Documenting the Diaspora: Kim Hak Shoots at the Khmer-Japanese Community

Artworks that tell stories few have heard about the life of Cambodian refugees in Japan will be on display at “ALIVE IV” in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan in August and September.

Kim Hak, a photographic artist, took photos of refugee camp musical tapes and passports from over 40 years ago to recount the memories of Cambodian families in Japan.

“Project ALIVE’s work preserves the memories of the Cambodian people who lived through the Khmer Rouge era by focusing on objects,” Hak told the Post.

Hak was born in Battambang province, two years after the fall of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime. He has been interested in the diet since he was a child and remembers hearing stories about his family’s time.

He transitioned from a career in tourism to a career in photography, both locally and in ASEAN countries, with the dream of bringing awareness to the region and the world about the history of his homeland.

He started the first ALIVE project in Cambodia in 2014, then continued with ALIVE II, shot in Australia in 2015 and ALIVE III, made in New Zealand in 2018. He has worked closely with Cambodian refugees abroad .

With support from the Japan Foundation Asia Center in 2020, he spent three months researching the Cambodian community in Japan. He had visited Japan five or six times in collaboration with Japanese artistic groups, but he had never met Khmers.

“When Cambodians talk about refugees, they usually think of three countries: the United States, Australia and France. You rarely hear about New Zealand or Japan. Japan in particular, we don’t even think. That’s why I wanted to do this job there,” he said.

According to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, from 1975 to 1997, Japan received 1,223 refugees from Cambodia out of 10,727 from Indochina.

Hagiwara Kanna (passport photo) was one of the first 15 Cambodian refugees. Hak took passport photos from over 40 years ago to tell the memories of Cambodian families in Japan. Kim Hack

“I wondered if there were any Cambodians living in Japan. I do research before starting a project, meeting some of the Khmer communities in the destination country,” he added.

The “ALIVE IV” project was carried out in Japan, where it selected the areas where many Khmers lived: the prefectures of Kanagawa, Tokyo and Saitama.

He visited 12 Cambodian families to talk, listen to their stories, and then take documentary photos of items related to the story of their struggle through bitter history.

“In Japan, the story of Cambodian refugees was a bit different from other countries, because I focus on Cambodians who had gone there to study. When the Khmer Rouge came to power, they were stuck there,” Hak said.

He said that most discussion of the victims of the Khmer Rouge era was about people who lived under the regime. Students trapped abroad also faced deprivation, psychological problems and an uncertain future.

“When they left home to study, they expected to come back after graduation. During the Khmer Rouge era, they couldn’t come back. They lost all communication with their families, had no idea what was going on inside Cambodia, and no idea what was happening to their friends and family. Many of them suffered from mental illness as a result,” he added.

As part of his research, Hak also met and photographed the families of the first former Cambodian refugees to arrive in Japan after the Khmer Rouge era.

“A year ago, one of the family members I photographed passed away. I feel like I’m more committed to the project than ever before,” he said.

Sharing memories of the past and connecting with the future

As the project continues from chapter to chapter, the creators have tried to find different elements to focus on from one exhibit to the next. During the flight to Japan, for example, items such as watches, family photos, and earrings acted as vessels carrying memories from their homeland to a new country.

“We try to find things that haven’t been researched or compiled in detail, like music. I know that during the Khmer Rouge era, people weren’t allowed to listen to music at all, and many musical artists died and were lost,” Hak said.

Because people still loved music, one family sold records and cassettes to other Cambodians in the refugee camps. The bands also traveled with them when they left camp and traveled to their final destination.

“When they arrived in Japan, they could no longer trade. So the tapes were no longer useful, but they still kept them,” he said.

There are other notable expired items that some Cambodians in Japan have kept, such as a passport issued during the Lon Nol era.

“His passport was no longer valid, but he kept it anyway because it is part of his historical memories,” explained the photographer.

These items will be featured in the “ALIVE IV” exhibition, which is sponsored by the New Zealand Rei Foundation Limited. It aims to highlight the importance of sharing memories of the past and connecting with the future.

The exhibition is also an opportunity for Cambodian children in Japan to engage in dialogue about their family history, as well as to encourage people of all nationalities to understand and accept each other without cultural barriers.

Content Image - Phnom Penh Post

The papers of Sok Phorn, whose family brought over 300 music cassettes from a refugee camp in Japan in 1987. Kim Hak

“The Khmers have their own identity, language, food, clothes, etc. But they also accept the culture of the country in which they live. Thus, the culture of Cambodian-Japanese families in Japan is similar to that of the Japanese,” he said.

The exhibition will take place from August 19 to 28 at the Spiral Garden in Tokyo and from September 9 to 25 at the Elevated Studio Site-A Gallery in Yokohama, with the participation of exhibitors.

“In Tokyo, we want the Japanese community to see and hear about the Cambodian community there, and we decided to do that in Kanagawa prefecture because it’s so close to the Cambodian community that lives in Yokohama,” said he declared.

“We are going to invite Cambodian families to Japan, mainly because it is a tribute to them. We want them to participate as much as possible on the opening day of both exhibits,” he said.

Besides the photography exhibition, he also plans to publish a book of his work, in three languages. Japanese, Khmer and English versions will be released at the same time.

While his third book, “ALIVE III” was purchased by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and kept as an important resource for future generations, he said, “Japan asked me to publish a book to support ‘ALIVE IV “, so we do.”

The companion book to ALIVE IV is 264 pages. It focuses on over 40 photographs taken in Japan along with some footage from ALIVE III to serve as a bridge from chapter to chapter.

As usual, whenever Hak does an exhibition abroad, he always tries to bring his work to Cambodia.

“With Chapter III, after the exhibition in New Zealand, I brought it to Cambodia, where it was exhibited at the Bophana Centre. For Chapter IV, I will make plans once the work in Japan is completely finished,” he said.

“My goal is to do at least seven chapters. Chapter V will be in Europe, and we will choose one or two countries to represent Europe, because we can’t go everywhere. The sixth chapter will be from the United States and Canada will be the seventh. Once it’s all done, we’ll compile it all into one big book,” he said.

About Walter J. Leslie

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