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Saturday, January 17, 2009

UK minister for trade, investment to visit Vietnam

UK minister for trade and investment Gareth Thomas will visit Viet Nam from January 19 to 20 as part of his ten-day visit to Southeast Asia, which is intended to promote British business in the region and facilitate free trade talks.

The Viet Nam visit will help the Minister “familiarise himself with British trade and investment activities as well as international development issues in Vietnam,” wrote an announcement from the British Embassy in Ha Noi.

He will call on the Vietnamese government to follow up on last month’s joint economic and trade committee meeting in London, according to the Jan. 16 announcement.

Mr. Thomas will call on Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung to discuss local and international trade and investment matters. He will also meet with Minister of Planning and Investment Vo Hong Phuc, Minister of Industry and Trade Vu Huy Hoang, and Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Cao Duc Phat to learn about Vietnam’s progress on implementing World Trade Organization commitments.

The visiting trade minister will also meet with a number of UK business representatives while in Hanoi.

In the afternoon of Jan. 20, he is scheduled to call on the Chairman of the People’s Committee in Ho Chi Minh City to discuss the business environment in southern Vietnam.

On Jan. 14, the British newspaper Telegraph reported that the UK trade minister said Southeast Asia is a bigger export market for British companies than either China or India. Telegraph said UK exports to Southeast Asia in 2007 were worth over £9 billion, compared to £5.22 billion with China and £4.65 billion with India. (Sai Gon GP)
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Performance introduces Khmer salon series

By Greg Mellen, Staff Writer

LONG BEACH - On Thursday night the stage is bare, illuminated by a lone halogen spotlight as dancer Sothavy Khut and curator Prumsodun Ok go over preparations for her upcoming performance.

Khut sorts through the bracelets, anklets, headwear and clothing she will wear, while Ok wrestles with the light and Serey Pep adjusts the backdrop.

If all goes well, there will be magic tonight on the stage in the spare industrial space at 1364 Obispo Ave. that is home to the Khmer Arts Academy.

That's because, when a dancer performs the classical Cambodian Robum Tiyae, she attains a semidivine status as a medium between the material and physical world.

At least that's how Ok describes the solo performance Khut will give.

"It remains one of the most sacred works of the canon and according to Chheng Phon, a former dancer of the palace and Minister of Culture from 1980 to 1990, the audience in Robam Tiyae is not human but spiritual," Ok wrote about the work.

Tonight's performance will kick off a series of monthly events called the Khmer Arts Salon Series.

The series will consist of once-a-month performances intended as intimate lecture demonstrations by a diverse group of artists. The events, which are planned and funded to include 20 shows over the next two years, will spotlight Southeast and South Asian performance styles, ranging from classical Khmer dance and song to Balinese shadow puppetry to classical Indian music.
The series is the brainchild of Prumsodun Ok, an ebullient 21-year-old Long Beach native who is a self-described dancer, instructor, choreographer, curator, cultural activist and media artist/filmmaker.

He has studied traditional Cambodian dance with Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, founder of the Khmer Arts Academy, and Charya Burt, an internationally renowned Khmer dancer in Northern California.

He is currently teaching at the Khmer Arts Academy. He came up with the idea of the salon series and pitched it to John Shapiro, husband to Sophiline, who had been wanting to take on such a project and helped get funding for the series.

Khut, 28, is a dancer with the Shapiros' Khmer Arts Ensemble based in the Takmao District of Cambodia near Phnom Penh. She has toured with the dance troupe to the United States, Vienna, Austria and Holland, and is spending the year as an artist-in-residence at Khmer Arts Academy.

Ok, who spent two years studying film at the San Francisco Art Institute and is contemplating enrolling at UCLA for the California Institute of the Arts, has high hopes for the series.

"I talked to John (Shapiro) and we really want to make (Khmer Arts Academy) a hub for arts again and make it visible by bringing other artists to the community," Ok said.

Although Sophiline Shapiro spends much of her time with her troupe in Cambodia and on tour, she still has a place in her heart for Long Beach and the inner-city Cambodian-American kids her academy serves.

"I'm keeping that connection and sense of attachment in both places," she told the Press-Telegram last year.

A survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the mid-1970s, Sophiline founded the Khmer Arts Academy in 2002 with her husband, whom she married in 1991.

Former students of Shapiro continue to teach classical dance, but Ok wants to take it a step further.

"I want to find a way to engage (young artists)," Ok says. "We're looking for ways to connect (through) different art forms."

Khut, who speaks no English, has modest goals for tonight's performance.

"I want to inspire people to come and take classes," she says through translation. "And for them to remember the dance and its significance."

While the Salon Series is evolving, Ok has the first five performances booked. He says he looks forward to exciting shows and surprises to come as he meets more artists and delves into the intricacies of Southeastern and Southern Asian performance arts.

Although Los Angeles has a remarkably lush and diverse arts scene, Ok says it's often hard to get people out to far-flung sites.

"I want to bring those arts here," Ok says. "Plus some of our students are poor. I want to bring the richness of art to our community.", 562-499-1291


Today: Cambodian Classical Dance - Robam Tiyae and the Spirit Medium

Feb. 21: Cambodian Clasical Dance - Chea Samy and the Language of Dance

March 21: Balinese Shadow Theater - maRia Bodmann with Bali and Beyond

April 18: Khmer Mourning Music - Smot: Songs of Healing

May 16: Indian Classical Music - New Directions with Gautam Tejas Geneshan and Anantha Krishnan

All show times: 7 p.m.

Where: Khmer Arts Academy

1364 Obispo Ave., Long Beach

Admission: Free

Information: 562-472-0090
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Cambodia's Cardamom Mountains Get Their First Eco-Resort


KOH KONG PROVINCE, Cambodia -- In a wild range of forested peaks tumbling into the mangroves of Cambodia's western coast, tigers and Asian elephants still roam the woods, fishing cats hunt puddle frogs, Malayan sun bears ransack bee nests and highly endangered Siamese crocodiles ply the streams.

These are the Cardamom Mountains, and when I first visited them in 2000 -- the year of the conservation organization Fauna and Flora International's wildlife survey -- they were a challenge just to reach. My journey with a World Health Organization expedition from Phnom Penh began with a punishing two-day journey via trawler and motorboat, followed by a long ride on a bumpy logging road.

But when I finally arrived at my destination, deep in the jungle at the end of a neglected logging road, the Cardamoms didn't disappoint: Clear streams tumbled from the mountainsides, mist cooled the early mornings and the forest's canopy and undergrowth cloaked the valleys in quiet. Accommodations were nil, and we slept on hammocks slung from trees in hardscrabble mountain villages.

I was in one of the most pristine forests of Southeast Asia. Inaccessibility during Cambodia's civil wars and the Khmer Rouge reign -- the mountains were a stronghold for the group -- had helped protect the area. Peace had brought problems that include illegal logging, but it remained a wildlife haven. The trip became one of my Cambodian favorites.

So it was with much anticipation in August that I made reservations at Rainbow Lodge, which had opened in January 2008 at the base of the Cardamoms. The mountains' first eco-friendly resort -- one of very few lodgings at all -- promised all of the serenity of my first trip with little of its hardship. My old destination remained an incalculable mental distance from Phnom Penh's bustle, or, for that matter, the crowded temples of Angkor Wat, but a new road and series of bridges had put it within five hours (by air-conditioned bus) of the capital.

Apparent isolation is the Rainbow Lodge's main feature. We -- I was traveling with Min Lieskovsky, a writer and anthropology student -- were told to call the lodge from the third major bridge, have the driver drop us at the fourth, and wait there to be picked up. This we did, and we suddenly felt very alone as the bus vanished over a ridge. It was a fleeting feeling, however, because even as we slung our packs on our backs, Janet Newman, the owner of the lodge, was waiting for us at the water's edge.

A 41-year-old barrister from Birmingham, England, she had tired of a career dealing with violence and abuse and decided to put her energies to another use. A short stint as a volunteer for an organization called Frontier, in the Cardamoms' nearby Botum Sakor National Park, persuaded her to move to Cambodia for good and set up a green-friendly resort. She introduced us to a friendly russet mutt, Sunny, and a taciturn Cambodian guide, Prom Sa Lei, who ushered us onto a river skiff and launched us from shore.

After a short ride, the Rainbow Lodge came into view through thickets of water palm and stands of bamboo, a cluster of seven bungalows and a breezy, thatched bar. It was early on a Saturday afternoon, and within an hour -- following a briefing by Ms. Newman on water and power conservation -- Ms. Lieskovsky and I were swimming off the dock in the languid currents of the Kep River and sunning ourselves on the bow of the moored skiff, the Cardamoms looming high and verdant upriver.

Natural jungle is already coming back to the resort, built on former farmland. Ms. Newman says more species of wildlife appear all the time.

"We're trying to show the local people that protecting wildlife can bring in an income," she says. "Tourism can actually be a benefit to them, some financial benefit."

The jungle has been incorporated, not subjugated, and a stay at the lodge, though quite comfortable, requires an acceptance of nature on its own terms. Rainbow Lodge isn't a luxury resort. It's solar powered, with backup generators, which is why Ms. Newman encourages visitors to turn lights off when not in use. The thatched bungalows -- clean, but rustic and sparsely appointed, with mattresses a little saggy in the middle -- are shared with denizens of the jungle; our room was home to a large noisy type of gecko called a tookay and a rather meaty spider.

As recent guest Bronwyn Blue puts it, "It's absolutely basic -- except for the food." (Our weekend menus included steamed lemon-grass fish, prawn curry, sautéed squid and pineapple fritters in chocolate sauce.)

Ms. Blue, who runs an interior design company in Phnom Penh and who spent her 32nd birthday at the lodge, was glad she'd thought to bring shampoo, though the lodge does provide soap, towels, blankets, a fan and an electric bug swatter, which resembles an electrified tennis racket. The hot water is just lukewarm, though that tends to suffice in the tropics. "Maybe you want to bring your own creature comforts with you," Ms. Blue says. "Bring your own Champagne."

Entertainment is provided mostly by the Kep River and its tributary, the Tatai. Sunday morning Ms. Lieskovsky and I borrowed the lodge's kayak and paddled upriver until we came upon a small stream -- hidden behind a curtain of water palms -- that fed the main channel. Stowing the kayak, we spent hours swimming and walking, exploring the stream's spills, pools and boulders.

Sights along the way included many butterflies; with help from a field guide compiled by Ms. Newman and other volunteers at Frontier -- the only one in print specifically for Cambodia -- I was able to tentatively identify two species, the common banded demon and the glass tiger.

"A large, diverse butterfly population indicates a good diversity of habitats and environments," says Emily Woodfield, who is now the country director, based in Phnom Penh, of Fauna and Flora International and who worked on the field guide. The ones around the Rainbow Lodge are likely to be a mix of types that flourish in lowland agriculture settings and others coming out of the forests, including rarer species, she says.

"In Cambodia, it's actually quite difficult to get into that kind of forest, so the Rainbow Lodge offers you a taste of that," Ms. Woodfield says. An entire day could be spent spotting butterflies, and, field guide in hand, attempting to make identifications (Ms. Newman keeps a copy at the lodge that you can borrow for excursions.)

Ms. Blue says they enthralled her: "Black and white butterflies, yellow butterflies, orange butterflies, green butterflies. There were butterflies everywhere."

Other activities include guided treks through the jungle and trips in Mr. Lei's skiff to waterfalls, rapids or the nearby Gulf of Thailand; boat rental runs $12 an hour, including Mr. Lei's captaining. There's also an overnight camping trip, which the lodge's Web site cautions is "truly for the adventurous."

Sunday afternoon, we hired Mr. Lei and his skiff for a trip up the Tatai to Tatai Waterfall, a masterwork of Mesozoic sandstone -- wide, high and pristine. We clambered up the rocks, ducked our heads under powerful cascades of translucent water, and, after prudent discussion, plunged into the eddies and chutes of the rapids at the base of the falls. A banged-up ankle notwithstanding, the afternoon was close to perfect. This weekend was overtaking my first trip to the Cardamoms as a favorite.

Monday morning we had one last trip on the skiff -- a return to the bridge to catch the bus that would take us away from all this. We said goodbye to our hostess and Mr. Lei, the bus arrived, and in a cloud of exhaust and a burst of air-conditioning, we headed back toward the city.

—Brian Calvert is a writer based in Phnom Penh.

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Violence, Forclosures Define Cambodian Community 20 Years After School Shooting

Editor’s Note: Twenty years after a gunman opened fire on a schoolyard of mostly Southeast Asian children in Stockton, Calif., the Cambodian American community tries to heal from that violence, and the larger issues affecting refugee immigrants to America. Eric Tang is an Assistant Professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His forthcoming book is titled 'Unsettled: America’s Refugees and the Struggle for a Just Resettlement.'

STOCKTON, Calif. -- “Going back to teach at the school was my way to letting go of it all,” said Rann Chun, a third-grade teacher at Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton, Calif.

Exactly 20 years ago, on January 17, 1989, Chun was a nine-year-old student at Cleveland when a lone gunman opened fire on the schoolyard, killing five and injuring 30 before taking his own life. Chun’s six-year-old sister, Ram Chun, was among those killed.

Before Columbine or Virginia Tech—indeed before “school shooting” became familiar phraseology in American culture—there was the Stockton schoolyard incident.

Few outside of Northern California recall this tragedy in which 24-year-old gunman Edward Patrick Purdy emptied 105 shots from an AK-47 assault rifle into a schoolyard of approximately 450 schoolchildren. Fewer still recall that at the time of the shooting, Southeast Asian refugee children comprised 70 percent of Cleveland’s student body. Among the five fatalities, four were Cambodian Americans—including Ram Chun—and one was a Vietnamese American. Their ages ranged from 6 to 9 years old. The families of these children had recently resettled in Stockton in the wake of the Vietnam War and the Khmer Rouge atrocities in Cambodia.

Twenty years ago, the tragedy brought forth divergent – if not competing – analyses and lessons. Racial justice advocates demanded that the attorney general consider the incident a hate crime. Others took the occasion to call for stronger gun control laws. But for the mostly Cambodian-American survivors, there was another lesson gleaned: The struggle for peace and survival does not end with resettlement in the United States.

According to Stockton community leader Sovanna Koeurt, those who lost their children had to “either let go and build something new and for the better or they didn’t survive.”

Chun’s father found this impossible to do. Though he had had lost loved ones to the Khmer Rouge, he could not pull himself together after the killing of his youngest daughter.

“He didn’t survive,” Chun said. Within 10 years of the shooting, the father passed away, succumbing to deep depression and heavy drinking.

Three years ago, Chun returned to Cleveland Elementary to become a first-grade teacher—incidentally, this was the grade his sister was in during the time of the shooting. He now teaches third grade.

“I went back to be role model for change, for a new beginning,” he said. “I didn’t want to leave it behind as a place where my life changed for the worse, but for the better.”

According to Koeurt, Chun’s story exemplifies not only triumph over tragedy, but also the way in which a young man can beat the odds in a community plagued by poverty and gang violence.

“Resettlement to America was just another verse, another phase, in our story of refugee survival,” said Koueurt, who is the founding director of APSARA, a social service agency and community development corporation created in the wake of the shooting. She is referring to how life in the United States presented a new set of hardships and tragedies, and how refugees had to draw on the skills from their past lives in order to survive. Indeed, the schoolyard shooting has not been the only hurdle to overcome in the past 20 years.

Long Keo, 27, was among the 30 wounded during the shooting, having sustained a bullet wound to the abdomen. He recalls multiple surgeries throughout his childhood, going in and out of hospitals for years after the incident. And yet, when he looks back on his adolescence, surviving the shooting is not his defining struggle. Instead, he recalls the gang violence that gripped Stockton and nearly took his life on more than one occasion.

Several years ago, his living room was riddled with bullets from a drive-by shooting. Then, this past summer, his mother learned that the family would be evicted from their home. They were renting from a landlord who was on the brink of foreclosure. When I came to speak with the family about the 20th anniversary of the shooting they, understandably, were more interested in talking about their current housing crisis.

These smaller tragedies that have dotted the lives of Stockton’s Cambodian Americans perhaps explains why, there is little fanfare surrounding the 20th anniversary of the shooting. This is not to say that community members have become inured to violence and tragedy, but rather that there is a broader context of immigrant and refugee life in which the shooting must be discussed.
Still, on Friday night the Children’s Museum of Stockton held a small, invitation-only memorial event for the victims and heroes of 20 years ago. Today, the city’s local paper, The Stockton Record, will run a feature article looking back on the incident. And then there are those, like Chun, who find ways to “honor my sister’s memory everyday.”

“I could have taught at another school in the district,” said Chun. “But I chose to be here. Being here helps me let go of the tragedy, but still hold on to her.”
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