In the heart of Phnom Penh, photographer Kim Hak’s Alive IV stands as a beacon of shared memories and histories.

The exhibition not only spotlights the Cambodian community in Japan but also reveals intimate tales of former refugees and their descendants, showcasing the power of heritage.

The August 18 launch saw an eclectic mix of attendees, from former refugee students to those born in far-off lands.

Kim Hak, the brain behind Alive, emphasised the value of their involvement.

“It’s vital for them to connect with Alive in Cambodia to truly grasp their ancestors’ roots,” he said.

This tale doesn’t just echo Cambodia’s past, but resonates with stories of conflict and displacement worldwide.

Sam Huy’s attire mirrored the shirt in a photograph displayed alongside him at the inauguration at the Preah Srey Icanavarman Museum – Sosoro. This uncanny reflection added depth to the event.

“I have many old belongings because I’ve never stayed in one place. I’ve always had to take these items with me,” Huy explained.

Living in Tokyo, Huy reminisced about his tumultuous journey from his birth in Kampong Chhnang province in 1952. His visits home halted when the Khmer Rouge overran Cambodia in 1975. Standing next to his younger self’s photograph, his enduring spirit was evident.

Reflecting on his time in Japan, he said: “It was incredibly tough, given Japan’s reluctance to employ foreigners and Cambodia’s tarnished reputation. This drove me to excel and earn my doctorate”.

His account is a testament to the struggles Cambodians faced in Japan.

Alive IV is an instalment of Kim Hak’s broader “Alive” initiative, a passionate quest to capture Cambodian refugees’ memories through relics and photographs. The items, some predating the Khmer Rouge era, symbolise a journey of upheaval and tenacity. Hak curates these stories through objects spanning over four decades.

Inspired by his mother’s sacrifices during the Khmer Rouge period, he embarked on a mission to explore his family’s past.

Since 2014, he began gathering historic items, first from his own family and later from Cambodians worldwide.

At the gallery opening, Hak revealed: “I started by collecting items from my own family, then worked with Cambodians both here and overseas”.

However, Hak felt the need to expand his work beyond Cambodia.

“It was essential to extend to other countries, especially as many Cambodian families relocated,” he remarked.

Born in Battambang province shortly after the Khmer Rouge era, Hak transitioned from tourism to photography, eager to enlighten the world about Cambodia’s history.

The “Alive” project, initiated in Cambodia in 2014, ventured to Australia for Alive II in 2015, and later to New Zealand with Alive III in 2018. While in New Zealand, Hak collaborated closely with Cambodian refugees.

In 2020, sponsored by the Japan Foundation Asia Centre, he delved into the Cambodian community in Japan, although he hadn’t encountered any Cambodians there during his previous visits.

During his Alive IV endeavour, Hak visited 15 Cambodian refugee families in Japan, focusing particularly on Kanagawa, Tokyo and Saitama where many resided.

He immersed himself in their tales and photographed objects symbolising both the turbulent history of Cambodia and the families’ rebirth in Japan.

Interestingly, these families were distinct, primarily students stranded in Japan as the Khmer Rouge rose to power.

Alive IV highlights these unique tales of Cambodians overcoming adversities in Japan.

Beyond individual stories, the exhibit illuminates the lesser-known Cambodian refugee community in Japan, often overshadowed by larger diasporic groups in the US, Australia and France.

As per a UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) report, between 1975 and 1997, out of 10,727 refugees from Indochina, Japan accepted 1,223 from Cambodia.

Hosting the “Alive” series, Blaise Kilian, co-director of the Cambodia Museum of Economy and Money (SOSORO), commented: “Though it leans more artistic than our typical displays, it resonates deeply, highlighting the societal ripple effects of politics, economics and profit – especially regarding those rebuilding lives post-war.”

Alive IV has been displayed in Japan, spotlighting two key groups: Cambodians who studied there pre-Khmer Rouge and refugees arriving post this dark era.

Hak expressed the profound impact of hosting this showcase in Phnom Penh, as it allowed Cambodians now residing in Japan to reconnect with their roots, underscoring the need to retain Cambodia’s collective memory.

Running in Phnom Penh until September 2, Alive IV is more than just an exhibition; it’s a narrative of perseverance, remembrance and human grit.

Through Hak’s poignant photographs, it tells the stories of Cambodians in Japan, beautifully connecting different worlds and eras, reminding all of the indomitable spirit within.