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.

BOOK DESCRIPTION (From Amazon)

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.

REVIEW

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.

VERDICT

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.

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