Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The first day

My father, Buu Chan, sits with me at our kitchen table.  He appears calm, cool, and collected, despite the gory nature of the story to be told.

N.B. #1: My father speaks relatively good English, but I have edited some parts of the interview for easy readability.  I want to retain the charm and authenticity of my father's words.
N.B. #2: I will be editing following stories in the same manner.

C: Tell me about your personal experience.  What is the earliest thing you remember?

B: After the Vietnam war going on from 1970 to 1975 . . . the gun and the bombs came to an end on April 17, 1975.  The city became quiet.  Everybody believed that peace finally came to the country.  In the evening, the nightmare began.

C: What happened?

B: The Khmer Rouge don't have any idea about running the country.  They just believed in turning everybody - about 7 million people in Cambodia - into farmers.  I don't know where they got that dumb idea from.  No one was allowed to live in the city.  Everyone had to leave their house in the city.  They chased everyone out of the city and made them walk.  Can you imagine Phnom Penh's population of about 1 million or 2 million people walking?  They walked in all directions.  Some families had old and sick people, some families had babies.  From my experience, me and my brother had to carry my grandfather who was seriously ill and couldn't walk.  We had to carry him and walk.  We didn't know where we were going.  We just followed the people.  We didn't know what will happen.  We didn't know where we will end up.  We just walked.

C: How old were you?

B: About 20.  No, no, no.  25 years old.

C: How about your parents?

B: Grandpa was 55.  Grandma was about 49.

C:  You are one of the eldest of your brothers in your family.  How did the younger brothers react?

B: When the soldiers came to our house, we had to leave the house immediately.  We didn't have a chance to bring food or clothes.  So we just left.  It happened so unexpectedly.  We didn't have time to think.  Some people hesitated or they wasted too much time.  So many people didn't want to leave the house and they were shot to death.  We left the house without bringing enough things, without bringing anything.  We just ran for life and left everything behind.

C: So that was the first day of the regime?

B: Mm-hmm.

C: How long did you walk for?

B: The city seemed like a dead city.  No traffic, nothing.  Just people walking on the road.  Some were yelling, some were crying, some were looking for family members that were lost in the big crowd.  We just walked without knowing where we were going.

C: When did you rest?

B: We walked slowly for a day.  At night, we just simply used anything possible to make shelter.  We used some blankets, some towels, anything.  And then some people slept on the road without any shelter.  The heat on the road, because the road was still hot, we had to sleep on it.  And it felt like we were living in hell.


  1. Wow, that was a good start. I’ve tried to piece together my own family’s stories about the time during the regime and although they lived in an entirely different part of the country from your father and his family, this recollection was hauntingly similar.

    I’ve read a few accounts about the period, done some research, understand the “facts,” but no matter how much I read about it, it is always a little difficult.

    I thought it was interesting how your father called it a “dumb idea.” But I think that the Khmer Rouge party must have had an ideology they believed in and which they felt allowed them to act the way that they did.

    To me, the Khmer Rouge members have always been the demons – the enemies. After learning about the film “Enemies of the People” and through taking a course of postcolonial literature, I feel that I’ve begun to look at it a little differently. I think it is interesting that the “enemies” in the title of the film refers not to the Khmer Rouge regime but to the colonisers who previously occupied Cambodia. Therefore one viewpoint is that the Khmer Rouge regime is just an awful result of colonisation.

    The more I learn, the more I kind of understand what sparked the regime. And understanding the mind of the enemy is such a scary thing. However, it in no way can justify their actions during this period.

    I wonder what kind of understanding you will come to through your own project here.

    I have a few questions about your methodology.

    First off, what are you using to record your interviews? For example, is it audio recording, are you writing it down during the interview, writing it down after the interview, etc.? As academics, the way that we record information is quite important so I was just a little curious about this.

    Secondly, I noticed that you’ve chosen to conduct the interviews in English. I wonder if you have a reason for doing this. I know you are somewhat fluent in that Chinese dialect of yours. Is it a conscious choice of yours to use English? For example, does it make recording the interviews for the purpose of this blog easier for you? Are you planning to conduct all your interviews in English? And if so, is your family comfortable with that? I know sometimes it may be easier to express one’s self in their native language and sometimes there is a fear that some things get lost in translations. What do you think of this?

    Nonetheless, your father’s choice of words is amazing. I thought it was interesting how he described this period as a “nightmare” and that it was like “living in hell.” I think that is really reflective of his feelings toward the regime.

    I also wonder about what periods of time you plan to ask your family about. You’ve started your first (second) entry straight from day one of the regime (or as the Khmer Rouge called it, Year Zero). I think it would be interesting to contrast the lifestyles of your family before, during, and after the regime to understand how much things have changed. I wonder if that is something that you’ve thought of exploring.

    Lastly, I wonder what your family thinks and feels about you sharing their stories in a public space like this. It takes a lot of courage and it’s a little scary to do that.

    As always, I look forward to future blog entries.

    P.S. Your dad is awesome.

  2. You had me right from the start. Looking forward to reading your next post.