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
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
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."
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
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
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
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
the Khmer Rouge. The regime's maniacal plan to build the world's
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
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
a child, but the wisdom of an old man."
Norwich was certain of Yong's budding talent but knew his family
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,
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.
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
before. "Say hello to your aunt," she said. A sleepy-eyed Yong
struggled to wake
"Actually, that's not your aunt," she added abruptly. "Say hello to your
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
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
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
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
had thrust them worlds apart. "I started asking myself all these
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
the Khmer Rouge. "I thought it might be time to paint again, but I
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
to America, learning the truth about his family - that the shock of
happened in his life is beginning to show in Samnang's latest pieces, those
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
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
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."