‘The Little Apsara’February 5, 2005
She is a perfect form, a little figure, poised in concentration. Her back is arched slightly, her chin raised, her eyes twinkle. Her hands are tiny and her palms are bent back. She raises her right leg and balances. Then she starts to sing.
I have seen many startling thing in Cambodia but watching the little singing Apsara of Tonle Bassac is one of the most moving. It is not just that they practice one of Cambodia?s truly great art forms. Apsara is a cultural expressionism that can stand proudly alongside any other style of dance the world has to offer. It is that their future is so precarious. The reality of their lives and the fragility of their futures are difficult to conceive.
The slum at Tonle Bassac used to be one of Phnom Penh’s most impressive buildings. Considered to be an Art Deco treasure, now it is an eyesore on the capital. A broken down, moldy mass of concrete, stuffed with humanity.
If you walk the corridors you can smell the quiet difficulty of the life within. The tenements are full to bursting. Everyone knows that the government and the powerful people in the city have their eyes on The Tonle Bassac slum. They want the land. It is prime real estate. There is money to be made. Isn’t that their primary concern? A company named New Hope has just fenced off a garden in front of the buildings. Who do they really offer ‘New Hope’ too? Arguably not the inhabitants of the Tonle Bassac slum. Rumor has it they are constructing a new building for the Government.
Does anyone really think they want to build a Government building in front of a slum?
The slum is a confusing juxtaposition. Much of it is a brothel. Women stand against walls as men hammer away between their aching thighs. Children return from school, can one imagine they are immune from the reality of their neighbors, friends, sisters and mothers? Whilst this goes on the children take lessons. Ninety students (boys and girls) study traditional music and dance within the building and its surrounding shantytown. Kong Nai, possibly the most gifted Sharpei player in Cambodia, teaches and lives there.
The Little Apsara is incredibly dedicated. She is nine years old. She goes to school from Monday to Saturday and each day she takes four hours of dancing and singing as well. On Sunday all the different classes get together for a group class. Days off are rare. Her classmates are similarly determined. There are few outlets from the slum. Dancing and singing could offer a different future for a lucky few.
But what will happen if their home is ‘reclaimed’ by the government or some other company who pays the right price? The inhabitants, the NGO’s and the community groups who live and work in the slum are very concerned. On the one hand they could be moved to a suburb, and on the other hand they could lose their homes altogether. In the past shantytowns have been burnt down by arsonists. They are fearful of voicing their concerns to the authorities for this reason.
It seems that the people of Tonle Bassac, many of whom have lived very difficult lives, are caught between yet another rock and a hard place.
If the children were moved to another area or lose their homes it is very unlikely that they would be able to continue their studies. The unique community of Tonle Bassac would be fractured and separated forever.
Can Cambodia afford to continue losing her precious cultural heritage for the financial benefit of so few? I can only imagine what The Little Apsara thinks.