Rejected US Cambodian brings hip hop home

13th October 2009, Comments 0 comments

The dancer, 11-year-old Soeurn Nhanh, says he had a hopeless existence as a shoeshine boy until he discovered Cambodia's first and only breakdancing and hip hop school.

Phnom Penh -- A slim boy with curly hair spins on his head to hip hop music at a house down a crowded and dusty road in the Cambodian capital.

The dancer, 11-year-old Soeurn Nhanh, says he had a hopeless existence as a shoeshine boy until he discovered Cambodia's first and only breakdancing and hip hop school.

"When I grow up, I want to be a breakdancing teacher and earn money to support myself and my family," he says, grinning.

Established a few years ago by a former US gang member deported after being convicted of armed robbery, the Tiny Toones centre also teaches disc jockey skills and rapping to nearly 400 children.

Besides helping bring hip hop culture to Cambodia, Tiny Toones and its founder Tuy Sobil, better known as Kay Kay, have won accolades for helping drug addicts and poor street kids transform their lives.

"Our [centre] doesn’t judge where the kids come from. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the rich, poor, or orphans, sex workers or drug kids...we just make everybody equal here," Kay Kay says.

"I’m happy to tell them that one day they will get better," he adds.

The centre now also teaches English, Khmer and computers. Kay Kay, 32, brings lessons from his own life to the job.

He is one of some 200 Cambodians ejected from the United States over the past several years under a law which deports felons who do not have American citizenship.

Kay Kay had never been back to Cambodia, which he left as a baby when his family emigrated to the US.

His parents neglected to complete US citizenship documents when they arrived in California and after being jailed for armed robbery at 18 he was deported, leaving his family and young son behind.

"For Kay Kay, deportation is a very sensitive thing to talk about," says Ho Lisa, Tiny Toones’ administration director.

When he arrived in Cambodia, Kay Kay seemed to leave his old life far behind, working as a counsellor for drug addicts. But in almost every way, Kay Kay is American.

He named his centre "Tiny Toones" for the classic US children's cartoon programmes, and although his students mimic his baggy trousers and colourful over-sized t-shirts, he still draws attention around Phnom Penh.

"With tied-up long hair and a heavily-tattooed body, I get a bad impression from people. I might look like I’m very violent but I’m not," Kay Kay says.

Many Cambodians fear or find it hard to accept deportees like Kay Kay, who were initially expected to bring a crime wave with them to the country.

"Depending on their jobs, some of them (deportees) still face stigma," says Ong Klung, head of the Returnee Integration Support Program. "Some find it hard to function."

Taing Phoeuk, director of Korsang, an HIV education organisation which is staffed by many deportees, says the vast majority are not involved in any criminal behaviour.

"Many work in non-governmental organisations, companies or have gone to live with their families throughout Cambodia. But a few others are still abusing drugs," says Taing Phoeuk, a deportee himself.

For his part, Kay Kay says his students inspire him to live well, although there is also irony in the attention he has had from founding Tiny Toones.

When he gave a performance at a Clinton Global Initiative meeting in Hong Kong last year, Kay Kay danced in front of former US president Bill Clinton -- the man who passed the law which banished him.

He also could not accompany his students as they went on a performance tour of the US early this year.

Kay Kay says he is slowly being accepted into Cambodian society now and hopes he will be completely welcome someday.

As he and his fellow deportees integrate in the country, they have helped entrench hip hop culture in Cambodia. Videos, advertisements and club performances are now taking on an increasingly American urban style.

Saray Sarom, 23, a former street kid who now teaches breakdancing at Tiny Toones, believes it can further help the impoverished country.

"It has completely changed my perspective about life," he says. "I feel hopeful when I see that I can teach other disadvantaged kids something valuable and see that they progress like me."


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