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Finding Unsung Heroes of Cambodian arts

Phina So
June26/ 2019

I was so excited to get to visit Pailin province again after 20 years. This time I was on a mission, not a personal trip, to identify unsung heroes of Cambodian arts. Once identified as an unsung hero, he or she will be invited to attend the opening of the Arts4peace Festival in November in Phnom Penh.

After settled in my hotel, Boren, a local researcher who is responsible for Pailin, Battambang, and Banteay Meanchey province, arrived. We had a nice lunch at the hotel before jumping on Boren’s motorbike headed to an artist’s house right in front of the Provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts. By 1 pm, we arrived. There we see a small cottage. It is about 3 meters by 6 or 7 meters where, KHONG Run, the artist, lives with his four young children and wife.

Boren, the local researcher with his motorbike in front of the Provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts, Pailin.
A music instrument seen on a bed near where we interviewed Run.

There we saw a young man preparing to send three of his children to school. We waited for a while. Once back, he greeted us and asked us to sit in his little house. The cloud was so low and ready for downpour at any time. It provided us cool air without a fan though. Before starting the interview, I told him about the Arts for Peace Festival and the purpose of why we were there. He nodded with a frown expression on his face. The expression reminds me that I needed to speak slowly and make sure that he understands first before we proceed with our prepared questions. I told him that ‘Cambodian Living Arts is celebrating an Arts Festival called ‘Arts for Peace Festival’ in November with a purpose to recognise the contribution of three generations of artists who have been working so hard to revive the arts for Cambodia. And that the reason we were there is to interview and identify one unsung hero from Pailin province.’

KHONG Run proudly showed us his note books which he has kept for more than 20 years. How impressive!!!

We thought our questions would take about an hour of his time. It ended up two hours. Half way through, when Run went inside to bring his note books to show us, I spoke to Boren that ‘I feel that he is the one!’ Boren at first was a bit unsure but he smiled at me as if he agreed with me already.

TOCH Boren and KHONG Run were holding various photos of Run’s artistic activities.

Run started his education at a Buddhist pagoda in either 1991 or 1992. Back then, Pailin was still under the control of the Khmer Rouge and had not a proper education yet. In 2000, at 8th grade, he quit school and registered himself with an arts group led by an arts teacher named HENG Vuthy under the management of the provincial Department of Culture and Fine Arts. After eight years, the teacher left Pailin town and resettled in Battambang province. Run explained that ‘the reason to join the troupe was due to the fact that his family was extremely poor. And that he thought joining the troupe would lift him up from poverty. He also mentioned that learning traditional dance with the teacher was really strict. He and other students needed to wake up since 5 am to practice fundamental postures, breakfast, national anthem, and then practice again. However, he expressed his thankfulness to the training that he has learned about patience, calm, and disciplines.

What impressed me the most is how he showed me his note book where he has kept safely for 20 years. The note book is consisted all his note about the arts and some lessons on how important/useful arts is for the society. I’m touched because most of time I didn’t expect to hear such a serious study of the arts as this. Mostly, art students are taught only artistic skills but not its theory and roles. Added on my excitement, Run further said that ‘at first he didn’t think much beyond rehearsing and performing but after a long while he came to realise how arts is important for identity, economy and profession, and the soul of the nation.

KHONG Run with his art note book he’s kept for 20 years.

When asked about how the arts is useful to his life, Run told us that the arts has lifted him from poverty. As an orphan, the arts offers him an income to survive and support his family. At the beginning, his new troupe establishment, artists didn’t have proper clothes and enough instruments. Now, he has all of them. Now as a government official (still on a contract basis since he has not bachelor degree), he is the leader in the whole Pailin province. He is well-known for wedding music talents. He responded little to our question when we asked what does peace mean to him. However, I do understand him completely when he said ‘There is no one has interviewed me before with such a hard question.’ He giggled a bit before continued ‘However, I appreciate the questions because it makes me think critically. I don’t think I can answer much for now but I think arts can make peace because in the arts there is always educational element in it.’ Oh gosh, how I like his honest answer.

Personally, I have always thought that being an unsung hero, ones shall be an old man or woman. However, after listening to Run and hearing all this effort, and how he challenged all hardships to stay in the art field amazed me. I feel confident that he could be the unsung hero from Pailin at 38 years of age. I also felt fulfilled not because I could be in this little charming province again after two decades but being able to interview an artist who has been in the field for more than 20 years starting from bare hands to have what he has today. I’m quite excited already for Boren to come again to conduct an official interview with him and work out on how to bring him to Phnom Penh and ready to tell our audience that ‘Hey, this is our unsung hero from Pailin. Let’s meet and say thank you to him for the works he has done for the arts, Pailin, and Cambodia.’ Even though at the end, he is not selected as the unsung hero, he still is a hero for the arts to me.

A farm village in Pailin province where mountains are everywhere.

Until I come again Pailin.