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Photographer, refugee, king
Patrick Doan
09 April 2024
published in Issue Five

A family’s travelogue from Phnom Penh to Paris and back

Our stopover is Guangzhou, the capital of Canton province, a former terminus on the Silk Road. Just a stone’s throw away are industrial Shenzhen and Hong Kong, where part of my family has been exiled. A-kong, my father, will be visiting them later in the year. For the moment we have another trip to make: one that will take us back forty-seven years, before that long episode in France that covers almost the whole of my life, but which for him was a long swing to the other side of the world.

Where there’s an airport, there’s security, and where there’s China, there’s screening, so here we are at the checkpoint at Baiyun International Airport, where austere officials are checking that we’re not carrying anything suspicious. We go through the scanner first, and A-kong takes his time. When the diaphanous image of his suitcase’s entrails finally appears on the screen, the agents are surprised to see quite clearly a thirty-centimeter knife, lying peacefully alongside twelve boxes of Doliprane (paracetamol) 1000mg, one hundred and eighty COVID masks (which he will later offer to my cousin) and eight camera batteries — for A-kong suffers from a rather severe scopic compulsion. A conversation in Mandarin ensues between the agent and my father, who hopes to convince the woman not to confiscate his « fruit knife ». Meanwhile, while my wife Insa questions the reliability of Luchthaven Schiphol’s security service (we’d flown from Amsterdam), my daughter Elly rolls her eyes, my son Robin pretends to look at his smartphone (without a network), and I watch my father adopt a familiar posture: a man of good faith imploring clemency from his next superior. This time his plea has little effect. But I know it has worked before — at least once.

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A-kong means grandfather in the Min Nan Chinese dialect.

It took ten years (1997-2007) even to set up this special international tribunal.

There were five of us in all, my family and my elderly aunt and her son.

L’ami retrouvé, meaning the found friend, or found-back friend, is the French title of Fred Uhlman’s novel Reunion. I studied it as a teenager in the 12th arrondissement of Paris, and it was part of my college curriculum. It’s about the friendship between the son of a Jewish doctor and a young German aristocrat under Nazi rule. After the war, the Jewish son tries to find out what happened to his friend. Integrated on the outside, but still a foreigner on the inside, I identified a lot with him.

From the exhibition brochure The Journey of King Sisowath in France, A Mutual Revelation, Sosoro Museum, 2022.

Apsaras, meaning « those who glide on water », are Hindu deities. At the time of the Angkor kingdom, they were embodied by dancers who, through their costumes and sacred dances, reenacted ancient Khmer cosmogony.