Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Exhibition tells story of those who return

Exhibition tells story of those who return

A photo of Sophy, who moved to Massachusetts as a child and is now an actor in Cambodia. ‘I walk into a room here or in America and they automatically assume I’m from somewhere else,’ he told van Kemenade. Photo supplied
A photo of Sophy, who moved to Massachusetts as a child and is now an actor in Cambodia. ‘I walk into a room here or in America and they automatically assume I’m from somewhere else,’ he told Erik van Kemenade. Photo supplied

Exhibition tells story of those who return

Family history and identity lie at the heart of a new exhibition opening tonight by Erik van Kemenade, an exploration of the homecoming of second generation Cambodians whose parents fled the Khmer Rouge.

Those Who Came Back is an intimate look in the lives of 25 Cambodians who have returned to the country after spending most of their life abroad, most in Western countries. The photos are taken in each person’s favourite place in Cambodia, and are accompanied by short interviews about their lives.

“Along the way, I got struck by the variety of stories and how the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge uniquely unfolded for second generation children,” says van Kemenade. In particular, he points out the story of Sophy.

Born in Cambodia near the end of the Khmer Rouge, Sophy moved to Massachusetts in the United States at the age of 5.

“[Sophy] describes [how] Khmer people started drinking, dealing with their trauma, and having issues with it, although it didn’t happen with his family,” says van Kemenade.

“As a kid he said that while America was big, [his world] was so small, because he would never leave. [He] was basically working all the time to save money. I find this interesting, because in those circumstances, they don’t have much choices.”

He describes three paths open to Cambodians: college, the Army, or getting sucked into criminal activity.

As much as the project is the story of returning Cambodians, it is also personal. Van Kemenade himself is half-Khmer, and his mother also left Cambodia on the eve of the Khmer Rouge takeover, finding her way to Vietnam, and then later to the Netherlands, where she met his father.

“In every story I recognised bits and pieces that I can relate to from my own background,” he says. “I realised the interviews served as some sort of mirror of my own identity.”

He talks about straddling two cultures while growing up, never really understanding why his Cambodian mother was so different from his Dutch father, or other Dutch parents. It was only by coming back to Cambodia, and seeing his mother’s home country through his own eyes, that their relationship grew closer.

This idea of retracing roots and finding Cambodian identity runs through the exhibition. As Poramy, a Khmer-Australian lawyer, says: there is a “generational gap but also a cultural gap”.

“I think it’s important for our generation to know the history and origins of our parents in order to know ourselves,” says van Kemenade. “In that sense, if this exhibition helps other people with a full or half-Khmer background to make that easier, I achieved more than I could have wished for.”

Those Who Came Back opens at Meta House tonight at 6pm, and will be shown from December 7-15.

MOST VIEWED

  • Negotiations on EBA being held

    In an effort to defuse tensions, a senior government official said Cambodia is negotiating with the European Union (EU) on the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade deal, which allows the Kingdom to export goods to the 28-member bloc tariff-free. The EU notified Cambodia on October 5

  • Ministers to tackle sea pollutants

    Preah Sihanouk provincial authorities and members of local communities have collected 77 tonnes of water hyacinth at a Sihanoukville beach, Preah Sihanouk Provincial Hall spokesperson Or Saroeun said. He told The Post yesterday that the aquatic weeds had been floating along some of the province’s

  • Chinese police escort deported scam suspects

    Ninety-one Chinese nationals accused of extorting money from victims in a Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) scam were deported from Phnom Penh International Airport on Monday under the escort of 182 Chinese police personnel. General Department of Immigration head of investigations Ouk Hay Seila told reporters

  • Sam Rainsy, government group set to clash at IPU Geneva meet?

    Opposition figure Sam Rainsy has been invited to speak at the General Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Geneva, according to a former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker. A government delegation is also set to attend the meeting, a National Assembly press release