Sarah St. Vincent
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Over a thousand years ago, according to the legend, a Cambodian trickster hero invented the first musical kite while imprisoned in China. Having run a popular noodle stand outside the palace walls in Beijing for several years, Thun Chhey had gained a reputation for his audacious sense of humor and startling feats of intelligence. When the king and his ministers finally decided to investigate this eccentric (and possibly treasonous) foreigner by appearing at the noodle stand and ordering soup, Thun Chhey insisted on feeding the king his first taste of Khmer noodles by hand – so as to make note of the sovereign’s first reaction to dish, he said – and then laughed. “Who is this man,” he exclaimed, “who has the face and breath of a dog? How I wish I could look upon my own countrymen again. My king, for one, has a face as round and handsome as the full moon – nothing like this mongrel here.”

The trickster, of course, was promptly thrown into prison, where he began to assemble a strange object from dried leaves, a few stalks of bamboo, and a long strip of rattan. The night before he was to be executed, he tied a string to the object, slipped it through the narrow window of his cell, and allowed the wind to carry it over the city. The rattan vibrated in the breeze, making an eerie humming sound, and the king woke from his sleep to find what appeared to be an enormous black bird hovering ominously overhead. Summoning his ministers, he cried, “That Khmer devil! Let him out! I know this is his doing. Send him back to his country before we’re all cursed.” Ever since that day, Cambodians retelling the story will proudly say, Cambodia has been able to boast about outwitting China – while the Chinese have struggled in vain to make a kite as beautiful and melodious as Thun Chhey’s.

The Thun Chhey story, which thousands of Cambodians of all ages and backgrounds can recite from memory, appears at first to be a simple tale, part origin myth and part classic trickster narrative. Woven into the story, however, are threads that still recur in Cambodian kitemakers’ discussions of their art form, particularly when they seek to explain the importance of reviving kitemaking and kiteflying following the devastation of the Khmer Rouge era. From September 2004 to July 2005, with the help of a generous grant from the Drachen Foundation, I traveled through eleven Cambodian provinces asking a simple question: Why kites? Why, in the wake of a genocide, economic devastation, and continuing poverty and political turmoil, were so many families and communities rediscovering these traditional playthings and recasting them as a matter of national importance? Part of the answer was the beauty, variety, and unique construction of the kites themselves, but – as in the Thun Chhey story, and as in Sim Sarak’s discussion (above) – kites were also increasingly viewed as proof of Cambodia’s cultural resilience, historic might, and continuing pride in its national heritage, as well as an important strategy for community survival in difficult times.

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