Cambodian Recollections is a collection of memories of Cambodians, based in the UK, reflecting on the upheaval and purges from 1975 to 1979. Through these, we learn about the challenges they faced trying to survive in Britain – learning English, getting to grips with the ways of a foreign country, weather, food and adapting to a new culture. At the same time, they have endeavoured to maintain tradition and culture which we hear from the younger generation of interviewees.
On 17th April 1975 after a military coup, a brutal new political regime called the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia. People hoped for better things but many were forced to move out of their homes within hours under the guise of it being temporary measure, but it was not. They were not allowed to go back and most of them took very few belongings.
Some were killed because they refused to move. Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, become a ghost town and everyone was ordered to work in harsh conditions in the countryside from dawn to dusk with very little to eat. During the brutal regime millions died from starvation and disease. Intellectual people were accused of working for foreign intelligence agencies such as the CIA or KGB and many were taken from their families and executed.
In 1979 Cambodia was liberated by neighbouring Vietnam. Most people returned to their hometowns to rebuild their lives. However, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were heading west and their aim was to never return. They travelled hundreds of miles to poorly equipped refugee camps located between the Thai and Cambodian border, risking their lives travelling through landmines, contracting tropical diseases or being robbed by displaced Khmer Rouge soldiers.
Some were lucky because their relatives from abroad found them shortly after they arrived at the camps and were air lifted to be reunited with their families. Others had to wait years before countries such as France or America let them migrate there. In the 1970s the growing Cambodian community in the UK primarily came to study or were exiled diplomats. During the mid-1980s Cambodian migrants came through supporting aid agencies such as Christian Aid and the human rights act through fear of persecution
The Community Centre for Refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia (VLC) in Hackney is a key support group for many migrants from these countries.
Cambodia became a democratic country in 1993 after a national election supported by the United Nations. A coup in 1997 to overthrow the government was unsuccessful. It is now a stable country politically, but repression and corruption are the legacy of the previous regime is still prevalent.
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) awarded South East Asian Arts Festival (SEA ArtsFest) and Khmer Arts and Heritage Limited (KAHL) a grant to capture and share the experiences of people affected by the Khmer Rouge through the Cambodian Recollections project.
During the project there was a touring exhibition at the VLC Centre in Hackney in April 2015 followed by an exhibition at Hackney Museum, June to November 2015. This is the first time an exhibition of this nature is being held in the UK.
You can find the video interviews on YouTube by following this link.
Find a copy of the exhibition booklet here: Cambodian Recollections Exhibition Booklet
Cambodian Recollections was part of SEA ArtsFest 2015.