Out of the Shadows

Reprinted with permission from Rhode Island Monthly

In the late 1970s, no one was paying attention to Southeast Asia. American troops had long since evacuated Vietnam, and Americans had turned their attention away from that part of the world. But in Cambodia, a band of hyper-communists known as the Khmer Rouge was quietly, catastrophically, re-imagining the country. The new regime had forced Cambodia's entire population into rural work collectives, abolishing money, family, religion and schools and elevating the peasant way of life to the highest form of achievement. Lawyers, teachers, artists - anyone considered bourgeois - were monitored, imprisoned and often executed. By 1979, Cambodians were fleeing their homeland by the thousands.

Samnang Yong was eight years old. One night, along with his two brothers and sister-in-law, he tried to cross from Khmer Rouge-held territory to a safe area.

The group traveled by foot, along a dirt path. Suddenly the quiet of the night was broken by the sound of gunfire. In what seemed liked seconds, Khmer Rouge soldiers ambushed the children and captured them. The guerrillas, in their signature black uniforms and checked krama scarves, loomed like giants over the young boy and his siblings as they knelt and begged forgiveness.

The soldiers drew knives and rifles. As Samnang remembers it now, he seems to recall an apparition of Buddha, who was bloodied and lame and unable to help. Mercifully, Samnang and his siblings were eventually released, but they've never been able to escape the memories of that horrifying night.

More than two decades later, those memories have found their way into Samnang Yong's art. Now thirty-two, and one of Rhode Island's emerging artists, Yong sits in the kitchen of the Cranston home where he lives with his mother, sister and two nephews. Yong, tall for a Cambodian and slender, with thin-framed glasses and short-cropped hair, fidgets with the knick-knacks on the table. He pauses to discipline his dog, an Australian cattle herder. He steps outside for a cigarette. Talking about his homeland is still difficult for him.

His painting, "The East is Red," which recounts that terrifying night, has hung in Providence galleries alongside a similar war image, "Execution." "The East" incorporate all the images of that night - the pleading children, the menacing soldiers, the bloodied Buddha - plus a gray, shadowy figure in Western clothing who looks on but offers no aid - all against a blood-red background.

"That's supposed to be me. Thinking about the past. I'm present there, but I'm no longer a child."

The Western figure, Yong says, represents himself.

"I've wanted to make these paintings since college," Yong says. "Because the images were there, in my memories. But I didn't want to expose the Khmer Rouge, I didn't want to give them life. When I finally made [them] it took maybe two or three weeks. The pictures were so vivid in my mind, like a still from a film. It took no time at all, really."


Rhode Island to some 4,500 Cambodians, according to the most recent census, although widely accepted estimates peg the real number at two times that. Cambodians were granted entry to the United States as war refugees in the 1970s. The majority settled in California, where the balmy climate was agreeable. But they also came to New England, concentrating in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Here, their story begins in Newport, where a handful of officers in the Cambodian navy had been sent to train in 1974.

The following year, Cambodia was overthrown by the Khmer Rouge. Suddenly, the trainees were part of a navy that no longer existed. What's more, reports from Cambodia said the Khmer Rouge had viciously evacuated the cities, and people everywhere were dying. The trainees, young and single at the time, decided to try to remain in this country. The U.S. government granted them political asylum. The Newport group stayed at the base for about a month, until the International Institute of Rhode Island helped them secure work and housing, mostly in Providence. They called their friends, who were stationed at bases around the country and urged them to come to Rhode Island, where there were jobs.

While the naval trainees began new lives in Providence, what little news they heard from Cambodia grew more and more terrifying.

To know a Cambodian today is, inevitably, to know someone who lost relatives to the Khmer Rouge. The regime's maniacal plan to build the world's most successful communist, agrarian state went terribly wrong. It had no way to feed its precious workers. In less than four years, one quarter of the Cambodian population was systematically eliminated. From 1975 to 1979, roughly one and a half million people died of starvation, overwork, torture or slaughter.

Those who survived those years, like Samnang Yong's family, flooded refugee camps at the Thai-Cambodian border. There, they awaited passage to the United States and Europe, which could only be secured with the help of a sponsor who already lived abroad.

In Rhode Island, the naval-trainee group had sponsored their relatives, who in turn sponsored still more families. The Yongs' oldest son's wife had a brother in Rhode Island. In 1981, the Yongs arrived in Providence with some food, a few changes of clothes and $30.

Samnang Yong went to school for the first time in his life, starting as a fourth-grader despite the fact that he didn't speak a word of English. The language came to him, though, and so did the discovery that he liked making art.

By the time he arrived at Cranston East High School, Yong was sweeping award ceremonies with his work.

"I met Sam when he was fifteen," remembers Jackie Norwich, an art teacher at Cranston East for twenty-four years. "I'm not the type of teacher who gets close to her students, I mean I never wanted to be anyone's mother. But I remember thinking, 'There's something about this kid.' Even then, he had the innocence of a child, but the wisdom of an old man."

Norwich was certain of Yong's budding talent but knew his family couldn't afford college. She raised money for his application fees; she shopped his portfolio around and drove him to interviews all over the Northeast, urging each school to offer him a scholarship. The best package came from the Rhode Island School of Design, where Yong was granted a nearly full scholarship for four years of study. He would be the first Cambodian to attend the renowned art school.

He lived with his family in Cranston while he studied, helping his mother and siblings make ends meet. In the summers, he worked as a day-camp counselor. He spent his senior year in Italy in RISD's European honors program, then returned to Rhode Island for a full-time job at a Warwick design firm.

In Khmer, Yong's native language, the name Samnang means "lucky." It looked like Yong's life was, indeed, living up to the name.

A year into his new job, though, Yong was laid off. He spent some months as a part-time translator and substitute teacher in Providence, but his family noticed he was growing increasingly quiet and inward. Perhaps, they suggested, it was time for him to pay a visit to the country of his early childhood.


In early 1997, Yong, his mother and one of his brothers stepped off the plane in Cambodia. The country of his birth was nothing like Yong remembered. Instead of the rural villages he recalled, the streets were dirty and teeming with pollution and people, the stalls full of bizarre food. He learned that his oldest brother, who had moved back to Cambodia some years before, was running a brothel to earn a living.

About a month into the visit, Yong woke from a nap on his brother's porch to find his mother leaning over him. She introduced him to a woman he'd never seen before. "Say hello to your aunt," she said. A sleepy-eyed Yong struggled to wake up.

"Actually, that's not your aunt," she added abruptly. "Say hello to your mother."

The woman looked at him eagerly. She was joined by another woman and three men who turned out to be Yong's sister and three brothers. His sister began to cry. Yong was speechless.

As the story unfolded, Yong learned that before the war, in the 1960s and '70s, his father kept two wives, a practice fairly common in Cambodia.

"Our father - he was so handsome, so easygoing," recalls Yong's older half-sister, Sophany Chea, who now lives in Providence and runs a video store. "That's why there was more than one woman."

The details of the story depend on who is telling it, but most in the Yong family agree that the patriarch of this complicated family skipped back and forth between his two wives. He had two children with his first wife and five with his second. Samnang was the youngest of all these. The two wives lived near each other, each knowing the other existed, but did not communicate.

Then the chaos of war disrupted the oddly pragmatic arrangement. When the Khmer Rouge seized power in 1975, Samnang happened to be in the care of his father's first wife and his half-sister, Sophany, then a teenager. The Khmer Rouge organized workers by age and ability, separating families. Samnang, just a toddler, collected cow dung for fertilizer, while his siblings and parents were scattered into other camps.

His father was confined to a cooperative more strict than the children's. Food rations at his father's camp dwindled sharply. "They would take one huge bowl, as big as a table," Sophany explains, "and put only one or two cups of rice in it to make a big porridge. A small bowl of that each day was all they had to eat."

Their father's health turned sharply downward. His stomach began to bloat from malnutrition, forcing him to risk his life by stealing away to the children's camp in search of food. One week, he stopped coming. The children would later learn he had died of starvation.

The two sets of children no longer had the father to link them together. The two wives lost contact with each other. When the Yong family fled to the border in 1979, they took Samnang as if he were their own. They called him "son" on the sponsorship papers, and by the time they made it to the United States, making a new life was more important than who belonged to whom.

For years, the Yong family would hardly mention Samnang's real lineage, until the trip in 1997.

"I went there knowing I needed to find what was missing inside me," he says now, laughing a little. "I sure found a lot."

After the initial shock of that day, Yong spent some time with his new family. He traveled to their remote village in the northwestern province of Battambang. He met aunts, cousins, family friends. He spent a whole night talking with his brother, just two years older than Yong. He was haunted by the fact that chance had thrust them worlds apart. "I started asking myself all these questions, and I started to get really upset: Why did I survive and millions of other people died? Why did I grow up here and go to college while my real family had to live through misery and slave away on a farm? What am I supposed to do with all this good luck?"

He attended a monastery, and even joined the monkshood, partly as a gesture of respect to the woman who had given birth to him. Before he came back to the states, he went to his family's village to say goodbye, promising that he would return.

When he got back to Rhode Island, in June of 1997, he couldn't stop painting about his experiences. He painted some two dozen pieces by the fall.

In college, Yong's paintings had been largely figurative, contemplating the body in vivid, metallic colors. His new work was completely different. "For the first time, I wasn't just making images that were good, or pleasing to the eye," he says. "I was making images that I loved. Even my color palette changed. The warm colors of Cambodia started dominating my images: the oranges of the monks' robes, the green of the rice fields, the sunsets in the sky. I really was starting to feel at peace."

Ann Norton, an art historian at Providence College, heard about Yong's work and invited him to headline a show there. The paintings depicted monks rowing wooden canoes across sky-blue rivers, a mango tree Yong's Cambodian family saved for him while he was in the monastery, and the initiation ritual itself. One shows Yong, riding a water buffalo, in traditional dress with a shaved head.

Another is a more stylized self portrait. Employing warm reds and oranges, the piece shows an armless upper body with an abstract symbol in its middle. Yong says it represents the Buddhist notion that all living things are connected. But that doesn't seem to be everything that's happening in the painting. The face has been split in half, and one side is white. "A lot of people ask if that's about identity. And I guess it really was," Yong says.

While he was happier with this work than anything he'd ever done, Yong knew something was still missing. "I think I knew that those painting didn't really come out of me. That I was still a foreigner painting about an experience. An outsider."

Yong still had to find what was hidden deep inside him, and it took more difficult experiences before that could happen. In 1998 he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. He returned to Cambodia for traditional treatment, but the disease persisted (today, it's under control with medication). He grew distant from his Rhode Island mother, the woman who had raised him. He learned that three relatives in his Cambodian family had died.

Two years went by without a single painting. His friends worried about him. His family didn't understand him. Then buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C, were attacked, and what Yong calls his greatest fear from the war in Cambodia - attack planes flying overhead - was all he saw when he closed his eyes. "The memories just started rushing back," he says. "They wouldn't stop. I just kept thinking about the war, and about that scene, when we were captured by the Khmer Rouge. "I thought it might be time to paint again, but I wasn't sure."

Around that time, Norton had scheduled another show of Cambodian art and she asked Yong to participate. The show, at the Rhode Island Foundation, was part of Providence College's semester-long program "The Spirit of Cambodia," exploring the Cambodian diaspora.

"I didn't really know what to expect," Norton says. "I don't give the artists any direction; I just tell them to paint. He showed up at the house one day with those two paintings - "The East is Red" and "Execution" - and I was really surprised. Pleasantly surprised; they're very powerful pieces."

Yong says the two new pieces achieve the connection he's been striving for these last several years. "The more I talk about the past, the more the images come out, the more I free myself of the past. Before, it was almost like eating me away. It's leaving me now, which is good. The real me is coming out slowly."

It's only now - decades after the capture by the Khmer Rouge, the re-settlement to America, learning the truth about his family - that the shock of all that's happened in his life is beginning to show in Samnang's latest pieces, those blood-red images.

He's starting to realize, that for a while at least, he needs to live in two worlds, to be that split-faced man in the painting, one who comes from Rhode Island, U.S.A., and one who comes from Battambang, Cambodia, to confront the past fully through his work.

As he sits with his sister Sophany at a buffet restaurant, he asks her things he's never asked a family member before: stories about their father, about other relatives the Yongs lost to the Khmer Rouge.

The two siblings speak to each other in Khmer about Yong's cloudy past. "So, let me get this right," he says to her. "You're saying that you started taking care of me in 1972? And I was only three months old?"

"Yes, that's right," she says, certain.

"But if that's true, then I'm not as old as I thought I was. I'm thirty, not thirty-two," he says, his eyes widening. "Oh, well, then, okay, I'm not thirty-two. Another surprise, eh?"

With a quick smile, Yong shrugs it off.

"I guess I've got a lot to learn."

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Copyright 2003. Kelly McEvers and Rhode Island Monthly.