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From the killing fields: art and healing in Asian America.

What I remember most is that when the red candles melted into the asphalt parking lot, they looked like pools of blood.

I was 18 years old--a Chinese girl who had grown up on the fringes of Amish country in Ohio--when I entered Kent State as a freshman in journalism. Our classes took place in Taylor Hall, the building around which an anti-Vietnam war protest had taken place just over a decade before.

On May 4, 1970, members of the Ohio National Guard fired into the crowd, killing four and wounding nine, including students, in a parking lot. Every year the lot is closed for an all-night candlelight vigil. In the morning, the pooled wax evokes the killing that took place there and in Asia, an image that still powerfully resonates for me.

What incited that protest was President Nixon's April 30 announcement of incursions into Cambodia. For many Americans, Cambodia meant only a far away jungle where too many soldiers were dying, a place where we shouldn't have been at all. Cambodia was suffering its own civil war from 1970-75, and Nixon feared Communist expansion there. From 1975-79, the country suffered brutally under the maniacal Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime, with "Killing Fields" across the country; as many as 2.5 million died.

Among the survivors was Arn Chorn. Born into an illustrious musical family, he was nine when Pol Pot came to power. Chorn and hundreds of other children were sent to a Buddhist temple; a master musician trained him and four others to play the flute and the khim, traditional Cambodian dulcimer. Perversely, the children had to perform lullabies for their captors.

Chorn survived by showing no emotion and repressing the horrors that he witnessed. He eventually escaped through the jungle into Thailand, stricken with cerebral malaria and weighing only 60 pounds. In a refugee camp, Chorn met the Rev. Peter Pond, who eventually took him to New Hampshire, adopting him and 15 other Cambodian children.


Ten years ago, Chorn-Pond founded Cambodia Living Arts, a Phnom Penh-based nonprofit organization dedicated to reviving traditional art forms and inspiring contemporary artistic expression. The organization also supports the music teachers who helped Chorn-Pond survive the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, who killed an estimated 90 percent of Cambodia's performing artists.

"It's important for us to revive and preserve the cultural heritage of Cambodia, which lost so many of its cultural masters during the Killing Fields and in the devastating economic decades afterwards," said Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodia Living Arts. "It's also important for us to heal and to move forward, inspiring young people to make new and modern work."

The organization is planning the "Season of Cambodia" arts festival in spring 2013 in New York. Partnering with such institutions as the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Film Society of Lincoln Center, and Asia Society, the festival will feature an impressive spectrum of the traditional arts.

"It's important to have high-level cultural presentation, but it's just as critical to connect with the local community, especially Cambodian Americans," said Prim.

The Asian American Arts Alliance (a4), a nonprofit organization that has supported Asian American artists and arts groups for 30 years, will connect these new master artists from Southeast Asia with the local grassroots arts community, many of whom are immigrants and refugees as well. Linking young Cambodians with others with a history of violent conflict (such as Vietnamese Americans and the Jewish community) is exciting and filled with promise.

For many of us who graduated from Kent State, our college experience is inextricable from the shootings of May 1970. Today, it is a privilege to be among those who, along with the Season of Cambodia, are working to promote understanding and healing through the arts

Andrea Louie is the executive director of the Asian American Arts Alliance (a4) and a writer.
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Author:Louie, Andrea
Publication:Voices: The Journal of New York Folklore
Date:Sep 22, 2011
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