At the end of World War II, Pochentong, Cambodia, was a small sleepy village of about 100 people. The lush and tranquil world of my boyhood was also the district headquarters of Phnom Penh and the kingdomâs major airport. Cambodia was divided into provinces (khet), districts (srok), communes (khum), and villages (phum). The civilian chiefs of our district usually became governors of Kandal (to which the district belonged) and later members of the kingâs cabinet. Some of them ended up as prime ministers. Assignments to Phnom Penh and Kandal were the route to ultimate power in Cambodia in the 1940s and 1950s.
Pochentong had no running water or electricity. Water was fetched from a nearby pond and sometimes delivered by tanker trucks. We used candles and kerosene lamps at night.
My father, Siv Chham (Cambodians put their family name, or surname, first), was born in 1909 in Tonle Bati, a srok in the southern province of Takeo. He was the chief of police, known at the time as garde provinciale, of srok Phnom Penh. My mother, Chea Aun, was born on the Cambodian new year (April 13), 1913. Her father, Sok Chea, my grandfather, was the chauvay khet (governor) of Kampong Som. She recalled that when he was transferred to another post, they would travel for days by elephants. She was of medium height, wore her hair short, and had a serene look on her face, which reflected a lot of love and compassion. My parents, for some reason, decided to give their children names beginning with the Khmer letter saw, or S in English. The practice was later followed by the younger generations.
Our family was small by Cambodian standards. I was the youngest of four. The elder of my two sisters, Sarin, was born on March 21, 1933. I do not remember my second sister Sarunâs birthday in 1935. My brother, Sichhun, was born on October 31, 1941. It was the year that eighteen-year-old Prince Sihanouk was crowned king of Cambodia; he would eventually become the most famous Cambodian of the twentieth century. Incidentally, the king and my brother shared a birthday. I was born in the Cambodian Year of the Boar, 2490. Because our traditional year usually goes from April 13 to April 12, I was born on March 1, 1948, on the western calendar.
In 1953 I was sent to Pochentong Primary School. That year, my second sister, Sarun, at age eighteen, was married to an official at the finance ministry. Two years later, Sarin, at age twenty-two, was married to an army officer. Both marriages were arrangedâa practice that is still going on, although to a lesser extent.
Life in Pochentong seemed like paradise. With protective parents and a loving upper-middle-class family, I simply had no worries. School and play always went hand in hand. I grew up with children from all walks of life: their parents were peasants, merchants, military people, police, and civil servants. My grade-school pals and I went swimming in ponds, chasing ducks near the railroad station or the airport runway. The one who caught the duck was the winner, until the duck got away. I remember that one day, I got the duck and began to run, naked and barefoot, down the dusty road, followed by screaming children. I came on my brother, who was playing soccer in a nearby field with his friends. âHey, Kanee! Where are you going with your little friend dangling between your legs?â I immediately stopped to look down at what was dangling, and the duck got away. My brother was one of the few people who called me by my nickname, which had no meaning but sounded cute in Khmer. The others included my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, uncles, and aunts. I would not respond to any voices other than theirs when I heard my nickname.
My friends and I created our own toys. We used clay to make animals (elephants and horses), fruits (bananas, oranges, mangoes, and pumpkins), buses, trucks, and slingshot bullets. We made our own slingshots from the fork of a guava branch and practiced shooting at trees and stray animals, before getting into a real good-versus-evil fight. We play jor-kinh (thief and detective) games, the Cambodian version of cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. As the son of a police chief, I naturally wanted to play the detectiveâthe good guy. But my friends wanted me to be the bad guy, the ugly barbarian, on the wrong side of the law and society, who had to run and hide behind big trees and bushes. When found, he would have to defend himself, in a slingshot war with the good guys, until he ran out of clay bullets and surrendered. Somehow, I usually managed to evade the pursuers until they gave up.
We competed in flying kites. As we grew older, the kites became more complicated to build. We stopped short of trying to produce kalaeng aek, the enormous musical kites that take a few adult males to fly. Once airborne, they fly at very high altitude for hours, sometimes all night, and produce a smooth, soothing sound from the vibrations of a very thin âtongueâ of bamboo attached to the head of the kite. The sound was carried far away from one village to another, depending on the direction of the wind.
In the evening, we listened to the national radio, which broadcast news and music a few hours a day.
During the 1950s, Cambodia received many world leaders who were coming to visit this newly independent kingdom, and especially the architectural wonders of its former royal capital Angkor: Dag HammarskjÃ¶ld, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, Zhou Enlai, and others. Each time there was a state visit, the boys and girls of my school were herded to the airport. We were usually among the first to welcome the foreign dignitaries. We wore our standard uniforms: khaki pants and white shirts for boys; navy blue skirts and white blouses for girls. We were at the airport and along the road from the terminal to our village to wave flags, clap our hands, shout greetings, and hold banners. It was always fun to be away from the classroom.Golden Bones. Copyright Â© by Sichan Siv . Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
Excerpted from Golden Bones: An Extraordinary Journey from Hell in Cambodia to a New Life in America by Sichan Siv
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