Circus saved my life!

The noise of cheerful screaming and applause burst out the stage after the wonderful performance, in one evening in Patravadi Theater in Bangkok, Thailand, which performing by a young Cambodian circus group that the story is about “A girl survival from Khmer Rouge”.

A Girl survival from Khmer Rouge” showing a girl still alive and always getting suffered from nightmare. She decided spending her life learning and teaching young people to become a professional artist in circus skill. Before she died, she finished a diary which recorded her life story.

As soon as the show ends, many audiences come to cheer the group of artists and hope to see their performance again. Among the team members, there is an actress who catches audience attention the most.

With big eyes and grey skin, the 19-year-old Pin Phunam gets recognized as the best acrobat girl in Cambodia as well as the successful girl who has overcome many troubles in life.

Nowadays, she lives in Battambang city with three families living together. She was born in a poor family and her father died when she was young. Her mother doesn’t have any job, and the other three older sisters also don’t have any specific skills.

With her powerful voice, Pin Phunam said “When I was young, I didn’t go to school because I had no money. I started to earn money by picking up garbage around the center of Battambang province and sold to the retailer nearby”.

She earned 8000 Riels (about $2) to 9000 Riels (about $2.25) per day and she always gives that money to her mother for buying food. She never bought a new cloth or any snack even when she wanted to eat.

Pin Phunam’s life has completely changed after she started in Phare Ponleu Selpak (PPS), a circus school in Battambang province, the place given her good opportunity to challenge difficult life.

She said she came to study there because she was too poor and PPS provided some food and snack when she was learning. Moreover, she can learn many things as in normal school, and also some extra courses like painting, music, and circus skills.

At first, she studied all kind of skills, but three or four years later, she found herself good at performance. She decided to catch up in circus skill provided by school that required her to join all day long training in several kinds of circus disciplines such as acrobats, juggling, contortion, balancing, trapeze. Among these disciplines, she is very good at acrobat that the audience amaze how she could do that.

Because of her hard-work and talent, in 2007 Pin Phunam won a competition among the team in PPS to study circus in Vietnam. Spending one year there, she becomes more outstanding professional artist.

Every year, she spends three months performing in every state in France. So far, she had been to Thailand, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, Korea, Philippine, Singapore, Sweden, Holland for performing circus.

This opportunity enables her to learn more techniques in circus, and she always shares what she’s learned to other children in CCAI association.

Sok Heng, 23, a member in the circus team and also a close friend of Phunam, said she is a nice girl; she loves making friends with everyone not only girls but also boys without any discriminations.

“One thing that makes me really appreciate her is the struggling to survive even she lives in troubled family,” said Sok Heng, added that sometime she has a bad temper whenever she was annoyed by her family. “Anyway, the team group never maintained with her because they understood about her situation and behavior,” he said.

“Not everybody can become a circus artist because this profession required student to be patient, good physical, strong commitment, and talent” said Khoun Det, the first teacher was the director of the school, assisted by several teacher from all over the world and who still volunteer in PPS today.

He observed that many young girls came to study in PPS, and later give it up because they could not stand as circus takes many years after giving back benefit so they left to find other jobs. As Pin Phunum spent more than 8 years in learning circus skill and it also required student love and intent to do it.

“I feel pity to her as at first her family didn’t allow her to study in PPS because waste times without get any money”, Khoun Det said.

Phunam’s family thought study circus can affect her health and no pregnancy as using much energy and big movement. For instance, jump from high place, walk on the tie, and body stretching.

A strong and tall man, 36, Khoun Det said it true that circus is very dangerous. Especially, when the student careless or technical problems. Sometime it caused them die, disable, twist but it rarely happens because they always well-prepared.

A friendly girl, Pin Phunam argued that “No doctor said girls studying circus don’t have a child, I don’t believe at all because I saw one woman near my house her job is an acrobat, now she has 4 children already”.

“I really proud myself to become a circus girl in Cambodia and an artist in PPS”, she said circus allowed for her to open minds in different approaches. The school is the place where she benefits from decent environment and blossom through physical activity to develop her artist skill, away from mundane and secure environment of the street. 

With fresh smile, she said she gets many benefit from this job. Recently, she is pursuing bachelor degree in English literature, at the University of Management and Economy in Battambang province. She also takes English part-time class at Pannasastra University in the evening.

Almost every month she earns more than 100 USA if there are six or seven performances. She is very satisfied with that because she doesn’t take any money from her mother.

Ty Sovannary, an audience used to see Phunam’s performance in Bangkok, Thailand, said that he really love the show was about “A girl survival from Khmer Rouge”. It was very creative and fantastic if compare to other kind of arts.

The actress also catches his attention, he said Phunam did a great and wonderful job as she has good talent that other girls could not do. The circus performance is the art that small amount of Cambodian people did not know about that and not see the value of that.

Pin Phunam said, PPS tried to aware the public by creating a story meaning and a line story that is the basic of the circus. For example, besides a story “A girl survival from Khmer Rouge”, “Putho!” it kind of youth love story to show about the variety of human life. “Bong Touch Bong Thom” educated to young person to avoid themselves fall into dark society as gangsters.

For one story she said can perform only three years and then must to change it out as depend on the contract. The story must be up date all the time and create something new that attract the audience interest.

Chakkrid Chansang, the Advocacy Coordinator for Regional Cross-Border Program of Save the Children UK in Thailand said, PPS is artist partnership with Save the Children aim to engaging artist to play role as the advocator for children’s right issue.

The circus is more effective because PPS integrate theater into difference form of circus that make the show more attractive when story was told through acrobatic, juggling and other form of circus. It is one part to make her emerged in showing accountability for the community.

He adding that, aside from the artistic factor what makes her difference from other artist is her role as the artist advocates which is difficult to find in other young artist. When you hear her speech what she talks is very powerful message. She is very sincere when she told her story the message is strong and still have sense of young people. 

To make her strong enough for today, he thinks she is the example of someone who never give up her discipline when she practice circus, she never give up with any obstacle of her life which we saw from her life story in the show.

Her coach Khoun Det said, next year Phunam and her friends will go to Germany and England in each country three months for study more, change experience with other artists outside country and take some time for performance to the public.

With a strong commitment Pin Phunam said “Although I am busy with my career as acrobat girl, I never forget my study at all”, adding that she wants to be an art diplomat in the future.

Article by: Lay Rattana

Lay Rattana is a year 4 student in Media Management atLay Rattana Department of Media and Communication (DMC) of Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP). Lay Rattana has put herself in volunteering in various organizations since she was in primary school. Currently, she is also working as a radio host for the British Broadcasting Corpation (BBC) based in Cambodia.