Cambodian Exodus—From the Border to Khao I Dang Refugee Camp: photo exhibitions in the USA, April 2023

By Colin Grafton.

During COVID, my wife Keiko and I occupied ourselves with various projects we might never have got around to otherwise—one exhibition at Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, two photo exhibitions at Bophana Center, and a book titled Dancers.

The advantage of course was that we had plenty of time; the disadvantage was that the venues could not be open to the public, so these exhibitions had to be seen by reservation only. I had to take groups of (maximum) 10 people around the gallery, and give a little talk. This evolved later into two ‘video talks’, unrehearsed and one-take affairs, one on Naoki Mabuchi’s classic photos of the Khmer Rouge era and the other on Refugees—Forty Years Later, which consisted of my photos taken in 1980 around the Thai-Cambodian border and the refugee camps, notably the largest one, Khao I Dang.

The latter exhibition comprised over 100 images. Despite the audience limitations, it enjoyed as much exposure as we could hope for in the circumstances, and was favourably received. It was on display for over a month, as there was nothing to replace it at the time, and the ‘gallery talk video’ went on YouTube. This in fact made it accessible to a much wider audience than we had envisaged. Most of those who viewed it were interested from a historical, objective point of view, but few had any close connection with the events it depicted.

Six years earlier, in January 2015, I had met an American filmmaker named Robert Douglas at the Cambodian International Film Festival. One of his 30-minute documentaries, From The Heart Of Brahma, was screening in the festival. Our shared interest in Cambodian dance and music led to a close friendship. Rob got married to a Cambodian lady, Navy, and went back to the States. We kept in contact.

Rob lives in Long Beach, LA, and a lot of his work as ‘visual anthropologist’ is centred on the Cambodian community. He mentioned a few times that it would be a great idea to show photos of the refugee camps in California, and my reaction was “Yeah, maybe, but it’s a long way away, isn’t it?” Pie in the sky. I had no desire to go to America either, especially at that time when COVID was still rife. If I’d been the praying kind, I would have been praying for Rob and Navy’s survival, but a visit to Trumpland was bottom of my list of things to do.

However, last year, as the world began to open up again, I started getting intimations of a scheme from Rob. He was talking with the Cambodia Town Long Beach community, and thought they might offer to host the Refugees exhibition in LA. I still did not give much credence to the idea, though I appreciated Rob’s enthusiasm and positive attitude. Then Rob informed us that the Cambodia Town community and Phnom Penh Sister Cities committee had given the green light, and would fund us with $5,000 to pay for our air tickets. In LA, we could stay with Rob and Navy and play with their three lovely kids, who were always running around full of energy, shrieking. A dream come true.

We arrived in LA on March 28th, a few hours after we left Phnom Penh, since we were travelling forward into yesterday. We were loaded with baggage, four suitcases containing photographs and copies of the Dancers book for sale.  Rob picked us up at the airport and took us to his home by a circuitous route, stopping off to say hello to famous rapper PraCH Ly and sightseeing at the beach and Trump’s country club. We were high as hell on lack of sleep and jetlag so it didn’t bother us. It took about two hours to reach his house, which is 20 minutes from the airport.

The next few days were spent assembling the photo panels in Rob’s garage, scouting the exhibition venues and meeting important people in the Long Beach Cambodian community. We noticed that Cambodian Americans seemed to have a lot of energy and talked a lot, very fast. We also noted that a noodle soup cost $20, which was equal to one-and-a-half books at the Cambodian price.

Our first event was 2nd April, the day of the Cambodia Town Parade. The photo exhibit went on display in the Manazar Gamboa ‘black box’ theatre. We had found out the theatre itself was too dark for the display, and there was no convenient lighting in it. Furthermore, it would be used for dressing up and rehearsing on the day of the parade. So the photos went up in the theatre lobby, which turned out to be just big enough. The parade in the morning was impressive, with ‘Trot’ dancers and Chhayam drummers, and a number of Apsaras.

The exhibition was open from 1 pm to 6 pm and it was crowded from opening to close – we had not expected this kind of reception. People were flocking to see the pictures, and many were saying they had been there in 1980, and they had stories to tell. Some became emotional. Our “Khmer family” in LA (I had met them in Khao I Dang refugee camp in 1980) were there, and were actively promoting the book, which featured some photos of one of the sisters as a dancer. She had been a shy, shrinking violet at the time, but had later matured into a star saleswoman for Shiseido cosmetics. She sold about thirty books in a few hours, and I was kept busy signing them while listening to stories told by onlookers about their experiences in KID and how they reached it from the border and how they got to the USA after that, via Malaysia or Indonesia….

Khao I Dang’s population in May 1980 was 130,000 and a large number of those people ended up eventually in Long Beach. They had memories but almost no photographs to document their time in the refugee camps. Their children had to listen to those memories, but they too had few visual connections to the experiences of their parents. And now there were all these photos, full of faces and familiar scenes of everyday life on the border… and so many smiling faces, because I was there at a time between the misery and suffering of 1979, when the first refugees poured out with the Khmer Rouge, and the later period when many settled into a routine lethargy of despair, stuck in a camp for years with no way out. It was a time of ephemeral euphoria, when many were relieved to have food and security, health care and hope for the future, after nearly four years of deprivation and terror under the Pol Pot regime.

From 5th to 9th April, the exhibition was on display at Museum of Latin American Art in LA. There is not much connection between Cambodia and Latin America apart from refugee status (from Guatemala, for example) but we were thankful to them for providing us the space in their entrance hall.

In the afternoon of 7th April, I did a slideshow and talk on the exhibition, and there was a panel discussion in the spacious conference hall. On 8th, we showed two screenings of Rithy Panh’s film Site 2, both to full houses. This film was made in 1989 in an even larger camp than Khao I Dang (the population of Site 2 at its highest topped 190,000). Some of the inhabitants had been in Khao I Dang before Site 2, others had arrived later, or been evacuated from the border hamlets of Nong Chan and Nong Samet after they had been wiped out by the Vietnamese. The film was preceded by a revealing interview with Rithy Panh about the making of the film, and together these served as an appropriate bookend presenting a contrast to the optimism of the Khao I Dang photos. After the screening, a Q&A session sparked many questions and comments. It was interesting that many people confused Site 2 with KID, when in fact they were different places.

Logistically, the tour held together reasonably well. We had to fly from LA to Seattle and from Seattle to Sacramento, and we couldn’t carry the photo displays on the plane. So we had to ship them to SF in advance. Setting up and taking down became a streamlined ritual. We used easels supplied by the venues.

America encourages creativity. Everyone should have their input considered. This sounds good, except that one good proven idea is worth any number of useless ones, however imaginative they may be. We found we had to be brutally firm sometimes in saying: “No! We’ll do it like this. Leave us alone.” We were dictatorial, but we had to be to get anything done. Another annoyance was over the choice of photos for posters and fliers. For example, we were told that anything showing violence, children or nudity would be unacceptable to ‘people on the Board’. Bit of a problem there, since the refugee camps were full of kids, many of them stark naked! Consequently, we had to make do with some banal images that lacked impact.

From 14th to 17th April, we were in Seattle for film showing (15th) and slideshow/exhibition (16th). Khmer New Year celebrations were held at Wat Chas (the old pagoda), a picturesque temple in a valley. The smaller population of Cambodians here were somewhat different. Many had originally come from rural areas, not Phnom Penh, and they were more involved in farming than business.

From 17th to 22nd, we were in Napa (at a private gallery, by invitation) and San Francisco, at San Mateo College.  In Napa, we just hung stuff up along a garden fence for a popup afternoon show. Indian dancers came to provide entertainment. The wine was good, but the weather was cold, and people didn’t stay after sunset.

‘Frisco was our last stop, and we finally had time to enjoy the company of some old Cambodian friends (from 1974) and some of the sights recommended by our bluesman friend Big D. Walker (Muir Woods for the redwood trees, and “The Saloon”, oldest blues bar in San Francisco).

On 21st at San Mateo College, we set up the exhibition (which had been shipped from LA) for the last time, and I did a combined presentation with Neak Kru Charya Burt, dance master sister of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, the famous dancer who recently performed a prayer dance in front of stolen artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum, New York. One highlight of this session was when I jokingly invited anyone who saw themselves in the photographs to make a claim, and one woman literally ran up to the front of the stage with a “That’s me!”. She was one of the students at a dance class in Khao I Dang.

We left America just after midnight on 23rd April. The 19 display panels were adopted by Dr. Susan Needham, anthropologist, co-director of the Cambodian Community History & Archive Project (CamCHAP), a community-based research and learning centre created in 2008, who will use them for educational purposes.

The last word should be an enormous Thankyou to our ‘road manager’ Rob, aka Carl Off, aka Robert Carleton-Chhaing, who drove us around, filmed everything, accompanied us almost everywhere, and put up with our complaints and my sense of humour.

As a postscript, my only harmonica performance in LA was for Rob’s kids, who ran around me in circles shouting and screaming in perfect harmony.


  • Some copies of the book “Dancers” are still available in Phnom Penh, please email for details:

Photos: supplied. “These are all from Manazar Gamboa Theater on April 2nd. The lady in turquoise is Dinaka, who is also the central dancer in the colour photo taken 43 years ago, who sold 30 books in a couple of hours. The tall man in black in the cap is Rob, the filmmaker who arranged the trip.”


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