Angkor Tears

Screen Shot 2016-08-08 at 9.18.23 AM.pngSteven W. Palmer’s latest Cambodia thriller is out. The subject is child trafficking, and the story is fittingly grim. It has a likeable hero (a Khmer cop) and an evil villain who – well, let’s see if anyone puts a hand up. Steven Palmer himself is a well-known figure around Phnom Penh, a leading light of the growing Cambodia noir movement. Kevin Cummings has an interview with him which is worth reading, and a very useful word-snapshot:

Steven W. Palmer is a Scottish expat currently living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. He has been living in Asia since 2012 and currently works as Managing Editor for three magazines published in Cambodia. His previous working life has seen him work in diverse roles from drugs counselor to social worker to DJ and promoter. He has self-published two previous novels; ‘Angkor Away’, the first in the Angkor series which introduced Chamreun to the world, and ‘Electric Irn Bru Acid Test’; a coming of age story set in 1980s Scotland and part of the planned ‘Glas Vegas’ trilogy. Palmer is part of the thriving South East Asian Noir movement, which spans literature, poetry, art, photography and music.

The book is available now on Kindle and on smashwords. I understand there’ll be a print version in Monument in a few weeks. There’s also a nice trailer on You Tube with atmospheric images and a gutsy soundtrack from Krom, Phnom Penh’s own noir blues band.

Pierre does Angkor

pierre-loti-sit-like-an-egyptianIt’s a little difficult to take Pierre Loti (1850-1923) seriously. No: it’s bloody near impossible. His life was a bundle of weird. In 1904 (for example), in Constantinople, he was drawn into a plan to liberate a Turkish concubine from the harem; the plot was discovered, the woman died in purdah, and Loti, distraught, wrote a novel about it. (Les Désenchantées, 1906). A heartbreaking tale – except it emerged that the lady was neither dead nor Turkish, but a Frenchwoman who had taken the romantic chump for a ride because she’d thought it might be amusing, and faked her death when Pierre got a bit too much.

Pierre was always a bit too much. He loved costumes. He joined the navy as a common sailor and dressed as a Turk, and when he became an officer he dressed as a sailor. Richard Burton, of course, had done likewise, but nobody laughed at Burton, not unless they wanted an impromptu appendectomy; Loti, au contraire, was unkindly called “a dressed-up organ-grinder.”

pierre-loti-arabHe was, nevertheless, one of the most wildly successful authors of his day. Far-away, romantic places were his thing. He would travel, produce a book, and sit back and wait for the spin-offs. His Tahiti book, Le marriage de Loti, lies behind Delibes’ opera Lakme, and Miss Saigon can trace its ancestry via Madam Butterfly to his novel of Japan, Madame Chrysantheme.

How could a man like Loti resist the lure of Angkor? He first saw the liana-tangled towers as illustrations in a colonial review at the impressionable age of 15, and got there, a well established as a man of letters, in 1901. The result was Pilgrimage to Angkor (1912):

I shudder suddenly with an indefinable fear as I perceive, falling upon me from above, a huge, fixed smile; and then another smile, again, on another stretch of wall; then three, then five, then ten. … They smile under their great flat noses, and half close their eyelids, with an indescribable air of senile femininity, looking like aged, discreetly cunning old ladies.”

Not everything was so overwrought, thank God. Here he describes the little apsara dancers:

They twist like snakes, these little slender beings, who are so supple and seem to have no bones. Sometimes they stretch their arms like a cross, and then the serpentine ripple begins in the fingers of the right hand, ascends successively by the wrist, the forearm, upper arm and shoulder, passes across the throat, continues,on the other side, follows the other arm and dies away in the finger-tips of the left hand, covered with rings. In real life, these exquisite little ballet-dancers are carefully guarded children, often even princesses of the royal blood, whom none may approach or behold. Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.33.17 PM

After Loti there could be no turning back; he was the Paul Theroux of his day, and he put Angkor on the literary travel circuit. He defined a way of seeing it and feeling it, feminine, dark, inscrutable, through the books of professional traveller to Somerset Maugham and beyond. He’s the grandfather of Angkor gush.

He became the youngest member of the Academie Francaise, beating out Emile Zola for one of the strictly rationed chairs, and on his death was awarded a State funeral. His house in Rochefort, preserved as a museum, contains in its thirty rooms a mosque (including a small fountain and five draped coffins containing desiccated bodies), a Japanese pagoda, a medieval banqueting hall where guests were required to converse in Medieval French, and renaissance, Arabic and Turkish rooms. His own bedroom is like a monk’s cell, but mixing Christian and Muslim objects, the aesthetic, as ever, overwhelming the point.

Screen Shot 2016-07-16 at 5.14.22 PMSources:

• Michael Freeman, Cambodia (2004)

• Pierre Loti, The Sacred Drama of Cambodia (Mask magazine, 1913, translated by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy).

• Wikipedia, Pierre Loti

• Loti and the Turkish lady

• Loti’s costumes

War: The Afterparty

America has been almost continuously41ji+HhnucL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg at war since Pearl Harbor. This is in defiance of America’s founding fathers, who believed that the army should be kept small and that the country should not get involved in the affairs of other nations, for war is expensive, expense justifies taxes, and taxes create tyranny.

Since 1942 a quite different ideology has taken over, which Brian Gruber summarises thus:

  • War is cheap;
  • War is perpetual;
  • War is entertainment.

War is not, of course, an entertainment for those involved, but since Vietnam most Americans are not involved. But if not for entertainment, then what have all these wars been for?

America’s bombing of Cambodia began in 1967. America bombed Cambodia into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, then backed the KR in the United Nations as the legitimate government of Cambodia. So America played a role (not the exclusive role) in bringing ordinary Cambodians over two decades of misery. This was one of the little wars.

Gruber’s chapter on Cambodia, like the rest of the book, is a mix of history (accurate so far as I can judge), travelogue (a description of a visit to Tuol Sleng, the KR torture centre), and interviews. I found the interviews the most interesting part. They include Youk Chhang, founder and head of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia (D-CAM for short), three Western newspaper editors, and Elizabeth Becker, who covered Cambodia before it fell to the Khmer Rouge and interviewed Pol Pot in late 1978. The interviews are partly about personal experience, and partly about the role the American bombing played in driving the rise of to the Khmer Rouge. This is still a controversial matter, but the balance of opinion seems to be that the bombing helped the KR by allowing them to depict the war as one against foreign aggressors in the heavens and their lackeys in Phnom Penh. I found the interview with Becker interesting, and that with Youk Chhang enthralling.

Did America accomplish in Cambodia what it set out to do? The first part of the bombing campaign was aimed at denying supplies to the Communist forces in South Vietnam, and it failed. The second and shortest part was to help prop up the Lon Nol government, and that also failed. The third part, the diplomatic war (if war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means, then the converse is also true) supporting the Khmer Rouge in the UN, was largely to pique the Russians and the Vietnamese, and succeeded. A great deal of misery for nothing.

And what was the cost? In the early 1950s and 1960s Cambodia was doing very well in comparison to other Southeast Asian nations. By 1992 it was in ruins, more like Africa than Asia. Only now is the economy getting back to where it once was.

I can highly recommend this book.

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Brian Gruber and friends in Kabul

 

 

Robert Bingham: Lightning on the Sun

lightning.jpgRobert Worth Bingham IV was graced by the malice of God with good looks, great wealth, and impeccable connections. To balance these he was born into a summary of Southern Gothic plot-points – father killed in front of him by an errant surfboard, uncle electrocuted while stringing up party-lights, grandfather suspected of murdering second wife, grandmother’s last words a wish for “a big pink cloud to come down and take me away,” which it did, on the spot.

Success came early and easily:

 [He] was published in the New Yorker at twenty-six and co-edited the most important literary magazine of the nineties (Open City). He was a nightlife persona, throwing parties in his downtown loft that brought together New York’s hippest film stars, musicians and writers. His story collection, Pure Slaughter Value, was lauded as the voice of a generation…

Then he went to Cambodia. Just why, I do not know. Was he suddenly overcome by the emptiness, rocked to the core of his being by the inauthenticity of the unexamined life? I think not. But he was obsessed with death:

 He would joke nervously about carrying on what he called the ‘family curse’. In a 1997 interview in New York magazine, he claimed that ‘the odds aren’t on that I’ll get nailed early because they’ve been used up’.

The Binghams who had not fallen victim to a violent end had a propensity to succumb to drink. Shuffling around a house stacked with pizza boxes, broken furniture and a television set that was never turned off, [Robert] Bingham spent the final years of college wearing rags and swigging Jim Beam straight from the bottle.

When sober, Bingham was a complex man: often abusive, occasionally violent, but also kind, clever and generous with his wealth (he funded one friend through film school and footed the bill for countless other projects that caught his attention). When he was drunk, the ugly side to his character was exaggerated, and even his wildest friends learnt to keep their distance.

In Phnom Penh he played tennis on the courts where Lon Nol’s cabinet were executed and hung out with the other death-seekers at the Thanatos Bar. Sober, he was great company, knowledgeable about Cambodian history, witty and charming; drunk, he began to scream and spit and the scary animal came out. He developed a heroin addiction, wrote for the New York Times, and helped start the Cambodia Daily. He was recklessly fearless, even pulling a gun on a Cambodian official extorting money at a roadblock. Out of it came a novel, Lightning on the Sun.

The plot involves aimless young Asher and his girlfriend Julie (no second names) who come up with a plan to smuggle a large quantity of high-grade Cambodian heroin into America. At the American end is a Julie’s boss at the strip-club where she works, and whom she double-crosses. At the Cambodian end is a Khmer loan-shark who Asher double-crosses. Asher and Julie are clearly not going to end happily ever after, and the end of the line is Kampot.

”Lightning on the Sun” cuts deepest when Bingham lets his wicked sense of humor wield the knife. … Cambodia is more expensive backdrop than truly engaged terrain. But, paradoxically, Bingham’s writing is at its most alive when it is most nihilistic, when he lets the devils play. Crime by crime, none of them committed for any good reason, he constructs for each character an anti-résumé. … Against privilege, he asserts haplessness. Against conscience, a faintly ridiculous stupor. In its way, it’s wonderfully anti-American.

 

 Sources

Chapter 1, Lightning on the Sun

Stacy d’Erasmo, review in the New York Times, April 23, 2000.

Amelia Hill, review in the Guardian, 1 July, 2001

Samantha Gillison, review in Brown Alumni Magazine, July/August 2000

Bob Wake, review in Culture Vulture, 7 July, 2006

Adam Wilson, The American Reader

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: Christophe Peschoux’s “Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer”

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Christophe Peschoux interviewing KR soldiers, 1993

Over May 4-6 1999, in a village near the Thai border, Christophe Peschoux interviewed the notorious Duch, one-time commander of the Khmer Rouge interrogation centre S-21. Duch was arrested two days later and has been imprisoned ever since for his offenses against humanity. By mutual agreement the interview was kept in a drawer until preparations for his trial got underway in 2006, at which point it became part of the public record. In the course of his trial Duch denounced the interview, claiming it had been extorted under false conditions. The charge shocked Peschoux, who devotes several pages to refuting it and suggests that the about-face may have been connected to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political campaign to eviscerate the international tribunal in order to prevent it implicating past Khmer Rouge who now serve in his government.

Peschoux, who was representing the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia, has now published the text of the interview “to put it at the disposal of those who are interested in the history of Cambodia and of the Khmer Rouge movement, and the role of that S-21 played in that history.” It forms the core of this important book, which is essential to any study of the Khmer Rouge period. Peschoux’s Introduction forms an equally important part of the story, setting out the context of the interview, the history of the subsequent trial, and a nuanced and humane sketch of a man who has come to be seen as a monster, the embodiment of inhuman evil.

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Comrade Duch

Duch was born in 1942 to a humble family in Kompong Thom province. Thanks to scholarships he was able to study at the elite Lycee Sisowath in Phnom Penh and the National Institute of Pedagogy, from which he graduated in 1965, and was sent to teach high-school mathematics at Skoun in Kompong Cham, where he was remembered later for his commitment to his students and to social equality.

But Duch had imbibed socialist ideas at the Institute and in 1967, as Sihanouk cracked down on leftists, he joined the armed resistance in the maquis (the forest). The teacher had become a revolutionary. In 1968, following a spell in Sihanouk’s prisons, he joined the infant Communist Party of Kampuchea and was assigned to run the security police of the “Special Zone” surrounding Phnom Penh. Thus began the next stage in Duch’s career, the one that was to earn him the title of chief torturer to the Khmer Rouge.

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Duch with staff and families at S-21, 1977

Duch’s work at rooting out Sihnouk’s spies seems to have pleased his superiors, for following the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975 they appointed him to head up S-21, the new party security office in the capital, in which position he was responsible for the torture and death of some 14,000 people.

S-21 was where the Party uncovered traitors within its ranks, and all inmates were Party members. Duch stresses his lack of autonomy within the system: he sent nobody to S-21, all arrests were ordered or authorised by the senior members of the Standing Committee, namely Pol Pot, Nuon Chea, Sao Pheum, and Ta Mok. Even this overstates the case, as Sao Pheum was distrusted by the other three and was about to be arrested and sent to S-21 himself when he committed suicide in 1978.

Nor, according to his own account, did Duch have any control over what happened inside S-21. His political masters expected him to produce confessions, and confession meant interrogation, both “hot” (with torture) and “cold” (without). Duch says he did not believe torture to be effective and wanted to dispense with it, “but the abilities of my subordinates were limited and I was unable to achieve this. … Sometimes, my subordinates used methods which I could not believe they had employed. … I learned that my former primary school teacher [Din Saroeun] had been tortured by insertion of a piece of wood into her vagina. … I was shocked…” (Peschoux notes that the torture and execution of his primary school teacher and her husband, and a handful of others whom Duch had known intimately and respected, were instrumental in his ultimate loss of faith in the Party and its cause).

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Duch with one of his aides, Phnom Penh, 1976

The point of the confessions was not to discover truth – the fact of arrest presupposed guilt – but to uncover “threads” (khsae in Khmer), the vertical networks of patronage and loyalty that give structure to Cambodian society. Every Khmer is either a patron or a protégé, and one man’s protégé is another man’s patron. “[I]f one person is considered an enemy, all persons linked to that person are likewise.” Once uncovered, the threads had to be destroyed. “[A]ll those who were sent to me had to be killed, whether man, woman or child, without distinction.”

Peschoux: “Even the children? Were they also considered as enemies?”

Duch: “Yes, even the children.” (Peschoux has a footnote: “Kaing Guek Eav averted his face, visibly affected, and plunged into his memories.”)

The interrogations and killings at S-21 can be viewed as a logical conclusion to the KR obsession with spies, played out within traditional Khmer client-patron networks. This explanation seems unconvincing: Cambodia is still built on khsae, but today’s leadership does not find it necessary to discover and destroy entire “strings” of real or imaginary opponents, including children.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 4.34.15 PM.pngPeschoux believes, as Duch came to believe, that what was at stake was much simpler: the cold-blooded pursuit of power. During the armed struggle of the five years before 1975 the various KR regional commanders recruited their own troops, who were loyal to them, not to the Party. (This, incidentally, has always been the way armies were raised in Cambodia; the creation of a professional army answerable to a single central authority is one of the unremarked but essential steps in the creation of a “modern” State). When the stage of armed struggle ended in 1975 Pol Pot and his innermost circle had no troops under their direct control, and thus were at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the zone commanders. Peschoux remarks: “One of the historical interpretations of the conflicts and bloody purges of the following three years sees [them as] Pol Pot’s effort to impose his direct control of the true power that was in the hands of the heads of the zones.” Duch ultimately came to believe that Pol Pot and his circle had no real interest in whether the people he interrogated and killed were really spies, but only in rooting out potential rival khsae. His reaction was to withdraw from politics after 1975 and, eventually, to return to being a village schoolmaster.

So who is Duch? In Peschoux’s words, he was “an intelligent, gifted, well-taught, and generous young man of modest origins, animated, we suppose, by an ideal of liberty and justice, [who] joined the revolution and became, little by little, a cold and pitiless torturer. … [O]nce the ashes of history had cooled and greater [personal] autonomy was regained, he became again an ordinary man, capable of exercising choice and moral discernment.”

Peschoux says of his first sight of Duch: “He resembled any man of his age, a benign Cambodian grandfather—timid, affable, and very ordinary. … [N]othing in his appearance or his manners suggested a devilish personality or character. He was an elderly, very ordinary former torturer.” The transformation from teacher to torturer had been motivated by the noblest of mirages, a world of justice and liberty, but it led Duch to monstrous crimes; when circumstances changed, he again became a teacher.

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Duch’s confession to Peschoux is certainly self-serving to a degree. It lacks the realia conveyed in this underling’s report of the interrogation of Kim Huot, Duch’s revered former teacher and husband of the Din Saroeun who was tortured with a piece of wood in her vagina, a report which was delivered to Duch in the routine way:

  1. In the morning of 18.7.77 1 decided to employ torture. I told the prisoner that I was doing this because I had not grasped the weak points of what he had said, and my pressure had not had any results. This was my stance. I watched his morale fall when I administered torture, but he had no reaction. When questioning began, it was still the same. As for his health, he ate some gruel, but he was not able to sleep. The doctor looked after him.
  2. On the morning of 20.7.77 I beat him again. This time his reaction was to say that he was not a traitor but that the people who had accused him were the traitors. His health was still weak, but was not a serious problem.
  3. In the afternoon and evening of 21.7.77 I pressured him again, using electric cord and shit. On this occasion he insulted the person who was beating him: “You people who are beating me will kill me”, he said. He was given 2-3 spoonsful of shit to eat, and after that he was able to answer questions about the contemptible Hing, Chau, Sac, Va, etc.
  4. That night I beat him with electric cord again. At present he is a little weak. The doctor has seen him. He has asked to rest.

To paraphrase Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, our sympathy for the murderer is not deep enough to accommodate either forgiveness or mercy, but we would do well to remember that he is a man like us. Or as Peschoux puts it, Duch’s testament is “an occasion to reflect on what this extreme experience can teach us about ourselves and our humanity, and what our humanity can turn into when crushed in the jaws of history.”

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Christophe Peschoux and Haing Kheng Heng, Itinerary of an Ordinary Torturer: Interview with Duch, Former Khmer Rouge Commander of S-21, Silkworm Books, 2016, 204 pages.  (This review appears in the May-July 2016 issue of the Mekong Review)

Nathan A. Thompson, poet

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Book launch 21 April, 7.30pm, MetaHouse. Available on Amazon.

MetaHouse, Phnom Penh, 7.30pm, 21 April 2016. Nathan A. Thompson humbly presents his first collection of poetry, 31 poems plucked from nearly 400 written over the last decade. They chronicle an early adulthood given over to drugs and furious pursuits, meditations on “the simple, spiritual things that promise salvation” (as writer, Shane Levene noted in his blurb) before resting in the groundless, ambivalent spaces of life. Nathan has been a committed writer since he was first published aged 14. He hopes this collection will be worthy of an appreciative audience.

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Nathan has written for the Guardian, Slate, Telegraph, Christian Science Monitor, Gawker, Vice, Independent, Salon and many more. He now lives in Phnom Penh, where he writes news, features and travel covering Asia. The range of his coverage is truly impressive (see the links below). I’m going to finish off with some quotes from an article he published in a magazine called The Fix, in which he stands in a Burmese poppy-field with a ball of raw opium in his hand and celebrates being three years drug-free:

I’m now three years clean from heroin. To the day. I didn’t mean to mark this event by smelling a ball of fresh dope like some screwy birthday cake. I doubt my old counselors would recommend this as a good place for a former junky to be. But I’m here to work. Not get high. Just a little bit? No… Definitely not to get high.

But I’d be lying if I wasn’t also fulfilling that old junky dream of walking through fields of bobbing poppies, watching fresh opium ooze from gashes in their bald heads. I’ve been fascinated with opium and heroin since childhood. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because I was a stressed child and, when I learned that there were these things called drugs that could calm my raging head, I was captivated. Still, I didn’t try heroin for real until I was 24.

Back then I lived in a small town not far from London. Mike the squatter scored for me. He smelt of rotten grass and bonfire. Inside the deserted hospital where he lived with a small group of anarchists and ne’er-do-wells, the walls were camouflaged in soot from the open fire they burned to keep out the winter darkness. Sometimes there was a blackened pot of baked beans simmering in the embers.

I inhaled smoke from a mercurial blob of smack as it ran down the tin foil. At first, I felt stoned. Then I felt nice. Really, really nice. I stopped caring about the damp, filth and soot. I didn’t care about the job I hated. I didn’t care about the nameless fears that fermented in my guts. It was a beautiful release.

The ball of opium is still in my hands. I smell it a second time. Heroin smells like this. A little urge lands like a soft punch to the stomach. Why not just break off a little bit? For old time’s sake? I hand the ball back. It’s a familiar pattern of thought and, after three years, it has little power. I don’t know if I’ve grown strong or if it’s been weakened by abstinence. The opium farmer, an earnest Burmese man with a kind smile, returns the ball to the only other room in his rough, wooden house. I check my Dictaphone and press “stop.” The interview is done.

The last time the urge to get high proved irresistible, I was at a screening of a documentary about the poet, Amiri Baraka. I had just returned to London after a stint in the countryside where I had managed to claw three months clean. As the crease-faced poet bawled lines to the sound of a squalling saxophone, I felt my phone vibrate. I pulled it out and angled my eyes down, “Banging gear, 10/10 quality, delivery on orders over two,” it read. I knew my dealer didn’t really have “10/10” quality stuff, but it was enough to start an eruption in my amygdala.

I tried to force myself to focus on the documentary. But it was too hard. When I left the screening I was trembling in anticipation. If I could just make it to the Underground I could put some distance between myself and the dealer’s area… But the phone was already out of my pocket. I disassociated—watching someone else dial. It felt good to stop fighting. As if I had been clinging to a rock and was now weightless in the torrent. “Nath? Long time, bro!” said the dealer.

My fixer and I are leaving the opium-growing village. I’m on the back of his motorbike. The road is red and winds through the mountains. As we round a Precambrian cliff, I see miles of rice fields below, glowing green in the sunset. That final smack session after the documentary lasted three days. I’m passing through those dates like the sun might pass through the Zodiac sign of the smackhead.

Sources:

Nathan Thompson’s website: includes links to his journalism

The Fix: Turning three years clean in an opium field

Errant magazine: 3 poems

 

Sex and the single colonial

ConseilsHyginene.JPGIn 1923 Dr. C. Spire published a little booklet of thirty pages with advice for Frenchmen – planters, administrators, itinerant adventurers – bound for Indochina. The tropics, he told them, were no more dangerous to the health than Bordeaux or Marseilles (a revolutionary idea at the time). Good health required regular doses of quinine, a solar topee, some walking, riding and hunting, and strict avoidance of camping out in swamps and casual liaisons with the local women:

 Venereal diseases are extremely widespread in the colony. The young European, if he is unmarried, must therefore remain absolutely pure.

Dr Spire then faces up to reality:

But with the excitation and the irritation of the tropical climate, and the laxity of Annamite morals, it is quite difficult to ask him to remain continent for many years. I therefore continue to favour, in Africa as in Asia, the contraction of local marriage in the native fashion, a temporary union with a selected Annamite girl who is still, as much as possible, within her family. This has its inconveniences, I do not ignore the fact, but it remains the method that allows the greatest possible reduction in the risk of contagion.

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Annamite morals, colonial fantasies: “The Siesta of a Young Favourite”

In the kiosk of a hotel in Ratanakiri I have seen, and deeply regret not buying, an antiquarian postcard showing a goggle-eyed Frenchman in a solar topee leering at a bare-breasted Cambodian damsel at her bath. Beneath was the legend: LES FEMMES! You see them everywhere, but take a grip on yourself, think of home and sweet Marianne to whom you would not wish to return with that which is unspeakable! (I made that bit up, but the general thrust, so to speak, is accurate: health was the concern, not morality or miscegenation).

Assuming that your young Frenchman did not stay pure, what did he do? In Saigon there was a modest red light district, but not in Phnom Penh – it was scarcely more than a village, with a population of 77 thousand in 1924 of whom around a thousand were French. There was no red light district. There was, however, sex:

Local residents served as intermediaries, bringing clients and women together in private homes. For those interested in Khmer women, in particular, a group of European merchants, Cambodian dignitaries, lesser princes, and palace employees served as go-betweens and occasional pimps.

So resident Europeans were all very discreet and well-behaved. The problem arose when the soldiery came visiting:

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French soldiers in Phnom Penh. The little boy holds a sign that reads: “A group of 8 friends, 8 November, 1908”

Accustomed to the more straight-forward practices of Saigon, their behaviour gave often rise to scandal. In 1881, for instance, French administrators faced daily complaints against soldiers who were “chasing women at nighttime.” Hordes of rowdy soldiers regularly accosted women in the streets, trying to grab and kiss them…”

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“Phnom Penh – young Cambodian girl” Jeune fille meant a respectable girl; fille meant a prostitute.

Thus were the modest beginnings of Phnom Penh’s  lurid modern reputation. The women were mostly Vietnamese, with only a few Khmers and Sino-Khmers drawn from the lower-ranking fringes of the palace world. There is, indeed, a book to be written about the royal palace and its inhabitants. Perhaps when I have the time.

 Sources:

C. Spire, Conseils d’hygiene aux coloniaux en partance pour l’indochine

Gregor Muller, Colonial Cambodia’s Bad Frenchmen