As an avid advocate of fencing, Sok Ang is part of a small but growing movement fighting for the sport’s place in the country. The Deputy Secretary General of the Fencing Federation of Cambodia (FFC) and owner of the capital’s Hysa Fencing Club speaks to Joanna Mayhew. Photograph by Conor Wall.

So, Cambodia has fencing?
Yes. A normal response is like you, that, oh, I’m surprised there’s fencing in Cambodia now. We have five clubs, four coaches, and more than 25 fencers in Phnom Penh. This year we organised a national championship — the first for us.

How long has fencing been in Cambodia?
Fencing in Cambodia has two different periods. One happened before the Khmer Rouge regime, from 1960 to 1970. We used to have a federation during that time, and we won some medals. We’ve tried to learn more about that time, but it’s somewhat of a blank period for us. We know it was very popular. If you ask anyone in my parents’ generation, they all know about fencing, by the French term, escrime.

In 2006, our FFC vice president, along with some former Cambodian fencers, applied to be affiliated with the International Fencing Federation (FIE). Fencing is an Olympic sport, and there was a push to promote all Olympic sports in Cambodia. So they used this chance to establish the federation and try to promote the sport.

What do most people not know about fencing?
It’s the smartest and fastest sport of any sport. Fencing is amazing because amongst the martial arts, it is the most psychological. In fencing the most important training is mental and tactical. They have to concentrate and try to focus on the target.

It’s also very modern. I can say that fencing is the most modern sport in the world. They have wireless sensors and electronic jackets. At the end of the sword, there is one button, and when the button hits the body, it signals the scoring board. In boxing, as far as I know, they will playback to x4 or x8 speed. For fencing, replays are at x16 speed. It’s super slow to see the movement of the sword.

How did you first become interested in fencing?
Honestly, I used to be a gangster. When I was 16 years old, I joined a group that fought with other students. We would go and fight, and I started to feel that it’s not cool, that it’s not a good idea to go with them. I wanted to change my ways. I saw fencing in a Cambodian newspaper in 2006. I said to myself: “If I can spend time going with them, why not spend time training in martial arts? At least you can be famous rather than having others blame you.” I thought it was a cool idea. But my parents didn’t allow it. The first six months I just went without telling them. I’ve been fencing ever since. I like to fight; so I still keep fighting, but now in a good way.

What are the benefits of fencing?
First, fencing is a creative sport, because we teach you only eight movements and then we allow you to create your style of fencing. Second, fencing is relationship building, especially between you and your coach. It’s like a parent and child, because the coach will give a lot of theory to their student. Fencing is also very good practice for you to be a good decision maker. There is one button at the end of the sword, so you have to decide suddenly if this movement will achieve your goal. If not, what is your next move? It will help you make decisions.

How do you promote fencing, and what are the constraints?
To promote fencing in Cambodia, I have to start with the kids. I think the best way is to go to international schools first, because equipment is very expensive for public schools. After the national championship, I spread information through newspapers, and a lot of people now know about fencing. But we don’t have enough coaches or equipment for them. It’s very hard to get funds to support the federation. We receive equipment from the FIE and some funds for competitions abroad. I am trying to look for donors, so our next generation will know and understand the sport.

How does the Cambodian federation compare to others in the region?
In Southeast Asia, all countries except Laos and Timer Leste already have fencing. Myanmar and Cambodia are the youngest countries to start fencing. Cambodia used to have fencing, of course, but for the new generation we are the youngest. Even though we have no donors or support from the local community or government, we are moving fast. We got a bronze medal for the Southeast region in January, which is a good result for us. So I feel that the fencing in Cambodia is going quite fast for us. It’s still small. But I’m happy that a lot of people now have awareness of fencing.

What’s up next for the sport in Cambodia?
We are trying to document the history of fencing in Cambodia, and we are trying to translate the terminology of fencing into Khmer. The IFF has one official language, French, for the competitions, but a lot of countries try to translate into their own language. We are trying to create Khmer fencing rather than develop the Western fencing in Cambodia. I believe that next year we will hit our target to have at least 75 fencers and 10 clubs. And maybe people living in Siem Reap or Sihanoukville, not only in Phnom Penh, will know about fencing. Getting medals from the international competition is not too important for us. Sure, the medals are some part of my goal. But to make people aware that fencing is a fun, healthy and helpful sport for them in their personal development is really what my goal is.

Hysa Fencing Club offers lessons three days a week, plus an open house on Saturdays. 35BEo Street 298, Phnom Penh. Tel: 015 916 646.