In memory of Mister Heng of Phnom Penh

In the preparation of this blog and writing for my all the dumb things series, I’ve been going through all my old negatives. Sometimes this is a painful process, not because it’s tedious (which it is) but because of all the memories that come flooding back. Particularly when I look at my Cambodian shots. I lived in Cambodia from 1st of September 1974 to 18th February 1975. In the almost six months that I lived in Phnom Penh I developed a friendship with an ethnic Chinese man named Mister Heng.

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I met Mr. Heng through his son (who I had also befriended) who worked as a driver at the Australian consulate. I had started learning Cantonese from Mr. Heng and over time he became somewhat of a mentor to me. I was this totally naïve, awkward, loud, and ignorant teenager from Australia and he was a very cultured and urbane father figure in the Confucianist sense. Why do I mention Confucianism in regard to Mr Heng? Because he embodied (to my mind at least) all the great aspects of that philosophy, in that he was humane, benevolent, erudite and he knew that he had a duty to uplift his juniors. Mr Heng was a true gentleman who always acted in a compassionate way. He was never quick to judgement or anger and he often reigned in my outbursts by delivering a succinct Chinese maxim.

I remember once complaining to Mr. Heng that a calligrapher, engraver was charging what I though was too much as the engraving was going to cost more than the item to be engraved. Mr Heng just said to me “what is worth more; the canvas or the painting on the canvas?”

I’m sure that if Mr. Heng had been alive hundreds of years ago in China he would’ve been a Mandarin. He was always so calmly sagacious. So as I look at his picture and think about what a decent man Mr. Heng had been to me, I can’t help but be saddened by what I imagine became of him and his family after the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh on the 17th of April 1975.

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