The joys and sorrows of a life of laughs
September 20, 2007, 9:47 am
Filed under: Film and Entertainment

The joys and sorrows of a life of laughs

‘Lotto’ is an expert at making Cambodians chuckle but – like most of his fans – his smile has been cracked by a life which has seen as much suffering as success. Moeun Chhean Nariddh talks to one of Cambodia’s few surviving veteran comedians.

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                            Lotto stood in front of his wooden house near Phnom Penh                             before he died a few years later (Photo by Moeun Chhean Nariddh)

“Bread, bread,” shouts Lotto as he walks down a Phnom Penh street with a big sack of loaves, looking for hungry customers.

A well-dressed man beckons him from a beautiful villa, and Lotto bounds up his door, confident of making a sale. He’s wrong. The man tricks him out of a bread stick and chases him off his property.

“You took my bread and didn’t pay me – you, the rich!” exclaims an angry Lotto as he leaves. Not looking where he’s going, he trips over a shrub and falls down onto a fence. Pulling himself to his feet, he staggers off, with a faint, drawn-out cry of “bread, bread” coming from his lips.

It’s classic slapstick from one of Cambodia’s best known comedians. Aged 70, less than four feet tall, with long straggly locks falling from behind his bald forehead, and his trademark Charlie Chaplin moustache glued to his upper lip, “Lotto” is a Cambodian comic institution.

One of the few comedians whose career has spanned more than half a century and who survived the Pol Pot years, Lotto is a veteran in a sadly-declining business. He reckons he has made nearly 100 films – including “Darling, Wait Till I Turn Bachelor”, which features the bread scene – but few people are making movies, comedy or otherwise, these days.

He keeps his hand in with occasional television appearances, and his movies are rerun on television, but there is little work to be found today for this joker. “I only perform during Khmer festivals now,” he says.

Lotto, born as Suon Bou but also known as Neay Khley (the short man), has seen the heights of glory and the depths of gloom in his long life: from a beggar child to a promising clown and Royally-recognized comedian.

Born in Kandal Stung district of Kandal province, Lotto had a condition which stunted his growth. His parents died just as he reached school age, and he went to live with a step-mother who treated him with a less than motherly manner.

Lotto remembers his step-mother sending him to collect weeds in the lake to fed the pigs, and fetch water from the river, always ready with a harsh word if he did anything wrong.

“Once, when I broke a pot, she hung the pieces of it around my neck and told me to walk around the village like that,” he recalls with a look of sadness.

A neighbor took pity on Lotto and “kidnapped” him to take him to live with his half-brother, a policeman in Kampong Speu. There, Lotto’s dream of going to school came true. But, before long, tragedy struck: his brother died, and Lotto had no money to feed himself or pay for his school lessons.

He became a vagabond. Pleading with a bus driver for a ride to Phnom Penh, he lived on the streets, begging for a living. “I slept in front of people’s houses and picked up thrown-away food on the street to eat,” he says of his saddest time as a teenager.

However, this nightmare did not last long. One day in 1945, while he was scouting around a theater, he was invited to join a comedy group as a clown.

He jumped at the chance, and worked hard, watching and imitating the other comedians – or just being their servant. “They told me to massage them and to get water for them to wash their face,” says Lotto of the actors and actresses who dubbed him “Neay Khley”.

Lotto reckons it took him 10 years to learn the comedy trade, till he was comfortable with any type of performance. “I knew how to fight, I knew how to beat a drum,” he says proudly, chopping his hands through the air. “I acted twelve months a year, almost every day.”

Neay Khley’s fame reached the highest level – the King invited him to the Royal palace, to sit a “test” of his comedy skills. Lotto remembers performing before the King and his courtiers, doing a series of skits.

In one, Neay Khley approached a chair marked “No-one can sit here but the owner”. Uttering “I’m such a mighty man, why don’t they let me sit there?”, he leaped on the chair, which collapsed. The chair was coated with wet, white paste, which he proceeded to smear over himself while trying to remove it from his trousers.

In another skit, Neay Khley and another comedian pretended to sit and fish from two boats. Their lines became snagged and a fish ate both their hooks; angry, the two men jumped into the water and began filling their boats up with stones to throw at each other. Soon, the boats sank. The skit had a political message: that using violence to solve problems only hurts both sides.

The King, impressed, declared that Neay Khley was a great comedian. Deciding that he needed a new stage name, the King renamed Neay Khley “Lotto” – the name of a game which, it seemed, the King thought suited the little joker.

At the age of 25, Lotto married Noeun, an actress who specialized in Yike – a kind of Khmer theatrical show. They had 13 children, and lived happily for many years.

That happiness was shattered in 1975 with the rise to power of the Pol Pot regime. Many film stars, comedians and singers were killed by the Khmer Rouge, and Lotto was chosen for the same fate.

He remembers being taken, along with his wife, an eight-year-old daughter and one-month-old son, to Phnom Chorchork (Wolf Mountain) in Kandal, for execution. They were saved by a stroke of luck – the militiaman assigned to kill them took pity on them, and let them run away.

“If you come back, you will die and I will die too,” the militiaman told him. So the comedian, his wife, daughter and son – two other children died under the KR regime – headed for the jungles around Wolf Mountain. There they lived for more than a year, eating whatever they could.

Lotto describes their life as unbearable. His wife, despondent, tried to hang herself several times. He became skinny and sick. “I was so weak that the wind would blow me over,” he recalls.

Unable to endure the hunger any more, one day he risked his life by crawling out of the woods to look for food. He saw a villager who was coming to wash a cooking pot in the rice paddy.

It was a woman he knew – “Both of us cried when we met each other,” he recalls. The woman gave him the slops of porridge remaining in the pot. She continued to help him for months; she asked him to cut a bamboo stick and hang it in a bush, and she would fill it up with rice porridge each day. Every night, Lotto would venture out of the forest to pick up the food and take it to his family.

One day, Lotto says, he heard gunfire and saw people running everywhere, and was told that Phnom Penh was liberated. He brought his wife and children back to the village, and found that it was true – the Vietnamese had invaded, and the Pol Pot regime collapsed. “I felt that I was born again,” says Lotto.

Within a year, Lotto began trying to find some of his old co-performers. He formed a troupe which traveled the country performing Leak Thinvong Pream Kesar, one of the most popular plays from Khmer folklore. The sad but funny drama attracted hundreds of weeping and laughing spectators who had been denied such entertainment for three years, eight months and twenty days under Pol Pot’s rule.

Lotto says people paid for tickets with rice because riels were not yet in circulation. He remembers coming back home with sacks of rice.

The renewed popularity of the veteran comic went beyond the local audience’s eyes. In the mid-1980s, a Czechoslovakian film-maker invited him to act in a movie, “The Nine Level-Hell”, and asked him to think of any possible jokes for the film about life under the Khmer Rouge.

He thought about it for a while, and came up with two. One scene showed a Khmer Rouge cook putting a ladleful of porridge into his bowl, but scooping half of it back. In the other skit, he shared a single pair of trousers with another short man, to show the shortage of clothes during the regime.

Ultimately, however, Lotto says the film director decided to cut out the jokes -they were “too funny” for the sad story, he says.

A few years later, his wife, Noeun, fell seriously ill.

Feeling desperate for Noeun, Lotto says he decided to marry another wife named Bunna in the hope that she would help look after Noeun and the children. With careful medical treatment, Noeun recovered and the three are still together, with his two wives “like sisters”, he says.

He spent nine months touring the US last year, performing for overseas Khmers across the country and earned enough to build two houses, one for each of his wives. But with his children and 32 grandchildren to help look after as well, he says his money has long since run out.

“My houses look like I am rich, but I am not,” he says. “It’s like having a body with no intestines.”

When King Sihanouk returned to Cambodia in 1992, Lotto was invited for a second visit to the palace. “The King was nostalgic and embraced me and the Queen said she was surprised that I was still alive,” he recalls. “We watched one of my old movies – when I was very young and had hair.”

Today, his sizable brood ekes out a living collecting recyclable items when he can’t pick up performance work. He says that, on balance, he is pleased with the cards life has dealt him. “All over Cambodia people recognize me and are friendly,” he says. “I am happy with that.”

Many of his peers have long since died and, with his high blood pressure and stomach pains, he doesn’t think he will be able to stay on the stage for more than five more years.

“Now, I am not strong,” he laments. “When I sing, I feel very tired and shaky. I am too old.”

Despite his breezy self-effacing humor, he says that like many comics he suffers bouts of depression. “Some comedians are unhappy, also me,” he says. “I just make jokes to make a living.”

Phnom Penh Post, Issue 6/22, November 7 – 20, 1997
© Michael Hayes, 2000. All rights revert to authors and artists on publication.
For permission to publish any part of this publication, contact
Michael Hayes, Editor-in-Chief
http://www.PhnomPenhPost.com – Any comments on the website to
Webmaster

 

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