Short Memory

Take the dusty road leading out of Phnom Penh about 5 km to­ward the Killing Fields of Choe­ung Ek, turn down a narrow lane, and you come to an old house surrounded by used tin cans.

Sitting in front of the house is 73-year-old Suon Bou, a popular co­m­edian in the 1960s whose face becomes less familiar as the years go by. Surrounded by some of his 39 grandchildren, he de­scribes what is now an obviously difficult life.

It’s a far cry from the days when the pint-sized actor known as “Loto” was one of the most pop­­ular entertainers in Cam­bodia.

He first came to Phnom Penh over 40 years ago, leaving his family in Kandal province because he couldn’t get along with his step-mother. He had no money, and he remembers sleeping in front of houses, markets and a theater.

One day the theater manager came out and noticed the small man sleeping. He hired him to do odd jobs and gave him a chance to perform.

“I did everything,” he remembers. “I fetched water for the ac­tors to wash their faces. I got paid 20 riel a month. That was big  mon­ey. The boss liked me be­cause I made people laugh.”

He began to learn how to act, how to walk on the stage, how to twirl a long stick and how to make peo­ple laugh. His big break came when a movie producer saw him and hired him to work on the film “Dancing Wa­ters, Dancing Flow­ers.” Soon he had plenty of well-paid movie work.

He entered a mime competition organized by King Norodom Su­r­amarit and finished in second place. “The King himself gave me the name ‘Loto’,” he said. “It is the same name as the lottery, but I like the name since it was given to me by His Majesty.”

The King gave him more than a nickname. He arranged for Su­on Bou to live in a house in the pal­ace complex and gave him access to much of the palace grounds.

That all changed quickly when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh in 1975. Suon Bou re­turned to his home village of Preak Roka in Boeung Kaek commune, Kandal Stung district.

“First [the Khmer Rouge] forced me to keep cows,” he said. “Then they made me raise chickens.”

Finally, in 1978, it was decided that such a small man could not do enough to serve “Angkar.” He, his wife and two daughters were taken in a cart out into the jungle to be executed.

“I was terrified. I thought it was the end of my life,” Suon Bou said. “But the cart driver had pity on me and freed me and my family. He said he had seen me acting in the movies.

“We settled in the jungle and stayed there until the Vietnamese liberated the country.”

Suon Bou had eight children when the Khmer Rouge took over. Two of the children faked epilepsy and were allowed to remain with their parents. The remaining six children were taken away. Two died from either starvation or illness—Suon Bou never learned which.

He survived the civil wars, but his career never recovered. He oc­casionally performed at public places or on TV game shows. He said he had not been offered any jobs in over a year. “He is too old,” said a TV manager who asked not to be identified.

To survive, his family boils eggs and sells enough to make around 3,000 riel ($0.77) a day. They earn about 500 riel ($0.13) for every 100 used cans they collect and sell.

Fortunately, he still has a fan in the Royal Palace. When King Nor­odom Sihanouk returned to Cam­bodia in 1993, Suon Bou was invited to the Palace to see a film he had starred in during the 1960s.

“The King hugged me and called me son, then gave me $500,” Su­on Bou said. A few months ago, an envelope arrived from the King containing $200.

Suon Bou said he had chances in the past to perform in Australia and America.

“They said if I moved to America, I would get $600 from the government plus another $600 payment because I am disabled, and that I could become a US citizen and bring my family when I lived there longer,” he said.

“But I could not do that. I love my country and would miss all my family. I would rather die on my own land.”

He said he has thought of becoming a beggar, but says he would not want to embarrass the government by doing so. He says other older entertainers such as two-string guitar players Prach Chhuon and Kong Nal and actress Chek Mach receive financial help from the government. Hang Soth, chief of the art department at the Ministry of Culture, confirms that some former entertainers have registered as state servants and receive between 30,000 and 50,000 riel ($7.70 and $12.80) per month.

Suon Bou does have one job offer, to perform next April at a fundraising event in Paris. “I am happy at this invitation, but I am afraid I will die before the day comes,” he said.

Why? Because an old comedian friend of his, Proun Meas or “Golden Arrow,” was hired earlier this year for a performance in the US.  “And he died before his passport was approved,” Suon Bou said.

 

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