Artist researching: Experience curves in Taiwan and Cambodia

Artist researching: Experience curves in Taiwan and Cambodia
The sight on the left before entering the Killing Caves —PHOTOS BY LYRA GARCELLANO

A man in his rormork (the traditional and bigger version of the tuk-tuk) hovered near us outside the public market early one rainy October morning. We carried heavy backpacks and he asked in English: Need a ride?

We actually did. But we had been accustomed to using the PassApp to book these local taxis. With the app, one is assured of what one exactly needs to pay as it automatically calculates the fare according to the destination’s distance. To flag down a rickshaw on the road requires negotiation skills. If one speaks Khmer, then there shouldn’t be a problem. But for those who don’t, an arbitrarily high fare can be expected.

We went to another corner and the same man slowly drove by us again. This time he was precise: Hire me. I need money. But by then our booked rickshaw had arrived. I could only softly whisper to the ether: Somtos, somtos (So sorry). 

That was in Cambodia—Battambang to be exact, where I stayed for almost two months. 

My trip to the Kingdom of Cambodia began in Taiwan. I journeyed to Taipei in July as one of three artists invited to be part of the Mekong Cultural Hub (MCH) Professional Exchange 2023. Thai performer Wasu Wanlayangkoon, schooled in Augusto Boal’s theater techniques and philosophy, and Myanmar documentary photographer and activist Ya Min Htet aka NuNu completed our triumvirate. On the occasions that she could join us on our walks, Ut Quyen, a historian and cultural worker from Vietnam who at that time worked for MCH, made us a quadrumvirate.

The exchange was designed to be a 90-day exploration. But for reasons I’ll never know, despite my delivering all the required documents, I was only issued a 30-day non-extendable visa by the Taiwan office in the Philippines. With no clear explanation to the restriction, I helplessly and grudgingly concluded that to be Filipino is to be saddled with remarkable prejudice and disadvantage. 

When I arrived in Taiwan, only the Southeast Asians understood why I also carried my old passports with me: “It’s only us who constantly have to prove our travel histories, huh?” The East Asians were perplexed by this.

Guided by Jennifer Lee and Frances Rudgard of MCH, I realized that being in Taiwan meant learning about the capacities of their art and cultural industry. Wasu, NuNu and I had limited time to study and observe the conditions of Taiwanese creative practitioners, but we became acutely aware from the beginning that they are able to source and receive financial support from their own government. Grants, for instance, include studio rent assistance, overseas tuition (sometimes payable in 10 years without interest), micro-funding of workshops, and many more. 

Even if Taiwanese friends asserted that they don’t always get awarded their desired budget or any form of sponsorship because of a variety of factors, the mere thought of having access to such funding opportunities struck us differently, given that we all come from places where local grants are hard to come by. To merely hear of the substantial allocation of resources to the art sector was an occasion for envy. 

The author’s studio at Art Site Railway Warehouse in Hsinchu

I learned much from Art Site Hsinchu’s Lee Yu-hsuan. I had an art studio at the Art Site of Hsinchu Railway Warehouse. The city is where Taiwan’s soft power, its sleeping dragon, resides: semiconductors, telecommunications, and microchips. To be in Taiwan is to comprehend that technological progress is part of its brand.

The existence of strong health insurance for Taiwan’s people serves as another barometer: The local artists attest to it as one of the best in the world. I sigh as I think of the Philippines’ poor healthcare system, and the crowdfunding activities that Filipinos commonly resort to whenever friends (or even strangers) need help to cope with staggering medical bills.

There are other things I can list down that will make this seem like a love letter to Taiwan. Its clean(er) rivers and tributaries, shopping districts, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and efficient public transport system that allows for dignity in commuting are stuff worth tearing up for. Even public bicycles from point to point can be accessed, and the crosswalks are literal “safe spaces” where pedestrians can walk and not expect to be harshly treated by arrogant motorists in their monster vehicles. I experienced the joy of peacefully walking alone at night while talking on my phone, not worried about theft, or harassment just for being female.

Brilliant Time in Taipei

It was also easy to be awed by the existence of potable water dispensers in buildings at which everyone can refill their tumblers. The internet is one of the fastest worldwide. And while such things are ordinary for the Taiwanese, to be in Taiwan is to bear witness to the basic services being humanly available to its people. Misplacing a phone or wallet (or even a passport) isn’t a problem, as one is assured that lost things will be returned to their owner. Or so I was told.

Even so, all these potentialities and possibilities were tempered with discussions on the politics of not knowing Mandarin, the high cost of living coupled with the astronomical increase of real estate prices, and land and sea border controls. The latter wasn’t discussed much; attempts to open the topic were deflected or met with awkward (or careful) silence. To live in the heart of Taipei is to work hard to pay the rent, buy food and settle bills. Thus, artists choosing to move to more affordable locations outside the capital is considered a feasible life plan. 

To further scale down these impressive scenarios is to likewise bring up the issue of the homeless, as well as the ambivalent behavior towards migrant communities. Homeless Taiwanese do exist, and the spaces outside train stations are some of their temporary settlements. It’s a reality that the general population seems to avoid (“Nobody talks about the homeless here, Ut Quyen muttered). 

It wasn’t always easy to spot beggars, but I noted one or two in high-traffic shopping areas prostrate in prayer while holding their begging cups. I observed that in order to survive the onslaught of economic inflation, and not have to beg, some elderly or PWDs do blue-collar work. In trying to assess the poverty rate (doubtless lesser compared to the numbers in other parts of Southeast Asia), I found an interesting oddity: The homeless that I saw surrounding the Taipei train station owned mobile phones. 

Beyond the strictly creative structures of art spaces, cafes, tourist spots, and art studios, Wasu, NuNu and I came to understand the migrant life from the library-slash-bookstore called Brilliant Time, a space that specializes in reading materials on Southeast Asia. 

A yearly project of Chang Cheng, a former journalist and the owner and founder of the space, is to publish an anthology of essays by migrants who are living or who have lived in Taiwan. These essays are the results of a writing contest, all written in each author’s mother tongue, which are then translated into Mandarin, and collected in a book. For Chang Cheng, to know about others through these writings is to pave a way for the Taiwanese to be more mindful and understanding of other cultures. 

We met the volunteers of Garden of Hope, a nongovernment organization that focuses on the needs of migrant workers. Given Taiwan’s growing foreign workforce, we learned about the laborers’ conditions as being anything but easy. In dire situations, contractual female laborers are fearful of becoming pregnant lest their work contracts be instantly terminated. Passive-aggressive behaviors against (brown) foreigners still indicate the extent of internalized xenophobia—a food server refusing to acknowledge my presence in a food stall, an old man at the train station yelling at us because we didn’t understand Mandarin, and migrants with lapsed visas normally referred to as runaways or criminals. 

To be sure, the environment is not as hostile as in the West, where outright physical violence is prevalent. But micro-aggression towards the Other still occurs, and while these nips are deemed tolerable, an accumulation will wear down even the strongest. 

Wasu and NuNu had a specialized method of exploring the landscape. By respectively lurking in Thai and Myanmar groups on Facebook, they were better able to glean stories from the ground. I chickened out of joining any Filipino groups under the guise of research, rationalizing that I’d be too depressed with whatever I’d find out.

Over casual discussions with artists/art and cultural stakeholders, we found time to learn about and share the current states of our countries.  We talked about the art ecology, the degrees of censorship, the community collaborations, the institutional support that fluctuated according to who got elected to government posts, the cultural industry, our reasons for being, our capacities to practice, and the histories that connected and disconnected us. 

As NuNu once explained to me, it was important for her to share stories about the Kachin, because to do so was essentially to make her people’s narratives visible to others (like us) who know so little about it. During a time that I managed to share an overview of Philippine politics, history and economics, a Taiwanese artist turned to me and said:  I had no idea that was what was happening there. 

Four weeks in Taiwan wasn’t sufficient time to fully observe the daily grind of artistic practice. While I understand that no country is without deep issues to resolve, it cannot be helped that the conditions in the Philippines magnified the opportunities I saw in theirs.

Overall, I was given the impression that to live and practice as an artist in Taiwan didn’t entail tethering one’s art to the market. A sound artist in Hsinchu who owns a vegan café-slash-book and zine store, mentioned how he found it still possible to live the balanced life. He has his experimental sound events, and he doesn’t perform to earn. Before I left his café, and to express support, I bought a zine made by an Indonesian musician said to be taking his graduate studies in Hsinchu.

Given the 30-day mark stamped on my visa, I left Taiwan. To continue my participation in the exchange program, Mekong Cultural Hub sent me to Cambodia. 

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Phnom Penh

Flying to the Kingdom of Cambodia to observe art and cultural models required code-switching. I had come from an elsewhere—a small yet formidable nation that has already built its own submarine—to a place that is considered one of the poorest in Asia (much like where I come from). Within hours of arrival, without so much as a chance to check out Phnom Penh, I got into a car to head to Battambang. The mental and emotional processing I didn’t know I had to do was set aside, and my adaptation skills were immediately tested.

The 7-hour land travel from the capital to the countryside with Cambodians Phina So, a literary writer, and Sakun Po, an inclusive-arts advocate, facilitated my introduction to the country’s art and cultural landscape. During the car ride, we talked about press freedom, the educational system, the community pagoda’s networking structures, aspects of sustainability, and, yes, how on the global scale, our respective identities are constantly getting vetted. Traveling on the inauguration day of their new prime minister, I spotted the police cars on the road and sensed what I could possibly sense to know when to keep quiet. 

Much later in the course of my stay, I learned that to be in Cambodia is to grasp its different sets of historical narratives: the Angkor Empire where its monumental temple still stands in Siem Reap; the French occupation; the US bombings of Cambodia in the early 1970s; the Khmer Rouge-instigated genocide that claimed the lives of 2 million of its people; the civil unrest in the 1990s; the influx of NGOs from which probably sprang the social enterprise models and increase in foreign volunteers I saw everywhere; and the present day where the past and its consequences still affect everything. 

Cambodia is like the Philippines. It’s economically struggling, yet, almost perversely, it has a spectacular array of buildings in the capital, along with occasional luxury cars like Bentleys and Porsches on the road. NagaWorld, a huge casino, stands next to a Buddhist institute in the center of Phnom Penh. How its zoning laws work remains a puzzle to me. Chinese-connected political and economic infrastructures are deeply lodged in its economy, and history as a subject is tip-toed around in schools. 

The kingdom’s population of around 17 million equals that of Metro Manila. The distribution of its resources is akin to ours: Their 1% is excessively wealthy, and the rest of the population is composed of clusters of the middle class and those whose homes are without water and proper toilets. Unemployment is high and the country primarily lives off foreign relief––not from the remittances of its citizens working abroad, but from other countries giving aid. Yet, whenever I was in Phnom Penh, I was reminded by kind strangers to be mindful of my bag as snatchers were everywhere.

A big number of mostly European and American passport-holders reside in Cambodia. Their euros and dollars go a long way, and so do their privileges. Colonialism is alive: In Southeast Asia, white skin still reigns supreme.

To have a critical understanding of the country is to be conscious of its linked histories with neighboring Mekong states: Thailand, Vietnam and Laos. French occupation being one of their common denominators, this landlocked region and their fluctuating borders (or state of un/friendliness) rest on constant conflicts that involve bloody wars over territories. Vietnam’s Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) used to be Prey Nokor, a Khmer sea port. 

The lokru––a Khmer term meaning a male teacher (nekru is a female teacher)––periodically yelled at me as I clumsily tried to juggle: “Cadence! Cadence!”  He didn’t speak much English but he spoke French. Google Translate hardly helped us, although I sometimes understood him, owing to my studying basic French in school. To study 3-ball juggling from a 36-year-old retired circus performer turned teacher at Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS) was an amalgam of lessons in language, hand and eye coordination, and history.

PPS, an educational and performing facility, hosted my stay in Battambang. The institution finds its origins in Site 2 of the Thai refugee camp in 1986 where children who survived the Khmer Rouge genocide also processed their trauma through art. Nine of the original students (now men in their early 50s) and their female French art teacher founded a school to help the Battambang community. 

Nowadays, PPS is a visual and performing arts school. Students in the visual art department study either painting or graphic design and animation while those who prefer the performing arts are students in circus, or theater, or traditional dance and music. The educational paradigm leans toward market sustainability––skills and appreciation are taught, but the immediate concern is job placement in the locality, or elsewhere.

European and American visitors describe Battambang as quaint and beautiful. The predominantly agrarian area is the source of Cambodia’s rice production, and as a tourist destination, it’s agrarian meets cafes, hotels, and backpackers. 

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Downtown area in Battambang

Battambang reminded me of an Amorsolo painting in the Philippines—with the idyll as its packaged exotique. The romanticization of the Asian rural life is Battambang’s selling point. Tours in the province involve visitors exploring the countryside through organized and paid activities such as bicycle rides by the rice fields, cooking Khmer food, and experiencing the local market. 

One can also take basic circus lessons from PPS, like I did. And when the heat, humidity, flash floods, mosquitoes, etc., start to interfere with the utopian rural escape fantasy, the chic artisanal cafes in French-colonial-style architectures, rooftop bars and numerous pool resorts are there to help cushion the visitors from the perils of Southeast Asian reality. 

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Battambang bamboo train. The train tracks are the same used by trains going to Phnom Penh.

The high peak of my stay there was riding the local bamboo train.

But the disconcerting part of the tourist industry includes a visit to the Killing Caves, where soldiers of the Khmer Rouge disposed of thousands of corpses of (or sometimes still alive) Cambodians who were bludgeoned to death because bullets were expensive. To enter the caves is to catch sight of human skulls encased in glass and kept company by a massive statue of a reclining Buddha. At the entrance, the sculptures that greet visitors give the place a kitsch horror theme park appeal—and then one realizes, after closer inspection, that the cement figures are frozen scenes of torture and killing. 

I hadn’t the faintest idea that the driver would take us there. The original plan was just to witness the big bat population emerging from another cave. I hadn’t the intention of visiting after reading historical accounts about it. Only when Phnom Penh-based contemporary artist Tan Vatey whispered to me where we were that I immediately retreated. 

I found the placement of death and solemnity alongside nature a completely disturbing experience. 

Still looking for answers to my questions, I found a book by Arn-Chorn Pond, the founder of Cambodian Living Arts (CLA). He lived in Battambang, and it’s unfortunate that I didn’t meet him. In the harrowing book “Never Fall Down,” an account of his surviving under Khmer Rouge rule as an 11-year-old, he talked about how long trauma hardly escapes anyone. He is now 56 years old.

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Cambodian contemporary artist Tan Vatey’s work at Cambodia Living Arts

Sinta Wibowo, a Belgian-Indonesian music and film festival organizer based in Phnom Penh, pointed to a building and told me it’s S-21. We were with Tan Vatey and another colleague of theirs on the way to an artist studio when I looked out from the speeding tuktuk to see a line leading towards what looked like a ticket counter. It was disorienting to learn that the infamous prison was located in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Phnom Penh. I had imagined that given its brutal history, people wouldn’t even consider living so close to it.

S-21, or the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, was once a high school building; it was converted in 1975 into a prison and execution center where Khmer Rouge soldiers tortured and killed approximately 20,000 people. Only 12 of all who were brought there survived: 7 adults and 5 children.

In 1979-1980 it was converted into a historical museum. It’s one of the places I decided not to visit.

I traveled to Phnom Penh whenever I felt depressingly fractured by feelings of isolation and loneliness in Battambang. If in Taiwan I was able to form a local network with artists and cultural workers ((with whom I maintain continuing conversations and friendships), in Battambang there was hardly any reciprocal exchange. Emails and phone messages were either unanswered or written off, with the artists declaring themselves busy. 

To stay in Battambang was to watch the everyday in quiet observance of communal relations and community structures. It was Kimhuy, the nice manager of the vegetarian restaurant I frequented, who told me that Cambodian Buddhist monks eat meat. It was Yunsun, a Korean yoga volunteer instructor at PPS, with whom I ended up learning about other voluntary works in the province, such as hospital food distribution.

From the occasional visitors to Battambang (Phnom Penh filmmakers, mostly), I learned the basic disposition of the people––to ask questions and to get answers were two tricky things. From the books I found at the school library, and from journals sent by Filipino colleagues such as The Museum Collective, I learned that about 90% of the artists were executed during the Khmer Rouge’s bloody reign. Painters, craftspeople, musicians, writers, dancers, singers, actors, professors, movie directors, playwrights, college students, professors, costume designers, even just anyone who wore eyeglasses, were tortured and killed. Family members were not spared; if they weren’t shot or beaten, they died of starvation.

The few who were able to escape and seek refuge abroad found themselves scattered in Europe, Asia and the United States. Old movies, books, and important creative works that were considered reminders of a rich cultural past were all destroyed.

Cambodia’s current age demographics indicate that only 6% of its population aged 60 years old and above are still alive.  

To also stay where one of the (many) killing fields used to be is to suddenly feel my concerns about art practically moot and senseless. For someone like me who was born in the 1970s, it is to collapse into the frightening awareness that my generation may not have lived through that time had I been a different kind of Southeast Asian.

At Siem Reap (a 5-hour bus ride from Battambang), I listened to Un, my tour guide at the Angkor Wat. As we talked about the monumental temple––its structural, political, social and aesthetic significance––I periodically asked him things: What was it like during the pandemic lockdowns? Do Khmers leave for abroad and never come back? How did you become a tour guide? Did you vote in the last election?  

Between his showing me the bullets that remain embedded in some of the columns of the Angkor Wat and our exchange of views on the return of stolen statues, Un didn’t look like he minded digressing from his script. But he did choose to answer which questions I threw his way. He told me about Cambodia’s economy being dependent on tourism, and that the tourists we saw that day were a mere fraction of the number of visitors in 2019. He wished that there would be more visitors again. During the pandemic, there was no job for him. His family was so hard hit that his mother had to hock her earrings for a few days’ worth of food. He also laughingly told me of the time a foreigner approached him—he was then 10 years old—and offered to buy his baby brother for US$1,000. He was genuinely excited about the thought of receiving that much money, and couldn’t understand why his parents refused the offer and were so angry.

Baby kidnappings are not unusual stories. They are shocking, but not strange. In some chic cafes in Battambang, there are brochures warning foreigners about orphanage scams. In the past, many babies and small children were said to have been kidnapped and sold to foreigners. In some cases, due to poverty, mothers just gave up their children. 

Un and I easily switched topics to allow him to finish his tour spiel (“Did you watch ‘Tomb Raider?’” he asked), and, along with discussing the bas-relief on the walls of the temples, we also talked about big luxury brands usurping natural Southeast Asian resources as their own. 

Mired by my weary seclusion in the countryside, I found the energy of Phnom Penh peculiarly uplifting. I didn’t expect people to accelerate my emotional grounding or sympathize with my feelings of existential displacement, as I had no way to properly process what I’d been learning. But what I did find was a different type of vibrancy among the artists and cultural workers. 

During the time I spent with them, conversations ranged from finding ourselves in art residencies––in high periods of stress and confusion––to looking at each other’s current artworks or writings. We spoke about collaborations, cooperation, conflicts, moving houses, luggage, day jobs, and even about saving up to buy a washing machine for a new art space in the context of dollar conversions. With them I saw drag shows, and looked at modernist buildings, and went to noodle shops. We talked about ethics in theater practices and dilemmas in festivals, and we discussed the contextualized artworld.  We wondered about reliving histories and being productive and creative amid censorships. 

Some of us talked, some of us met again and forgot we’d already met, and some of us didn’t have the slightest desire to share anything with the other.

The narrative is unchanged: As people in the field of art- and culture-making, we are tasked to constantly find jobs and projects that provide a livelihood to pay for bills and daily living. All that we personally produce is sustained by various channels to self-sufficiency.

From these small conversations and exchanges and later from consults with MCH’s Frances Rudgard, and from existing research, I learned that the starting point for creativity doesn’t necessarily have to be fixed on what was usually expected of Cambodians. Their horrible past isn’t their only story, and to be Cambodian doesn’t mean being trapped in talking about it. Then again, not to predictably jump off from standard themes in their output doesn’t necessarily signify erasure, reflect denial, or demonstrate forgetting. 

For the young (under 50 and thereabouts), a new way of seeing and representation must be viewed as an equally important exploration. 

I returned to Manila in October, and I’ve created some distance from what I experienced. Sinta Wibowo’s stringing of the words “temporary togetherness” still sticks with me.  I use the phrase to denote the concept of impermanent communities. I cling to it because when I arrived in Cambodia I was a stranger, and when I left I was still, for the most part, a stranger. 

It can also be said of my stay in Taiwan—although frankly, being in Taiwan felt cheerier.

As I continue to reflect on varying histories and support systems, while perpetually coping with the Philippines’ own sense of chaos, I hold on to what CLA founder Arn Chorn-Pond said in his search for a refugee camp: I walk, stumble, my leg like no bone in them, then walk again. This is the only thing to do. Keep walking.

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