Cambodia’s few surviving artists have been making huge efforts to rekindle the scene after it was almost destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Writer Sorita Heng talks to Preoung Chhieng about the instrumental role he played. Photography by Lucas Veuve.

“Back then, just seeing each other’s faces, the tears came.”

Under the roof of a sitting area at Royal University of Phnom Penh, Preoung Chhieng recalls his time as an artist after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Chhieng travelled to Kampong Thom soon after Jan 7, 1979 – the day marking defeat of the Khmer Rouge to Vietnamese troops.

“I had intended to find my family and any groups of surviving artists,” the 68-year-old says. The Pol Pot-led regime had spent the previous four years targeting artists as part of their genocidal campaign.

It is estimated about 90 percent of the country’s artists and scholars died or fled Cambodia during that period.

Preoung Chhieng

Preoung Chhieng

It was there in Kampong Thom that he was taken in by a kind stranger, who treated him as an adopted son. However, Chhieng did not plan to stay for long, hoping to return to Phnom Penh on a Vietnamese truck. However, chance had it that the day before he was to leave, he bumped into an artist friend while on his way to the market.

After embracing each other, his friend brought him to meet with other artists. Among them was legendary master of dance Chheng Phon, who died last year.

Phon was recruiting artists to create a group in Kampong Thom, resulting in 10 members who specialised in traditional dances and other forms of performing arts.

Around that time, each province was calling people to join in efforts to rebuild the country.

“The provinces were acting independently,” Chhieng recalls. “Whatever you knew, however small, you could contribute.”

Chhieng became an instructor and performer. However, with tensions still high and paranoia rife, he was afraid to disclose he specialised in the Royal Ballet of Cambodia, as it was a traditional dance performed exclusively for the aristocrats.

He instead learned folk dances and Lakhon Khoul, a performing art for ordinary citizens.

Back in the capital, Vietnam was helping to create a new government with Heng Samrin at the helm. Phon travelled to Phnom Penh and, after talks with a minister, led in the effort to create a massive art festival calling for all surviving artists nationwide to gather in the capital.

“The purpose of the festival was to know how many artists were left, and which art forms could survive and which couldn’t,” Chhieng says.

In an interview with a group of Southeast Asian journalists visiting Cambodia in December 1989, Phon – then Minister of Culture – was quoted saying there were only 300 surviving scholars after the Khmer Rouge.

In the Royal Ballet of Cambodia section, out of 500 performers and instructors, Chhieng says only 40 survived the regime.

Soon after the festival, Phon was working with Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Keo Chenda to open the University of Fine Arts. The school had five departments: traditional dance, music, Lakhon performing arts, circus and sculpture.

Besides the few surviving artists, written documents and films were also guides in the revival of the Kingdom’s performing arts.

International films and those made by the late King Norodom Sihanouk often included clips of traditional dances. For Chhieng, remembering is a dance with memory.

“Sometimes, I would perform a role with an artist who is dead. But I know, when I moved this way, the other side moved which way. So that’s one way of remembering,” he says. “Second, there are many teachers and younger people who used to watch the performances. So, we put all that knowledge together.”

As the rebuilding process continued in the capital, concern was growing among the international audience that Khmer culture was in fear of dying.

In 1982, in rebel against the government in the capital, the Khmer Rouge, Prince Sihanouk and non-communist leader Son Sann created the Triparty Coalition Government.

This division of politics seeped into the art world as well. Artists, especially thoseoverseas, were suspicious of each other.

Chhieng wanted to change this. Using the Los Angeles Festival in 1990 as his platform, he explained to the international community that local artists were fully committed to preserving Khmer culture, and any differences resulted not from outside influence but poverty.

At the hotel he was staying in, he also hosted an event calling for all Cambodian citizens, regardless of political affiliations, to come together.

“The Cambodians, hearing we came from Phnom Penh, arrived in huge numbers. Just normal citizens asking how the country was,” he says.

Afterwards, more help flowed from the international community. Chhieng became the co-director of Cambodia Arts Mentorship Program, supported by the American non-profit Asian Cultural Council.

The emphasis was on reviving traditional dances, with urgency stemming from the old age of the few surviving instructors.

“NGOs, the organisations that love culture, they helped us to survive,” Chhieng says. “All of the effort stemmed from our fear of losing our cultural heritage.”

Although the tragedy of the sheer loss of artists – and the art they embody along with them – is still felt, this orchestra of surviving artists working together leaves the current generation with at least some glories of Cambodian art.

As for Chhieng, he is currently the advisor for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.

He also helps to organise other cultural events, proving that the hard work to keep Cambodia’s art scene moving forward carries on.