Chea chan Po made his career live-dubbing foreign films into Khmer – a skill that in modern Cambodia could be a lost art
In the decades after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, foreign films replaced their Cambodian counterparts in theatres around Phnom Penh.
While in the 1960s and ’70s the Cambodian film industry had given rise to a generation of silver-screen stars, this post-war influx of foreign-language content created new ones: the voiceover actors dubbing movies for Khmer speakers.
Dubbing had begun in the Kingdom in the 1950s with the arrival of Thai and Indian films. The earliest voice-over artist was a man by the name of Or Pho, who subsequently trained the first generation.
But one of Cambodia’s first post-Khmer Rouge dub artists was 55-year-old Chea Chan Po, one of just two family members – including his mother – to survive the horrors of the regime. With just a primary school education, he found work as a projectionist for the new government.
“I worked for the military, screening films for soldiers in the provinces,” Po recalls.
Later, he settled in Stung Meanchey district, where he would scavenge for old film reels in the city’s dumpsites and screen them for his friends, live-dubbing as they played.
Po soon began doing it professionally. For much of his early career, a lack of recording technology meant that voice acting occurred live. He would carry around a book of scripts – some 60 pages long – and when he got the call to do a movie, he would accompany another dubber for the entire 90 minutes.
It could be exhausting work. “You have to be flexible with your emotions: to cry, to laugh, to be happy, calm or naughty,” he explains.
Throughout the 1980s, Po dubbed films from Vietnam, the Soviet Union and East Germany. As Cambodia opened up in the 1990s, he became a household name for dubbing films from Hong Kong, especially those starring director, actor and producer Stephen Chow.
“I dubbed all kinds of films, but people know me best [for dubbing over] Stephen Chow’s character Tinfy,” he says. “They called me ‘Uncle Tinfy’.”
For the past 15 years, since he got married, Po has often worked with his wife. They’ve even looped the children into the family trade, using them to translate scripts from English, he says. He estimates that he has worked on hundreds of films.
As technology has begun to render the work of many of Cambodia’s live dubbers obsolete, Po remains confident in the need for his unique skill set.
“Although the market is small for this career, new technologies and innovations won’t make it disappear,” he says.
Sin Chan Chhaya, a director of the Cambodia film industry department at the Ministry of Culture, says the market for dubbing is still quite viable, especially for foreign movies screened on television.
Po says he considers himself part of the third generation of Khmer voice actors, of which just a handful remains. There is no school that teaches dubbing; it is a trade passed down from one practitioner to the next, a practice that Po says will have to do for now.
“In the future, I want to have voice dubbing class or school, but now I welcome students who want to learn this skill,” he says with a characteristic grin. “I am happy to pass my knowledge on to them.”