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Documenting the diaspora: Kim Hak shoots Khmer-Japanese community

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Penn Setharin, one of the Cambodians who received a scholarship to study in Japan in 1974, before the fall of Phnom Penh. KIM HAK

Documenting the diaspora: Kim Hak shoots Khmer-Japanese community

Artwork which imparts stories that few people have heard about the lives of Cambodian refugees in Japan will be on display at “ALIVE IV” in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan, this August and September.

Kim Hak, a photographic artist, took pictures of music tapes from refugee camps and passports from more than 40 years ago as a narrative of the memories of Cambodian families in Japan.

“The work of the ALIVE project preserves the memories of the Cambodian people who went through the Khmer Rouge era by focusing on objects,” Hak told The Post.

Hak was born in Battambang province, two years after the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. He has been interested in the regime since early childhood and remembers hearing stories about the time from his family.

He moved from a career in tourism to a career in photography, both locally and in ASEAN countries, with the dreaming of raising regional and global awareness of his homeland’s history.

He started the first ALIVE project in Cambodia in 2014, and then continued on with ALIVE II, shot in Australia in 2015 and ALIVE III, made in New Zealand in 2018. He worked closely with Cambodians refugees abroad.

With the support of the Japan Foundation Asia Centre in 2020, he spent three months researching the Cambodian community in Japan. He had visited Japan five or six times in collabortation with Japanese art groups, but he had never met any Khmers at all.

“When people in Cambodia talk about refugees, they generally think of three countries – the US, Australia and France. We rarely hear about New Zealand or Japan. Japan in particular, we don’t even consider. That is the driving force behind why I wanted to do this work there,” he said.

According to a report by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, from 1975 to 1997, Japan accepted 1,223 refugees from Cambodia out of 10,727 from Indochina.

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Hagiwara Kanna (pictured on passport) was one of the first 15 Cambodian refugees. Hak took pictures of passports from more than 40 years ago as a narrative of the memories of Cambodian families in Japan. KIM HAK

“I asked myself if there are Cambodians living in Japan. I do research before I begin a project, by meeting some of the Khmer communities in the destination country,” he added.

The “ALIVE IV” project was conducted in Japan, where he selected the areas where many Khmer people lived: Kanagawa, Tokyo and Saitama prefectures.

He visited 12 Cambodian families to talk, listened to their stories and then took documentary photos of objects related to the story of their struggle through bitter history.

“In Japan, the story of Cambodian refugees was a little different from those in other countries, as my focus is on Cambodians who had gone there to study. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were stuck there,” said Hak.

He said that most discussion of the victims of the Khmer Rouge era surrounded people who lived under the regime. The students who were trapped abroad also faced deprivation, psychological problems and uncertain futures.

“When they left home to study, they expected to return after graduation. During the Khmer Rouge era, they could not return. They lost all communication with their families, had no idea what was happening inside Cambodia, and no idea what was happening to their friends and family. Many of them suffered from mental illness as a result,” he added.

As part of his research, Hak also met and photographed the families of the first former Cambodian refugees who arrived in Japan after the Khmer Rouge era.

“A year ago, one of the family members I photographed passed away. It feels like I am more attached to the project than ever before,” he said.

Sharing memories of the past and connecting with the future

As the project continues from chapter to chapter, the creators tried to find different items to focus on from each exhibition to the next. On the escape to Japan, for example, items such as watches, family photos and earrings acted as ships carrying memories from their homeland to a new country.

“We try to find things that have not been researched or compiled in detail, such as music. I know that during the Khmer Rouge era, people were not allowed to listen to music at all, and many musical artists died and were lost,” said Hak.

Because people still loved music, one family sold records and cassette tapes to other Cambodians in the refugee camps. The tapes also travelled with them when they left the camp and made their way to their final destination.

“When they arrived in Japan, they could no longer do business. So the tapes were no longer useful, but they still held onto them,” he said.

There are other notable expired items that some Cambodians in Japan kept, such as a passport that was issued in the Lon Nol era.

“His passport was no longer valid, but he still kept it because it is part of his historical memories,” said the photographer.

These items will be featured in the “ALIVE IV” exhibition, which is sponsored by the New Zealand Rei Foundation Limited. It aims to highlight the importance of sharing memories of the past and connecting with the future.

The exhibition also provides an opportunity for Cambodian children in Japan to engage in dialogue on the history of their families, as well as encouraging people of all nationalities to understand and accept each other without cultural barriers.

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The documents of Sok Phorn, whose family brought over 300 music cassettes from a refugee camp to Japan in 1987. KIM HAK

“Khmer have their own identity, language, food, clothes and so on. But they also accept the culture of the country they are living in. As such, the culture of the Cambodian-Japanese families in Japan is similar to Japanese,” he said.

The exhibition will take place from August 19 to 28 at Spiral Garden in Tokyo and September 9-25 at Elevated Studio Site-A Gallery in Yokohama, with the participation of the exhibitors.

“In Tokyo, we want the Japanese community to see and hear about the Cambodian community there, and we decided to do it in Kanagawa prefecture because it is so close to the Cambodian community who live in Yokohama,” he said.

“We will invite the Cambodian families in Japan, mainly because it is a tribute to them. We want them to participate as much as possible on the opening day of both exhibitions,” he said.

Besides the exhibition of photographs, he is also planning to publish a book of his work, in three languages. The Japanese, Khmer and English versions will be released at the same time.

As his third book, “ALIVE III” was purchased by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and kept as an important resource for future generations, he said: “Japan asked that I publish a book to support “ALIVE IV”, so we are doing it.”

The companion book to ALIVE IV has 264 pages. It focuses on more than 40 photographs taken in Japan with some pictures from ALIVE III to serve as a bridge from one chapter to another.

As usual, every time Hak does an exhibition abroad, he always tries to bring his work to Cambodia.

“With Chapter III, after the exhibition in New Zealand, I brought it to Cambodia, where it was exhibited at the Bophana Centre. For Chapter IV, I will make plans after the work in Japan is completely finished,” he said.

“My goal is to do at least seven chapters. Chapter V will be in Europe, and we will choose one or two countries to represent Europe, as we cannot go everywhere. The sixth chapter will be from the US, and Canada will be the seventh. After everything is completed, we will compile it all into one large book,” he said.

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