Near a flower shop in Central Market, a white-haired man with a beautiful smile is sitting alone at a little table, looking satisfied while writing a greeting card for a bouquet of flowers.
His name is Keo Sann, a veteran artist with a career spanning 70 years.
“Every day I write greetings for flower bouquets for $1.21. Some days people come to use the service, some days not,” however, he said with a laugh, “if we earn a lot, we eat soup. If we earn less we eat old rice, no need to worry about anything because life is just that,” said the 85-year-old.
Sann uses the little desk on the sidewalk as his office, to continue his work as an artist that he has been passionate about since his teenage years.
“I am always at Central Market from 7am to around 6pm waiting for customers, to write greetings for flowers. But the majority of my customers come only on the weekends,” Sann said.
However, the veteran artist not only has a skill for writing greetings cards. Sann was actually a well-known artist who specialised in painting for movies and cinemas since before the Khmer Rouge Regime.
Cambodia before the regime was known as a glorious time for cinema. Many Cambodians were believed to enjoy watching both local and foreign films at that time. In these times there was a lot of support for performing artists, as well as painters and artists who worked for the film industry.
“In the old days, I would have a queue of people wanting me to paint the banner for their upcoming film. I rarely even had time for lunch back then because so many film crews were waiting for their turn. Most of the time I was treated to lunch or a coffee, as a way of convincing me to paint for them,” Sann recalled.
Sann radiates with happiness when he speaks about the times before the war. He says he became an artist at the age of 15 by learning from others, as he did not attend proper school. Despite being young, his work was recognised by many cinema owners in Kampot province, his hometown, which presented him with many job opportunities.
What set him apart from others in the field was the skill and agility of his work.
“In the past [before the Khmer Rouge], there was no shortage of artists. Many of them who had graduated from school were looking for work, but the reason I was successful is that I draw fast. I could finish a piece in 3 hours, compared to the other artists who would spend at least two days finishing a job,” he said.
Sann explains that artists at that time needed sample images from the film to paint from, which would take up to two days to print as the technology was not like it is today. However, Sann had a special talent. All he would need to do is watch the film and then he could paint the banner from memory.
Due to the genocidal regime, Sann and other artists had to give up their jobs. The film industry and other sectors in Cambodia were back to square one. Sann fled to Vietnam for a while before returning home to continue his career in the 1980s.
“In 1982, when I returned to Cambodia, I moved to Phnom Penh and continued to work as a cinema artist. But things were not like before the war,” he said.
His career came to an end in 2005 as the majority of banners were printed using machines, and traditional cinemas began to close being replaced by modern cinemas.
“Since 2005, no one has hired me to paint a banner, because they can use a printer, which is cheap, fast, and beautiful,” he said.
This technological advancement made the veteran artist’s beloved work obsolete. However, Sann has continued with his artistic career, and enjoys whatever work he can get.
“Even though I am sad that I can no longer paint film banners, we can not change what has already happened. This is the evolution of society in action, and we must recognise it,” Sann said.
His current job is not too strenuous for an older artist like himself. Sann is in good health, but his job is not so lucrative that he can fully support himself in his old age.
He still welcomes the opportunity to paint logos or cafes. The veteran artist said he will continue to work as a painter until he is tired of the work.
Even though many years have passed, Sann still fondly remembers the work he did before the Khmer Rouge destroyed Cambodia, and it has become a great story to tell future generations as a life lesson.