My family migrated to Australia from Cambodia when I was just six months old. Growing up, I always had a vague awareness of my own family history. My grandparents are from China, but both of my parents were born in Cambodia.
It wasn’t until I travelled to Cambodia as an adult with my father that I discovered just how much the Khmer Rouge had impacted my immediate family.
Led by Pol Pot, the brutal Khmer Rouge regime (in power from 1975-1979) claimed the lives of an estimated two million people – over a quarter of the country’s population at the time. Given this widespread atrocity, it’s no wonder that almost every person you meet in Cambodia has been directly affected.
Dad and I met in Phnom Penh and set off on Highway No. 3 to the country’s south.
Along the way, Dad points out places of significance, including where many of our relatives used to live. We pass the village of Angtasom and Dad tells me it is where he was born. It’s surreal to be connected to a place so far away from my home in Australia. My family history permeates these small villages and I never knew about it until this trip.
As we near Kampong Trach province, we come to a small village (village is a generous term as there are only six houses on this street). We walk up to the first house on the street and Dad informs me: “This is where you were born”.
I walk around the small house – more of a hut really – in a bit of a daze, trying to take it all in. The facade of the house was built in the last decade, but otherwise the mud-brick dwelling is more or less how it was when I was born 36 years ago. The original well and back section of the house still remains as it was. Where the kitchen is now, used to be a bedroom, which is where my mother gave birth to me.
Dad tells me of the time he had the opportunity to escape Cambodia to Thailand just after I was born. His friend had a boat that could fit two people and had to leave that night. Dad insisted that he could not leave behind his wife and two children so declined. He later learned that the Khmer Rouge discovered this man’s escape attempt. To make an example of him, they executed not only the man, but all of his immediate family. I am in awe of what my father has experienced in his past and consider the incredible set of circumstances that led to my life. Had my father accepted that boat ride, I would not be alive today.
We then drive to Kampot, which used to be home to a large Chinese-Cambodian population.
Around the early 1970s, the Chinese Cambodians were the largest ethnic minority in the country, with numbers estimated at around 425,000. However by the mid-1980s, there were only around 61,000 Cambodians of Chinese descent left, due to warfare, the Khmer Rouge and emigration.
The Chinese-Cambodian were generally well-educated and were therefore targeted by the Khmer Rouge whose ideology detested professionals and intellectuals (they were known to execute people wearing glasses and wristwatches, as it implied intelligence).
I never had the opportunity to meet my grandparents because, being merchants, they were the kind of people the Khmer Rouge abhorred. They fell victim to the Khmer Rouge before I was born. I also had an older sister who I never knew because of the regime too.
Dad takes me to visit my grandparents’ gravesite and we show respect by making offerings of fruit and burning ritual paper.
Standing in the place where they were buried is the closest I will ever get to my grandparents and I am filled with anger and sadness. I know that what I feel is minuscule to what the people who lived through the regime must feel.
In spite of it all, it feels like the Cambodian people have chosen hope over bitterness. Everyone I have met focuses on the positives, on what they have instead of what they have lost.
Dad is certainly one of these people. He makes a concerted effort every year to return to Cambodia and visit his remaining relatives and friends. The money and gifts he brings are always welcome, but the real treasure is the relationships that these people have managed to forge over tragedy, time and distance.
For all he has suffered, my father is still grateful that I was able to make the journey with him and share a part of his life that was previously hidden to me. When we catch up now, we have shared reference points to people, places and experiences that are unique to both of us.
Travelling to Cambodia has brought me and my father closer. It has given me a lot more understanding of what he has endured and where he has been. These stories are not easy to hear, but it is important that they are shared, in the hopes that such atrocities will not happen again.
Learn more about Cambodia’s sobering – but important – Khmer history; most Intrepid tours of Cambodia visit the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and Choeung Ek Memorial in Phnom Penh.
All photographs C/O CC Hua.