Giants, Kings & Celestial Angels: Teaching Cambodian Arts in Philadelphia

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This exhibition presents work by Peang Koung, Eang Mao, Sipom Ming, Chamroeun Yin and their students. This exhibition introduces four Cambodian artists: a mask-maker and folk opera director, a costume-maker, a temple painter, and a dancer/mask maker. The focus is on how they teach Cambodian arts in Philadelphia, sharing Khmer values along with Khmer arts.


Painted giants are villains in popular Cambodian folk operas. They stride across the stage, and speak in exaggerated tones. Exquisite celestial angels nearly float over the floor in Cambodian classical dance, moving hands, arms and head in measured gestures. Intricately beaded costumes adorn brides in traditional weddings; in this rite of passage, women and men dress like Cambodian royalty, resembling queens and kings. Giants, kings and celestial angels are enduring images in these Cambodian arts, brought to life by the dedicated artists who practice folk arts today in Philadelphia’s Cambodian neighborhoods.

Immigrant and refugee artists often find themselves forced to set aside their old skills in a new home, faced by pressing needs to make a living and surrounded by institutions that neither recognize nor support their traditions. Against a background of racism and rising anti-immigrant sentiment, folk arts that were part of everyday life in Cambodia suddenly can feel out of place. Yet these very arts may help to sustain communities, to feed the soul and spirit, and to provide ways for young people to understand their families’ pasts. In Philadelphia today, home to more than 10,000 Cambodians, few opportunities exist for Cambodian youth to learn about Cambodian folk arts, and some elders are concerned that their children are being “educated away” from Cambodian culture in “American” schools. At the same time, many Cambodian Asian youth growing up in Philadelphia feel extraordinary pressure to “fit in” to both the Cambodian world of home and the American world of school. What resources can we give our children to allow them to honor and understand both of these worlds, and to shape their own futures? This exhibit concentrates on the work of four Cambodian artists and their students, all of whom are actively making meaningful art despite many obstacles.

Mr. Peang Koung is a master of the traditional arts associated with Cambodian popular opera (lakhon bassac), which include drawing, maskmaking, music, movement, make-up, costume and scenic design. Ms. Sipom Ming makes costumes, both for operas and traditional weddings. Mr. Eang Mao is a skilled sign painter, as well as a teacher of the art of traditional Theravada Buddhist sacred painting. Mr. Chamroeun Yin has established himself as a classical dancer, tailor, costumer, and maskmaker.

A 14-year-old Khmer student said this about her experience learning from Koung Peang: “I’m proud of [learning] this ’cause I get to show how we are from the start. . . It feels special because now a lot of people seem to forget about tradition, seem to go the wrong way…. Sometimes people say to you why don’t you go back to your country? They shouldn’t be saying that. I say that to them too – I say, why don’t you go back? You came here too. The first people who came, they were Asian too, right? The Indians.” The teaching and learning that you can glimpse through this exhibition begin with the assumption that not all students share in the dominant educational culture of this time and place – and that not all want to.


He was barely settled in Philadelphia, when Cambodian community leaders approachedChamroeun Yin, asking if he would be willing to teach Khmer classical dance to young people. His reputation as an artist and as a person had preceded him.

For Mr. Yin, teaching Khmer dance does not mean training individual dancers, for culture cannot be confined to knowledge of artistic traditions alone. Teaching in a Diaspora situation becomes an enormous responsibility, as it involves not just transmitting technique but conveying values, respect, history, a whole way of behaving, a way of maintaining a sense of responsibility to one’s community. Mr. Yin recognizes there are many other talented Khmer artists and dancers, but he feels called to teach. “If you care about culture you have to do that, you have to sacrifice something…. It’s not only me in Philadelphia who knows how to dance. But if I don’t do it, maybe all the children here in Philadelphia, they’re not going to know anything about culture.” There is a Khmer proverb, he notes: “If you put the cat [to] stay with the dog, the cat can follow the dog.

Mr. Yin also feels obligated to be “right” in his teaching. His students will reflect, not only on him, but on his own teachers – and his own teachers remind him of this. He researches past dance styles and movements, piecing together information from peoples’ memories, pictures, available books, all so that he can be as sure as possible that he is passing on information that is as “true” as he can make it be.

1. Chamroeun Yin teaches Leendavy Koung classical dance. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

2. Chamroeun Yin checks student Sidany Kuong’s arm position for kbach, or traditional hand gestures. Photo: Thomas B. Morton, 1981

3. Hong Peach learns classical dance from Chamroeun Yin. Photo: Thomas B. Morton, 1993

4-6. Portraits of Chamroeun Yin in dance costume of his own making. Photos: Jane Levine, 1993


As a young man, Eang Mao apprenticed in a Buddhist temple in Cambodia. There he studied with the monks, learning the tenets of Theravada Buddhism and studying the scripture. He also learned about the arts associated with being a monk, the less formal aspects of the religious practice, including calligraphy, papercutting, and the painting of traditional religious scenes. The style of teaching was very hierarchical, with older monks teaching younger, respectful and non-questioning novices, in addition to being reserved for young males. While the teaching of the religious practice and scripture was more formal, the teaching of the arts such as calligraphy, painting, and papercutting was more informal, and young Eang Mao taught himself much through observation and imitation. He refined his painting skills in the less formal setting of the refugee camps along the Thai-Cambodian border, but under the more direct instruction of a teacher.

Eang Mao has continued his studies here, taking art classes at Community College of Philadelphia, and later at The University of the Arts, learning the “basics” of European art and graphic design, preparing himself for a career in a Western commercial environment. He has begun to instruct apprentices, including his sons, in the traditional arts of Buddhist mural painting. In 1992 apprenticeship facilitated by the Philadelphia Folklore Project, sponsored by Asian Americans United and funded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Mr. Mao worked at the Samuel Fleisher Art Memorial teaching Buddhist iconographic painting and landscapes. His experiences with the teaching and study of art are as varied as his paintings.

7. Detail of painting. Seated Buddha in devotion. “The meaning of this painting is to let people know that Buddha has come from many miles away to find virtue through worship. Also, Buddha worships to help people from sin and to live in a very peaceful place like Heaven or Tan Nikpean [the planet where Buddha lives].” Photo: Bill Westerman, 1993

8. Eang Mao selects a paintbrush while working in his Philadelphia apartment. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

9. Eang Mao’s student Raky Mao (no relation), outside the Palelai Buddhist Temple in South Philadelphia with one of his pencil drawings. Raky worked at the temple as assistant to the monks, cook, and translator, where he began to learn about Buddhism and, like Eang Mao, copied the religious drawings he saw, but without having formal training in drawing or any training in painting. He is also aware of the drawing and calligraphy traditions associated with the supernatural system of sima, including calligraphic and drawn tattoos. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

10 &11. Eang Mao and his son in the studio at the Fleisher Art Memorial. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1993

12. The view northward on Philadelphia’s South Seventh Street below Snyder Avenue. Eang Mao painted both the signs for “Pailin Market” and “Top’s Electronic Repair.” Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992


American culture (including education) often emphasizes individualism and specialization. But Peang Koung’s formal and informal teaching has often brought together a core group of students, who learn to work together in a variety of arts. His instruction regularly involves two or more different arts, from drawing and painting, to clay modeling and maskmaking, to martial arts, stage movement and stickfighting. Each art informs the other, and students assist one another.

For folk opera, especially, the ensemble becomes more important than the work of any one individual performer. In part this comes from necessity and respects the external demands on students – school, work, family obligations. Students constantly fill in for one another and this creates a natural core of understudies. Students who excel also get an opportunity to learn the play from a number of different character perspectives. Also, actors who do know a part may speak a line or sing along from backstage so that the onstage actor in the role can hear. In this way it becomes a very corporate event, with multiple actors singing the same lines, including the actors offstage, who sometimes even cross gender, if only in jest. Through all of these opportunities, a student explores and develops a personal style.

One student praised the mixture of these different art forms and this way of learning: “If you’re an actor you should learn to draw, because that way you learn history…..If you know the meanings and symbols you can learn a lot. They tell you history if you know what they mean. This is ours, and nobody can take that dance from us, no one can steal [our culture]…. Without the background you won’t be here right now. If you don’t know anything there is no Cambodia for you…. Art class includes history, and dance has to include the meaning. Any art has symbol[ism] in it. You have to think about it when you draw.”

13. Drawing of Hanoman the monkey king, by Darith Moeun, 1992

14. Student copy of Peang Koung’s drawing by Meth Moeun, 11 years old, 1993

15. Performer’s crown (kbang), drawing by Meth Moeun (signed in Khmer), 1992

16. Sketch of princess with crown (kbang), by Meth Moeun. His name is signed in Khmer, while the numerals are alternately written in Khmer and Arabic (Western) numerals. 1992

17. Drawing of Reahu Ahsorin, the giant, catching the moon, by Sidany Kuong, Peang Koung’s granddaughter, age 8, 1992

18. Drawing of Reahu Ahsorin by Saroeun Moeun, age 9, color interpretation her own, 1992

19. Pedestal, architectural drawing by Pony Pich, age 10. These designs, called kbach pñi, contain all the basic patterns in Khmer drawing from which other designs, for costumes and painted walls of a temple or castle, are drawn. 1993

20. Peang Koung and granddaughter Sidany Kuong drawing a front door arch (pñi). Photo: Jane Levine, 1993 (See photo above)

21. Peang Koung with granddaughter Sidavy Kuong (left) and Sokha Phy. Photo: Jane Levine, 1993

22. Peang Koung as a giant before a lakhon bassac performance. Though masks are used in some forms of dance theater, face paint is more common for folk opera. Giant characters as well as monkeys are distinguished from humans by their colorful, swirled painted faces. Mr. Koung uses facial expressions, voice, and both upper body and acrobatic movements to create character onstage. Behind him, his youngest daughter Channavy, also a musician, singer, and performer, looks on. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

23. Backstage, Peang Koung paints the face of a student, Tha Thach, who is about to portray a giant at a brief demonstration of folk opera. Such face painting often takes place in front of a mirror so that students may learn the pattern and apply their own face paint in the future. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

24. Two students of Peang Koung prepare to go onstage in the Cambodian folk opera, Tipsongva, in Philadelphia. Darith Moeun, left, and Mean Peach portray Prince Preas Pearon and King Paisorya respectively. Mr. Peach wears a costume made by Sipom Ming, while Mr. Moeun wears a costume of his own creation. Though he just graduated from high school in 1992, Mr. Moeun is already an accomplished wedding musician and under the tutelage of Mr. Koung has recently begun to perform some of the important ceremonial roles, involving singing and dance, associated with the wedding. His mother is a vocalist and his father a traditional musician as well, and his younger brother and sister are also represented with drawings in this show. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992


Who becomes an artist in this country? And who has access to arts education? In part, it is those who can manage “free” time and available transportation and find a teacher suited to them. For youth, it depends also upon parental attitudes regarding what is respectable. (Artists and performers in Cambodia and many other places are associated with license and disreputability). Most young women still do not have the opportunities that young men do. The Koung family knows of only one other Cambodian family besides themselves where the daughters have been taught to play musical instruments. Access – to being an artist and to arts education – is neither neutral nor equally open to all.

Sipom Ming never claimed to have any particular desire to become an artist, but as a young woman she learned many of the traditional skills and arts that women needed to know for their family occupation: sewing and making clothes, weaving silk, preparing food. When she married a theatrical producer and musician, Peang Koung, the kinds of skills she needed to know broadened. Her sewing was put to use to make curtains for the theater and costumes, and she had to learn varieties of beadwork for wedding dress as well as theatrical costumes.

25. Backstage at a performance of scenes from the Cambodian folk opera, or lakhon bassac, Sipom Ming helps dress many of the young actors, such as Ny Proeun shown here, dressing as the giant. He also comes from a family of artists, as his father is a traditional musician and his mother is a vocalist at weddings and in traditional opera. Sipom Ming often stays backstage throughout an entire performance, preparing costume changes, helping with makeup, and making sure props are in their correct position. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

26. Sipom Ming beading a wedding sash, or sbai, in her South Philadelphia kitchen. Sbai are made on four-legged wooden frames low to the ground and the artists sits on the floor beside the frame. A large rectangular piece of cloth is stretched across the frame, and after the outline of the sbai is filled with silver or gold beadwork, the finished sash is cut from the rest of the material. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992

27. Sbai, beaded by Chamroeun Yin, 1992. Photo: Will Brown, 1995

28. Following the example of Sipom Ming’s fine costume work, some of the performers in the cast of the folk opera, or lakhon bassac, learned how to bead and design their own costumes, even when work schedules may have prevented them from working with her directly. One student, Rina Chan, performed in numerous roles in a hand-beaded costume he designed after watching Sipom Ming and studying her costumes. Here he appears as a human prime minister. Cambodian folk opera performers both male and female are expected to be able to make their own clothes and do their own makeup, based on traditional characters and designs, for their performances. Photo: Bill Westerman, 1992


The Philadelphia Folklore Project is an independent agency that works to preserve and support the folk arts of Philadelphia. Traveling exhibitions, and other programs to expand audiences for folk arts were supported by the Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund. Additional support for touring exhibitions programs was provided by The Pew Charitable Trusts and the National Endowment for the Arts. Thanks to Leendavy Koung, Eang Mao, Prolung Khan Ngin, Koung Peang, William Westerman, Chamroeun Yin, and to the agencies that initially collaborated in developing folk arts educational opportunities: the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial and Asian Americans United, in projects funded by the Pew Arts Education Development Project and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.