Shiny Objects of Desire

Shiny ObjectsShiny Objects of Desire is available from Monument Books at $13.50. Wayne McCallum’s review appeared in The Advisor on 22 November

“The cover of Shiny Objects Of Desire is a fairly prosaic photograph of Phnom Penh’s waterfront in the gathering twilight of a Mekong evening. It’s a view that anyone who has spent time atop Le Moon or one of the other numerous Riverside rooftop haunts will know well. It’s a nice enough photograph; it’s just, well, sort of plain for a ‘shop window’ to a novel set in the city.

“But open the book out and lay it flat and you find something much more intriguing: a mirror image of the photograph on the front carries over to fill the rear jacket. Now the cover is transformed into something much more interesting and decidedly ‘non-prosaic’.

A cunning conceit, perhaps? PJ Coggan, Shiny Objects’ author, responds thus: “The rather nice mirror-image effect was a serendipitous fluke, for which I thank the young man at the printer’s who was in charge of putting the book together.”

“Hmmm. OK, but the book’s cover is a suitable metaphor as any for Shiny Objects which, on the surface, starts off like a fairly straightforward crime novel but evolves into something much more interesting as its story, like a fan, unfolds across the streets, alleyways and boulevards of Phnom Penh.

“The locations and places mentioned within should be well known to anyone who has spent time in the ‘charming city’. The cover’s riverfront is there, of course, while Norodom Boulevard features early on. Soon enough the less salubrious Street 136 makes an appearance; goodness even the street I live on turns up.

“You can quickly fall into a game of ‘Phnom Penh bingo’, ticking off places that you recognise or which – through the ruse of a disguised name change – can guess, all of which gives the book a sort of homely feel. Coggan certainly seems right at home along Riverside and its surrounding districts, an experience born from an association with the city that began early last decade. “I first visited Phnom Penh in 2002, after leaving a job with the UN in Morocco. I wanted to try a career with more autonomy and decided I’d travel around taking photos and selling travel articles on a freelance basis. In 2006 I came back and stayed till 2008. I’ve been back in 2010 (a trip to Ratanakiri), 2012 (researching a second book) and 2013 (seeing Shiny Objects through the press).”

“So what of the story? Like the cover, the account that lies between does not unfold as you might expect. At the centre of Coggan’s story is Burl, a Riverside expat restaurant owner. Burl is a man carefully avoiding emotional commitments, but who nonetheless remains fiercely loyal to his fellow expat bar-owner friends. Consequently, when one finds himself locked up at Prey Sar prison, Burl sees it as his duty to get his friend out.

“There’s only one problem: the person he needs to placate in order to achieve this noble goal is soon dead as well, and before you can say ‘Tuk tuk snatch-and-grab on Street 19,’ Burl is the prime suspect. So far so normal, you might say, but underneath all this is a much more nuanced tale. As Coggan himself confesses: “The point is contained in the title. If you end up knowing what the shiny objects are, you’ve got it.”

“Besides being a good read, Shiny Objects also serves as a useful knowledge pool of tips and hints of which even the most seasoned expat might not be aware. The most interesting of these, to this reviewer at least, is the fact the local constabulary maintains a file on every foreigner living in the city. Really. “The Foreigners Police really do exist, and they really do keep files on all the foreigners resident in the kingdom,” Coggan says.

“As a regular Mother Teresa, like my fellow Advisor colleagues, I can safely say that my file is probably very small, but the rest of you out there beware: as Shiny Objects shows, there is much more to Phnom Penh than appears on the surface.”

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Phnom Penh gangster

HangmanA Phnom Penh gangster. Taken on the balcony of a room behind the Old Market (Psar Chas), overlooking street 110. “Gangster” has a specific meaning, essentially petty criminals specialising in bag-snatching and burglary. Distinguished by tattoos like this one – anyone who has a tattoo like this has marked himself off from normal respectable society. Usually, of course, the tattoo is covered by a shirt. “Gangsters” tend to have brief lives, much of it spent in jail. If people catch them committing a crime the mob’ll beat them to death – sometimes the police try to save them, sometimes not, but most often they simply don’t arrive.

The gangs are violent – this from a Phnom Penh post article in 2010:

“Earlier this month a student was killed and others suffered serious injuries after fights against rival gangs in the centre of the capital, and samurai swords are still the weapon of choice for the gangs. The fighting is brutal and the injuries horrific, but the authorities do not seem to be able to stop it.”

The article makes some very good points about what leads kids to join gangs, but essentially it strikes me as the inevitable result of a society and economy that can’t provide employment, recreation, or even much family life for its young people.

Interesting article here about life in the poorer parts of the city – mentions gangs and much else, though nothing in depth.

Her Father’s Daughter

her-fathers-daughterHer Father’s Daughter was first published in 2011. It won a prize for best new non-fiction in 2012 and was short-listed for several others. It has now (2013) come out on Kindle, I think for the first time.

I was confused when I started reading this – it’s in the third person, and I assumed I was reading a work of fiction. But the protagonist is named Alice, just like the author, Alice Pung (website here, with a charming photo at the foot of the page) and like the author she’s a Sino-Khmer girl from Melbourne, the eldest child of parents who reached Australia as boat people in the 1980s. The prizes it won are for memoir. So it’s a memoir. All the same, a degree of conscious art is at work, often a very high degree – the narrative has been shaped by a literary sensibility.

Description from Amazon:

At twenty-something, Alice is hungry for the milestones of young womanhood: leaving home, choosing a career, finding friendship and love on her own terms. But with each step she takes away from home, she feels the sharp tug of invisible threads: the love and worry of her Chinese-Cambodian parents, who want more than anything to keep her from harm. Her father fears for her safety to an extraordinary degree – but why? As she digs further into her father’s story, Alice embarks on a journey of painful discovery: of memories lost and found, of her own fears for the future, of history and how it echoes down the years. Set in Melbourne, China and Cambodia, Her Father’s Daughter captures a father-daughter relationship in a moving and astonishingly powerful way.

The first half of the book deals with Alice growing up in Melbourne with her extraordinarily protective father. At an early age she realises that there is absolutely nothing he won’t do for her safety. Yet he’s not controlling, just fearful of the outside world. Not because that world is Australia, but simply because it’s outside. Around the midway point the tone of book changes completely as we discover why. Both he and Alice’s mother are survivors of the Khmer Rouge, the attempt of a bunch of utopians and teenagers to reset history to Year Zero. It’s a story that’s been told often enough, but there’s no denying that thanks to Alice Pung’s literary gifts this is one of the best. The book is worth reading for this section alone.

Destination: Cambodia

18520842I don’t know of another book on Cambodia quite like this. Walter Mason (“writer, scholar, dreamer”) is well read, adventurous, a man of good humour. All in all the ideal travel companion. He’s been visiting Cambodia since 1996, off and on, and his very solid grounding in the country allows him to escape the usual tourist circuit – Angkor gets a mention, but I got the impression that it was because his editor told him to. (“Look Walter my lad, you just can’t write a travel book about Cambodia and not even mention the bloody temples!”) But his primary interest and preoccupation is the people.

Things happen to Walter that never happen to me. An impromptu get-together with some friends turns into a 20-minute address on Buddhism, live on national television. An 800 year old Angkorean princess asks him if he can find a job for her shaman’s unemployed graduate son. Or did you ever wonder what bull’s penis soup tastes like? I didn’t dream that such a delicacy was available in Phnom Penh, but Walter finds it. It tastes like you’d expect bull’s penis to taste like, says Walter – chewy and slimy and fairly disgusting.

If this were all there was to Destination: Cambodia it would be just a succession of funny but forgettable incidents, but Mason has an ability to really get into the heart of Cambodia. I keep reading things and thinking, “Yes, I knew that, but I never actually *knew* it!” Like the fact that poor Cambodians live “according to a complex series of debts and loans.” This is how you live on a dollar a day: you borrow from your friends when they have money and you don’t, in the expectation that some day soon the roles will be reversed. That’s fine, except that quarrels over piddling amounts destroy friendships and families – this is one basic cause of another factor of Cambodian life that Mason notes, the fact that family bonds are extremely weak, so that society is atomised and “community” is a word that has very little meaning. (As a personal comment, one of my best Khmer friends is a lady who converted to Christianity, not because she believe in it, but because the church has a sense of community lacking elsewhere).

One reviewer has likened the book to a collection of short stories, as it’s written in short chapters without an overarching narrative. True enough, but the discontinuous structure makes it ideal to just dip into at random. The same reviewer also says that Destination is “Destination Cambodia is a sensitive, intellectual read for anyone interested in travel to one of the world’s most fascinating countries,” and I agree.

(For collectors of trivia, Walter was interviewed for an on-going column in the SMH where they ask people about their travel habits – it pretty well lines up with the impression I got from his blog and book. I also looked got this page of quite beautiful photos under his name on google images, but I don’t think they actually have anything to do with him).

Destination: Cambodia is available at Monument Books, priced at $18.50. It’s also available through Amazon and on Kindle.

The Story of Angkor

angkorSilkworm Books has recently (September) published The Story of Angkor. It must define the idea of a “slim volume” – just 134 pages.The author, James DiBiasio, blogs here: he has some quite fascinating entries on books both fiction and non-fiction.

Intended as an approachable, entry-level history of ancient Angkor for tourists, Story of Angkor presents the revolution in scholarly understanding of ancient Cambodia that’s taken place over the last decade or so. No visitor to Angkor, and no one interested in Cambodia, can afford not to read it.

Here are some excerpts from an article he was invited to write for New Mandala recently (full article here). He notes that the paradigmatic understanding of the subject was laid out by the great George Coedès in the first half of the 20th century:

“Coedès … argued that Southeast Asia represented a ‘Farther India’, a land of gold that was conquered and colonized by waves of Indians from around 200 BC through 400 AD. His work also gave us the basic timeline of the kings and therefore the monuments. He helped lay out a narrative of a pre-Angkor Cambodia trapped in a dark ages. He and other scholars documented wars between the Khmers and the Chams that defined the rise of Angkor’s first Buddhist king. The shadow of Coedès stretches so long because the Khmer Rouge, Vietnamese invasion and destructive poverty have kept international scholarship at bay. Only in the 1990s did meaningful work on Angkor resume.”

Coedès research remains relevant, but “his conclusions seem fanciful. … Most scholars today argue against the idea of Indian colonizers … others suggest that Indian ideas came from Malays and other travellers visiting India and Sri Lanka, rather than from Indians actually settling in Southeast Asia.”

On Angkor, Coedès “believed an early Khmer-speaking civilization grew up around southern Vietnam, based on a port called Oc Eo and a nearby city called Angkor Borei. This fell into disunion and chaos, and was assaulted by enemy invaders, perhaps from Champa or Java.” This is what we read in every guide book and history of Cambodia, but  there’s no evidence to back it up. “The evidence is going the other way, actually: the epicentre of Funan may have not even been where Coedès believed, [but] further west in the Menam Basin.” I don’t think my Cambodian friends are going to like that idea – though perhaps they’ll see it as yet further evidence that the wicked Thais are a bunch of brigands.

My friends will like this: “This year, scholars announced the discovery of a city, Mahendraparvata, on Mount Kulen, some 50 kilometers distant from Angkor… a vast urban civilization on par with the biggest pre-industrial societies of China or Europe.”

The final surprise for me is this:

“Even the dating of the Bayon and Angkor Wat are now under fire. The chronicle of Zhou Daguan, a Chinese visitor in the 13th century, makes so little account of Angkor Wat that some scholars question whether it was even built until after Zhou’s visit – which would completely upend our understanding of it. So the story of Angkor turns out to be far more fluid than the stone remains suggest, and the history of pre-modern Southeast Asia is still up for grabs.”

Story of Angkor should be available from Monument Books, but if you can’t get there, here’s the Amazon page.

(Update: now available on Kindle, $9.99)