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: It’s been five years on September 20 since Hy Chanthavouth first stepped foot on Canadian soil, and he still thinks it’s too cold here.
But a bit of shivering didn’t scare the Cambodian tenor away, and he is happy to be celebrating the milestone in Kimberley with his former homestay parents, Brenda Tofczak and Ken Rintoul.
Chanthavouth is visiting Kimberley this week from Victoria before resuming his music studies at Camosun College at the end of the week. In his downtime he works at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.
The community may remember him – and his incredible voice – from years of fundraising he did on behalf of the Cambodian Support Group, run locally by Arne Sahlen. The 26-year-old fondly remembers doing a number of charity performances in Kimberley.
During his stay in Kimberley, Chanthavouth said he had “a lot of plans” to fit into his vacation before returning to the Victoria Conservatory of Music, where he is working towards his music diploma.
Chanthavouth’s journey to Canada began after a chance encounter with Arne back in 2001. Arne was in Cambodia with the Cambodian Support Group as Chanthavouth entered music school in the country. The two met, and the rest is history.
“I started to know Arne more and more through the work he was doing,” Chanthavouth said.
Chanthavouth also became interested in the Kimberley-based group, but he had his sights set elsewhere, specifically Japan. After knowing Arne for three years, his plans started to shift as he heard all about the northern country more than 11,000 kilometres away.
“I didn’t even know where Canada was back then,” he said.
That quickly changed as Arne educated the musical prodigy about Canada, and specifically its musical culture.
“He said that Canada has very good opera programs,” Chanthavouth said. “He thought that I would fit in very well in a small town rather than a big city.”
In 2006, Chanthavouth began to learn English, and his interest in heading to Canada for his continued education grew. In January 2007, Chanthavouth earned his ticket: a scholarship to get his education in Canada.
But the very next day, as Cambodia celebrated its national independence day, Chanthavouth was seriously injured in an accident.
“No one expected me to survive,” he said.
Arne was contacted by a police officer in Cambodia who said Chanthavouth might not survive, but the tenor had other plans. He rehabilitated quickly and committed to leaving his country for Canada. On September 20, 2007, Chanthavouth arrived in Vancouver.
There he discovered everything was different: the environment, the people, roads and buildings – even the bathrooms. Arne picked him up at the airport and the pair headed for Victoria to visit Arne’s mother in a seniors’ home. Chanthavouth remembers that being his first ever performance in Canada, albeit an impromptu one, but a concert he enjoyed very much despite being ill from travelling.
From Victoria, Chanthavouth ended up in Kimberley and was immediately struck by the slow pace and friendly strangers in his new home.
He also quickly realized he had some adjustments to do. In his hometown of Phnom Penh, it is a constant 35 degrees all year round, except in the summer when it can get even warmer.
Through Brenda and Ken, Chanthavouth learned about Kimberley. The pair helped him learn English while replicating traditional Cambodian dishes so he didn’t miss home too much. He spent half a year with them before moving on, and spent some time living in Cranbrook.
Chanthavouth attended Selkirk Secondary School during his years in Kimberley, even though he was 21 and had graduated in Cambodia. He followed up high school in his home country with a five-year music program, but said he enjoyed the time at Selkirk learning to speak English and making new friends.
“I got accepted by singing my way,” he said.
Outside of classes, Chanthavouth was always busy. He worked with the Cambodia Support Group fundraising and said the concerts he participated in on the charity’s behalf were some of his favourite memories in Kimberley. The charity supports the reconstruction of Cambodia and helps immigrants adapt to life in Canada. Chanthavouth said he loves the idea of helping out his country.
With Arne, Chanthavouth returned to Cambodia in 2009 to perform with a group of choirs. He also got the chance to meet the King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihamoni.
As for Arne: “I respect and love him like my real dad,” Chanthavouth said, adding that his own father passed away in 2000.
Chanthavouth said music is part of his life and the way he shares his story. Being a Cambodian, he said he enjoys educating people about his country beyond the infamous Killing Fields that his parents lived through. While the country is poor, Chanthavouth said the people have never lost hope.
The country’s history is unique and extremely interesting, and that is what Chanthavouth wants people to know. He hopes more will look to Cambodia, nestled between Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, as a great tourism destination with landmarks like Angkor Wat.
His goal is to go back to Cambodia after graduation to continue with music, promoting his country and teaching English.
“I want to share the pride with Cambodia and bring the Cambodian flag onto the international stage,” he said. “We are no longer in war.”