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“Let’s say I’m conservative”

Srin Sokmean poses outside the Institute of Modern Languages. NICK STREET
Srin Sokmean poses outside the Institute of Modern Languages. NICK STREET

“Let’s say I’m conservative”

In the pursuit of cultural record, one young 60s fan started an online archive which has won thousands of Facebook fans. Rosa Ellen reports on an internet sensation.

Five years ago it would have been difficult to imagine a Facebook page like Amazing Cambodia. When the site appeared in March last year, posting vintage photographs, news clippings and film stills from a distant, sun-drenched past, the response was immediate and positive.

One post was of the demolished gothic Notre Dame cathedral on Monivong Boulevard, blazing white under a saturated blue sky; another was of a stylish mod couple in 1964, reclining in cyclos through busy Phnom Penh traffic; an unencumbered view of the city from the air, the boulevards and stretches of undeveloped road so vastly different from today. Each photo attracted hundreds of likes and often long threads of comments, making it something of a message board for casual amateur historians:

‘I want to find Apsara Cinema not Kirirom Cinema. It was opened in 1973.’

‘If I am not wrong there were a cinema on Sihanouk blvd. Now it is Caltex gas station…’ And so on.

A still from the 1967 film Toeuk Phnek Leu Khnorng Phnom (Tear on the Mountain) from actress Dy Saveth’s collection. PHOTO SUPPLIED
A still from the 1967 film Toeuk Phnek Leu Khnorng Phnom (Tear on the Mountain) from actress Dy Saveth’s collection. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Dozens of albums and images later, the mysterious administrator of the page, a 20-year-old foreign language and tourism student, has come out from behind his curtain to organise an exhibition at Meta House for some of the 300-plus vintage pictures sourced so far, in the hope of igniting a spark for the Kingdom’s missing photography and as an occasion to celebrate it.

“I think it’s been my interest since childhood,” says Srin Sokmean, “I listened to old songs and I was [always] really curious – I wanted to know ‘who is the song composer?' Who is the singer?' And I would try and find out, until now.”

Sokmean began his online project with a few photos he’d found on the Internet of Phnom Penh’s New Khmer architecture. He created the Amazing Cambodia page at the suggestion of a friend, regularly uploading film stills of Golden Era movie actors and magazine pictures he came across on his long trawls online. It is rare that the original photographs pass through his hands and the posts are sometimes scant on sourcing, which is why he prefers to keep it as a Facebook page rather than a website. Since its inception, the English language student has received digital images from dozens of people both here and overseas, some with pictures found in old books, others from websites dedicated to French Indochine and many from magazines long lost to Cambodia’s domestic archives.

“I prefer [for the page] something about Khmer culture, especially the 1960s because it is considered a peak in Cambodian history, in terms of architecture, film, music and many other things…

The bustling Central Market, as seen in 1961: one of the photographs posted by Srin Sokmean. JEAN LUC MELOT
The bustling Central Market, as seen in 1961: one of the photographs posted by Srin Sokmean. JEAN LUC MELOT

“I want to have every aspect of culture, not only a focus on films or music. Because I know different people have different interests,” he says.

Given the resurgence in interest from the younger generation in 1960s Khmer film and music, it is perhaps unsurprising that photos from the period have also become a sought-after medium. Images from films on the website of blogger Huy Vathara [a film-lover who migrated to France in 1980 after the Khmer Rouge and started a website on Golden era cinema] became an important resource, while reprinted posters of Golden Era pop albums and their film tie-ins are retro collectibles. A recent exhibition of recreated lost film posters at the Memory! Film Heritage Festival also showed the enduring love of imagery from the era. For the younger generation, says Sokmean, real-life windows into city life circa 1960s are intriguing – and comparatively rare.

Very few people had personal cameras at the time while many photo albums were destroyed under the Khmer Rouge, taken overseas or hidden in a panic by family members, says Chea Sopheap, archivist at the Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center.

“Only the people who were very careful and buried their collections in the ground or those who left the country could save their photo collection…they didn’t want the Khmer Rouge to know that they were the elite.”

Bophana has around 300,000 photographs available to the public, covering Cambodia from 1860 to the present day. But there are thousands of unavailable photographs as well, Sopheap says, which the center is working to index for its database.

 The Institute of Foreign Languages, as it was circa 1972. VANN MOLYVANN
The Institute of Foreign Languages, as it was circa 1972. VANN MOLYVANN

“As you know, the Golden Age of Cambodia under the leadership of H.M King Father Norodom Sihanouk is spoken about a lot by our Cambodian people then and now. When people see pictures about the Golden Age of Cambodia posted by Amazing Cambodia, they click ‘like’. I think that if Amazing Cambodia wants to get more popularity, the sources of pictures they post should be mentioned.”

Many of the most popular images from the Facebook page are street-photographs or city scenes, especially of those taken in the cosmopolitan Phnom Penh.

Frenchman Charles Meyer was the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s assistant and media advisor during the Sangkum period in the 1950s and 60s. Meyer (who died in 2004) took his entire official photo collection and documents with him to France, which he left for after the 1970 coup d’etat. The photograph collection, which has more than 6,000 photos, was later donated to the National Archives of Cambodia [NAC] by Meyer’s family.

In the stately home of the NAC on Street 92, which was famously left as an animal stable by the anti-intellectual Khmer Rouge, director Lim Ky points to folders of ‘titles’ from the Charles Meyer collection.

“Of King Sihanouk we have maybe 300 original titles. Each title has five to 10 photos…Meyer [also] gave us colonial photos and royal photos. We have 10,000 [photographs] all together. [in the NAC]”

Until 1993, the archive was barely heard of. After years of abandonment, the institution was without shelves or boxes or a computer, and photographs were kept in envelopes. Awareness of the archives was eventually raised through a national TV and newspaper campaign.

“When I came to work here in 1985, in the past, the photos of the Sangkum [period] were in the national archive, but all these photos they kept in envelopes and wrote the title (on the back). After that we rearranged these photos and put them in albums.”

Ky says students often come in looking for photos from the 1960s as well as the French colonial period, for school assignments. NAC photographs are easily accessible on the library’s catalogue but prints need to be credited. On the subject of the appeal of the 1960s era, she recalls the numerous times she has come across unauthorized reproductions of NAC photographs in shops in Phnom Penh.

“When I show [old] colour photos to people in the provinces they are very surprised. They don’t know they exist. The photos show the strength of the past, to compare … we can develop by what we preserve from the past.”

Suggesting the modernist squares of the Van Molyvann-designed Institute of Modern Languages as a photo location for 7Days, Srin Sokmean looks every inch the 60s fan, with his coif and shiny pointed shoes. The scholarship student was raised on his own by his grandmother in Phnom Penh and lights up delightedly when talking about his favourite era. His grandmother likes (in the traditional sense) the Facebook page and is proud of his dedication to it, although she is more interested in pictures from the French colonial period than the 1960s, which she lived through. Despite a concern that buildings from the era are not being preserved (such as the Tonle Bassac Theatre which was demolished 2008), the Amazing Cambodia creator says his nostalgia isn’t fuelled by a yearning for the past so much as admiration for a uniquely Cambodian popular culture.

“I think now [young Cambodians] live in a modern society and they see only modern things, so I think that they also want to find out amazing things in the past…so the problem is that they have little access to those past things...I think the more they see the more they will be proud of their local culture.”

The Documentation Center of Cambodia’s Youk Chhang sees the renewed fascination in the brief pre-Khmer Rouge “beautiful” Golden Era as precursor to cultural healing.

“People are in many ways some in search of meaning. But it can’t be forced or commercialized. It has to be freely expressed by choice

“[Some young people think] ‘We have heard of this beautiful thing but the reality is different.’ It’s the same as younger Cambodians living in America: ‘we see this Cambodia and it’s so beautiful, so why are we here in America, Canada, Australia’?... I think young Cambodians here are [confused] by the contradictory images….[and] searching for healing.”

Helped by a US-based NGO, Sokmean received funding for the Meta House exhibition and is currently picking the best of more than 200 digital images to print and put on display.

The event will be a celebration and an exchange – as well as his grandmother, a number of surviving film stars and singers have been sent invitations, who he met through his memberships of the Preah Sorya film research group.

“I know many people will think I’m weird – I’m just a young adult, why so interested in old things from many years ago that many teenagers aren’t interested in? I think it’s my personality and my hobby, as well.”

What’s his personality?

“Personality? I’m curious, let’s say I’m conservative.’ He giggles.

“Yes, I like the past – I don’t know why. It’s hard to explain.”

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