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Cambodian Space Project Partners with FICAC to Facilitate Kampot Kids’ Dreams

PHNOM PENH: With kids laughing in the pool and the band warming up, phones were put aside as all eyes and ears were focused on the sounds and movements of Cambodia’s golden era as the Cambodian Space Project (CSP) prepared to perform for the first time in almost six years. Last Friday and Saturday night, Villa Grange hosted Garage Fest, which promised a lineup of local bands, a Salt Fields Trash Fashion Show and the much-anticipated return of the CSP with their new lead singer, Khmer Australian vocalist Thyda Chea. The night was promising to be full of melodic and hypnotizing sights and sounds, highlighted by the vintage footage being played behind the stage of King Sihanouk and Queen Mother engaging in the arts before the Khmer Rouge silenced generations of creatives. While the music was a major draw for many in the crowd, by the end of the night it was clear; as Brian Wood of Siem Reap’s “Handsome Devils” said in his opening act, “Tonight is all about the kids.”

Cambodia’s art scene is still recovering from its tragic erasure nearly 50 years ago. For the working poor, arts and education are often seen as frivolous endeavors which distract from the survival mindset forced onto them after decades of turmoil. Even those families that can see the merit of an education often cannot afford to lose the income their child can bring to the family. Facing these challenges, the Fish Island Community Arts Center (FICAC) in Kampot is fighting to return the hope and beauty of the arts and provide a better future to disenfranchised Cambodian youth. They are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund some exciting new developments at the center. Kek Soon is its founder and an inspiration to anyone who dreams outside of what’s considered inevitable.

Kek Soon, center, with her students.

 Raised in poverty in Kampot, the self-proclaimed “black sheep” fought hard to rise above what her family considered achievable. Soon wanted to see the world and started by being a maid in Malaysia for eight years. Still, she craved more and managed to become an acclaimed chef in popular restaurants in Switzerland and Hong Kong.

Students learn to cook all kinds of cuisine under Soon's professional guidance. Milieu, 16, [front and center] is an excellent chef and mastered breadmaking after one class.

She then returned to Kampot and bought land on a reclaimed rice paddy. Seeing children in her community working in the salt fields, where they earn 25 cents per trip to carry buckets too heavy for their small frames, she was inspired to establish the FICAC in 2019, which has become a major cultural and social hub in Kampot-providing food to the community during the Covid-19 crisis and accepting student residents who are fed, housed, and educated in the arts and hospitality. Most importantly, she teaches her students to dream.

In an interview with EAC News, she explained, “We want them to see a better future.I always compare it to a frog in the pond. You know, it’s scary, you’re used to living in a pond. You don’t see the future, the outside, the big space and when you jump out your eyes are opened. It’s quite scary, but you have to do it. To see that the world is bigger. That’s why we try to teach our students to be more independent, strong and understand [how to] work hard, study hard.”

Vatanah, 12, is from Battambang, but was found as an orphan on the streets of Kampot. Now a student resident, he hopes to one day be a musician.

More than education and training, the Fish Islands Community Arts Center provides a safe haven for Kampot youth. Kek Soon supports her students with love and understanding, providing a nourishing environment for her wards to learn and grow. It’s important for her to hold space even for those who think they’ve strayed too far from the path. She notes that teenage pregnancy and relationship issues are often the impetus for students to abandon their dreams.

“We’re there to teach them. Make sure they’re safe, make sure they have a place to stay, and make sure they don’t run away from home. I say to them, ‘if anything happens, come to me. Think of me as your sister, or your mom, or your friend. It’s ok, just come here. Don’t go anywhere, just come here. We have food for you, we have a place to stay. Don’t run away from home…..Maybe you’re pregnant now, maybe you have a baby [to take care of]. It doesn’t matter. Come back later. You will still have an opportunity. You know, it’s ok…Maybe in a year you can bring the baby along!”

Starting in Kampot, then stopping in Phnom Penh for Garage Fest, and finally moving on to Siem Reap, eight students from the FICAC are touring their Salt Fields Trash Fashion Show to raise money and awareness for the center.

For the students, this is their first time leaving home and exploring their own country.

Some of the students had to work hard to convince their reluctant families that this was a worthy opportunity. Lena is 14 and the baby of her family. When presented with this trip of a lifetime, her grandmother cautioned that she was too young to travel away from home and that she could do so when she was older. To this Lena asked, “How old are you grandmother?” “82.” “And have you ever been to Siem Reap?” “No.” “Then I should be traveling so I can take pictures and show you how beautiful Angkor Wat is!” Her excellent debate skills paid off and this weekend in Phnom Penh she was confidently modeling a dress made out of a painted trash bag accompanied by a beautiful Apsara crown fashioned from cardboard. When I met her she was all smiles and excited to practice her English and asked me every question she knew how to ask.

The fashion show was an unexpected marvel in design and performance from the student models. They all walked the red carpet with the confidence of seasoned veterans and showcased incredible looks fashioned from trash collected from the roadside and leftovers from market vendors; a beautiful allegory for the limitless potential in what society has dismissed as having no value. In the dressing room before the show, the kids are abuzz with excitement and nerves. Liza, 15, is modeling an orange and yellow corn husk dress tonight; while she is usually the funny and confident one of the group, tonight she cannot help peeking out into the crowd and commenting nervously on how many people there are. She has also had to challenge her family’s notions of what her future holds. The only Muslim student, her mother wanted her to stay home to help with chores, saying that she could clean fish or work the salt fields because “that’s what my generation did.” Liza persisted in her desire for more. She understands how education can change the conditions of her life and hopes to one day own a salon.

The Cambodian Space Project rounded out the evening with a performance that presented a bittersweet contrast of Cambodia’s artistic boom of the 1960’s with the present-day void in the Cambodian arts scene.

The crowd consisted of a mix of CSP fans and FICAC enthusiasts. Amy von Diest and her partner Chenda Yen were in attendance. They run Clothesline Boutique, a second-hand clothing shop that works with local communities to streamline the donation process so that materials reach those who need it most. Chenda finds the stories of the FICAC students relatable, being raised poor by a single mother in Phnom Penh and daring to dream big herself.

“What I most enjoy seeing was the story of each kid because when they are talking about their dreams for traveling, it’s like me. They made a decision to do something different from the normal. It’s so fortunate to live your dreams. I dreamed of traveling around, so I tried to create opportunities to travel. I’ve traveled to a lot of countries. I hope that they succeed in their dreams like I did,” she said.

Lekhana, 13, has been a student resident for two years. She left her grandmother’s house to live at the FICAC because they had more food. She has a passion for painting and modeling fashion.

Kek Soon is working diligently with her partner Julien Poulson, lead guitarist for the CSP, to provide even more opportunities to the community in the future. The FICAC is not an NGO and relies solely on the support of the community. To this end, they are running a Kickstarter campaign to fund this trip and future projects of the community center.

“Kids need to eat everyday. They need money to go to school, so when people stop supporting us, it’s quite difficult,” emphasized Soon.

Srey Phum, 14, is a shy and hardworking artist. She hopes to get an artist sponsorship and travel the world.

With already 400 books donated from Australia, they are renovating the ground floor to become a media library where the community can come to engage with books and media in a cozy setting, a need that is currently unmet in most of Cambodia. They are also in the process of completing a digital media arts studio which will allow young creatives to access training and skills in digital media production. In the long term, they aim to create a Media Arts School that will also bring in real working relationships with international schools, teachers, mentors and traveling students. Their Kickstarter campaign runs until 22 April. At the Fish Island Community Arts Center people find invaluable support and its operators pursue their highest purpose. It’s truly a beautiful thing to see. 

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