Towards Empathy: A Conversation with Vichet Chum

Ma used to say because the Khmer Rouge invaded on the new year…we’ve learned to mourn and celebrate in the same breath.

Vichet Chum, Bald Sisters

Thirteen days before the American War in Vietnam (1959–1975) came to a dramatic close with the April 30, 1975 “Fall of Saigon,” the Khmer Rouge (a.k.a. “Red Cambodians”) marched triumphantly into Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh. Dressed in black uniforms, draped in red checkered kramas, and armed with Chinese-issue AK-47s, the Khmer Rouge entered the Southeast Asian municipality atop Soviet army tanks, in battered military jeeps, and on rubber-sandaled foot. The April 17, 1975 arrival of Khmer Rouge troops tactically coincided with the nation’s New Year observances; incontrovertibly, their presence in the Cambodian urban hub signaled profound “in country” political shifts. Initially, the Khmer Rouge appeared to be harbingers of a much-anticipated peace: loudspeakers accompanied soldiers as they made their way through Phnom Penh’s major thoroughfares and marketplaces, blaring promises of armistice, assurances of reconciliation, and vociferous guarantees that US intervention in the region and concomitant civil war had come to an end. Yet, as the hours, days, weeks, and months that followed would appallingly make clear, the Khmer Rouge’s public pledges of peace were catastrophically disingenuous. Consumed with an overwhelming desire to enact a classless, agricultural revolution “by any means necessary,” the Khmer Rouge (a.k.a. Angkar, or “the organization”) systemically emptied Cambodia’s cities (often at gunpoint) and renamed the nation “Democratic Kampuchea.” Key to the regime’s revolutionary mission was forcibly turning the country back to “year zero,” which its leadership (particularly “Brother Number One” Saloth Sar—a.k.a. Pol Pot—and “Brother Number Two,” Nuon Chea, the Khmer Rouge’s chief ideologue) emphatically characterized and absolutely imagined as a time before so-castigated Western influence.

To that end, Angkar abruptly dismantled and violently deconstructed all facets of Cambodian economic, political, social, and cultural life. Formal education was outlawed, Western medicine (namely basic antibiotics such as penicillin) banned, and property ownership forbidden. Currency was eliminated, Theravada Buddhism (the nation’s majority religion) was proscribed; familial names (such as Mak and Pa) were prohibited and classless nomenclature (e.g., “comrade” and “cadre”) privileged; children were separated from parents; husbands and wives were forced to live and work apart. Cambodia’s national bank was destroyed; its state-supported library emptied and converted into a pigsty; Buddhist temples were raided and religious relics shattered; the country’s public history museum was similarly looted and its roof left to rot. Such offensives against Khmer tradition and the previous regime were by no means limited to economic institutions, knowledge repositories, and heritage sites. Rather, the Khmer Rouge also waged fatal assaults against those who embodied the past via profession, education, and affiliation. Lon Nol officials, officers, and soldiers were summarily executed, along with others deemed “enemies of the people,” including civil servants, university students, engineers, doctors, lawyers, monks, and teachers.

As the Khmer Rouge continued its reign of terror, those slated for “smashing” (as per Angkar’s ominous terminology) were expanded to include the Cham (ethnic Cambodian Muslims), Khmer Khrom (ethnic Cambodians living in southern Vietnam), ex-patriots (who were fellow leftists), Khmer court musicians, classically trained royal dancers, and allegedly disloyal Khmer Rouge cadresAs large-scale dam projects faltered and rice crops failed, the nation descended into mass starvation and wide-ranging famine; those incapable of laboring in Cambodia’s rice fields (principally “new people” from the cities, the sick, the very young, and the elderly) were, as the following Khmer Rouge saying makes clear, distressingly disposable: “To keep you is no benefit. To destroy you is no loss.”

Unquestionably, this disregard for human life was not limited to state-authorized dictate; instead, it was apparent immediately after the regime’s deposal. When the Vietnamese ostensibly “liberated” the country on January 7, 1979, an estimated 1.7 million Cambodians (roughly 21–25% of the extant population) had perished due to disease, starvation, forced labor, torture, and execution. For those outside Cambodia, this period is devastatingly known as the “Killing Fields” era; for those in country, it is evocatively referred to as “Pol Pot time.” Notwithstanding the relatively short duration of the regime—three years, eight months, and twenty days—its impacts were unassailably ruinous and long-lasting. Following Democratic Kampuchea’s 1979 dissolution, approximately 65% of the population was female, underscoring the disproportionate number of men killed due to their pre-revolutionary positions as professionals within a traditional gendered labor economy. Three-quarters of Cambodia’s teachers died or fled the country; nine judges remained in country; out of an estimated 550 doctors, only forty-eight survived; 90% of Khmer court musicians and dancers were dead. In the weeks, months, and years following the political end of Democratic Kampuchea and the concomitant ousting of the Khmer Rouge, an estimated 510,000 Cambodians fled to neighboring Thailand; another 100,000 sought asylum in close-by Vietnam. Between 1980 and 1985, almost 150,000 Cambodians came to the United States, facilitated by the congressional passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. To date, more than 287,000 individuals of Khmer descent live in the United States, making it home to the largest population of Cambodians living outside Southeast Asia in the world.

This history of war, genocide, and migration serves as a significant backdrop for Vichet Chum’s Bald Sisters, which premiered in Chicago at the Steppenwolf Theatre in December 2022. Focused on two Cambodian American sisters whose mother—a Khmer Rouge regime survivor—has recently passed away, Bald Sisters (recipient of the 2021 Laurents/Hatcher Award and the 2021 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award) is on the surface an elegiac play catalyzed by domestic loss, preoccupied with familial remembrance, and circumscribed by the overwhelming weight of intergenerational inheritance. These themes, which dominate the work’s dramatic plot, action, and characterization, are most evident in the heated exchanges involving death rites, funerary practices, and posthumous commemoration between Bald Sisters’ two eponymous protagonists: Him (a child during the Khmer Rouge regime who remains haunted by memories of “Pol Pot Time”) and Sophea (the younger sister who was conceived in Cambodia but born in the United States). Described in a Chicago Sun Times review as “a prime exemplar of the American kitchen-sink family drama and a classic-style show,” Bald Sisters takes place over a twenty-four period in “an open living space that feels genuinely inhabited.”1 The play’s strategic deployment of limited time and use of compressed space further highlights an intimacy and solemnity consistent with the loss of a parent and the emotional reckoning that follows. Nevertheless, as the play’s simultaneous engagement with humor (emblematized in the opening epigraph concerning the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia’s new year) makes clear, to emphasize tragedy without acknowledging joyful possibility inaccurately encapsulates the paradoxical dimensions of the Cambodian—and by necessary extension, Cambodian American—experience. In so doing, Bald Sisters enables a conjunctive reading of Cambodian Americanness that eschews a refugee-centric singularity in favor of a more capacious personhood that is undeniably connected to but not strictly delimited by the Khmer Rouge era.

This expansive exploration of Cambodian American selfhood vis-à-vis drama and performance reflects and refracts in autobiographical fashion Bald Sisters creator Vichet Chum, a Cambodian American playwright, actor, write, and theater maker originally from Carrollton, Texas who is presently based in New York City. After receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) from the University of Evansville, Chum pursued a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Acting at Brown University/Trinity Repertory Company. The recipient of the 2018–2019 Princess Grace Award in Playwriting with New Dramatists, Chum’s plays have been workshopped at numerous venues, including Steppenwolf Theatre, Cleveland Play House, the Magic Theater, the Alley Theatre, the UCROSS Foundation, Fault Line Theatre, Second Generation Productions, Crowded Outlet, Weston Playhouse, Cleveland Public Theatre, All for One Theater, Amios, Florida State University, Merrimack Repertory Theatre, and the New Harmony Project. Chum’s High School Play: A Nostalgia Fest premiered at the Alley Theatre in 2022, the same year the above-discussed Bald Sisters had its world premiere at Steppenwolf Theatre. Most recently, Chum has expanded his artistic oeuvre via the recent release of Kween, a YA novel published with Quill Tree Books. The following interview with Chum was conducted on July 2, 2023.


Let’s start at the beginning. As a Cambodian American adoptee who grew up in Texas—Austin, to be more specific—I admittedly had a complicated relationship to my identity. I did not grow up speaking Khmer, nor did I have Cambodian/Cambodian American parents. It was the 1980s, and my neighborhood was very homogenous. It seemed as if we were the only Asian American family in that neighborhood and I often felt quite isolated. That feeling was further exacerbated by the fact that “Asian American” seemed to only include those of Japanese or Chinese descent; Cambodian Americans were largely excluded. What brought your family to Texas? And what was it like for you growing up in Texas as a Cambodian American?


I feel like we probably had very similar experiences even though I grew up in a different part of the state [in Carrollton, a suburb near Dallas]. Both my parents are from Cambodia, though my mother was from the city, and my father grew up in the countryside. They came to the United States after the Khmer Rouge regime ended [in 1979], though their migration occurred after spending some time in refugee camps. They survived the genocide and first crossed into Thailand; my parents then made their way to a second camp in the Philippines. They did not know each other prior to their arrival in the camps; this is where they met but they would not marry until much later. To clarify, they ended up in the United States but they were sponsored independently. My father, who ended up teaching English to other refugees, was the first to be sponsored; he was originally resettled in Virginia. My mother and her surviving family members received sponsorship a few months later; they were resettled in Texas. My parents started to correspond with one another through a relative; my father moved to Texas, and my parents eventually married.

Unlike my father, my mother came to the United States with her family; once they settled in Texas, other surviving family members—aunts, an uncle, and cousins—would join them. Though there was at the time a relatively small Cambodian American population, I did not feel isolated. In addition to my immediate family (brother, father, and mother), I lived in a house with my aunt’s family and my uncle’s family. Indeed, there were three families and multiple generations who resided in one house, and I grew up with the sense that we had a large family.


That sense of connectedness through family resonates in your dramatic work, particularly in Bald Sisters


Exactly. That was how I understood family and would later frame it in my work. I think that sense rings true for a lot of refugee and immigrant families. It was like an ecosystem: when someone’s parents were at work, aunts, uncles, and cousins would step in and care for them. Older cousins would care for younger cousins; aunts and uncles would care for nieces and nephews, and so forth. As a child, I remember that our house was filled with non-stop activity; there was always something happening and it seemed, at times, that the house was its own protective and protected silo.

Things changed dramatically when I was five years old; my parents had saved enough money to purchase their own house, so we moved across town, away from aunts, uncles, and cousins. Though we were only fifteen minutes away (by car) from our previous residence, the new house seemed so far away, like we were on our own island. The new neighborhood was also quite different—it was in a wealthier area and less diverse; it was predominantly white with fewer people of color. I was also older and more aware of race. We certainly experienced more overt acts of racism, and there was palpable community tension. The city (Dallas) was also changing, becoming more diverse. One memory stands out from this period, though I have at times questioned its veracity simply because it was so visceral. One day, my brother and I accompanied my mother to Walmart. We were able to shop without incident, and it seemed to be a typical day. This changed when we approached the cash register. My mother inadvertently went to the express checkout lane even though we had more than the allotted number of items. A white woman was behind us in line; she was quite upset. We finished our purchase and headed back to the car. The woman followed us into the parking lot. She was yelling at us, berating my mother, telling her that she needed to learn English. She kept shouting, progressively using more hateful language. 

My mother is the sweetest human being, but she can also be strong. I remember my mother gripping the shopping cart, trying to move past the moment. But as the woman continued, my mother had enough. She turned around and loudly told the woman that she fought like a dog. She refused to acquiesce and stood up for herself and for us. I later realized that, as an Asian immigrant woman, my mother has always had to fight to be seen in a world that is inclined to ignore, dismiss, and denigrate those with different cultures, experiences, and backgrounds. It was a formative experience insofar as I saw firsthand the realities of racism, prejudice yet was inspired by my mother’s resistance to those realities.


What you shared in terms of your upbringing is both moving and powerful; I also see the connection between those childhood remembrances and the strength of your female characters, who very much defy expectation and are fully actualized individuals. It is apparent that family is incredibly important to you personally; however, I am curious as to how they impacted you professionally? In other words, how did your upbringing influence your ultimate path to playwriting? What other factors played a role in establishing this trajectory?


I mentioned my brother—he’s a year and a half older than me, but we were often referred to as twins because we did everything together; we also looked alike. Even so, we represented different sides of the same coin. He definitely stood out and was unique among his classmates and friends. Rather than shy away from that uniqueness, he leaned into it. He was hyperarticulate and still has such a way with words; he was not afraid of attention and seemed to seek it out. I was the opposite; I felt much more comfortable blending in and wanted to disappear as much as possible. I certainly did not want to stand out. It was not until much later—as an adult—that I came to terms with the anxiety associated with that inclination to remain in the background.

I think that inclination to not stand out paradoxically drew me to acting, which allows you to take on different personas and characters. After graduating high school, I attended the University of Evansville, in Indiana and pursued a BFA in Acting. Being in Indiana was quite a culture shock; prior to college, I had not really traveled outside of Texas.


Did you face any challenges as an actor of color? Particularly in an environment that I assume was relatively non-diverse?


It was definitely jarring for me; I was starting to really develop my love for theatre and delve into my craft (as an actor). I was the only Asian American in a very competitive program, and the work done was of such high caliber. However, I was constantly pigeonholed as a minor player; the roles I received usually involved characters with utilitarian jobs (e.g., delivery drivers, grave diggers). I had little access to more substantial roles, and it really got under my skin and hurt. At the same time, the limitations I faced in terms of casting really shaped my relationship to art. To clarify, I realized how small my world was (artistically) and I wanted to expand that world. The desire to expand that world led me to apply to Brown University’s graduate acting program, and it was through my previous acting experiences that I began to think more critically and expansively about the spaces I wanted to create.

The experiences I had at Brown were similar to those at my undergraduate institution, but it was even more maddening. The caliber of work was that much greater and I increasingly felt excluded from it. I did not feel “seen” and did not fit the usual acting archetype. Leading roles (for both men and women) were privileged; another ideal option involved character acting. I did not necessarily identify with these types of roles nor did I feel comfortable with such paths. I constantly found myself searching for a place in that acting ecosystem. Thankfully, Brown offered a robust theatre program and I was able to take playwriting classes. These classes afforded an opportunity to articulate my artistry, and writing reactivated something that I realized had always been with me. When I was a kid, I wrote a lot; I was reminded of this on a recent trip back home. My parents saved my school assignments; they also kept the writing I did outside the classroom. I had always had a vivid imagination and a desire to write; nevertheless, I was shocked and surprised by the amount of work I produced at such a young age. Though I dabbled a bit with playwriting in college, it was not until graduate school that I more seriously pursued a theatrical career through writing. I began writing my first play—a long form project—and the process resonated. I wanted to put all my energy and time into it. In retrospect, I guess I took the longest way to get to the thing I was always meant to do.


Now that you have firmly established yourself as a playwright, what do consider is most at stake? Put alternatively, what does it mean to not only be a playwright but a Cambodian American playwright? Given the actuality of the Killing Fields era, it seems that Cambodian identity and Cambodian Americanness problematically begins and ends with genocide. Your work—particularly Bald Sisters—acknowledges that history; however, it moves beyond it and the play’s protagonists are more than just victims or survivors.


I really appreciate that observation about Bald Sisters. We as Cambodian artists, as Cambodian American artists, as Asian American artists, as people from historically excluded marginalized groups have to contend with the white gaze, which is the dominant gaze. And sometimes I want to shake it off and write as if it is not there. At other times, I am hyperaware of it and seek to creatively subvert it. Admittedly, every artist has a personal and specific relationship to that gaze. I think that we all have to lean into our creative impulses and articulate what is most significant artistically, politically, and communally. As Cambodian Americans, we are so much more than four years of war. We are so much more than the product of U.S. intervention. We are so much more than struggles to assimilate suggest. There are a multitude of stories within our community, and I am trying to move narratives about Cambodian Americans forward. However, I understand that I must be intentional about how I do that work, and I cannot be essentialist; I can only offer my own stories, my own Cambodian stories, my own American stories.

That sensibility is very much at the heart of Bald Sisters. I had always wanted to write about Cambodian/Cambodian American women because they represented people in my life who saved me. They were the ones who cultivated me and raised me. They have played a formative role in making who I have become and continue to influence who I will be. I was always keenly aware of their autonomy, their sense of humor, and the ways in which they navigated the world. At the same time, it was important for me to highlight how the story of two Cambodian American sisters was actually an American story. If someone were to ask me to summarize Bald Sisters, I would say that it is a work focused on two sisters whose mother has passed away and were left with the decision as to how to handle her body. 

Fig. 1. (left to right) Francesca Fernandez Mckenzie and Jennifer Lim Credit: Michael Brosilow Production Photo for Steppenwolf’s production of Bald Sisters, written by Vichet Chum and directed by Jesca Prudencio
Fig. 2. (left to right) Francesca Fernandez McKenzie and Nima Rakhshanifar Credit: Michael Brosilow Production Photo for Steppenwolf’s production of Bald Sisters, written by Vichet Chum and directed by Jesca Prudencio


It is tricky. I embrace my Cambodianness, and I celebrate that I am a Cambodian American writer. I acknowledge that it’s a miracle that I have the opportunity to do what I want to do. I get to write these stories and sustain myself as a writer of Cambodian/Cambodian American stories. At the same time, I have to remain conscious about the ways in which my work is perceived and produced because there are consequences for my career and community.


Since you mentioned the importance of perception—and how your work is received—what was the audience reaction to Bald Sisters? What was it like to see your work on stage and in public?


It was an amazing experience being in that house [Steppenwolf Theatre] watching Bald Sisters with an audience. The premiere occurred in the aftermath of the recent COVID-19 pandemic. I was thus keenly aware that the audiences coming to our humble show were searching for some kind of catharsis, a moment of healing, a space to heal in some way. I was stunned that you could hear sobbing and crying in the space. The very end of the play is marked by two moments wherein the two sisters finally occupy the same space and make physical contact with each other for the first time. The embrace they share allows them to melt into each other and let go of their defenses. It is therefore not through dialogue but physical proximity that they are able to heal. The play ends with the mother (Ma), who ascends to heaven singing her favorite karaoke song. The audience was able to experience the sisters’ collective grief alongside the mother’s celebrated joy. And they were able to witness the healing connection between the two sisters alongside the effervescent celebration of their mother.

The experience of watching with the audience moved me so much. I thought particularly about the ways in which writers move through this industry. We all too often get caught up in the small details—is the play tight enough? Is it essential enough? Is it perfect enough? By the end of its run, I realized that the play was wholly imperfect in the ways that life is wholly imperfect. What was more important was the play’s ability to offer the audience an opportunity to experience a release of emotion—again, a catharsis. The pandemic and its aftermath seemed to give the audience permission to let go; it also made more urgent the need to celebrate that we are in fact still alive. I was floored by the diversity of the audience and their reaction to the play.

One of the most meaningful exchanges I had involved a young Latina woman. She came up to me and told me that her father had just passed away. A friend had invited her to the show, and she had no expectations. She admitted that she had previously felt disconnected at Steppenwolf Theatre because she never saw her kind of story on stage. She told me that she didn’t realize that she needed something like Bald Sisters until she experienced the play. The play allowed her to process some of the grief she had been experiencing. The exchange we shared was profoundly meaningful; her reaction reflects what I mentioned earlier about the potential of drama to expand the world in which we live and interact.


The exchange you described, along with the audience reaction, highlights the possibility of drama to facilitate empathy, even though the story may feature characters who are often cast as marginal due to race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality. What role does empathy play in larger artistic project?  


Empathy matters. I want to make sure the connections I write or create are intuitive so that we, as human beings, are able to reciprocate trust and care. I love the challenge of making theatre a place where empathy is revealed on stage and felt by the audience. Though my artistry is inspired by my family’s history and personal experiences, I consistently push myself to think more expansively. How do we engage with our neighbors? How do we engage with people from different backgrounds? Are we able to really see ourselves in other people’s experiences? If not, why not? That’s what initially drew me to theatre and I have endeavored to make it a more deeply empathetic space. 



1. ‘Bald Sisters’ review: Multigenerational worlds collide in moving, funny and powerful Steppenwolf production - Chicago Sun-Times (