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Passion for bokator earns African 15 minutes of local fame

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John Esin and bokator master San Kim Sean practise sparring. Clarke Illmatical

Passion for bokator earns African 15 minutes of local fame

Since arriving in the Kingdom in February to study bokator, African John Esin has become something of a local celebrity.

The 36-year-old – an IT professional based in China - said he became fascinated with the Cambodian fighting style after watching a video in 2013.

An avid martial arts fan since he was a child, he had informally learned some karate over the years and practised gymnastics. But this was different.

“I heard that it was a newly revived martial art that had been in existence for more than a thousand years,” he said.

Just a few months later, he booked a flight to Phnom Penh to study under bokator grandmaster San Kim Sean. Unfortunately, the address Esin had was out of date – Kim Sean had moved to Siem Reap in 2012.

It took some sleuthing to track down Kim Sean’s new address but he was soon on a bus to attend his first training session.

“I was introduced as the first African to join the class,” he said – that wasn’t, however, considered a negative by his fellow students and teacher.

“Cambodians are really open-hearted, they’re going to treat you like part of the family.”

Bokator neophyte John Esin trains on a punching bag.
Bokator neophyte John Esin trains on a punching bag. Clarke Illmatical

In a country where there is often a stigma associated with dark skin, he said he felt like a positive ambassador for Africans and people of African descent.

Esin’s road to local celebrity status began when he was roped in to perform in a bokator demonstration during April’s Angkor Sangkranta celebrations.

The four performances were witnessed by thousands, and he was subsequently interviewed by several television stations.

Since then, he’s become an often-recognised figure in Siem Reap.

“I would walk on the street and people would say: ‘Bokator!’”

Esin said that, after a while, being approached so frequently began to wear a little and he started trying to conceal his identity.

“I wear the hat to cover up,” he said. “After Angkor Sangkranta, immediately after that, I had more people than now [approaching me] because it was fresh in their minds, [and it started to get] too much.”

While being interviewed for this story in a restaurant, Esin was approached by a Cambodian man who recognised him from the Sangkranta performances and was fascinated by his interest in Cambodia’s martial art.

“I like this art; I want to penetrate it and go as far as possible, experience this art like an Angkorian warrior, like someone from the past,” Esin said.

While training, Esin has also been working on a documentary of his journey that he hopes to use to promote Bokator when he returns to China.

However, despite his new-found celebrity and filmmaking aspirations, Esin has a long way to go before he masters the Cambodian martial art.

“He’s not a good student yet, but he has passion,” said bokator master Kim Sean.

“But he will be good. After several months, there will be a big difference.”

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