Inter-Ethni-Cities: Cham Images of Chinese New Year

It’s Chinese new year. Right now and right here in Phnom Penh, today. It was also back then and back there, in that 60’s little town of Sala Lekh Pram, 60 kms away from Phnom Penh, miles into Kompong Chhnang province, a bouncy urbish square of land, flowing by the national road, holding on to the lake. The market is still around, sleepy when the sun is acting up, awake when coffee hasn’t been served yet to a weird assortment of moviegoers and dark-brew-sippers in that even quirkier western like saloon – sorry meant coffee-shop – screening the most illogical – and shall I add deliciously immoral? – selection of pirate VCDs. That market summarizes quite the intricacies of that idiosyncratic center of the world that Sala Lekh Pram can be to some. Sort of. In many sorts.

Vietnamese accents. Chinese looks. Khmer touches. And an entangled meshwork of veils. All threads of veils. The black niqab for the Tabligh center settled nearby, the surrounding-the-face-like-a-full-moon of the Wahhabi schoolers and associates next door; the barely-set-on-my-hair kind of Krama for nonchalant elders, seriously other things to care about now, I’m telling you that; the all sparkling sequins fresh out of Malaysia for the fashionistas; and finally, sometimes, although less and less, the lived-through-survived-by-still-alive all white cotton piece for those ladies who, like some of those men too, have abandoned the mundane to focus on religious teaching, tradition learning, and higher hopings out of this life and into the asceticism of the mountain. Muslims. Chams. All around. Sala Lekh Pram is essentially a non essentialist bubble. Don’t reduce it to one because it won’t let you. Not now and certainly not yesterday.

Yesterday then. The image gets out of the frame. It has this glossy texture, a more recent enlargement it tells. Math Sroh, a farmer, a musician, a descendant of princes – don’t reduce him to one because he won’t let you – looks back. Not at his own reflection in the gloss. Because he is not the one pictured here. His cousins are. It’s 1967 or 1968 in Sala Lekh Pram. It’s a Chinese new year like any other. Three days and three nights of festivities are coming up as usual. The young and the not-so-young are getting ready: ”Maidens would dress up. Be at their best. And then they would go downtown with the whole family”. Don’t you want to picture the Godfather and his soon-wife-to-be walking through Corleone accompanied by the crowd? I know I want to. People pouring from all the surrounding villages. Dropping the metal of the night forges at night, leaving the on-a-vacation paddy fields, letting the slimy slippery sliding fishes away already. Everyone going to the market and its surrounding little adjacent streets. 3 days and 3 nights. ”It was such a big thing. They would screen movies at the town hall. They would bring actors and singers. Famous ones even! Some even coming down all the way from China”. The main attraction is as intricate as Sala Lekh Pram is: Pa-Hi. That Chinese show-like selling act of medicine and other miracles. Throw in a monkey or two, some dressed as humans or humans dressed as monkeys for they sure both played a lot of tricks in the many memories, and still both play quite a few to our memory. Throw in some opera, some theatre, some jumps and acrobatics, and even – sure you can afford that, it’s new year for crying out loud! – some magic. Music. Voices. Images all over. Crowds gathering, passing by, chatting, snacking, moving, settling. New year. ”It was like a great spectacle for all. Everyone came. We Chams came too of course. We wouldn’t miss it. Nobody would. Why would you?”.

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The party generates its own dream-like images. Let’s add another layer to that, just another intricacy, I think we owe it to our very own dear Sala. Boys, girls, and others, seizing the opportunity to make their own images. To picture their own dreamed selves. That’s what 16 and 18 years old Soleh Sok and Son Sok set out to do: the studio is their ultimate destination. Their best shirt. Their best smile. Farmers knowing of royal ancestors, fish catchers turned actors, shining beams in exchange of a flash. Beautiful. Alive. Caught in that moment. A new year is starting. It starts all over every time you look at the photograph.

The gloss has remained. Two princes have gone though. Joining ancestors in the fields that killed history. Those many intricate roads into and out of Sala Lekh Pram. Those many intricate ways of Chams into and out of Cambodia. Of Chinese into and out of urban. Don’t reduce any of them: they won’t let you. The gloss has remained. ”Today Chinese just invite a couple of Mongsais – those dancing lions – to their doors and that’s it. There isn’t much to see. So there aren’t many Chams going. There isn’t much left”. Nothing left but the gloss of memories. The intricate smiles of the brothers Sok telling of the intricacies of Sala Lekh Pram. Silencing in their absence the many more inter-ethni-cities of Cambodia.

Phnom Penh, February 8, 2016, Emiko Stock.

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