Cultures of Independence, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 2007

I came across this book in Phnom Penh in 2007 and couldn’t put it down.  It is a scrap book, of sorts, for a Cambodia that few realize ever existed: in the 1950s and 60s, newly independent from France, Cambodia in some ways dove deeper into modernism and a cultural engagement with Europe.  This book, produced by Reyum Publishing, is a record of that engagement, with long sections dedicated to the work of the celebrated Modernist architect Vann Molyvann, the emergence of a Khmer film industry, or (as in the image above) pop music, both local and foreign.  The caption for the black and white photo on the left-hand page — that is, not the Beatles cover — reads: “The ‘singer architect’ Tad Kdompi with his group of ‘wise hippies’ singing at the first National Film Festival, 1969.”

Those were the days.  Six years later, in 1975, the country was beset by famine and the Khmer Rouge seized power, destroying almost every vestige of cosmopolitan, outward-looking, modernizing Cambodia.  It was the lingering after-effects of this cultural trauma that brought me to Cambodia: the Khmer Rouge killed most of the masters of Cambodian classical dance but a choreographer named Sophiline Cheam Shapiro started a dance academy outside of Phnom Penh to train a new generation of dancers in an attempt to keep this cultural heritage alive.  The article that I wrote and photographed about her was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in the fall of 2007 and can be seen here.

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The book above is the kind of improbable cultural artifact that might appear in the journal Transition, a favorite that I wrote about recently.  Click here to read about the echoes of Cambodia that I saw on the roads of Tamil Nadu in southern India.  Or here to see my photographs of Cambodia.  Or here to see all my posts on East Asia.

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