Jonathan Van Smit

Yama-3-660x439Jonathan Van Smit is a Hong Kong-based street photographer. He’s done (or is doing) a project in Phnom Penh, called Heart of Darkness. It’s about the people of the slums behind street 51, around the Golden Sorya Mall area.

glue-sniffing-kid-Street-51-slums-660x440He talks a little about the project in this interview – the thing that interests me most is his questioning of the project’s justification – these are hard-hitting images, difficult to look at, (very noir), but how can they be justified? There’s no easy answer to that I guess, but for me, they’re an education about an aspect of Phnom Penh life that’s normally closed off.

Phouk-Navy-660x439More about Jonathan and his photography here. “Basically I just walk around for hours, sometimes all day, taking photos of anything that looks interesting to me or fits into one of my themes. I’m particularly interested in cities, how they change, the lives of people who have become marginalized by economic change, and in how they deal with adversity.”



The Playground

The PlaygroundABOUT

Kindle single, $1.99. (Kindle Singles are short pieces of non-fiction – journalism, really, the kind that used to appear in the better newspapers way back and then went out of fashion for some reason).

The author is Terrence McCoy – “Terrence M. McCoy is the Gordon Grey Fellow of International Journalism at Columbia University. He contributes frequently to the Atlantic, Washington Monthly, and Salon, and is currently a staff writer for Village Voice Media at the New Times in Miami. He served in the United States Peace Corps in Cambodia between 2009 and 2011.” And speaks Khmer. See also a good You Tube video here. And while we’re not quite on the subject, I dare you to read this and not feel afraid.


We’ve heard of China’s buying sprees. That it’s plowed billions of dollars into some of the poorest nations in the world. But the story we don’t know is what this money means for the people there. In Cambodia, the cost has been devastating. More than 700,000 people have lost their homes — others their lives — while China buys the former killing fields for resorts, hotels, and exclusive residences. And as this country of genocide descends into another era of chaos and violence, some whisper it’s the second coming of Pol Pot. 
But one woman has fought back. In this fast-paced narrative, Terrence McCoy follows Vanny Tep’s quest to save Cambodia from China’s money. Leading a small, fiery group of women, Vanny has sparked a grassroots movement from one of the most daunting slums in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Her battles are against the Cambodian government, Chinese companies, and a male-dominated society. Powerful and profound, “The Playground” takes us across Cambodia to discover the true meaning of a global Chinatown.


Let me say up front that I found the author’s style a bit irritating at first. It’s self-consciously Fine Writing in that way they teach in journalism schools – “Cicadas called rae buzzed like thousands of pencil sharpeners…” Wouldn’t “cicadas buzzed like pencil sharpeners” have done?

But McCoy has a good story to tell. In the first few pages he’s off to visit a remote coastal settlement in Koh Kong called, informally, China Town. Why China Town? The road – the dirt track – to China Town is guarded by the Cambodian army: why are the soldiers here instead of pointing their AKs at the Thais or the Vietnamese on the borders? And why is McCoy’s moto driver passing him off as a French tourist?

There’s a beach. There are Chinese engineers. There are five star hotels under construction, golf courses and villas and tourists in the offing, the smell of money in the air. And poverty and land-grabbing and the threat of violence. Terminal violence, the kind that leaves no traces.

My advice to Mr McCoy, at this point, is to read more Hemingway. When you have a story that sells itself, you don’t have to spice it up with adjectives.

There’s a longish section dealing with the general picture of the Chinese presence in Southeast Asia, and it comes down to this: China outspends America and asks no questions and attaches no strings. Even Australia, though it hosts US bases, knows that China is its largest trading partner. And though everyone can see this elephant, nobody knows quite how big it is or what it plans to do next. And while China attaches no conditions to its investment in terms of human rights, there are very definite expectations of what the recipients will do when required.

The hero of this story is Vanny Tep, once a fashion model, now a political activist. I won’t tell any more, as The Playground is pretty short anyway.


Highly recommended, despite the chasing after style. This is one of the major social evils of Cambodia today, and the more light it sees, the better.

The Scent of Rumduol

The Scent of RumduolABOUT

Literary (meaning not a thriller, mystery, or other genre novel). Ebook only. The book’s website here will let you read excerpts, tell you about the author and his inspiration, and link to sites for purchase (Kindle etc).


Sothea wants to be a famous writer, the most famous in all of Cambodia, to write about her life, and all the bad things that happen to children in her country. And the good things, as well. Her best friend suggests that there needs to be romance too, as all the best stories have a romance.

Sokhem wants to be a web designer, and to create his own site, uncovering the things that nobody likes to talk about in Cambodia; the stuff that gets swept under the rug. His little brother, Vithu, wants to change the world, after he has finished school, gone to university, traveled, and read everything there is to read and learned everything that can be learned.

Kosal worries for his country, and feels that the Cambodian people are lost. His master has sent him from the pagoda on a seven year pilgrimage to find understanding, and perhaps even enlightenment.

The Scent of Rumduol is a modern day tale of stolen childhoods; of children forced to survive the exigencies of a world epitomized by poverty, violence, drugs, child exploitation, and sexual abuse. It is the story of four orphans whose lives touch, and are touched, by others – including a teenage prostitute, a former Khmer Rouge guard, and a disillusioned aid worker – in ways nobody could ever have imagined.

It is a story of hope, resolve, love, karma, and, ultimately, of triumph over adversity.


I found this totally engrossing.

The book opens in the present day in a village near the Thai border. An elderly retired village schoolteacher has visitors, the local policeman and a man from the city. They’ve come with a summons: the teacher is to appear at the Khmer Rouge trials as a witness, to tell what he saw and did as a low-level KR cadre during the genocide. The old man asks if there’s any point: “Soon enough we’ll all be dead, and then who will we blame for everything wrong and corrupt in this country?”

It looks as if we’re about to have yet another story about the Khmer Rouge, but after the opening the KR are never mentioned again. Instead the book follows the fortunes of four children in modern-day Cambodia as they make their way out of childhood and into young adulthood. One of them is a young monk, sent by his abbot on a pilgrimage to Angkor, the heart of Khmer civilisation: the seven years of his journey mark off the seven years of the story. The others are from the very bottom of Cambodian society – beggars, scavengers, child prostitutes. That sounds very grim, and indeed many terrible things happen, but it all rings true.

Orphanages come in for a particularly harsh treatment. There are two. The first, in Sihanoukville, is run by a wealthy barang who uses the children as his private harem. It sounds too melodramatic to be true, but somehow I get the impression that the author has someone or some place quite specific in mind. The second is in Siem Reap, and rings absolutely true – the orphanage is staffed by unskilled  barang volunteers and the children are used as to extort money from gullible soft-hearted tourists. Read this and you’ll never look at orphanages in quite the same way again.

What else? Two boys become scavengers at the Steung Meanchey trash mountain. Realistic and appalling, as is the description of the way they turn to glue-sniffing and yama. One of the girls gets a series of jobs, first in a garment factory, then a guesthouse that turns out to be a brothel. Conditions in both are described with absolutely convincing attention to detail. (And a Korean tourist is scammed by the police for child prostitution – a great set-piece). Another of the girls does turn to prostitution, of her own volition.

In short, this is the picture of a society, Cambodian society, that is deeply unjust, where lives are wasted before they begin. It ends on a note of hope, but only, it seems, if Cambodians can learn to care for one another.


Highly recommended. A little slow to begin, possibly a little confusing at first also because of the lack of plot, but it soon becomes engrossing – a rare window into the lives of the most desperate of Cambodia’s poor, as well as a warning of where the country seems to be headed.

The detective as priest

Bogie and Bacall in theconfessional

Bogie and Bacall in the confessional

Aeon magazine (one of my favourites) has an article about the history of the detective, both factual and fictional. It’s by Jason Webster, an American crime novelist, travel writer and critic. He’s got a bio on Wikipedia (not much use) and his own website (recommended).

Mr Webster begins by suggesting you can learn a lot about a society from its detective fiction. He traces the first detective back to the first murder, Cain and Abel. It’s a bit tough having Jehovah on your case. The modern detective begins with, maybe, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” That was in 1841. In the 1860s things took off, Wilkie Collins and many more.

The reason for this was probably the sudden creation of a class of literate factory-workers (whatever the drawbacks of the industrialisation of England and Europe and America in the 19th century, it did promote literacy – the workers had to be able to read). Add cheap industrial book-production and you had the birth of pulp fiction. Literary types like Matthew Arnold sneered – “tawdry novels in railway stations” – but a revolution was afoot.

And, of course, the invention of the real detective himself. The police began detecting crimes, getting scientific or at least methodical about it, in the 1840s.

But why the detective as hero? Why didn’t we see a whole genre built about the figure of the sanitary engineer, say? Because, says Webster, the detective is an iconic figure, a shaman, one who deals with the worst of crimes (murder). Murder threatens the calm and order of life with chaos: the detective restores what has been ripped asunder, telling us not only who dunnit, but how and why – and what it means. He’s a species of priest.

Something more than a priest, too. Authoritarian regimes both Left and Right have disapproved of freelance order-restorers – Stalin and Mussolini both banned them. Maybe it wasn’t that non-State actors were getting involved in State business that upset the bosses as the fact that detective stories always begin with the proposition that society is dysfunctional – in Cambodia or Thailand, for example, they tell the reader that the cops are corrupt and that the little people get ripped off. The Stalins and Mussolinis of this world don’t like that. Hitler didn’t ban crime fiction, but he insisted that it depict honest and trustworthy cops upholding the rule of law.

I’d dearly love to see someone set a detective series in the Vatican.

Anyway, the essay is well worth reading.