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Islander Identity and Cultural Landscape: Connections between Koh Trong and The People Living There

Updated: Dec 27, 2020


IS THERE SUCH A THING AS ISLANDER IDENTITY?


Located within Kratie Province, 3.1 km away from the mainland, lies a 6km wide island named “Koh Trong”. Despite its proximity to the mainland and being part of Kratie Province, the majority of its residents express themselves as Neak Koh rather than Neak Kratie, which translates as “Islander” and “Kratie resident” in Khmer respectively. “Islander identity” is a social construction and manifestation, where positive emotions create their localised ‘sense of place’[1]. This is shaped by the “islanders” way of life and their attachment to the island. The emphasis of the environment in culture can be broadly defined as the inclusion of a person’s “affective ties” with the environment[2]. Hence, Topophilia, which implies the strong link between a person and the environment[3] can be used to understand the connections between Koh Trong’s cultural landscape and islander identity.


A family portrait of 4 generations with paternal ancestry migration from mainland, Cambodia, to Koh Trong Island. Most women in this household are migrants from mainland, yet they also identify themselves the same way as the islanders, “Neak Koh”.


WHAT SHAPES THE KOH TRONG'S ISLANDER IDENTITY?

Our interviews and close contact with our homestay hosts led us to notice 2 ways in which the Neak Koh differs from the Neak Kratie which are their speech patterns and emotional connection to the island.

In Khmer, ‘5’ is known as ‘Pram’, but we found through casual interviews that the Neak Koh pronounce it as ‘Paam’ instead. The development of unique speech patterns has parallels with linguistic regionalism[4] and the way the Neak Koh pronounces ‘5’ may be the beginnings of linguistic regionalism. Linguistic regionalism can be understood as a form of place-making and identity as it further separates the Neak Koh from Neak Kratie by creating geographical and linguistic boundaries between them.


The host of eco-tourism homestay 2 has cultivated a garden outside her home. Herbs, pomelos and several types of vegetables are grown in her garden. From our homestay, we learnt that new pomelo trees are often cultivated using grafting which provides the trees with a better chance for survival than traditional methods.


Although pomelos are not native to Koh Trong, the Neak Koh take great pride in their farming practices and the quality of the pomelos they grow. Interviews with farmers also highlighted how farming brings them happiness and satisfaction. This shows a multidimensional linkage that encapsulates their social landscape and connection to Koh Trong. From here, we observed how Koh Trong’s physical landscape and relationship with the Neak Koh’s everyday life has led to the creation of a sense of place. The pomelo itself is an icon which shows the connection between the Neak Koh’s social identity and the natural landscape.


The Neak Koh’s practice of generational farming has also resulted in their strong familial and affective ties with many of them stating their unwillingness to leave behind close family members and their way of life.

PHYSICAL MOBILITY OF 'ISLANDER RETURNEE': CONNECTION OR DISCONNECTION TO THEIR 'ISLANDER IDENTITY'

“I do not believe in spirit but I do not know why my appetite is always better here in Koh Trong than in Kratie even if it is the same type of food. So I come home to Koh Trong from work in Kratie everyday” - Ton Kun, a Koh Trong islander working in mainland Kratie who identifies as “Neak Koh”

“I am a city dweller. I only go back to Koh Trong during festive season to visit my family and to pray”. - Kunthea, a Koh Trong island marriage migrant, currently living and working in Phnom Penh and identifies as a “city dweller”.

During our stay, we noted that it was common for adults of working age to leave their family and find work in the mainland or even for marriage. Both Toh Kun and Kunthea works in the mainland but how frequent they return to the island shapes their attachment to the island. Constant connection to the island can foster interaction between human-place and human-human interactions which is critical in the formation of place attachment and connectedness to their islander identity[1]. On the flipside, however, those who leave Koh Trong for long periods were observed to have a disconnection with the island such as the case of Kunthea. New sense of place can be developed elsewhere through their long term residency, new experiences and interaction with the new environment. This is apparent among Koh Trong’s migrants and immigrants which demonstrates their identity as a fluid social construct.



Prayer ceremonies at a Pagoda at Koh Trong is common during festive seasons such as Pchum Ben known as the Ancestors Day and Khmer’s New Year


Regardless of their attachment to Koh Trong, islander returnees demonstrate their affective ties to the island by their presence during festive seasons for prayers, blessings and reunion at Koh Trong. This shows how the Koh Trong’s sacred landscape is created through localised practices and common spiritual beliefs. The spatial temporal localities may then shape the connection between returnees and Koh Trung.


Graves at risk of being submerged in flooded water. Some graves are reportedly already submerged in water.


Graveyards function as communicative symbolic practices that construct and expresses both individual and collective cultural identities[5] by serving as a physical reminder of ancestral roots and identity. However, the future of Koh Trong’s deathscape is often contested by climatic uncertainties which challenges the islander’s social customs to protect the ancestral burial grounds.


SPATIAL JUSTICE ON KOH TRONG ISLAND: THE SIDELINE MINORITY

“I also want to go live on the island … if we have money we can buy land on the island, if we don’t have money, we can’t go anywhere”
- Nguyen Bao, a fisherman from the Vietnamese Floating Community living along the fringes of Koh Trong Island.

Vietnamese Floating Houses tied down to land on Koh Trong Island. The floating community is tucked away in a hidden, forested and inaccessible corner of Koh Trong Island.


Throughout our stay on Koh Trong island, the presence of the Vietnamese floating community was prominent in the narratives of the Khmer islanders of Koh Trong; there was a clear acknowledgment that the Vietnamese community was part of Koh Trong. However, not once did we physically see a member of the Vietnamese community in the populated areas of Koh Trong. It was only after trekking through difficult terrain to get to the isolated ends of Koh Trong, when we met a member of the community, Nguyen Bao, resting along the banks of the island. Further down from him were the floating houses belonging to the community, tied down to the land.


Our casual conversation with him revealed key problems of spatial justice that exists on the island. At its simplest, spatial justice would allow for a fair and equal geographical distribution of resources, access and services[6]. However, Nguyen Bao revealed to us his perspective of being distanced from Koh Trong, in particular, from the community of islanders living there. He claimed that his people were not welcomed on the island, are constantly chased off the island by the Khmer, and even being spit upon occasionally. If his words hold true, this is a clear demonstration of the violation of the basic human right of access to the island.


Dana, a Khmer child living on Koh Trong, showing a map she drew of Koh Trong Island. The map drawn includes the location of the Vietnamese Floating Community, among other geographical features and infrastructures on the island.


Surprisingly, Nguyen Bao’s narrative holds stark contrast to the narratives of the Khmer islanders. When we asked Khmer islanders about their knowledge of the Vietnamese community, most would claim to have not interacted with the Vietnamese, while some would tell of positive interactions in the past. Regardless, it is clear that the Khmer islanders know of the Vietnamese community’s existence, although there are very limited interactions between the two communities despite their proximity. In fact, the person that brought us to where the Vietnamese community lived was Dana, a Khmer child from our homestay who could even accurately map out the location of the Vietnamese floating houses. Despite this, Dana claims she never interacted with any of the Vietnamese.


Through Bun Ban, the community chief of Koh Trong Eco-tourism, we found out that the legal status of the Vietnamese community was highly ambiguous. The people in the community did not have legal documents stating their citizenry to Vietnam, nor did they have Cambodian residency status. The Vietnamese community is also not included in planning decisions concerning Koh Trong’s eco-tourism activities. This raises yet another problem: a violation of their rights to participation; of their right to the city[7].


CONCLUSION

Throughout our stay on Koh Trong, we saw how much the people of Koh Trong loved their island. The concepts of linguistic regionalism, the islanders’ way of living, and the cultural and sacred landscape of the island helped explain the strong ties and identity that the islanders have with the island. While problems of social injustice and social exclusion also seems to be present on the island, especially affecting the Vietnamese community, it is evident that even the people of that community has strong ties with the island, which also shapes part of their identity. The people on Koh Trong are truly Neak Koh, and it is not difficult to see why.

 

REFERENCES

  1. Hashemnezhad, H., Heidari, A.A. and Mohammad Hoseini, P. (2013) Sense of place and place attachment, International Journal of Architecture and Urban Development, 3, 1, 5-12

  2. Beery, T., Jönsson, K., Elmberg, J. (2015). From Environmental Connectedness to Sustainable Futures: Topophilia and Human Affiliation with Nature, Sustainability, 7, 7, 8837-8854

  3. Tuan, Y. (1977). Space and place: the perspective of experience, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.

  4. Lindholdt, P. (1999). Writing From a Sense of Place, The Journal of Environmental Education, 30, 4, 4-10

  5. Reimers, E., (1999). Death and identity: Graves and funerals as cultural communication, Mortality, 4, 2, 147-166

  6. Soja, E. W. (2010) Seeking Spatial Justice, Minnesota, University of Minnesota Press

  7. Harvey, D. (2003). The right to the city, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 27, 4, 939-941