Sophiline Cheam Shapiro was among the first generation of classically-trained
dancers to graduate from Phnom Penh's School of Fine Arts after
the almost unimaginable destruction of the Khmer Rouge years,
when as many as 90 percent of Cambodia's dancers were killed.
Sophiline, a adolescent survivor, devoted herself to mastering the
intricate, complex movements that characterize classical Cambodian
dance. She became a teacher to help keep the art alive and toured
worldwide with the Classical Dance Company of Cambodia. In 1991,
she married an American, John Shapiro, and moved to Los Angeles.
In 2000, she traveled to Phnom Penh to premiere Samritechak,her
retelling of Othello in the form of classical Cambodian
dance. Sophiline and her husband recently launched the Khmer Arts
Academy to teach a new generation of Cambodian-Americans about traditional Cambodian art and culture.
from Sophiline Cheam Shapiro's essay, "Songs My Enemies Taught Me" in
Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields.
Excerpted from Children of Cambodia's Killing
Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, compiled by Dith Pran, edited
by Kim DePaul. Copyright 1997 by Yale University. Reproduced by
permission of Yale
One of the first children's songs I remember learning under
the Khmer Rouge was called "Angka Dar Qotdam" (The Great Angka).
children love Angka limitlessly.
Because of you we have better lives and live quite happily.
Before the revolution, children were poor and lived like animals,
We were cold and suffered,
But the enemy didn't care about us.
Only skin covered our bones, so thin we were worried
All night we slept on the ground,
We begged and looked for food in trash cans during the day.
Now Angka brings us good health, strength.
And now we live in the commune.
The light of revolution, equality and freedom shines gloriously.
Oh, Angka, we deeply love you.
We resolve to follow your red way ...
As a nine-year-old, I believed this was the truth. There was
going to be a future, if not democratic (I don't think I knew
the meaning of that word) then one of tremendous prosperity.
But our labors continued all day, every day. We worked from
sunrise until sunset, breaking only to eat. Our two daily meals
consisted mostly of one watery cup of rice porridge.
We are very happy to be living in the countryside.
We are very proud and happy.
We work hard to produce a lot more rice than before,
To improve the economy of New Kampuchea.
It is Kampuchea, independent, neutral, peaceful, advanced,
Men and women live in happiness.
We were productive, but where was the rice going? There was
no democracy. There was no glory. There was no laughter. There
was no happiness. By 1977, there was no more singing, and there
was certainly no peace.
I sometimes wonder if images of healthy rice paddies and the
wonderful new Kampuchea were whirling through the mind of my
brother, Pavonn, when, dizzy from dysentery, far away from his
family with a work brigade, he fainted at the top of a monastery
stairwell and broke his neck. I lost my father, two brothers,
my grandmother, and many cousins and uncles. I am no different
from most of my generation: I know of almost no family that
survived without losses. It was a time of the gravest betrayals.
Lyrics that promised us the riches of heaven were written by
the engineers of our own public hell.
I rarely hear the songs of the Khmer Rouge. I wonder why that
is. I know all too well the horror their melodies recall, but
I also know that these songs played as important a part in my
life as any. They reflect an experience unique to my generation
of Cambodians, no matter to what corner of the world fate has
brought them. The Khmer Rouge hoped to obliterate our history,
and in doing so, their songs have forged a significant place
in it. It is for this reason that I will never forget the songs
my enemies taught me.
an Interview with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro
courtesy of Michael Burr and James Wasserman