Hard times coming for the Apsara Arts Association. The back hoe is getting closer and closer to the dance floor and threatening to destroy the sala.
Nestled between a dubious looking massage parlor and a row of tin shacks that line
a dusty stretch of Street 598 in Phnom Penh's Toul Kork district, is the Apsara Arts
Association (AAA)- a local NGO dedicated to teaching disadvantaged Cambodian children
about their traditional culture.
Every day, more than 160 children come to the wooden dance sala, or studio, for lessons
in dance, music, and song. Most of them come from desperately poor backgrounds, some
are orphans and live at the sala, others are HIV positive - all are dedicated to
learning Cambodia's traditional arts.
But on August 3, Chhay Sopha, AAA director, received a notice of eviction from local
authorities. The municipality said it plans to install a sewage canal next to Street
598. Sopha was given ten days to dismantle the 6-year-old wooden dance studio, the
dormitory rooms beneath, and forfeit his land.
"I cannot imagine what will happen if they destroy the sala," said Sopha.
"I can't imagine life for me, or for all the children who come here, without
On August 8, the children broke off from their lessons and watched a large yellow
bull-dozer demolish the tin shacks just yards from where they were rehearsing on
AAA's large wooden stage. Eventually, the lesson continued, but any hints of happiness
were impossible to restore.
"Consider the activities of the sala," said Sompen Kutranon, owner of Lotus
Pond Handicrafts and a supporter of the Apsara Arts Association (AAA). "Just
look at the faces of the children, they have suffered so much in their short lives
but here they are happy, here they can learn. If we want to help the children, we
need to save the building."
Sopha bought the land in 1990, and has a certificate to prove it. The old house at
the front of the property was originally where Sopha and his wife, Madame Vong Metry,
a former ballet dancer, lived.
They taught dance to local children in their front room. In 1998, their work caught
the attention of the Kasumisou Foundation, who helped them found the AAA.
In 2001, the foundation funded the construction of the studio and dormitory rooms
at a cost of around $75,000. It is this structure that is now threatened by the city's
impending sewage canal.
No mention was made in the eviction notice of compensation for the loss of either
the land or the structure. The structure is scheduled to be demolished on August
"It is not enough time to save the building," Sopha said. "Even if
we do have to leave, if we just have a little more time we could take it to pieces
and at least save the wood."
Kutranon said the basis for the eviction appears questionable. Other buildings in
the surrounding area - including a large factory, and a disused warehouse - will
not be demolished.
"It is all about negotiation," said Kutranon. "They say the plan is
to clear the area to create a 'reserve pond' to collect overflowing water - but the
sala is built on stilts. We will happily demolish the downstairs section of the building
if that would help the flow of water, but let us keep the sala itself."
Mark Rosasco, the founder of the Kasumisou foundation, is deeply concerned.
"Although the funding which we provide to the AAA has never been what we would
like it to be, my wife and I have struggled for years to keep it going, inspired
largely by the notion that without the training - not just in dance and music but
in values, self-respect, self-discipline and appreciation for the importance of education-
their lives might go down the sewer," he said.