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Phnom Penh

Be Homeless At Home

· 东南亚,柬埔寨 Cambodia

Text/Photography: by Laura Shen

I spent my special new year eve this year in a Japanese restaurant in Phnom Penh, with Hanae, my kind friend and previous colleague in Singapore. It was midnight in Phnom Penh, 2 hours later than Japan time, when it is the biggest and most important festival of the year. Like Chinese lunar new year eve, Japanese get together with family on this special day, the Japanese restaurant in Phnom Penh turned to be a get-together venue for overseas Japanese here. As homeless foreigners away from home, the restaurant of home country functions as a temporary home to reinforce people’s identity recognition and common memory. A homeless foreigner as well, I felt I was more alienated in this small foreign community on this third country which is not home to anyone of us. I realize the best way to recognize a people, an ethnicity or a nation, is to stay together at a third place which is not home to anyone, when both sides hold the equally same identities of “foreigners”can their truest natures be identified.

As the possible only non-Japanese consumer in the restaurant, I am the only one speaking English here, besides the well-trained Cambodian waiters and waitress employed by their Japanese boss. After all, my East Asian face makes me look no different from Japanese, waiters keenly used those typical Japanese polite greeting sentences to serve me, and I responded with the particular Japanese way of nod and bow to replace my inability of speaking language. To many people, East Asians habour the same kind of looking, but within this group, I can still easily identify Japanese, Chinese or Koreans, depending on behaviours, dressing, expressions and personalities. My friend and I talked the whole night in English, which made us exceptional in this place, her compatriots looked at her in an odd way, I felt we were both alienated and drifted apart from this community, we have created a private space where we can smoothly communicate despite the established social limits. However, clients sitting around us were very noisy and sentimental, they laughed, shouted loudly and got drunk, quite different from their typical profile outside this restaurant, where they were always silent, polite and low-key. It is a strong contrast between the appearance and inner side, not like Chinese or Koreans who are consistently talkative, loud and emotional.

But the service from the locally-engaged Cambodian servicemen has really impressed me, they knelt down to order or deliver food to their costumers, quite well-domesticated by their employers, and they cried out those Japanese greetings sentences like an automatic machines, their behavior was strongly caricatured and exaggerated, their over presentation of politeness made them subordinate to masters. Costumers would like to ask whether the food is imported from Japan territory and what the date is. There is a strong hierarchy inside the restaurant. I’ve no idea if the servicemen could realize the undermined dignity, if they are willingly to, or have to, unconsciously.

Old French buildings have been transformed to be the new bourgeois consumption venues. ​

Old colonial architectures have also been changed to foreign embassies, or villa for the rich.

My brunch on Sunday in a French cafe owned by French business man. A reminder of the very romantic bourgeoisie Indochina lifestyle.

The interior of French cafe and hotel, the modern Khmer art deco.

The archaeology of Cambodia is dependent on French writing records, to a large extent. ​

Cham muslin minority students on a study tour in National Museum.​

This is not exceptional in Phnom Penh, where locals mainly work in low-end services owned by foreign companies. China has made the strongest statement in infrastructure and heavy industry of this country, the big brother and supporter to Cambodia nowadays, it is easy to find constructions projects, buildings run by Chinese state-owned or private companies in Phnom Penh, the luxurious condos, or even the real estate advertisement on the lobby of airport. While the best consumption and retail industry is in hand of Japanese, Japanese restaurants and goods are among the highest prices, Japanese products are still on the top end of industry chain. French, the previous master of this land, still plays an significant role in Cambodia today, it is still the beacon of hope in spiritual and cultural sense. The elites and aristocrats of this country are mainly French-educated and prefer to live in France, those who can speak French are esteemed, the French villas, cafes and architectures still reminded people of the cliche Indochine rèves. French occupy the majority of western tourists, and hold large amount of high end jobs for foreigners.

The multiple foreign country flags along the river outside the Great Palace signifies the welcome, or need, from Cambodia. After the historical trauma of more than half a century, the country can not sustain its economy independently, American dollar is the dominant currency here. Investments from China, Japan, Korea,ASEAN countries have constitute many industries. In the socialism history of Cambodia, the country is under Russian and Chinese influence, today, one of the largest market is called Russian market, and a signature road is named under Mao Zedong. Whereas for the local people, perhaps the best to make money fast is to join the authority. The family of Hun Sen, the prime minister, has amassed a vast fortune with stakes at least 114 companies in most of Cambodian sectors, and became the new tycoon of the country, which is very common in Southeast Asia, similar to Marcos in Philippines, Suharto in Indonesia, or Thaksin Sinawatra of Thailand. The authority public buildings are grand and extravagant.

numerous country flags alongside river outside Great Palace​

Socialis​m statue sculpture

Infrastructures of Phnom Penh is mainly invested by Chinese companies. This is the building project outside my window. ​

Chinese restaurants along Chinese community.

Central market is like a big bazaar.

The grand and extravagant government building.​

Luxurious condos are reserved for the local rich and foreigners.

Before the traditional dance performance, all the actors would hold a worship ceremony to the stage props. Sometimes I wonder what is the feelings for local people to be subordinate to foreigners on their own homeland, where they cannot be their own masters and be sovereign. But what I am curious may not be what they care the most, in their worship to their divinities, I realize they are a nation with their sincere and strong belief, that’s how they can survive from so much traumas and harsh pains. Not like East Asians from a Confucian society, it is very easy for Cambodians to smile, they are simple, pure, love to smile to strangers, optimistic to life. The humid and hot sunshine has made the colour of the city, as well as humanity, to the its boldest extent. It is unimaginable that mass massacres have once happened under this bright sunshine. There is a big massacre memorial place at the outskirts of Phnom Penh, I know it is very meaningful but I really don’t want to see.

Cambodia pays special tribute to Saga, the snake from Sanskrit. This deity is vicious, evil, signifies the extreme lust. The deity people worship is on the extreme opposite side to their belief in kindness, reincarnation in life hereafter.

Naga is particularly worshiped in Cambodia. ​

I have got rid of consumption and entertainment temporarily for a short 3-day trip, there are not much consumptive attractions in Phnom Penh, with seldom shopping malls, but the original handmade crafts. There is no city public transportation system, but tuk-tuk and private cars have replaced the function of bus or taxi. However the price here is not low at all, since U.S dollar is circulated as main currency here. But i have finally collected my favourite Buddha wooden sculptures, the painting from local artists, photography of 19th century Indochina, lotus tea, and handmade textiles from Mon tribe. When I saw the haze from sky on airplane, the numerous private cars on road, the familiar BRT bus systems, and the countless, endless, seductive goods glittering, I know I am back to my home country, again.

The local market

Handmade shops

Motorcycle is the main transportation tool in Phnom Penh

In a Khmer restaurant, I participated in a reunion of Hanae and her French friends after 10 years.

The End

Abbey Laura San is a creative writer on city, architecture, contemporary art and society of Asia. She reflects on how to improve life quality through aesthetic, literary, and philosophical way. Come to read more in

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