"To Destroy You is No Loss"

The endurance of Cambodian pop culture

Over 30 years ago, a murderous army of communist fanatics in Cambodia known as the Khmer Rouge took command of a nation, and tried to destroy a world. In the attempt, they murdered around 1.5 million people—maybe a million more, or maybe a few hundred thousand less.

The value of any one human life may be incalculable. But in the chaos of the state-sponsored killing fields, it's hard to get an accurate count of just how many died. People were marked for starvation or elimination for being educated or wealthy, for being religious, working in a skilled profession, or representing anything other than the bare equality in agricultural sufficiency that the Cambodian communists thought should exemplify the “new people” they wanted to create.

The Khmer Rouge did bloodily carve their name, and that of their leader Pol Pot, into a lead position in the 20th century’s roll call of ideologically motivated villainy. Still, they ultimately failed in their attempt to destroy utterly the culture of pre-“Year Zero” bourgeois Cambodia.

Two movies shown together last week at a “Cambodian Rock Night”—across the Pacific Ocean from Cambodia in Los Angeles—each herald the Khmer Rouge’s failures. Everyone gathered at the Hollywood Blvd. nightclub the Knitting Factory—about a third of them of Cambodian ancestry, now living in Southern California—would assuredly have ended their days in sickness and starvation in a Khmer Rouge work camp had they gotten their hands on us, for general bourgeois decadence, if nothing else.

The first was a documentary, Sleepwalking through the Mekong. It chronicled a recent trip through Cambodia by the Los Angeles rock band archly named Dengue Fever, after a tropical disease once endemic in Southeast Asia.

The band plays their own versions of old Cambodian pop rock songs. Only one, their female lead singer Chhom Nimol, is ethnically Cambodian. She was already something of a singing sensation in Cambodia—the band found her in the hotbed of Cambodian refugees and their descendants in Long Beach, California. Cambodian rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s was a frantic and vivid music that arose to some degree from native reaction to the surf and pop music they began to hear on radio broadcast from U.S. military bases in Southeast Asia in the 1960s.

This Cambodian rock has manic, frantic drive with alternating flashes of light and darkness, reminiscent of mutant exoticized surf music and/or a fantasized ‘60s spy movie soundtrack about Cambodian spies adventuring in the West—an instant concentrate of the sort of sexy grooviness that the Austin Powers movies tried to capture, but not half as well as these songs. (When Dengue Fever plays them, at least in the movie, a layer of archival dust occasionally settles over this crazily bright music.) The sound, whether on vinyl or in person in nightclubs, exemplified individualism, cultural pluralism, markets, urbanity, the quest for fun, romance—trappings of educated bourgeois life that the Khmer Rouge despised and wanted to see eradicated from the earth.

Sleepwalking was shot by John Pirozzi, who is wrapping up a fuller documentary history of the Cambodian rock n’ roll that Dengue Fever pay tribute to, to be called Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten. You see and hear Dengue Fever playing dark nightclubs and bright temples, traveling through cities with wide boulevards and cheery colors filled with small motorbikes, often weighed down with produce. They visit schools dedicated to keeping alive the art of playing certain exotic Cambodian instruments for which only handfuls of masters survived the Khmer Rouge killing fields; they write new songs with Cambodian lyrics, helped by a tuktuk driver.

Being American intellectuals, the band members themselves wonder about their right to play this music, to appropriate Khmer culture as rank outsiders. They ultimately seem to decide—rightly—that those distinctions are meaningless when it comes to music and culture.

Pirozzi captures a young Cambodian who, after seeing these emissaries from across the ocean bring his nation’s culture, marked for death, back to life in front of him, says that it was “psychologically healing.” And a teacher from a music school notes that though she knew they were foreigners in front of her playing Khmer songs, she detected no class difference—they were all equal.

Not in the Pol Pot sense of forcing everyone into a mold of grim enforced equality of misery and deprivation, with all who might rise above in education or wealth whittled down violently, but rather, equality in a spiritual and intellectual community of affection for humans’ loving creations, across nations and time.

A short biopic of the queen of Cambodian pop-rock, Ros Sereysothea, was also shown. Originally a singer of traditional Khmer music, she later adopted the tough garage-psych sound that characterizes the best-remembered Cambodian rock of the time. Her popularity reached from peasants to the royal family, whose King Norodom Sihanouk dubbed her “The Golden Voice of the Royal Capital”—thus the film’s title, The Golden Voice.

The movie, written and directed by American Greg Cahill, is artless in some respects. The almost fable-like stark simplicity of its scene-setting and storytelling do have their own peculiar strengths. Its visual and verbal shorthand are more redolent of the graphic novel than what’s typically expected from film drama. The film tries to summon a life and a cultural tragedy in miniature; Cahill hopes he will eventually tell Sereysothea’s story in a full-length biopic.

It begins with Sereysothea, played by Sophea Pel, entertaining in a lavish nightclub when she is carted off by soldiers; the ballroom elegance is instantly contrasted with the desiccated grimness of a dirty, sparse field in which people creep listlessly through agricultural drudgery; voices hector them through loudspeakers.

The film’s version of Khmer Rouge evil is almost Randian; shown as arising from a stunted, petty, bitter resentment of anyone who has achieved anything grander than picking at vegetation or threatening people with a gun; anyone who ever ate a meal better than they had eaten, enjoyed a moment more elegant and lovely than they had enjoyed. The narrative ends with Sereysothea bullied by the Communists into singing colorless cadre songs for the delectation of slaves in a field; whether she’ll give in is left unresolved.

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  • dhex||

    this was neat. thanks brian.

  • ||

    I saw Dengue Fever last summer in Seattle and they were awesome. I'm going to have to see this movie.

  • ||

    Great article, Brian.

    I've always found the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot to be the scariest of incredibly scary monstrous mass murderers.

    I think it has something to do with that slogan--"to destroy you is no loss"-- that conveys such sheer animal brutality. It's not an ideology, it's a death cult.

    It might also be because there are too many damn movies and video games abou WWII.

  • Bee||

    One of the things I'll miss when I someday flee LA for The Family Compound somewhere will be Asian political and economic immigrants. I went to elementary school with children of Hong Kong millionaires, Indonesian, Philipino and Korean shopkeepers, and Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees.

    I was too young to really understand what the refugees had been through. I'm glad. I wish my parents had been more welcoming to them. I don't recall my parents telling me they'd protested the Japanese internment, though, so I suppose that's no surprise.

    One of my college roommates had been a refugee. When her family came to visit, they stayed physically close to one another wherever they were - they almost huddled together. My roommate explained to me later that they'd learned to stay close for protection from physical attack. Staying together also lessened the chances that someone would simply disappear.

    I had a co-worker whose parents had been sent to separate labor camps. They were scientists. They both survived their time in the camps, but they were not allowed to continue working in their field after they were released - one parent went into sales and the other managed to escape to the US with her daughter, my coworker.

    When I meet people from other parts of the country who think all Asian people are Chinese, I get a little hot. These are usually also the same people who think all Hispanic people are Mexican, and all Indian subcontinental-types are Mooslim Ay-rabs.

  • Goldthwait||

    Are you trying to imply that the Khmer Rouge killed a lot of people in Cambodia? As a fan of Noam Chomsky, I can tell you that they only killed a few thousand people at most and all of those people were American foreign agents who deserved to die. At least that is what Dr. Chomsky has told us, and as we all know, he is never wrong.

    Now if you will excuse me, I have to read a book, with a forward by Dr. Chomsky, detailing how the Holocaust never happened.

  • ||

    It's surprising to me how limited the information is about Cambodia and the Khmer rouge holocaust.

    For those interested, one documentary that's available through Netflix is S21: la machine de mort Khmère rouge (It has english subtitles.) Ex-Khmer Rouge death camp guards speak with a former prisoner as he seeks to document what happened.

  • VelvetHog||

    Now if you will excuse me, I have to read a book, with a forward by Dr. Chomsky, detailing how the Holocaust never happened.

    (Probably a stupid question, but) Is this a real book? Which?

  • Jeff||

    I am a big fan of classic Khmer music, and I am a lifelong libertarian. So I was very please to see the webpage I made devoted to Ros Sereysothea (the golden voice of Cambodian music) is linked to in this article! She was murdered by the Khmer Rouge, one of about 2 million to die in under four years of collectivist rule. Anyway, check out her music and thanks to Reason for speaking up for our rights.

  • ||

    Now if you will excuse me, I have to read a book, with a forward by Dr. Chomsky, detailing how the Holocaust never happened.

    (Probably a stupid question, but) Is this a real book? Which?


    Nah, Chomsky would never give the Fascists any kind of break. I mean, they're practically anarcho-capitalists, to extrapolate from the complaints of so many whiny, self-righteous syndicalists. I'm more curious about the claim that he's made excuses for the Rouge.

  • ||

    Here is a good account of Chomsky on the Khmer Rouge.

    http://jim.com/canon.htm

  • Goldthwait||

    Nah, Chomsky would never give the Fascists any kind of break.


    Hahaha. I hope you actually don't believe this bullshit.
    http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2004/11/chomsky_and_hol_1.html

  • Goldthwait||

    Let me retyped my above post to avoid confusion.

    "Nah, Chomsky would never give the Fascists any kind of break."

    I hope you don't believe that bullshit.

    Visit this site:
    http://oliverkamm.typepad.com/blog/2004/11/chomsky_and_hol_1.html

  • Goldthwait||

    "Nah, Chomsky would never give the Fascists any kind of break. I mean, they're practically anarcho-capitalists, to extrapolate from the complaints of so many whiny, self-righteous syndicalists. I'm more curious about the claim that he's made excuses for the Rouge."

    For someone who makes such definitive statements on what Chomsky supposedly believes, it is absolutely amazing how you are so ignorant about his apologies for the Khmer Rouge. This is roughly akin to defending the Catholic Church's view of science during the Renaissance without knowing who Galileo is.

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