Written By Sophinarath Cheang, Voicewaves Youth Journalist
Bunsorng Tay in his home.
Bunsorng Tay is sixty-three years old. He is the founder of the Cambodian Culture and Art Association. He also drives a taxi. A veteran of the Cambodian Air Force, he was born in Battambang Province and was lucky to not live in his home country during the Khmer Rouge regime. “Between 1974 and1975, I was on a mission to Thailand,” he began. “Then the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975 so I became the first refugee to stay in Thailand.”
Tay was sponsored to the United States and his new life began in Camp Pendleton nearby San Diego, California in May 1975. After two months, he was sponsorsed to study at Utah Technical College at Provo by Carl Clark, the owner of Energe Tech Company, and James Nielson, an elementary school teacher. He earned an Associates Degree in Applied Science in Electrical and Automation Technology and got a job offer right after. Unfortunately though, he was laid off in 1983.
But giving up was not a choice.
“I decided to come meet my friends in Long Beach and learned how to run a donut shop,” he said. He soon learned that living in Long Beach would be better for him because of the big and growing Cambodian community. “My wife and I decided to move to Long Beach and bought a donut store in East Los Angeles,” he said. However, after discovering that his wife had some health problems and could no longer work, he stopped the business and began to drive taxis as a source of income. “Because of the love I had for my wife, money was not as important as her health,” Bunsorng said. “I didn’t want her to work hard anymore so I sold the store.”
While living in Long Beach, Tay founded an organization in 2005 known as the Cambodian Culture and Art Preservation Association. The name was then changed to Cambodian Culture and Art Association in 2007. Today, the Association is a large and important part of his life, inspired from his own family history.
In 1994, Tay returned to his home country for the first time. On this trip, he came across a museum his grandfather, a leading monk at Po Veal Temple in Battambang, had founded in the 1960s. Known as Po Veal National Museum, it housed fine artistic antiquities. The museum was opened to the public in 1968, a year before his grandfather passed away. It was completely destroyed during the Khmer Rouge regime. “When I first saw the museum, I thought to myself that I needed to protect and preserve the art, culture, and tradition of my origin,” Tay said.
Tay holds an image of his late grandfather who founded the Po Veal National Museum. Photo courtesy of Sophinarath Cheang.
There is a Khmer saying, “Tompeang snorng reusey.” Roughly translated to English as “the new bamboo shoots replace the old,” it explains how the younger generation assumes the reigns of leadership from their elders by protecting and preserving what the older generation developed and contributed. “I want to be the young bamboo of my family,” Tay says while mentioning his need to stand up and walk the admirable path that his grandfather did. According to Tay, “The Association is based in Long Beach and teaches some kinds of popular Khmer dances like Chhayam [a form of traditional Khmer drumming] and Trot [a folk dance] and traditional Khmer musical instruments.” Students of the Association perform at least two times a year during Cambodian New Year and other community events.
“Trot originated in the province I was born, Battambang, as well as Siem Reap,” he said. Tay has seen this dance since he was little and always enjoyed it. However, he never had a chance to learn how to perform it. “Back in 2005 when Cambodia Town was created, they were looking for a person who could dance Trot, so I volunteered,” he admitted. He started to watch and learn the dance from DVDs. Coincidentally at that time, there was an artist from Cambodia here in Long Beach who knew how to dance Trot. His name was Sithul Ieng.
Sithul Ieng is a talented, skillful, and famous artist. He is a singer and instructor of traditional Khmer instruments at Cambodian Living Arts, a non-profit organization based in Phnom Penh that works to restore Khmer traditional art forms and to encourage contemporary artistic expression.
“I contacted Sithul to see if he could teach me and I got two days of training with him. After this, I started teaching it. I tried my best to get all the tools that are needed for this dance. Trot requires so many things such as masks and costumes but we didn’t have all of those. I was lucky that Sithul helped to get all of those things for us when he returned home to Cambodia.”
The Cambodian Art and Culture Association now has 25 students, 24 of whom are of Cambodian heritage. The other is African American. They are currently accepting new students. The Association teaches youth dances like Trot and Chhayam and is also planning to offer lessons in Khmer language. “It is a shame not knowing your original culture and language,” Tay stated. “I feel ashamed when I see Khmer kids who can’t even speak the language.”
Every new semester, Bunsorng, alone, will go out and promote the Association at high schools in Long Beach. The Association aims to keep Cambodian art and culture strong in its new home and Bunsorng tries his best to keep the Association alive in the face of its big financial obstacles. “We are not sponsored by the state or city so the only way we can get funds is from fundraising. Otherwise, we do not get any income,” said Bunsorng. Moreover, the Association is looking for more human resources. “We need more professors, teachers, and volunteers,” he said, “as the Association wants to contribute more in preserving the culture. We need teachers to teach Khmer language and other traditional dances.”
With all the love and care for his native culture and tradition, Tay hopes, “There will be a new generation of young bamboo that shoots out, passionate people who love Cambodian culture and tradition that will replace me when I decide to retire.”
Click here to see more photos from Sophinarath’s visit with Bunsorng Tay below.