INTRODUCTION: Phnom Penh, Cambodia
Cambodia, Phnom Penh, 2001-2003, a couple of decades post- Pol Pot who gutted this nation and his own people, leaving behind in the rubble, fractured, bloody memories resurrected in the movie: “Killing Fields”.
This is where we lived. This is where we grew in love with a country and many of its people. As senior professionals, we knew the lay of a number of other lands, but not this one, a world defined by genocide. Present life was reflected in the bones of a city nearly 3 decades later. As development specialists define it: a “Post conflict” country.
We arrived in “post-conflict” Cambodia, under layers of dirt and dust with dabs of green dotted here and there, much of it heaped with garbage, filled with the stench of rotting fish, captured on breezes floating in from the Mekong. Certainly the poorest and least developed country we had worked and lived in.
The city, fronted by the Tongle Sap and Mekong rivers, added a singly special aura, a kind of magic that only a body of water can bless a city with. Glories of old France were known to have left their colonial imprint on the waterfront, along with the taste of croissants and baguettes, all rather highly overrated in guidebooks. To my eyes, the waterfront was an unkept, ragged, shred of old “Indochine” that laid decaying, claiming life between the cracks and rotting innards of its buildings.
It was a city begging for several hundred bull dozers, starting at random corners, ending at the junction where the Tongle Sap and Mekong rivers met. Here the whole chaotic city could have been dumped, forgotten and left unnoticed.
The frame of a city existed, devoid of its painting. A painting whose glory still bore life in the ruins of the ancient city of Angkor Wat, but which had been stolen from Phnom Penh. There might once have been beauty here, perhaps even hints of glory, but those were not readily noticable, except perhaps by a handful of devoted, aging Cambodians who had remembered her in better times.
Cambodia was a testimony of Pol Pot’s political ideals, inspired by Mao and Marx. His name was never spoken. Aged jailors and wardens of the Khmer Rouge still lived, walking, inhabiting and even ruling Phnom Penh, like ghosts haunting the decay they left behind.
A nation and people dismantled. Bereft of libraries, schools, hospitals, postal services; sewage systems, roads, bridges. Whose intelligentsia (defined as anyone wearing glasses) and any hapless urban dweller caught in between, were sent to work shoulder-to-shoulder with farmers and peasants in the fields. All were to be one and equal in this new scheme, a grand agrarian co-operative, designed and dictated by the chosen and self-appointed.
These were reflections of Phnom Penh as we explored her in the early months of 2001, banned to a far corner of the Cambodiana Hotel with our large, loving setter Isa. While Isa is gone, The Cambodiana still lives on, mostly frequented by Chinese. It used to be the single high end hotel (notwithstanding the ever-posh, colonial Raffles Hotel), where politico’s often swam in the pool or drank in its bar. Today, she remains the same hotel, but in the shadows of a growing number of chains like the Sofitel and smaller private enterprizes dotted everywhere on the ever-changing modern landscape, mostly near the waterfront.
Phnom Penh has shed it’s dust and the bull dozers have arrived to ensure a shiny, perhaps overdone new city. Its new buildings and landscape emerge financially on the backs of it’s larger and richer neighboring Asian nations. China one of it’s most generous contributors.
There is prosperity and hope in Phnom Penh air. While the politics remain steady under the iron fist of Hun Sen and his militarily American educated son, Hun Manny, the city landscape and businesses, including tourism, are on the move.
And it is here my stories of an older, dustier Phnom Penh begin. It is important in life to find meaning in what we do. Purpose in our existence. Something that makes our actions and presence matter. We must bring more than flesh and bone to this world and those we meet on our journeys.
Phnom Penh was not just another adventure, it became instead an unconscious journey filled with purpose and meaning. I can’t really explain how it happened, certainly I can’t easily explain why. It was in part, by joining the small, constructive daily acts of living beside those in a country recovering. Through the acts of living and caring, hearing and sensing, Cambodia became a pivotal life teacher. In reflecting on the tragedies and attrocities committed, the spirits left behind must count for something. And they did. It is on these shoulders a nation honors itself.
Reflected in it’s people, were often ghosts of Cambodia’s past, if one listened carefully. The stories and memories were the voices haunted by Pol Pot. It is perhaps only by listening, “hearing” these stories, that we, as privileged on-lookers and guests, might participate in a country’s recovery.
Knowing only in part what happened, bearing witness to bits of it, one becomes immersed in respect for those who live as their stories are left behind. Bits of the human spirit are recaptured in sound bites and in agonizing silences. By trying to be wholly present, we might appreciate fragments of kindness, the human softnesses that are swept away in the backwash of genocide.
Stories should not be forgotten. The Phnom Penh I love and remember, even though I had wished for bulldozers in the beginning. In the end, it was the chaos, stench, rubble and cracks that I embraced. It is where I will begin my story of Phnom Penh and it’s people. The ones’ who moved me and still do. These people and their city are what brought purpose. Knowing them altered life. Images, left in silence live on, of their own accord and of their own will. Eventually Cambodia will be emptied of its ghosts, when the last memory dies, but it will probably never be freed.
The story begins with one tiny man, whom I call “my tailor”. He of course belonged to everyone, I just pretend to claim more stitches.
CHAPTER ONE, PHNOM PENH: MY TAILOR
A chaotic row house ** located on a dusty Phnom Penh thorough fare, made its’ home to a shirtless, skinny frame of a man. The man I call “my tailor” and his family of 6.
Not an ounce over 100 pounds. Tucked inside a tight-fitting, shabby house, behind mounds of tailors shreds; into the night under one light bulb that dangled from a thin, shred of wire, allowing oversized scissors to make perfect cuts, “my tailor” worked into the night. A single concentrated gaze, as the scissor sliced through the uneven, rough grains. There was no looking back, no looking up, only steady, determined motion. Always forward.
His shadow, framed like a puppet, could be seen reflected in the moonlight. Gaunt, perfectly postured with sturdy spine, steady legs and strong neck. All held in proper position. Nothing in the shadow belied age. Passersby caught the cached glimpses as scissors moved, evenly, smoothly. With each calculated cut, stripes met at perfect angles.
Precision, in the absence of pattern, sleeves and cuffs were shaped. 3 small marks of tailors blue chalk, where buttons were to be placed, until all the shapes, corners, curves, gathers, darts, pleats became a perfect whole.
Solitude came alive at night after seamstresses and the MRS. had gone. Inside the silence clipping and snipping continued. Until all was finished. There was no tidying up. Quickly, the crabby metal door rolled down with a jarring shut. Leaving inside the bits and bobs that would be tomorrow’s breakfast for his family of seamstresses.
He seldom wore shirt or shoes. If weather demanded, a sleeveless undershit. Hair was uncannily consistent, carefully and whimsically trimmed. It was short. He occasionally rubbed his hands thru it. Sometimes in frustration, sometimes in amusement. Like his frame, it stood up straight and steady. Proud.
His eye color had begun to fade. Into shades of gray, those of aging eyes. There were few wrinkles and no fat. This man was cute. He gave justice and dignity to the word. By all standards Vietnamese or Khmer. Because he was, of course, both.
When the rusty gate lifted to greet the early morning, nothing had changed. The old wooden walls of the rowhouse lined with white butcher paper models, cut-outs of sleeves, collars and bodices, hung as if ageless.
One lonely chair exactly placed nearest the metal gate was barely recognizable piled high with fabric. It sat next to a raggedy stack of outdated Vogue and McCall pattern books. Chaos pummeled from every surface. Looking for a quiet place to sit, there was none. The rowhouse was the tailors secret. Only he knew every snippet or the whereabouts of the single chair. When called upon as if magically, whatever was needed appeared.
The fitting room was enclosed by three large worn curtains, burgundy velvet, and orange burlap, hung orphaned and deserted. They still compliantly opened and shut. With a modicum of effort. They could be held in place by a human hand, to squeeze in and out of a fitting. Under layers of weariness, they offered disguise from the passing world just outside. They were a landmark. Survivors.
It was as if the curtains were aware of their fate, unless they were persistent and stubborn, they too would be dumped onto a refuse heap as all the old, worn out rowhouses to left, behind and right were razed and shiny new buildings erected. The new store fronts taunted the tailor’s old rowhouse, pointing fingers and making fun of it’s shabby remains. A faded sign, barely visible, retorted: “CUNG TAILLEUR!” Mr Cung was to remain on that busy corner of a modernizing city, at least for the moment. One day the new Phnom Penh would be overtaking the tailor’s row house. It would be then I no longer wished to visit Phnom Penh.
There was a tailors work bench somewhere, like the chair, hidden under the chaos. It was unnaturally tall and wide. Out of proportion to the 100 pounds that commanded it. It allowed movement without bending and extra width to catch the overflow. An initial catch-all for fabrics being readied for life.
It could only be found by the tailor often too busy snipping and measuring to notice the growing piles. Wiping his hair back, so it stood straight up in front and with an apologetic smile, he would clear space for new business when it arrived, always unappointed.
There was a magnificent full figure mirror. Frameless with no signs of age. Proudly polished each day to reflect darts and seams. It stood ready, as the most prized object in the rowhouse. It reflected the opposite wall and the tailor’s workbench and was located at the entrance of the rowhouse where there was most light. It also reflected the road outside which ran in two one way lanes with a green belted center. A initial stretch of good road that lead directly to Pochentong airport, some 45 minutes drive away.
The mirror was a proud complement to the curtains, although they slightly demeaned its grace, the composition held this chaotic whole together. Like the fragments of Phnom Penh’s history, the mirror survived as did its lesser precious curtains; like the tailor who created life from the fragments of his day.
Tucked deeper, in the bowels of the row house, 2 small steps past the mirror and the fitting room, next to one barred, ground floor window, was the sanctuary. The place where the shreds came to life. Hidden from view. Away from the mirror’s intrusion. Shielded by the safety of the curtains, 3 seamstresses. One lonely ironing board. Familiar faces busy finishing what had been begun by the tailor.
The old treddle machines had been replaced by faster electric machines. Although the seamstresses didn’t seem to care. Their work remained the same. Seamless, perfect. Needles broke, were replaced and re-threaded. The tailor was occasionally consulted. Otherwise the rowhouse worked in concentrated silence.
Outside Moto’s, tuktuk’s and a few remaining old cyclos, peddled by as they had been just a decade ago by whizzened old men making a hard earned living. It Occasionally became the parade route to Pochentong Airport for sirening caravans of VIPS. No one looked looked up. Movement inside was always in silent motion.
INTERLUDE: The Family Addition
The only insult to the silence inside the row house was an oversized, generously fed, black mix of a mut. She resembled a cross between black laborador and mastiff with matching personality. She was the only visible movement in and outside the rowhouse.
Sometimes she housed herself in the back, behind the seamstresses sanctuary, where an old kitchen used to stand. Too dark to see in the shadows, but close enough to hear her growl when people entered she didn’t like. For no good reason, other than they disturbed her. Or she felt obligated. It always seemed an unnecessary welcome in an otherwise peaceful place. The humans inside rose only to bat her down or rough her up. Otherwise she roamed and nosed with license.
In a poor developing country, she was an unsual fixture. She was born unlucky: a female. And in regular, predictable cycles she bore her burden, usually selecting the softest, highest pile of wadded fabric in the corner of the fitting room next to the mirror just slightly away from the entry.
Her small furry products always seemed to come in numbers over 5. All of them black, all of them hungry and all-too-quickly mobile. Her escape route was close and wisely chosen. Once her lot of pups started teething and humans cared not to feed them, she would sneak out, leaving each of them to an unknown fate. The road to Pochentong had laid claim to a number of street dogs, surely one of them belonging to the tailor.
Comfort and privacy, for that brief period, before being shooed out into the world, puppies found play and their litter box, wherever it was convenient. And every convenient space was filled with something of importance, being brought to life. For the puppies, it was all usable space.
While humans maneuvered tumbles of fabric with difficulty, the puppies found it perfect, back to front and front to back, over, under, around—WHOP on top of. Often being caught in the rear by an irritated bare foot. On to the next pile to relieve themselves of lunch or dinner. Then nap. In tandem. Only once did my nose notice (with some disdain) what they had left behind. How had this been avoided more often than not?
For years momma dog continued an active life inside the rowhouse as her progeny over-populated the neighborhood. Until suddenly one year she disappeared. With the wave of a hand and no explanation she was gone. Quiet resumed. Causing one to wonder about the day Phnom Penh was emptied of human life. Ordered to the country where dogs belonged and people didn’t.
after the interlude: BACK TO MY TAILOR
Customers arrived with meters of fabric and ideas. They brought no zippers, thread, snaps, trim or buttons . These were provided. The tailor quickly took all measurements and entered them in a log. An oversized book with many blank pages. He noted the garment, the size and price. He added in his head.
He always said to me. “More? You have no more?! Bring on more! It can be done”. At least the tailor always thought so. Even if doubt lie under the chaos. Even if scissors had been sown last minute into a coat hem, needles left hastily in a sleeve. MORE could always be done. Even as the plane, some 45 minutes down the road, at Pochentong airport was arriving, MORE could be squeezed in the final minutes.
He glanced quickly at customers ideas, pictures or designs. His mind ticked nimbly, taking notes of the width and exact length of a sleeve, the drape of the fabric, the perfect button and color of thread, the depth of a hem. Ideas that would come together onto large white butcher paper. Free hand cut outs. Many still papering his studio walls. This was a world distant from the thin, flimsy, tissue patterns Vouge stuffed into assembly line packaging. The odd survivors of Khmer Rouge’ss wasted years, spilling over into the entry way chair.
He took notes but rarely of dates. Many things he kept in his head, behind the graying eyes. His product was rarely finished on schedule in an otherwise flawless assembly. Wiping his hair back, making it stand on end, in usual fashion, with little sign of embarrassment, “tomorrow”? As the plane waited on the road to Pochentong Airport.
He spoke French and Khmer. He wrote both. Unusual literacy for his age and time. There was never personal conversation. These mysteries were closed. Intrusive curiosity. For a man of his age, talent and lietracy? How had he survived the Khmer Rouge? What had he seen? What did he know? Where had he learned this craft? None of this was to be known. Not to the outsiders who stepped inside. His craft held the mysteries.
I loved the smiles, the small wag of the head and quiet chuckle driving off in tuk tuk with garments in hand being hastily stuffed inside my waiting suitase. As my tuk tuk made its way hastily on the road to Pochentong Airport. Always last minute, always a final stitch, the final race to a finish line. “SEE YOU SOON!! YOU ARE THE BEST TAILOR IN THE WORLD!!!”
I wondered if it was one of the few performances where he was both maestro and audience. A one-man play that he both wrote and delivered. Each punch line his. Like the applause at the end of a marvelous, compelling play, it was a small moment of glory.
On my last hot, humid tuk tuk ride to pochentong airport, the usual last minute race, I wished for time to stop. For this frame to be frozen. I had known the tailor it seemed forever. And he had known me. I trusted. He knew. It always worked as if by magic. Between us there was an understanding that transcended needle and thread. Someday he won’t be here. But I will know one of his secrets. They are in the clothes I wear.
**Rowhouses are narrow, relatively long accomodations where the family business is located in front and the family home is in the back. Certainly not large by any imagination, where all of life takes place. Side by side on long city blocks, row houses frame Phnom Penh city and its neighborhoods. Most have rudimentary kitchens, often coal in a bucket for cooking, certainly a TV, sometimes a spigot of water and if lucky, a pit toilet. In the back, the family lives, eats, sleeps. Rowhouses are practical by all accounts. A modest way to make a living while tending to the requirements of daily life and family.