It’s a trend that is unique to Cambodia. Ordinary people are popping up claiming to be relatives of pop legends and even royalty killed during the bloody Khmer Rouge era. Many are fakes but some are the real deal
Back in the late 1960s, Cambodia’s answer to Elvis Presley performed at a Phnom Penh restaurant and, so the story goes, took a shine to a young waitress who worked there. Her name was Mom Phalla and soon afterwards she had a daughter, Sinn Siraiya.
Sinn Sisamouth, who rose to fame in the 1950s and is believed to have written and sung hundreds if not thousands of hit songs, was allegedly so smitten he wrote a song about her called Sroêm Phalla (Brown Skinned Phalla).
But a few years later the Khmer Rouge seized power and Sisamouth disappeared. It’s assumed he was executed, along with most of the actors and singers of the time.
The child Siraiya grew up to be a singer. Born a woman, he now considers himself a man and regularly performs in Siem Reap restaurants and community meetings. The 45-year-old bears little resemblance to the man he believes is his father.
In fact, he looks more like a Cambodian KD Lang with his open-collared shirts and short, tousled hair. But his pure, melodic voice is reminiscent of Sisamouth, whose songs he launches into a capella at a moment’s notice.
“I never knew him,” said Siraiya during a recent visit to Phnom Penh. “I didn’t stay with him. All I know is that my mother told me I was the daughter of Sinn Sisamouth.”
The family denies the story, the latest in a series of cases of disputed identity in which people have claimed to be or be related to famous figures from before the regime of Democratic Kampuchea.
While some families have enjoyed joyous reunions with loved ones, the surviving relatives of Cambodia’s legends and even the Royal Family have become used to pretenders trying to profit from their names.
Not all those who have emerged from long obscurity after the Khmer Rouge have been declared fakes. Dy Saveth, one of the great film stars of the 1960s and 1970s, was thought to be dead until she returned to Cambodia in 1993.
She had been in Thailand when Pol Pot came to power and lived in France for 18 years. She has since continued on with a resurgent film and teaching career.
But other relatives long thought dead or never known to have existed have continued to emerge from a past made hazy by the Khmer Rouge. Their Year Zero policies meant documents and photographs were destroyed, populations were displaced and about two million killed. This created an ideal climate for impostors to flourish.
“Some claims are not faked but a dream of what if they were related to such a person? Perhaps their life would have been better, then and now,” said Youk Chhang, the executive director of pre-eminent Khmer Rouge archives the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (DC-Cam).
“They want a new life but yet they cannot forget what happened during the Khmer Rouge, so they regard whoever they can think of, or close to them physically, as a family,” he said.
Other cases have been much simpler, with some trying to attach themselves to celebrities’ legacies in an attempt to capture reflected glory.
Ros Sabeoun, 75, is the eldest sister of popular female singer Ros Sereysothea, who was dubbed “The Golden Voice” for her high, clear singing. She is believed to have died sometime between 1975 and 1979. During the years, Sabeoun has heard of many people claiming to be relatives, including those close to Sereysothea.
She said that in March this year she confronted an old friend of Sereysothea’s called Kim Sary who had changed her name to Ros Sary and told people she was the famous singer’s older sister. “She apologised as soon as she saw me,” Sabeoun said.
“She just wanted her daughter to be a singer.
“I wasn’t surprised. They want to be famous and it would make it easier for their children who want to be singers or movie stars.”
Probably the most controversial case of a celebrity apparently returning from the dead is Voy Ho. Five years ago, a disfigured and sickly Battambang man came forward claiming to be the prolific 1960s songwriter.
He was interviewed on national television, but former friends and family steadfastly maintained he was an impostor and that the real Voy Ho was killed by the Khmer Rouge. His identity is still in doubt.
It’s not just celebrities who attract such a rich crop of previously unheard of family members. Dozens of people with dubious claims to royal blood have applied to the Palace for special identification cards available only to members of royalty. To get the card, applicants must be vetted by the Royal Cabinet.
The most impersonated royal is Prince Norodom Naradipo, one of Sihanouk’s sons who was touted as his political successor but is believed to have been killed by the Khmer Rouge.
At least two impostors – a 32-year-old taxi driver and a 66-year-old man – were caught and arrested after attempting to swindle money.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, nephew of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk, said most pretenders were undone when the lineage they claimed did not match the verified royal family tree. “I don’t know why people would try to impersonate other people, it might be for prestige, fame or celebrity,” he said.
As for Siraiya, it remains unclear whether he is telling the truth, if he was lied to or if he is just a fraud. But he refused to let his mother corroborate the story, saying she would be angry at him for going public with a private matter and upsetting Sisamouth’s other family.
Sisamouth was only legally married once in an arranged marriage to his cousin with whom he had three sons and a daughter, according to Cambodian historian Seng Dara. However, there were reputedly a series of girlfriends, the most serious of which was pregnant when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975.
It’s unknown what happened to her and the child.
But historian Dara said he had never heard of Mom Phalla and Sinn Siraiya and the song Sroêm Phalla was written by another songwriter, Ouy Herl. “Many people have claimed to be relatives of Sisamouth and other famous people but none have provided any evidence,” he said.
For his part, Siraiya is adamant that he is Sisamouth’s son and said he would be willing to take a blood test to prove it. He said he did not seek to use his father’s legacy to promote his own career but simply wanted the truth of his parentage recognised.
“I am very proud to be the daughter of Sinn Sisamouth,” he said. “When I cut my hand and see the blood I feel very proud that it’s the blood of Sinn Sisamouth. When I hold a microphone, I feel very happy that I’m Sinn Sisamouth’s daughter because I can’t read but I can sing very purely.
This is what my father gave me.”
Additional reporting by Thor Sina
Will Jackson and Cheng Sokhorng