Sharing Cambodian Culture

Enlightening Exchanges

2018 / December

Esther Tseng /photos courtesy of Lin Min-hsuan /tr. by Scott Williams

What is Cambodia’s appeal? What made graphic designer and photographer Hsu Hung ­Chieh sell everything he owned and move there for eight years? What upended cultural studies graduate Lin Chih Yu’s conception of art?

It isn’t just Cambodia’s magnificent 12th-century Angkor Wat temple complex, nor yet its delicate archi­tectural sculpture. Instead, what causes visitors to tarry is the Cambodian people themselves, who, having lived through horrific massacres and cata­strophes, are now working to rebuild their culture and recover the positive aspects of their history.



Casual and composed, Hsu Hung ­Chieh, a ponytailed photographer with numerous temple bracelets tied around his wrists, tells us: “I like change, but I found a kind of pure ingenuousness and happiness in Cam­bodia’s impoverished environment.”

Sent to Cambodia in 2010 to photograph Angkor Wat for a publisher, he spent his spare time taking tuk-tuks into the countryside to explore rural areas rarely visited by travelers. There he saw at first hand the huge disparity between real Cambodian life and that visible in the areas that tourists visit.

Struck by how content Cambodians seemed to be with their lives in spite of their poverty, he made the radical decision to sell his home and his belongings in Taiwan. “I cut myself free, then came back to Cambodia as a volunteer.”

A home for the heart

Hsu returned to Cambodia in 2010 as an international volunteer with the Formosa Budding Hope Association, while also helping shoot a documentary. He began living in Phnom Penh long term in 2011, supporting himself by running a bed-and-breakfast with just three private rooms and two dormitory-style rooms. He spent eight years in Cambodia, traveling its length and breadth doing field research and documenting the changes taking place with his camera.

Symbodia: A record of things lost

Looking for different sides of Cambodia, Hsu followed the roads wherever they led, visiting town after town and photographing whatever he saw. He traveled the Me­kong River and the banks of ­Tonlé Sap Lake docu­ment­ing traditional festivals like ­Pchum Ben, when Cambodians pay their respects to the dead, and Bon Om Touk, which gives thanks for the end of the rainy season.

Hsu met Cambodians of many different stripes, including survivors of the ­Khmer ­Rouge terror. Hsu says, “The Cambodian intellectuals who weren’t slaughtered fled abroad. The trauma to society of having close friends, relatives and neighbors violently killed left even healthy people despairing of living another day.”

Hsu came to the conclusion that more international aid was pointless unless the country’s young intellectuals began lending their own aid to the recovery effort, and wondered if he might be able to do something to help.

He had met young intellectuals and cultural workers who hadn’t experienced the ­Khmer ­Rouge’s tyranny and who felt a strong sense of mission to preserve their country’s traditional culture. They were attempting to preserve their history through music and documentary film societies, but were dealing with a lack of historical and cultural information, much of which had been destroyed by the war. Their plight convinced Hsu of the import­ance of creating a photographic record of Cambodia.

Cambodian society was undergoing rapid changes, and its efforts to attract foreign money and construction were putting it in danger of losing many of its cultural assets. Hsu noted that no one was documenting the many old homes and temples that were at the heart of city life, but slated to be torn down.

He set about doing so himself, and returned to Taiwan in June of 2018 determined to build a searchable data­base of images and maps from the data and more than 10,000 images he had gathered. He calls the database Sym­bodia. Moving forward, he hopes that other photo­graphers visiting Cambodia will share their photos to help fill in any gaps.

“I’m only one person,” explains Hsu. “Cambodia is so big that I can’t complete this project alone. [Even so] I’m sure that my database will be useful when Cambodia needs this cultural information in the future, because a people can’t reclaim its self-respect without [access to] its culture.”

Passing on traditional culture

Cambodia’s younger generation of artists have a passion­ate desire to pass on their traditional culture. Lin Chih Yu caught the bug while interning with Cambodia’s Am­rita Performing Arts troupe.

As a student in the Cultural Studies and Criticism track in the Graduate Institute of Dance at Tai­pei National University of the Arts, Lin traveled to Cambodia in 2014 to serve an internship with Am­rita as part of her work on her master’s thesis. While organizing documents and performing with the troupe, Lin learned that the 17-member company, which was founded in 2003, not only had a deep grasp of its cultural roots, but also incorporated ­aspects of palace dance, ­Khmer mask-drama dance, and folk dance into its dances. 

Lin observed that in addition to reflecting family and societal relationships in its works, Cambodian modern dance also drew from artists who had survived the war, and incorporated that information into dances that reflect the ­Khmer ­Rouge history that the older generation no longer wanted to talk about. “One dancer of my age was ­really dedicated to supporting the younger dancers, and did her utmost to preserve traditional ­­Khmer dance in hopes of preventing this portion of traditional culture from fading away. Her passion for traditional folk culture was very different from the narrow focus on personal desires that’s so common in Taiwan’s young people.”

Infected by this enthusiasm, Lin was encouraged to become a bridge for exchange between Taiwanese and Southeast-Asian performing arts.

Transnational cultural exchange

Hsu and Lin aren’t the only ones engaging with Cambodian culture.

The National Taiwan College of Performing Arts (NTCPA) invited Danny Yung to direct and host The Inter­rupted Dream · Monkey Business, an attempt to engage tradi­tional performing arts in transregional, cross-cultural dialogue and cooperation that was staged in Taiwan and Hong Kong in October 2018. In one dance segment, called “Heavenly Palace of Monkey Business,” the Cambodian dancer Nget Rady, who specializes in playing the monkey role in traditional ­Khmer mask-drama dance, and ­Chang Yu-chau, who specializes in the Monkey King role in Pe­king Opera, demonstrated aspects of classical Cambodian dance and Pe­king Opera to show students the core and innovations of each traditional dance form.

Rady has performed his wild yet graceful style of dance several times in Taiwan. At the November event, he focused on teaching NTCPA students how to dance the monkey role, in the hope that exploring physical movements and practicing sounds would boost the students’ confidence on stage.

He says: “Even though Taiwan and Cambodia have different political systems and social backgrounds, music and the arts can bridge the differences and connect people.”

Meanwhile, Rotary Taipei Asia Link and a Cambodian group called Artisans Angkor jointly organized the “Art Creation Program.” Under the program, Asia Link donated US$6,000 to help fund a Formosa Budding Hope Association program that pays fine arts teachers from Artisans Angkor to provide drawing classes to impoverished children. The groups also arranged a joint charity bazaar in Taiwan in mid-November.

Artisans Angkor is a non-governmental organization founded in 1992 with funds from the French government. Vidana Kernem, the group’s secretary-general, says that it runs job training workshops in sculpture and silk weaving that teach traditional arts and handicrafts to unemployed 18-to-25-year-old Cambodians with limited educations. The organization also provides job opportunities.

“The training program uses local stone and preserves traditional ­Khmer crafts. Students incorporate modern designs, colors, and quality controls into their work, giving the traditional craft a modern makeover, and producing top-flight results,” says Kernem.

Artisans Angkor is also involved in the renovation of Angkor Wat, demonstrating how Cambodia is using modern and innovative methods, and job training for the poor, to revitalize traditional ­Khmer arts and crafts. Perhaps with time Cambodia’s germinating cultural revival and self-awareness will enable its civilization to regain the heights it once knew.

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