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Salazar, Alexxandra Ellissia Anne (2023) Reimagining Culture and Tradition Through Cambodian Shadow Puppets: Imaginaries and Narratives of Value in an Era of Restoration. PhD thesis. SOAS University of London. DOI:

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This dissertation explores issues of heritage, tradition, and identity on a transnational scale, through ethnographic research among multiple generations of Cambodians andCambodian Americans who strive to restore Cambodian shadow puppetry, in the context of widespread narratives of historical rupture and cultural loss. Over the past five decades, since the Khmer Rouge period, numerous cultural restoration projects have arisen. These are invariably accompanied by debates over what constitutes “traditional” cultural practices. Community stakeholders adopt diverse stances on how to maintain traditional arts, with some arguing for the strict preservation of what is locally perceived to be “traditional” and others advocating for creativity and innovation, infusing “traditional” elements with other alternative theatrical and artistic techniques. This dissertation examines how these debates take shape and are negotiated, with particular attention to the meaning-making effects of a dominant narrative and personal stories that give value to the puppets. Drawing on fieldwork among shadow puppet troupes, puppet makers, tourists, souvenir sellers, and leaders in a diasporic traditional arts organization, I argue that community debates over tradition are shaped in part by imaginaries that encapsulate Cambodia and Cambodian cultural identity, which are co-produced, maintained, and challenged in interactions with community members and outsiders, particularly audiences and tourists. Through analysis of multiple contexts in which different people engage with the shadow puppets—performances, rehearsals, workshops, festivals, souvenir markets—this dissertation considers questions about who claims the right to define what heritage and tradition entail, how to handle the maintenance and restoration of art forms over time, and how imaginaries of people and places are created, circulated, upheld, negotiated, and contested. Ultimately, the shadow puppets embody and reflect multiple ways of imagining Cambodia and Cambodians, the past and present, and people’s relationship to them, providing a lens for understanding ideas about historical rupture/continuity, tradition, identity, and beyond.

Item Type: Theses (PhD)
SOAS Departments & Centres: SOAS Research Theses
Supervisors Name: Naomi Leite
DOI (Digital Object Identifier):
Date Deposited: 30 May 2023 15:25

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