Born in a Cambodian prison, Koky is now grateful for his opportunities in Melbourne 

Born in a Cambodian prison, Koky is now grateful for his opportunities in Melbourne 
Brendan Rees

Koky Saly’s life is a story of resilience and determination. Born in a Cambodian prison during the brutal civil war in 1976, Koky was among millions of Cambodians who suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime.

Today, the Docklands resident is the founder of his dream social enterprise called Beekeeper Parade, an unassuming pop-up shop at 174 Swanson St, which has so far seen 55 tonnes of fashion waste used to create fun, bold, and practical bags and accessories, including backpacks made of buttoned shirts.

The opening of the shop was made possible thanks to the City of Melbourne’s shopfront activation program, which Koky said he was truly grateful for the opportunity, and one in which he has endeavoured to keep making products that “change the world” by not harming the environment. 

Despite his difficult start to life, Koky has been determined to make the most of his life in Australia.

“My eldest sister didn’t make it through the war, but eight of us came on the plane,” Koky said after they landed in Melbourne in 1980, when he was aged three.

“People keep saying I was lucky, but this isn’t completely true. We [my family] survived because enough people cared to help, such as Australians fighting for our freedom and asylum.”

After he was born, Koky stayed with his mother in prison for the first three years of his life, while his eldest surviving sister took care of his siblings in a remote village. Their father was imprisoned at an unknown location.

After the war ended, Koky’s family were fortunate to be reunited before they smuggled across the border to Thailand and stayed at a refugee camp.  

Koky is thankful for having built a life in Australia - which has seen him give back to the community by leading projects to build five schools in Cambodia through crowdfunding campaigns, and running his charity called BabyTree Projects, which he founded with his sister Sophia.  

Beekeeper Parade started from humble beginnings, with Koky selling items at school fetes and markets, and achieving some sales initially online, before he got his big break of opening a pop-up shop in Fitzroy and later Melbourne Central in 2016.

Sadly, he lost his sister to cancer in 2012. But since then, Koky has kept her memory alive by honouring instructions in her will, in which she left her car with him to sell and use the money to create a business that would inspire change and help support the continued work of BabyTree Projects. 

This saw Boy & Bee born in 2012, before the name was changed to BeeKeeper in 2014, which remains his passion project. 

As for what tomorrow brings, Koky said, “We could fly, or we could fall. I really hope we get to fly”. •

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