identity to leave to younger ones? How will we tame it in the face of the still-fragile relationship with our own parents, who are the last gatekeepers of Khmer culture and history?
In addition to the pressures of time are further issues of double-assimilation through naturalization in countries situated on unceded Indigenous lands: "Think of the migrant woman of colour who, once in Canada, becomes a 'temporary foreign worker', an 'underemployed', a 'minority', a 'marginal' and a 'settler' all at once. This changes her self-perception in a way that both empowers and exploits her" (Raznack 2011). To fully understand the multi-layered trauma of Cambodian-Canadians, a holistic analysis of the system at its roots is required. As this article emphasizes more on healing, the following diagram serves as a theoretical tool for readers wanting to research more:
From Buried To Living Archives
Creating ﬁctional ‘Best of’ vinyl covers of Cambodian rockers killed by the Khmer Rouge serves as a means to reclaim history. It resurrects artifacts, providing counter-stories to the West’s hegemonic narrative of the failed, oriental race. Bringing hidden history to the surface transforms a tragic frozen past to a present-day acknowledgment of a Cambodian act of refusal to assimilation.
Illustrating music can revive dead documents into living archives through the power of visuals and sounds to mediate and awaken pieces of memory loss. Re-representation leads to the possible re-narration of stories. The re-appropriation of a scar forces dialogue to take place. Resurrecting oral history brings a collective closer to healing.
Illustration as a Tactic to Approach Healing
This series is a pilot project, which is part of a two-year Master’s research-creation thesis about the agency of illustration in approaching race-based trauma healing, speciﬁc to the Cambodian-Canadian context. The scope of this research is neither about discovering nor developing a method of trauma healing, as Cambodians have never ceased to shape inventive reconstruction through reviving the arts, leading to a movement for Cambodia’s rebirth for a decade. The aim is rather to develop the potentiality of illustration to act as a vehicle for diasporic Cambodians to access this culture of hope in the making.
This pilot project was developed as part of a methodological experiment whose aim is to use strategies of assimilation and turn them into tactics to subvert power. In memory recollection, the methods of re-narration and re-representation serve as a counter-strategy to stereotypical representations and polarized narratives (ideologies such as racial capitalism need binaries to operate their invisible forces):
By imagining these covers, this project transforms a past, frozen in tragedy, into a present that moves forward with new pieces of nuanced and layered narratives. Using a range of tactics in visual communication of pop culture, such as semiotics, representations, affect colors, and typography, my goal was to bring back the ﬁrst generation (survivors) into an era they have lived through but had suppressed due to trauma. Such imagery makes them remember the sounds of music before it disappeared, opening doors to a sensorial and comforting place so that sharing memories comes naturally.
For the second generation, as actual archives about Cambodia’s history and culture have been scattered into pieces all around the world, such imagery awakens their curiosity, to which the answers can only be found by communicating with their elders. Guiding these divided generations and diasporas to work towards a common-ground language and re-narrate their stories is a step towards bringing back oral history into the heart of Cambodian relationships.
Similar to the method of re-photography, re-representation can lead to an eventual re-narration of stories, as new elements allow for the deconstruction of once dead-end narratives, and permit new narratives to be reconstructed with more nuanced avenues. As an alternative medium, this series of illustrations resurrects the lives stolen by the Khmer Rouge and disseminates counter-narratives to the Orientalism depicted by Western hegemony. Healing requires the re-imagination of alternative modes of communication to express what words cannot. Illustration becomes a language of memory reconstruction that mediates the trauma of Cambodians living with the gaps between generations and geographies.
The Erased Hidden History of Cambodia’s Psychedelic Rock
- Kingdom 1953-70
The history of Cambodian civilization is known to have had two notable periods at the peak of its development, marked by momentous artistic achievements. The ﬁrst is the Angkorian era, in which world-famous temples such as the Angkor Wat were built. The second is the Golden Age era. The sovereignty (1953) obtained after decades of foreign invasions has pushed for a creative fusion in the arts. This period was ruled by King Norodom Sihanouk, himself a singer, composer and performer, whose artist parents had backgrounds in classical dance and music. He instituted a policy encouraging culture and arts, requiring all ministers to have an orchestra (Prince Norodom Sirivudh 2014). Musical legends were born, making a unique psychedelic rock era marked by fusions with traditional Khmer sounds and inﬂuences from overseas, which ranged from Afro-Cuban to go-go music, and guitar bands to hard rock. The artists sang on national radio and often recorded their vinyls live. The songs of that time were known for their unique compositions, ranging from traditional instruments to electric guitar solos, to Khmer songs and trumpets. The music was transmitted orally, without sheet music, and played organically at each recording session:
Khmer music consists of polyphonic stratiﬁcation and is based predominantly on the pentatonic (ﬁve-tone) scale. It is built linearly, devoid of harmony in the Western sense. Musicians in a music ensemble have a collective melody in mind that no single musician actually plays. Rather, melody provides a kind of road map that directs the musicians to a common destination and serves as a guideline around which musical embellishment or ornamentation takes place. It is up to the drummer to regulate the pace of the ensemble. (Sam-Ang n.d.)
Sihanouk developed arts and culture within the cities, but neglected rural areas, which widened the gap in the accessibility of goods and services between them. In the context of the Cold War, where Cambodia was situated between the Soviet bloc and the United States at war with Vietnam, King Norodom Sihanouk claimed a policy of neutrality and maintained Cambodia’s refusal to take arms.
- Republic 1970-75
At the end of the '60s, the bombings by the United States on Cambodia at the border of the Ho Chi Minh trail allowed Khmer Rouge propaganda to win the conﬁdence of the peasants, multiplying the number of communist ﬁghters. In 1970, General Lon Nol took over the government by coup d'état, with the help of the United States. He proclaimed the end of royalty and the beginning of the Republic of Cambodia. A civil war broke out between the Republican army and the communist bastions of the Khmer Rouge (which united with the communist Viet Minh).
With the American occupation, American culture also planted its roots. To alleviate the stress of the civil war, people placed greater importance on celebration through music and dance. Musical fusions multiplied: "The music they made remains treasured not only by Cambodians but also by rock connoisseurs around the world, for a spunky inventiveness that now, in retrospect, makes Cambodia seem a sparkling outpost of world pop" (Sesario 2015).
- Khmer Rouge Regime 1975-79
On April 17th, 1975, the Khmer Rouge ofﬁcially won the civil war. They closed the door to the international community, eliminating the country’s currency and all signs of the West and capitalism. They murdered artists and destroyed vinyl records, posters, ﬁlms and instruments. Singing, playing music, and dancing were forbidden.
- Leaked Music
When the Khmer Rouge regime fell after the Vietnamese invaded, the latter ordered a surviving singer to broadcast a message on the radio for everyone to return to Phnom Penh. The singers, who had kept their identity secret, gathered in the capital. Since that day, Ros Saboeut, sister of Ros Sereysothea, known as Cambodia’s golden voice, has kept a book of contacts that allowed artists to stay connected.
No one can explain exactly how the Golden Age era rock managed to avoid being completely forgotten and lost. Before the strict music piracy and copyright laws in Asia in 2006, songs were copied, transferred and remastered from vinyl to cassette, then from CD to mp3. Modiﬁed over the years, some songs had guitar or drums added, and others were sped up. They were all sung as remakes. Until 2011, Cambodia did not produce any pieces with original compositions. These versions of the Golden Age era quickly made their way into the diasporic communities over the globe, as people brought back compilations from their visits to Cambodia after the ﬁrst elections in 1994. They and their children grew up with Cambodian rock in distortion and did not hear the original vocals until the 2010s when the Cambodian band Dengue Fever released the album Dengue Fever Presents Electric Cambodia, 14 Rare Gems from Cambodia's Past with the Original Songs.
In 1996, the music, with the original voices, reached the ears of the West, when an American tourist bought some cassettes and made an ofﬁcial compilation, titled Cambodian Rocks, under an American label. Even today, many acknowledge the album only as an example of copyright theft and piracy, as it does not include the Cambodian artists' names, and their families did not receive any royalties. It was not until the early 2000s that the label added the names of the artists. In 2004, cinematographer John Pirozzi, went to Cambodia to work on the ﬁlm City of Ghosts, and discovered the compilation Cambodian Rocks. He realized that most of the younger Cambodians knew the music of the time, but not the underlying narrative, or the faces and stories of the musical artists. With Linda Saphan, Khmer visual artist and social anthropologist, he undertook the documentary ﬁlm Don't Think I've Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock n' Roll, with the help of Cambodian-American music coordinator and record collector Nate Hun. The ﬁlm took 10 years to complete, due to gaps in the archives, the diasporization of surviving musicians around the globe, and the challenge of ﬁnding the original vinyls (which they eventually found through people living in different countries who had purchased them in Cambodia between 1960-70). The release of this ﬁlm in 2014 was one of the important initiatives for the ongoing work of Cambodian renaissance since the 90s, coupled with the Cambodia Original Music movement, which began around 2010 and led to the current ﬂourishing contemporary musical scene of welded artists.
The perception of what a culture is and how identity expresses can never be dissociated from ideologies or from national, world-historical, and socio-political events. The tremendous task of rebuilding the Cambodian archives requires time and meticulous work in sorting, ﬁnding, and correcting the documents that are scattered, erroneous or non-existent. Healing involves reconciliation, and is feasible only when reconstruction is envisioned through forward motion, resisting the urge to go back to the way things were. Reclaiming a multi-layered and nuanced Cambodian culture as a process in constant intersection with gender, sexual, ethnic, racial, religious and (dis)abled identities, is a ﬁrst step against dispossession, orchestrated by extractivist and settler colonialism.
*Linda Saphan’s work in the ﬁeld of Cambodian cultural studies has not been cited in this article but appears in the longer version (proposal thesis) and serves as a pedestal for the research-creation project. As the majority of modern academic papers published in English and French about Cambodia have been written by non-Cambodians, Saphan’s work provides a more in-depth, nuanced and critical view of Cambodia’s culture and history. The following intersection can be seen in her academic work: political agenda of culture and arts, socioeconomic and gender classes analysis & the politics of media making.
Thanks to Sin Setsochhata for correcting the misspelling of her grandfather’s name in the sketch.
Thanks to Shin Ji Hee for the proofread.
Thanks to Parker Mah for sending the mp3 from entire albums of the Golden era.
Thanks to Kim Sawchuk, my professor in the Media Research Methods course. Relevant questions and feedback about memory studies and the personal/political guided me in exploring creation-as-method in methodologies of research in media studies.
Thanks to my supervisor Alessandra Renzi for her patience and understanding with deadlines concerning my thesis in progress, which allows me to explore my research project beyond theory, such as through this publication.
Thanks to Ming Celica for being available to exercise the ‘memory re-collection’ method with me through our childhood memories.
*The illustrations were ﬁrst published in Digital Immaterialities gallery.
Barber, Gregory. 2014. “The Death And Uneasy Rebirth Of Cambodia’s Psychedelic Rock.” NPR, August 17, 2014. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2014/08/17/340647451/the-death-and-uneasy-rebirth-of-cambodias-psychedelic-rock.
Hodal, Kate. 2012. “Cambodia’s Art of Survival.” The Guardian, March 28, 2012. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2012/mar/28/cambodia-art-of-survival.
Kaur Sehdev, Robinder. 2011. “People of Colour in Treaty.” In Cultivating Canada: Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity, edited by Ashok Mathur, Jonathan Dewar, and Mike DeGagné, 263-274. Ontario: Aboriginal Healing Foundation.
Maly, Leng & Chhin, Uon. 2009. “Cambodians Still Traumatized.” Radio Free Asia. August 27, 2009. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/trauma-08272009122315.html.
Ok, Prumsodun. 2017. “The Magic of Khmer Classical Dance.” April 2017. https://www.ted.com/talks/prumsodun_ok_the_magic_of_khmer_classical_dance.
Sam-Ang. 1990. “Preserving a Cultural Tradition: Ten Years After the Khmer Rouge.” Cultural Survival Quarterly. http://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/preserving-cultural-tradition-ten-years-after-khmer-rouge.
Sesario, Ben. 2015. “‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten,’ a Documentary, Revives Cambodia’s Silenced Sounds.” The New York Times, April 9, 2015. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/movies/dont-think-ive-forgotten-a-documentary-revives-cambodias-silenced-sounds.html.