Shadow Puppeteer Races to Preserve Legacy

Chean Sophan teaches his student on how to make leather puppets. Photo: Thorng Broney

SIEM REAP – As a fourth-generation puppeteer, Chean Sophan is determined to safeguard the national heritage art and the legacy of his family.

Based in Siem Reap, the Grandfather Ty Chean's Sbek Thom troupe, named after Sophan’s grandfather, has been in operation since 2000 headed by Chean Sophan.

Sophan, now over 40, saw his grandfather teach students this ancient art while he was deeply involved. Puppeteering has been the work of his family since the age of his great-grandfather.

Sophan is the only grandchild who safeguards this heritage. The troupe offers services such as teaching this art to students, making performances for tourists and producing puppets.

Culturally significant, some Khmer shadow theatre can only be performed during specific ceremonies during the year.

Puppets are made from leather and are held in front of a warm light to project their shadow and movement on to a screen. The making of puppets is also tedious, requiring patience, precise technique and resources.

Although a Khmer shadow theatre called Sbek Thom is inscribed in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, only a limited number of Khmer people understand and enjoy the theatre’s value.

Unlike foreigners, Sophan said Khmer people would often leave after a few moments when they could not understand the story. To counteract this, before the show, the head of the troupe tells audiences about the value of the heritage and parts of the story.

Sophan wants new blood in his family to keep the legacy alive but there is no certainty. Sophan’s children have steered away from walking in their father’s footsteps.

Not many performances are requested and not many puppets are bought. The condition was worsened during COVID-19.

Puppet stores are still a common site in Siem Reap. Prices depend on size and style. Before entering the Bakong temple, about 20 kilometres from Siem Reap city, visitors can visit a puppet-making workshop run by a shop director, Nhek Sereyrathna, who has helped less privileged local children to learn this traditional skill. More information about him below.

Written in Khmer for ThmeyThmey News, the article was translated by Ky Chamna for Cambodianess News.

Read more: The Art of Leather Carving -- a Cambodian Tradition that Nhek Sereyrathna​ Maintains and Teaches

Watch more: The Art of Leather Carving--a Cambodian Tradition that Nhek Sereyrathna Maintains and Teaches

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