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The Sam Uong Pagoda Orchestra performs at Sam Uong Pagoda.
The Sam Uong Pagoda Orchestra performs at Sam Uong Pagoda. Moeun Nhean

Traditional Chinese music surviving in Phnom Penh

It may require a bit of searching, but it is possible to find traditional Chinese music in Phnom Penh.

Formed in 2007, the Sam Uong Pagoda Orchestra has been providing Cambodian audiences with a taste of China’s musical heritage. Made up of 12 Chinese-Cambodian and Cambodian musicians playing traditional Chinese instruments, the group meets and plays ancient songs every Sunday afternoon at Sam Uong Pagoda.

With one female vocalist and an interesting array of instruments, the orchestra performs ancient Chinese songs with names such as Love, The Beautiful Maiden, Chinese Scenery and The River. Solos are performed on instruments such as the zither (a kind of harp) or the erhu (a small upright stringed instrument played with a bow). Chinese flutes, drums and banjo-like stringed instruments are also used.

The singer, 61-year-old Tea Sophea, sings with the lovely lilting voice typical of Chinese chanteuses. We were entranced when she sang a well-known song about a beautiful young woman.

“We’re all elderly,” Tea lamented. “There are no young people coming here to learn to play traditional Chinese music. We all perform with all our hearts to respect our ancestors – we’ll try our best to teach any young Cambodians who are eager to learn about this music,” Sophea said.

Orchestra leader Heng Chou Ly sounded a similar note about the future of Chinese traditions in Cambodia, including the dragon dance. Previously the orchestra performed with nine dragon dancers, but now they are down to five.

“We should feel proud to be the only traditional Chinese performance group in Cambodia,” Heng said. “But actually, we are all worried about the future of our music here.”

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