Thursday, April 22, 2010

Talk shop

Jon Swain (center) flanked by two hangers-on, myself (left) and Nick Ray (right)
It was sweltering hot, the pa system was inadequate and the organisers were completely unprepared for the huge turnout, and to be honest the panel session could've gone on into the wee hours, the interest was that high. The war correspondents from the late 60s and 70s were out in full force with Al Rockoff snapping merrily away as Jon Swain, Sylvana Foa, Dan Southerland and T Jeff Williams regaled us with their memories, paying particular emphasis to the gung-ho style of reporting in those days and the not to be forgotten contribution from their Cambodian fixers and fellow journalists. Tim Page stood up at the end to announce that the remains recovered recently did not belong to his friend Sean Flynn, George Hamilton, the suave, tanned actor from Hollywood was on hand to lend the event some kudos, but it was the incredibly large turnout that caught everyone by surprise and almost turned the night into a shambles. It was rescued but only just. Jon Swain and Elizabeth Becker graciously signed copies of their excellent books, River of Time and When The War Was Over, which have been in my possession for 15 and 20 years respectively. Nice people.
Three of the war correspondents at tonight's event, Jon Swain, Elizabeth Becker (center) and Sylvana Foa
My camera flash has managed to rob actor George Hamilton of his trademark golden tan - sorry George.
Veteran photographer Al Rockoff (right) snapping away at tonight's event
Jon Swain telling the packed audience of his memories of Phnom Penh
The animated Sylvana Foa and the more restrained T Jeff Williams at tonight's panel discussion
A wall of photos of the journalists who were killed or are MIA from the Cambodia conflict

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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Survivors reunion

This week sees a reunion in Phnom Penh of some two dozen surviving veteran journalists, photographers and cameramen who covered the conflict in Cambodia and Vietnam in the 60s and 70s. After a few days in the city they will continue their reunion in Saigon. Part of the Phnom Penh activities will be to dedicate a memorial to journalists killed in war. Among those expected to attend are author Elizabeth Becker, Tim Page, Kurt Volkert, Jacques Leslie, Martin Stuart Fox, Perry Deane Young, Don Kirk and Al Rockoff. A total of 37 international and Cambodian journalists were killed or went missing-in-action in Cambodia between April 1970 and April 1975. The largest number were from Japan (10), France (8) and USA (7). The most famous of the MIA are Sean Flynn and Dana Stone who disappeared at Chi Phou on 6 April 1970. One rather less well-known story is that of Khmer journo Ly Eng who hid in the Monorom Hotel for two or three weeks after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on 17 April 1975. He came out of his hiding place, found his old red convertible sports car and drove down Monivong Boulevard towards the bridge, breaking through a few Khmer Rouge barricades. He reached the bridge but a group of Khmer Rouge guards sprayed him with bullets and he plunged into the river with his car.
As part of the activities a panel discussion with 4 of the journalists who covered the conflict, will take place at the Himawari Hotel this Thursday, 22 April, at 7.30pm (free admission). The panel includes Sunday Times correspondent, Jon Swain, author of one of my favourite books, A River of Time, chronicling his experiences in Indochina, including the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975. Also T Jeff Williams is on the panel, he co-authored the book, A Cambodian Odyssey and the Deaths of 25 Journalists with Kurt Volkert.
A panel discussion is set for this Thursday, 22 April at 7.30pm

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Sunday, July 5, 2009

Preserving the lifeblood

Em Theay, Cambodia's finest
Here is another press article from the archives, this time focusing on classical Cambodian dance and my favourite icon, Em Theay. Someone has got to write a book about this lady and her unique role in the center of classical dance for the last 60 years. Her story is simply too important not to be told in every detail. She isn't getting any younger afterall. Both Unesco and the Cambodian government should stump up the funds for the book, and my choice to author it would be Denise Heywood. Maybe I should start a Facebook group to get support for my idea. Anyway, here's the story by an old Phnom Penh favourite Jon Swain.
Peace Movement
Cambodia's killing fields almost destroyed 1000 years of culture. Now the surviving dancers of the royal ballet are passing on their secrets, teaching children to perfect the elaborate steps. Jon Swain reports for The Sunday Times Magazine 7 February 1999.
Dawn comes suddenly to Cambodia. For a few treasured moments this beautiful, ravaged little country seems at peace with itself. As the sun begins to light the land, Em Theay, a 66-year-old woman with a careworn expression, leaves her tiny apartment and makes her way through the poverty-stricken streets of Phnom Penh, past the spiked pagodas and processions of monks in saffron robes, to the fine arts faculty on the other side of town. It stands at the end of a dirt track behind the French embassy and, like much of Phnom Penh, is dilapidated. The burnt-sienna and cream floor tiles are cracked and missing in places. But an enchantment awaits the eye. The hall fills with several hundred sparkling girls aged 7 to 17 - Cambodian classical ballet dancers. Their school uniforms of blue skirts and white blouses are exchanged for bright satin bodices. Long silken swathes in reds, blues and purples are bound tightly round the thighs and legs - half skirt, half trousers. The ghostly sound of bells, rising and falling unexpectedly, fills the dawn and, from all corners, hands glide onto the dance floor, unfolding with the grace of a blossoming flower. There are few visions in the world more enchantingly romantic or more apt to bring a faraway look to the seasoned traveller's eye than these dancers. Graceful and perfectly poised, their small hands alone weave amazing patterns in the air. They seem to be the sisters of those bare-breasted apsaras (the king's celestial concubines) sculpted in stone on the walls of the fabled temple of Angkor Wat. The roots of Cambodian dance lie in Angkor, the pinnacle of Khmer civilisation, which flourished more than 1000 years ago. Auguste Rodin remarked, when he saw the dancers in Paris in 1906, that it was "impossible to see human nature brought to such perfection. There are these and the Greeks."
But 20 years ago Cambodian dance was dying. Between 1975 and 1979 the country was turned into a forced labour camp under the rule of Pol Pot, the militant communist Khmer Rouge leader. As many as 1.7m people died, and its rich and vibrant culture was all but destroyed. In order to sever Cambodians' links with their past and start at Year Zero, the Khmer Rouge did away with traditional musical instruments, abolished festivals, burnt books and records and confiscated Buddhist manuscripts. The royal ballet was dissolved, and 90% of the dancers, including Em Theay's two sisters, perished through malnutrition, overwork, harsh treatment and execution in the countryside. It was an irreparable loss, but fortunately Em Theay survived the tyranny. She spent four years working in the rice fields but never forgot the dance movements she learnt from the age of seven. Brought up in the grounds of the royal palace, where her mother was a cook, she was noticed by the queen mother and personally engaged as a dancer. Because of her strong physique she was coached to play the part of the demon king in the Ramayana, the epic of Prince Rama and his wife, Sita, and was so good that she eventually became a teacher within the palace. "Amazingly, my skills saved me from death," she said. "The Khmer Rouge village leader forced me to reveal that I was a dancer and made me perform for him. He was clearly enchanted and spared me from his elimination order." When the Khmer Rouge was overthrown in January 1979, she made her way back to Phnom Penh and joined the new department of culture, for which she works to this day. Her knowledge of the ancient Cambodian dance movements stayed in her head like the secrets of a favourite recipe, and now she is passing them on.
It is a struggle. Cambodia, recovering still from years of war, neglect and suffering despite the death of Pol Pot last year and the final collapse of the Khmer Rouge, devotes less than 0.1% of its national budget to culture. The demoralised national theatre employees - 248 artists, technicians and stagehands - are lucky if they receive $10-20 a month in salary, let alone put on shows, for they lack performance space. The foyer, a triangular one-time fish pond, black with neglect, comes alive for three hours each morning, with 20 dancers practising on a torn tarpaulin lain over pebbled slabs. For the rest of the day the theatre is deserted, save for street children using it as a playground. But help has come from outside. A French theatrical producer is in negotiations to bring a touring troupe of performers to France this year, in the hope of raising Cambodia's culture profile abroad. And there has been assistance from a Japanese foundation, which has donated $30,000 for vital notation work to rescue the 60 or so dances that would otherwise vanish into oblivion. Two foreign-notation experts are busy recording the 4000 gestures on paper and videotape from the few surviving former royal palace dancers before they become too ill to pass on their knowledge, or die. The secret of making the equisite papier-mache and lacquer masks used in performances of the Ramayana was always in the hands of a few specialist families. An Sok, who learnt to make masks in the royal palace at 11 and is now 58, is one of the handful of master mask makers left. A Unesco pledge of $5000 for 30 masks for the Ramayana will go some way to helping him survive. Each mask takes a month to complete. "The faculty has received no money for the ancient art of mask-making, and it is destined to die unless I can train some young people into the business," he said at his roof-terrace workshop near the Mekong river.
Cambodian dance is a highly stylised art. Every day there is intense and painful training to make the joints so supple that the hands can bend over backwards into an agonising position nearly on the forearm. The girls sit cross-legged in rows for these tough morning exercises, moving to the thwack of the teacher's cane on the terracota. Their movements defy the laws of natural bodily suppleness: the stretching of the legs in every direction, the coaxing of the elbow joint in the opposite direction, and kness, ankles, all the joints are trained to find positions that make them look as if they will suddenly snap off. A first-year student had the audacity to grumble to Em Theay and was swiftly reminded that she was now an instrument in the service of the Cambodian king. Every day for the next 10 years these girls will repeat the same gestures until they become second nature and are of the highest refinement. Vong Metri, 44, a strikingly handsome former graduate of the fine arts university, is concentrating on teaching a group of 12-year-olds who are learning the role of Sita, the heroine of the Ramayana. "When we were in the fields we invented a new dance," she recalled. "It was called digging the ground, chopping the firewood, harvesting the rice. It was hard - terribly, terribly hard - but somehow I survived."
If the modern revival of Cambodian dance is to succeed, it will be in no small way due to the efforts of Princess Bopha Devi, King Norodom Sihanouk's daughter. She used to be the leading dancer in the royal ballet before it was smashed by war and the Khmer Rouge. With her suppleness as a dancer, she might have stepped straight out of the legends of Angkor. She is now minister of culture, a role she takes seriously, arriving often unannounced, two pekingese dogs in tow, at Em Theay's training sessions to lend a hand teaching the girls. "Dance has been in my family for generations," she said. "My mother, my grandmother - my father even played a musical instrument to accompany the royal ballet. But then it belongs to all Khmers and, as I see it, our principal aim now is the preservation of classical dance - not only dance but all of our culture. You can say that we will have to be very brave and ingenious. We are a small country with little means at our disposal, but we'll manage somehow because we have to. It is our lifeblood we are preserving here."

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Monday, February 2, 2009

Mekong Run

After I spent yesterday afternoon on a boat on the Mekong River, it was timely that the Sunday Times in the UK published an archive report from Jon Swain in yesterday's edition, that provided an insight into life on the Mekong River during the year, 1974, before the Khmer Rouge finally gained control of Cambodia. Jon Swains' superb book, The River of Time, is a must-have book for any collection of stories from that period in history.

From the archive: Dodging Khmer Rouge bullets on a Mekong run - by Jon Swain
March 10, 1974: the world's most dangerous boat trip, to Phnom Penh.

I joined Convoy TT173 at Saigon and selected a freighter called Bonanza Three: her wheelhouse, our refuge during the attack, was protected by a thick wall of sandbags and her skipper, Captain Herri Pentoh, was a “real crackerjack”, according to a US aid official on the Phnom Penh run. Captain Pentoh, a wiry 27-year-old Indonesian with long, greasy hair, stood in the wheelhouse gazing awkwardly at the river bank through binoculars, partly because the solid wall of sandbags restricted his vision, but mostly because, like Nelson, he had only one good eye. The other, made of glass, gave a wild, staring accent to his face.

Bonanza Three, anchored in the oily waters of Saigon harbour, seemed an ugly, rusty old tub, fit for the scrapyard, and that was the reason why she had been chosen for the Mekong River run: her owner thought her expendable. Happily for him, the American government is committed to Phnom Penh’s survival and, so far at least, it has always made it worth his while to gamble the ship and the lives of his crew for a quick return. “The risks are high, but generally so are the profits,” explained Johnny Khoo, manager of the Singapore-based shipping company that runs her. It is understood that profits fluctuate around £17,000 a trip.

The big joke aboard Bonanza Three was the loo. Apart from making privacy a farce, fist-sized shrapnel holes in the door and wall made it all too obvious that the consequences of using it at the wrong moment could prove disastrous. Happily, the Khmer Rouge gunners, notoriously bad shots, have never caught anyone with their pants down. The ship’s radio officer, I was told, was “absent”. Only later did I discover that the poor fellow had been killed two months before, blasted in his cabin by a rocket. Members of the crew had scooped up the pieces in a plastic bag and are still trying to erase this from their memories.

The convoy passed the first big danger point almost unchallenged. At Peam Chor, 15 miles beyond the frontier, the Mekong suddenly curves and narrows to a 500-yard channel – an ideal and frequent ambush spot. Conspicuous to our straining eyes were the hulks of two ammunition barges sunk 10 days before, during the last run. All that remained were pieces of rusty machinery poking from the sluggish water. With the sleepy little town of Neak Leung just a fading smudge to stern, the danger seemed over. Even Captain Pentoh relaxed, unzipping his flak jacket and pulling off his helmet, for he knew that no convoy had been hit on the home run for nearly a year. The ambush came quickly, with a rocket attack on the lead ship, the Monte Cristo, as she steamed past the Dey Do plywood factory only 12 miles from Phnom Penh.

From the wheelhouse on Bonanza Three, two ships astern, it was impossible to assess the damage, but flames and a feather of black smoke on the Wing Pengh, the ship 300 yards from our bows, denoted that she, too, had been hit. Machine-gun bullets clanged and rattled off the hull. In the wheelhouse, the little Cambodian pilot carried on with his instructions, his voice as steady as a rock, his fear betrayed only by his delicate fingers tightly wrapped round a small ivory Buddha. The words “starboard easy” had just left his lips when the rocket burst aft. The explosion felt like a heavy blow in the back. Nobody moved or said anything, except the captain, who said, “Bloody hell, we’ve been hit”, then looked around embarrassed.

Nobody bothered to leave the wheelhouse and inspect the damage until we were safely tied up at Phnom Penh’s dirty brown waterfront an hour or so later. The rocket had missed the steering column by a fraction of an inch; had it hit, Bonanza Three would have been sent circling out of control. A winch was badly damaged and there were a lot of holes, but she had survived yet another Mekong River run. Pinned to a blackboard in the press briefing centre in Phnom Penh that evening, the Cambodian high command’s communiqué tersely read: “A convoy of five cargo ships, two petrol tankers and three ammunition barges has anchored at the port of Phnom Penh after passing up the Mekong without incident.”

The Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh in 1975. Millions of Cambodians died in the “killing fields” massacres that followed.

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