Mean streets


Phnom Penh traffic

Angela and I got an interesting glimpse into another side of Phnom Penh on Saturday night, when we attended a party hosted by an NGO called Womyn’s Agenda for Change.

As the name suggests, WAC focuses on issues of concern to Cambodian women: domestic violence, women’s participation in trade unions, the impact of micro-credit and the like. Their ‘headquarters’, so to speak, is a former floating restaurant/brothel on the Tonle Sap River, just down from the Phnom Penh port.

This is apt given the boat is also home to the Cambodian Sex Workers Union.

Another NGO that started out life on this floating office is Korsang. Korsang is made up of Khmers born in Cambodia or in refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border (the so-called 1.5 generation), but who spent most of their lives in the USA, mainly Los Angeles. These people had not applied for American citizenship, however, allowing the US government to begin deporting them around 2001 to Cambodia for various criminal activities, some serious, some not regardless of their employment and marital status or whether had family in the States (sound familiar?).

I can only assume — and the ones I’ve spoken to confirm — that being thrown out of the States and deposited in Cambodia was a hugely alienating and difficult experience, made all the worse by the absence of any official support. Phnom Penh did not want them and regularly expressed their anger at the US dumping “American gang members” on the streets of Cambodia. Many have tried to make the best of the cards they’ve been dealt, while others have found it much harder to adjust.

Korsang work with injecting drug users and at-risk youth in Phnom Penh’s slums. According to one of their members, ‘Big Head’, their name means something like ‘reinvention’, ‘renovation’ or ‘innovation’: taking something old and making it new. They have certainly done this, bringing a gangster rap aesthete and attitude to a Cambodian setting.

But I digress. Saturday’s party was for the birthday of an Australian woman, Cheryl Overs, a founding member of the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria (and Australia), who has been working with sex workers in this region for the better part of the last decade. I didn’t know her, though most of the people at the party did. The guests were a collection of rogues, misfits and lefties, Khmer and expatriate, including a large group of sex workers: male, female and transgender.

The highlight was the entertainment. First up was a drag show-cum-fashion parade by the sex workers. It was a very tame, low-tech event by the standards of shows in Bangkok and Pattaya, which can be major extravaganzas. Somehow this made it much more real and powerful. This was not about show business. It was about survival and pride in a culture that is happy to use the services they provide but does not recognise them in any way.

Then the Korsang took over, literally. First was a display of rap music, an LA sound with Khmer lyrics about life in modern urban Phnom Penh. This was followed by break dancing from some of the Khmer kids that the Korsang have worked with through another organisation called Tiny Toones.

On one level it is strange to see a mob of Khmer kids who have never set foot in the States, dressed like gangsters, break dancing, while their friends whoop and high five. But who ever said you had to actually experience something to relate to it.

Besides, I have no doubt that life for a poor kid on the streets of Phnom Penh can be just as tough as anything that LA can dish up, so more power to them.

As I said, a side of Phnom Penh you don’t see every day.


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