Last night I attended the screening of “Lost Loves” a film written, produced, and directed by a Cambodian filmmaker, Chhay Bora. Unlike other “Khmer Rouge war” films, this one was different; it was created by Cambodians who experienced and survived the war and rather than having the main plot of the story be about the war itself, this film told a different perspective. It is a heart-wrenching movie about a mother’s resiliency and perseverance to keep her children and herself alive during the horrific Khmer Rouge regime. It most definitely struck a chord among not just war survivors, but among Cambodian youths (living in the motherland and those living aboard). While “I love you’s” and affectionate gestures are not the norm in most Cambodian households, this movie reminded us that though unspoken, the love of a parent for his/her children is a bond that no one can strip away. Even when faced with unimaginable torture and unbearable losses, it was hope that kept them fighting. Hope that one day their children will live to experience a world of love and peace.
Most of my extended family were executed during the war. For as long as I can remember, it was always just the five of us – it was the five of us that my parents fought to keep alive, and when we took our first steps off the plane onto American soil in 1981, it was just the five of us (my parents and my two siblings). Growing up, I was always aware of why there was just the five of us and so the value of family and community was not a hard one to grasp. I was very fortunate that in my household, dialogue about the war, my parents’ losses, and experiences, was something we talked about often. My father wanted us to know and to never forget our story, to be empowered by being refugees of the war (as we were no longer victims, but survivors). It is a past that makes us unique among our American peers. My father was quite an exception to the typical Asian male – as my siblings and I spent many Saturday mornings watching cartoon in our parents’ bed all the way up to our teen years. He would tell us that he loved us and that we could accomplish anything we put our minds to. In us he embedded strength and courage (a message I carry with me and echo in my song Believe - “We survived. We made it here alive. Believe in you!”). Him and my mother had beaten the odds and fought long and hard to provide for us the opportunity to live in a free country, a country where one can overcome hardships and succeed… they fought hard so that we can live “The American Dream.” Coincidentally, It was just a few days ago that I was in New York City listening to my NPR piece on my father’s legacy and the dream he dreamt for me. All my thoughts and emotions began to intersect and I find myself at a place of reflection and gratitude.
Though I knew about the plight of our people, it wasn’t until after watching this film that I truly felt the pain, the suffering, the bravery, the resiliency of my parents along with so many other Cambodians all over the world. I felt more than ever, a deep pride for what it means to be Cambodian American. After spending a couple hours in thought, I went to bed with a sense of peace. If you are Cambodian and you are standing today, you are a symbol of hope and peace - an inspiration, a light that shines endlessly.
Thank you to my mother and father for giving me the chance to live out my dream. As a Cambodian American artist paving my way in this world, it is your reflection that shines through and for that, I am forever grateful. Thank you to Chhay Bora and his team for shedding light and sharing our story with the world. Love and light, Bochan
Chnam Oun 16 - Bochan
Chnam Oun 16, also referred to as l6, translates to “I am 16”. It was originally performed by Ros Sereysothea, one of Cambodia’s most memorable artists during the great Khmer musical era of the 1960s and 70s. The lyrics of the original song is the story of a young woman turning sixteen, which marks the age of coming into womanhood. The young woman is full of curiosity, and is eager to experience what life has to offer. When I first heard Ros Sereysothea sing the words to this song, I felt she challenged the rigid gender roles of her own culture and time by showing that women can have the power of choosing their own experiences, as well as their suitors. Patriarchal societies like Cambodia have long treated women as second-class citizens. Like most cultures, women have come along way in making their voices heard. In our rendition of Chnam Oun 16 the theme of empowerment resonates throughout the music video and transpires from the empowerment of women, to the survivors of war and genocide, and of all people.
The video uses fashion as a medium to show the progress and coming of age of women, as well as an entire culture. From the traditional colorful silk attire to the famous Apsara headdresses of the Angkorian era, to the urban street wear accented with family heirlooms, we see how a culture has grown and remained intact since the diaspora. We partnered with Nomi Network, a non-profit organization dedicated to eradicating sex trafficking in Cambodia by providing jobs to women who are vulnerable to sex trafficking. Totes crafted by these women stating, “Buy my bag, not my body” are worn by many of the cast. By offering them a job crafting handbags, these women are empowered as they now have a choice at their own destiny.
By the end of the video, we see folks from all walks of life coming together sharing in their pain, overcoming their struggles, and in the end uniting. Pictures of victims and family and friends who we’ve lost along the way are shown and some come to life reminding us that we do not need to run from these memories but rather we must embrace them in order to move on. We carry their images because we know they will always be with us. There are references to the Angkor Empire to remind us of the strength of our ancestors, instead of dwelling within the painful memories of a lost generation.
The Cambodian music scene has progressed very little since the Khmer Rouge war, in large part due to the killing of many musicians. Over the last 40 years nearly no new original music has been written. Growing up in the Cambodian music circuit I heard the original version of the song at every musical event. Bringing this song back is not intended to revive a lost musical era, but rather as an agent of change. Familiar tones are heard in the song, in conjunction with hip-hop and reggae, the old meets the new and arrives somewhere different than both. Reworking a classic Cambodian rock song and adding modern elements to the song pays homage to Khmer musicians and at the same time develops new ideas and creates a distinct genre. The added verse in English has the same message as the original song, but speaks of a woman who grew out of the chaos and fear and found her own voice to be powerful and inspiring. It is time for us to look back not with fear, but with the inspiration to change.
My father, whom this video is dedicated to, was my musical life. I am able to keep my father alive through music. He is with me at every performance and in every studio. He carried me from my war torn home all the way to this moment. The video carries the viewer through the 40 years since the war, from the fields and the Apsaras to the rally in the streets of the urban world, where we are all equal and united. ~ Bochan
For folks outside of the U.S & Canada, view the video here- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q9syflhJc38
“Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, it became a butterfly.” ~Proverb
Before the Khmer Rouge war my parents were in the prime of their lives, living as any normal young person with a life ahead of them. My mother was a college student with a promising future and my father was an accountant by profession but musician and dreamer at heart. When the Pol Pot regime took over the country in 1975, their lives were changed forever. My mother lost her parents, grandparents, her brother, his wife, her cousins; the list goes on, to the genocide. It’s tough to get specific details of memories one may wish to forget, but over the years I’ve been able to piece together the puzzle of our story.
I was born in Phnom Penh, the heart of Cambodia, during the aftermath of the Vietnamese invasion. The country was still in turmoil and its path to recovery remained distant. Like many, my parents felt the only chance of survival was to get out of the country, to get to the Thailand refugee camps in hopes that we would somehow make it to America. The escape plan took several months to devise and fortunately, everything had gone as planned with the exception of the last leg of the journey. A several hour trek to cross the border into the refugee camp turned into a run for our lives. Caught in the crossfire of a robbery, bullets chased us through the darkness of the jungle. Amidst the commotion my mother, who was carrying me (a one month old newborn), fell into one of the many ditches dug by Thai soldiers to prevent the Khmers from crossing the border. My father, with my older brother (5 years old at the time) clinging tightly onto his back, grabbed her by the arm and pulled her out of the ditch. As fast as they could, they jetted for the opening in the barb wired fencing. We made it through, but what they hadn’t realized was during all of the madness, was that I had lost consciousness, and had stopped breathing. The doctor’s tried desperately to get a response from me, but not a movement, not sound came out. My parents’ hearts sank. They had survived the genocide, lived through years of hardship under the communist regime, and made it through the crossfire during the escape but how would they survive this? At that moment the future they had fought to live for seemed gone forever…but I survived. Miraculously, the doctors were able to revive me. We spent the next year and a half in refugee camps waiting. And finally, in September of 1981 we were sponsored by the International Rescue Committee and were on our way to America.