Cambodia Town Cultural Festival and Parade to take place fully online, honoring women and fostering cultural pride
September 25, 2020
Despite a few bumps along the way, this year’s Cambodian Cultural Festival and Parade will take place digitally this Sunday, Sept. 27 with a renewed focus— honoring women and fostering cultural pride.
“A lot of younger people, they’re ashamed of their own culture, their own background, because of the killing field,” said Monorom Neth, vice-chair of the Cambodia Town nonprofit.
Cambodia suffered the loss of 2 million lives due to a years-long genocide by the Khmer Rouge regime from April 17, 1975 to January 7, 1979.
Neth recited the dates by heart. He himself is a survivor of the killing fields, but he doesn’t want people to focus on that negative image of his country.
“Before that, we had over 1000 years of civilization,” he said. “We want to bring out and show people that we do have history—beautiful, rich history.”
Originally scheduled for April 5 of this year, organizers received word just weeks before the festival that large events would be canceled due to the pandemic.
The festival is usually held in April to celebrate the Cambodian New Year. When they decided to reschedule, the group chose September because it aligned with Pchum Ben, a holiday where Cambodians pay homage to their ancestors.
“That’s when people normally would go to the temple,” Neth said. “ Even though they don’t get to go, at least they get to see it and be part of the festivities.”
With face shields and hand sanitizer in tow, the group hired a videographer. They began filming segments for the festival in a nearby park with plenty of room for social distancing.
The festival is centered around Apsara, a female spirit of the clouds and waters in Hindu and Buddhist culture.
Neth said that statues and depictions of Apsara are present at the ancient Khmer temple Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which have been there for over a thousand years.
They chose the spirit to honor the strength of women, he said. Cambodian culture is matriarchal, meaning women are the head of the household.
“A lot of young people, they still feel ashamed of themselves,” Neth said. “We want to say, ‘Look, you guys are beautiful.’ It doesn’t matter how old you are. You’re still a beautiful, powerful woman, so embrace that.”
Women of all ages, from 18 to 60, will participate in the traditional dance honoring Apsara, representing multiple generations.
“The Apsara dance has been around for many years, a very elaborate, classical dance,” he said. “Then we have a formation. It’s not a dance, it’s just a showcase, the different colors, the different aspects of the Apsara, fully dressed.”
It takes hours for dancers to get into their dresses, because each one must be hand-sewn into the garment. The traditional outfit includes a golden headdress and decorative red collars embellished with gold detailing.
Though the Apsaras may steal the show, the festival will also include the traditional coconut dance, fishing dance, silk weaving and an amateur singing contest.
For the amateur singing contest, the group received videos from multiple states and Cambodia. The Cambodian judges come from Colorado, Florida and Minnesota.
Though the festival celebrates Cambodian culture and faith, it’s also integrative of other faiths.
Before the festival begins, the group traditionally hosts an “interfaith” section with prayer videos from a Christian pastor, a nun, a rabbi, a Buddhist and an imam.
“Since in this one we do virtual, it’s global,” Neth said. “We choose people from all over because we want to bring people together.”
The three-hour showcase is an opportunity for all people, Khmer or not, to have a glimpse into Cambodian culture.
“There are so many of us. We just want to share with people. We want our people to be proud,” Neth said. “We want outsiders, non-Khmer, to look at us like ‘Wow, you are beautiful people.’ We don’t want to use the killing field as a crutch. We want to showcase the beauty of our culture.”
The Cambodian Cultural Festival and Parade will take place this Sunday, Sept. 27 at 10 a.m. virtually at CambodiaTown.com. The event is free to attend.