COVID-19 has hit us hard out on Fish Island. At first, my partner Kek Soon and I thought we’d be relatively safe and well away from the coronavirus outbreaks in Cambodia, then, within days, a cluster outbreak happened in the little fishing village right next door. Fish Island (Trey Koh) is situated in the mouth of the Kampot river as it flow down from the Elephant Mountains and out into the Gulf of Thailand. It was the first place deemed safe enough for the French to settle back in the 19th Century – the mainland described as being “full of bandits” and has always been a multi-cultural island population with many different religious and ethnic groups, a friendly mix of Cham fisherman, Khmer farmers, Chinese Cambodians, Vietnamese, Malay and European inhabitants on our tiny little island. The sudden COVID outbreak came via a local group returning from a trip to Malaysia and immediately alarmed and frightened everyone on the island but thankfully was dealt with and isolated quickly. Needless to say, the COVID crisis in Cambodia has been devastating in many ways beyond the relatively small number of cases – tourism, jobs, and hopes for the future have been hit hard.
At FICAC, we initially hoped some of our costs – running expenses for establishing our kitchen and hospitality training school might be offset by the income (albeit small) coming in from paying customers and other tourism industry opportunities but alas, this is not happening. We have changed focus and have responded to the situation by working on fundraising and support initiatives to share with the local community and have established strong partnerships with backers and beneficiaries. This has allowed FICAC to not only weather hard times but to forge ahead and start upon new projects, not least the building of our Media Arts production house. The studio at FICAC has been a dream, a long time coming and is a hugely exciting step into the future. It’s a studio facility that will bring real capacity to the long vision of building a modern arts centre in rural Cambodia.
Brick by brick the little studio at FICAC is going up. We’re only looking at completing the ground floor at this stage but working towards funding the second level through art sales and fundraising events. A lot of the support is directly through friends and family and with this support the FICAC studio will soon be equipped to produce digital media work – from music recordings and production, through to short films, promotional videos, cooking and cuisine programs, training and skills sharing for young, upcoming artists and designers. The studio will also give us the capacity to produce commercial work and return funds back to the ongoing development at FICAC.
Much of our work out on the island is hands on, until the COVID crisis struck, we’ve enjoyed the opportunity to host international volunteers who have lived onsite and made great contributions, from helping in the kitchen, to language school, setting up our stage and performance spaces, helping with gardening and small building tasks and just bringing good vibes to the Island culture we’re right in the heart of. Right now, we’re very keen to take on more international volunteers on the island but also, any ideas or support from our friends internationally would be hugely appreciated – become a friend of FICAC and help us build an exciting future in rural Cambodia! Contact me directly or visit our Facebook page here:
During this time I’m working from Maitland, Australia. This has been the best way for continuing to support much of the work in Cambodia, not least the work of The Cambodian Space Project and the music and arts projects that are ongoing including new musical collaborations, heritage and legacy work such as Cambodian Women of Song – an idea first launched at Channthy’s memorial and continued over these last couple of years largely through the brilliant organisational skills of Cambodian singer and arts producer Sam Dara who has now moved to live in the USA. Other work is the ongoing development of music theatre and our Rat Catcher of Angkor Watt show – behind the scenes, this work is humming along and in the case of Rat Catcher, is an exciting collaboration with Melbourne based A Blanck Canvas to create a show that we believe will be ground-breaking post-COVID theatre. It’s all going to take a bit more time to make happen but it is happening despite set-backs. Personally, I’m enjoying time to paint and produce visual artwork, new music, and some really wonderful collaborations with local musicians and producers here in Maitland and to focus on the future in Cambodia, especially at FICAC where I hope the studio we’re building will be ready to go and to help us create a whole new arts community on Fish Island. We’re getting there!
I’m also working on the launch of Fish Island Records. This will be an inhouse label to produce, package, and distribute heritage work, not least my own catalogue of work as The Cambodian Space Project. It will also allow for a more in-depth curation and production of significant and important historical recordings, indigenous music, and arts stories from Cambodia and across our immediate ASEAN neighborhood. The first steps for FIR will be the production of new vinyl pressings and previously unreleased music by the CSP. This is coming out as a series of releases and helps us generate income to continue building the media studio/office at FICAC and to re-invest in building a significant and invaluable heritage catalogue.
I’m very keen to hear from anyone who has a specific interest in this area and especially to talk to potential volunteers and content creators who may like to join us at this early stage. With the studio, we have Lee Scratch Perry’s Black Ark and with the label we’ve got Island Records, with Trey Koh and our live stage we’ve got potential to create the ‘Kingston of Cambodia’.
“drink from the well of your self and begin again.” – Charles Bukowski.
I really do feel that the Bukowski quote above is very apt for this strange time we’re all living in. For me, caught between home in Cambodia and returning home to Australia, it’s a time of suspended animation and no matter how many projects or tasks and ideas we have at hand, it does take a real commitment to get through and make it all happen just because of the ‘everything on hold’ nature of the times we’re in. Having said that, it’s also been a fruitful time for returning to important things, to figure out the future, and to put more emphasis on the things that really matter in life. When the world is in crisis and under the steerage of such maniacal politics, this is a time when real grassroots community actions make a real difference. I’m excited about the future of our little arts studio growing up out of the rice fields of Trey Koh. The Fish Island Community Arts Centre is sure to thrive well beyond this time of COVID but right now we need all the support we can get! If you’d like to contribute, please donate to FICAC here:
Meanwhile, I’ll wrap this post up and leave you with a taste of something new – Cambodian Ska! with “Srey Honda” plus another incredible live recording from Kak Channthy and the Cambodian Space Project “I Come From Prey Veng” recorded at Darwin Railway Club.
All the best,