This week the Lao community around the world lost one of its brightest treasures with the passing of Pom Outama Khampradith in Seattle, Washington. She was 42.
A key figure in the Lao cultural reconstruction after the conflicts of the 20th century, she was well-known to across the country for her work in the Lao traditional arts and as the founder of the Kinnaly dance troupe.
Born Chittraphone Pom Outama in 1971 in Vientiane, Laos, she dedicated her life to her people, and her love for her heritage was reflected in every aspect of her life.
Professionally, Pom Outama Khampradith was the Director of the Lao Heritage Foundation’s Pacific Northwest Chapter, and also managed the public and community relations at a national level for the Lao Heritage Foundation. She was supportive of their ongoing mission to promote, preserve, and transmit Lao culture through the arts. Her last public appearance was the Lao Heritage Foundation’s fundraiser in Seattle.
Dr. Adisack Nhouyvanisvong remarked “I always admired and respected what she did with Kinnaly and the Lao Heritage Foundation. Her passion and love for the arts was apparent when I first met her during the SatJaDham years. She’s left a tremendous legacy, one which we should all be proud to carry forward.”
As the founding Artistic Director of Kinnaly dance troupe, for more than a decade she taught and inspired over 60 second-generation Lao American youth the art and joys of Lao traditional dance. She was known for her innovation and experimentation, incorporating contemporary Lao music and dance techniques into the Lao artistic repertoire. Her enthusiasm for the arts constantly inspired artists in many disciplines. She made clear connections between lifelong success and the arts as part of the Lao American renaissance.
To her credit, many of her students remain active in the arts and the community. At the time of her passing she was looking forward to developing new dances that might one day be a part of the Lao dance tradition, carrying on the vision of our elders and building upon it.
She lived near Seattle with her husband Phon William Khampradith and her son Ravi. She loved to read Lao and French literature in their original language. Some described her as “the quiet rebel,” someone who was never content with answers like “just because.” She always led first by example and had an unwavering commitment to her people.
She saw her husband and son as instrumental in her success. She was always grateful they stood by her even during the hard times to pursue a shared dream that was grounded in a love of the arts.
Dr. Ketmani Kouanchao said “She made a difference. When I first met her through the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project, I was impressed by her passion and enthusiasm and we kept in touch long afterwards. She graciously gave me a place to stay whenever I was in town.”
Dr. Kouanchao added, “She was a person with a mission. She was fearless, and wanted to have a stake in life, not just wasting space. Every day, she was thankful to be a part of life, and she worked hard to make everything we see today possible. She wanted to leave behind something that would benefit the entire community. She was full of life and wanted to do it all. She saw life as something to celebrate.”
Community leaders across the United States have expressed their gratitude to her family for selflessly sharing her with the world.
Lao Assistance Center executive director Sunny Chantanouvong remarked, “We will miss Pom Outama Khampradith very much. I know she was very inspiring to our community, committed to doing the good work, to creating civic engagement. She believed in people. She saw beauty in our tradition. She saw our people had a future. We should always remember what she stood for.”
She loved to spend her time with local community children, sharing and teaching her art of naathasiin, the Lao traditional dances. A dancer for over 25 years, Pom Outama Khampradith got her start from her friends, family and teachers in France when she left Laos in 1982. They inspired her and taught her how to appreciate Lao art, but more importantly how to participate within it and to contribute to it.
Those lessons lasted with her almost three decades, and she set a high expectation for herself and for other Lao dance troupes nationally. Notably, she insisted that Kinnaly performances use live traditional Lao deum bands to accompany the dancers, rejecting pre-recorded music when possible.
As a student at the University of Washington, she was part of the Lao Student Association, where she helped to organize events such as Boun Bang Fai, New Years Festivals and danced for “international festivals” organized by various institutions interested in diversity. During her time at the University of Washington, she was also introduced to the Lao Northern Association who would become one of the community organizations who played a role in life.
One of the first major performances of the Kinnaly dance troupe was at the History Symposium on Laos at the University of California-Berkeley in 2003. The success of that performance led them to perform at events and festivals across the US including several of the International Conferences on Lao Studies.
In 2009, she was one of the lead organizers of the very first International Lao New Year Festival, held in San Francisco. Anasone Chantharasy Silivongxay, a Lao American educator and chair of the Laotian American National Alliance recalled: “Working with Pom on the first International Lao New Year Festival was a pleasant experience because I knew she and I cared about the same thing: community outreach, the youth, and cultural preservation.”
During the 2010 International Lao Artists Festival in Illinois, she and her students were honored with an award for their work by the Lao Professionals of Elgin. Community activist Simala Bounyvong Inthavong in Illinois echoed the sentiments of many saying “My dear friend and sister Pom was one of the hardest working women I ever met. There is so much I admire about her, the list would be too long detail. Although she is gone, I will never forget her ever.”
Pom Outama Khampradith helped to organize a groundbreaking Lao Cultural Exchange Program in Vientiane, Laos in 2011 and the Kinnaly troupe would return again to Laos in 2013. There, they met the faculty and students of the National School of Performing Arts. Their goal was to share ideas and best practices that could be passed on to the next generation of artists and community builders.
It had not always been an easy journey for her. While she and her younger brother went to France in 1982, two of her older sisters went to Thailand and resettled in Hawaii with an aunt. Her father had been sent to a re-education camp in Northern Laos. For over 15 years they were separated, reuniting finally in 1990. Since then, she always empathized those who were also searching for their roots and identity.
She once reflected on her parents journey from Laos. “It was their unshakable determination to give us a home that finally brought our family together and bonded them after so many years: it was their sole reason for leaving Laos. Never have I heard them blame circumstances for our displacement. Not once did I hear utter regrets. Not once did I witness their discouragement on starting from nothing way behind and much later in life, settling in a new country, learning a foreign language, adapting to an alien culture. Their acceptance of karma, the consequences of their decisions and actions whether good or bad, is fact of life. They have shown me that good will, positive actions, and unwavering faith can overcome anything.”
After high school, she studied at the University of Washington, and became involved with the student leadership, learning skills and confidence that she would use well beyond campus. She had the honor of training under Laos’ most celebrated dance master, Ajarn Kongseng Pongphimkham. As she formed her pedagogical method, she understood that her students needed to explore their heritage beyond dance. Her well-rounded dance curriculum incorporated the study of traditional Lao arts and crafts, Lao language and folklore.
In addition to her skills as a dancer and teacher, she was well-regarded for her literary talents as both a poet and a short-story writer. Many of her pieces were featured in Lao Vision magazine and the literary anthologies of the SatJaDham Lao Literary Project. This includes her poem “I Learned to..,” her non-fiction story “Please Rewind After Reading,” and her prose piece “For you, I will…” In recent years she had begun to blog at “House on the Mekong,” sharing her reflections on life in addition to many of her favorite recipes from Lao cuisine. She hoped one day to complete a book of her short stories and other writing.
In one of her final blog posts, she had written about how she had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2005, but all that she was looking forward to in the coming years ahead. “A lot of times, people even forget the ordeal that our family had gone through. But that is how we have chosen to live, to focus on the light, and refuse to have darkness take over. ”
She leaves behind an indelible legacy that will inspire generations yet to come.
-By Bryan Thao Worra,
US National Endowment for the Arts Fellow in Literature,
2012 Cultural Olympian, London Summer Games