“It started out by accident,” said Silong Chhun.
Chhun is referring to how his first T-shirt print evolved into the brand Red Scarf Revolution, a medium he uses to create awareness about the Cambodian Genocide of 1975 to 1979. “My first design was called ‘Can I get an “Angkor?’” he said, “with ‘Angkor’ as a play on ‘Encore,’ an ode to a popular Jay-Z hit record.”
After posting the design on social media, Chhun was met with huge demand before ever having printed any T-shirts. “This is when I began to think what Red Scarf Revolution could be,” he said.
One of those things is Chhun’s Year Zero Project. A month ago, on April 17, a multi-city candlelight vigil was held across the United States as a collaboration with the Cambodian American communities of Tacoma, WA; Long Beach, CA; Stockton, CA; Chicago, IL; and Lowell, MA. The event was held to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the fall of Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia to the Maoist Khmer Rouge.
Beginning in 1975, the Khmer Rouge attempted to restart Cambodian society by proclaiming that Cambodia would start from “Year Zero.” This social experiment marked one of the darkest periods in human history in which over a quarter of the population, or an estimated two million people, died of execution, disease, and starvation. The mass exodus that followed ushered in one of the largest refugee resettlements in the United States, in which an estimated 175,000 immigrated to a new land.
The Year Zero Memorial candlelight vigil, headed by Chhun, was held in conjunction with an arts exhibit that Chhun curated with help from the Wing Luke Museum, titled Scars & Stripes. Flanked by a slew of noted artists, including world renowned Anida Yoeu Ali of Studio Revolt, Silong masterfully wove the story of the refugee journey through the eyes of the actual refugee from war, resettlement, and deportation.
This art exhibit, together with local and regional proclamations recognizing April 17, 2017, as Cambodian Genocide Memorial Day, created an experience that struck an intergenerational chord. “It attracted different generations because I presented it as an arts exhibition as opposed to being a ‘Khmer Rouge’-themed event,” he said.
Silong Chhun’s roots in social activism has been decades in the making. A multi-faceted artist, Chhun’s crafts include music, where he has composed soundtracks for various films, apparel design through his Red Scarf Revolution brand, and most recently through visual arts with his Scars & Stripes exhibit.
Red Scarf Revolution was born out of Chhun’s mission to raise awareness to Cambodia’s history between 1975 and 1979. “It really surprised me that people don’t know about what happened, most importantly college-age kids and younger from our community,” Chhun said.
Bill Oung, co-founder of the Cambodian American Community Council of Washington (CACCWA), agrees. “Their parents never told them about it,” Oung said. “There are generations who don’t know what happened in the 1970s because the older generation has never really had a safe space to share their stories.” Oung hopes that CACCWA, an umbrella organization representing over 18 Cambodian community groups that worked with Chhun towards the proclamations, can help fill that gap.
Over 20,000 Cambodian refugees settled in the Pacific Northwest during the height of the refugee resettlement of the 1980s, calling cities such as Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett their adopted homes. While this generation sought to hold on and save old customs and traditions, the younger generation has struggled in defining themselves and subsequently leaned toward a more American identity. Because of the trauma of war and the reluctance of the survivors to speak about their experiences during the war, disruptions developed in traditional familial dynamics. “The generation that first arrived in the late 1970s are torn between identifying with the country they left, Cambodia, and balancing that with their adopted homeland, the USA,” Oung said.
While the older generation sought to retain their native tongue, their children, with more exposure to English and the American culture, spoke less Khmer. One result was a hybrid communication system of sorts where parents would speak in Khmer and the children would reply back in English. This difficulty in retaining their native language caused some feelings of alienation amongst the youth, exacerbating the generational divide.
“When you grow up here, you don’t really speak the language, Khmer,” Chhun said, “and sometimes you don’t feel like you fit in with these community functions that the older generations organize.”
While mainstream society has viewed the Cambodian American diaspora through the lens of the Khmer Rouge experience, Chhun hopes that the candlelight vigil and his Scars & Stripes exhibit has helped in propelling the Cambodian community forward in closing this generational divide.
But Chhun is not the only one who would like to see the community reclaim its narrative in America. “It seems intergenerational right now,” said long-time community activist Sameth Mell, who attended the candlelight vigil.
Chhun was gratified by this reaction. “Just the way I presented Scars & Stripes was a more inclusive event,” he said. “It’s okay, even if you don’t speak the language, you’re still welcome here.”
Referring to the future of what he hopes April 17 will become in Washington State, Chhun proclaimed: “What we want as an end goal is a resolution.” Because of his reputation in community activism, Chhun was invited in 2015 to join a delegation from the Cambodian community of California to witness the passing of legislation, bill S-21 sponsored by California State Senator Ricardo Lara, which recognizes April 13 to 17 as Cambodian Genocide Memorial Week in that state.
Activists like Mell see this recognition as a positive sign of good change to come. “Proclamations are like flashing lights: they shine bright and then fade away, shine and then fade again,” Mell said. “What we want is the sun.”
Judging by the response that Silong Chhun’s Year Zero event garnered, the future of the local Cambodian community looks bright.