Tag Archives: Australian history

Photographic memory: the tale of Tuol Sleng

While visiting Cambodia a few months ago, I was asked by an interpreter, who usually worked as a tour guide, whether I had gone to Tuol Sleng (also known as S-21), the former Khmer Rouge prison that is now a museum.

I told her I hadn’t – and was then stuck for words. Should I attempt to explain why I had not gone to one of her country’s major tourist sites? I didn’t want to offend her. “I don’t see the point of misery tourism” would have been the briefest, most accurate – and most graceless – response.  Tuol Sleng was a high school before the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia in 1975.  Up to 15,000 Cambodians and some foreigners were taken there and tortured to extract “confessions”, before being killed either at the prison or at the Choeung Ek killing field, 17 kilometres from Phnom Penh. Continue reading


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Tales from the colonies

April Fool’s Day came along this week and the great cosmic joke was that everywhere I went there were references to subjects of previous blog posts.  It was getting so ridiculously postmodern I thought I might be in a film written by Charlie Kaufman. At my local milk bar, a French couple, recently arrived in Australia, inadvertently referenced last week’s post by asking me directions and being so far from where they were meant to be that I took them home to get my car and drove them to their destination.

I went to a comedy show by The Bedroom Philosopher, who, (while dressed as a cat), referenced the post before last by using Chris Isaak’s song ‘Wicked Game’.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that when bush walking, I have a habit of imagining how I’d survive if I didn’t have the food and supplies I’ve brought with me from the city. Well, this week as part of a new course of study, I went on a bush tucker walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens with an Aboriginal guide. Now if I ever get lost in the bush and run out of food, I’ll know exactly how many plants I could eat, while wishing I’d paid more attention on the bush tucker walk to what those plants looked like. I do know that there’s a ‘foam bark tree’ that the local Indigenous people used for fishing. The bark, when mixed with water, forms a sticky film which adheres to the gills of fish. The fish rise to the surface to breathe, at which point you can just collect them. Doesn’t that sound like no-fuss hunting?

There was also the Lamandra plant, described by our guide as ‘the 7-Eleven’. The leaves can be eaten raw and taste like snow peas (according to the guide) and grass (according to a fellow student); the leaves can be used as a bandage and weaved to make baskets. Flour can be made from the plant’s seeds.

I’ve been reading Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’, in which she has used research about her own family to imagine early encounters between Aboriginal people and pardoned English convicts-turned-settlers along the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney. It’s a fascinating and disturbing book.

It also prompts the question of how Australian culture might be different if European settlers had not been so afraid of, and aggressive towards, the Indigenous population. How could Australian culture have been different if Indigenous people had been recognized as the traditional owners of the land from the beginning and treated with respect? How could it have been different if Anglo-Celtic settlers had decided they had much to learn from the Indigenous population? As Melbourne’s boundary expands to accommodate a rapidly growing population, it’s interesting to think about what could have been learned – and still can – about the Indigenous population’s efficient use of the land and its resources.

The Bedroom Philosopher pointed out that saying sorry to Aboriginal people doesn’t really cut it when you’ve decimated the Indigenous population with guns and disease and then taken their children away from them. Afterwards, an American among our group said he noticed an uneasy silence among the audience during this segment of the show. ‘It’s the same with us about slavery and native Americans,’ he said. It was admirable that the Bedroom Philosopher could forego some laughs to say something truthful yet disquieting about his culture, he added.  It’s part of the comedian’s role. I’m sure the late Bill Hicks, a master at combining comedy and social commentary, would agree.

Now here’s something to think about that‘s funny: Australia could easily have been settled by the French. Oui, c’est vrai! Captain Cook beat the French explorer La Perouse to Botany Bay by a whisker in 1788. After hanging around for a couple of months, La Perouse sailed away, planning on returning to France. His ship was wrecked near Vanuatu and he was never seen again. The French did learn something, however, from La Perouse’s exploration and their observance of the British in Australia. They went on to establish a penal colony in New Caledonia and to dispossess the Indigenous Kanak population of their land.

At least the French had the good grace to bring baguettes…and croissants…and the concept of eating pastries with chocolate for breakfast.

PS: If you’re in Melbourne, see ‘Wit-Bix’, The Bedroom Philosopher’s show – it’s a lot of fun…well, apart from you-know. This clip is from his last show, which was all about the people on the 86 tram route. This song’s about the hipsters of Northcote. Yep, that’s where I live. See last post…

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