We called her “Madame Bang Bang,” although her real name was Kim Lay. A 60 something Cambodia woman. She was the owner of our Apartment building, near Wat Phnom and Psah Thmei (Central market), a few short blocks from the Mekong River on the edge of a wide green belt.
We called her Madame Bang Bang because our apartment building and the others she was to buy, were constantly in renovation. Banging began at 0900, usually finishing at 17H00. It was always the source of amusement to us. Where a wall existed one morning, by evening it had disappeared. Tiles that once lay in the foyer, painstakingly hammered away, gone by supper. You never knew what you were going to see from one day to the next. A surprise was always waiting. And it was usually always good.
It’s hard to forget the workers’ faces, rarely pleased by the tedious, dirty, dusty, hard work assigned them; twisted, disfigured faces, furrowed brows, scowling at Kim Lay who insisted on a job perfectly done.
Kim Lay was a hard-driving supervisor. Nothing slipped past her. She knew where the banging was headed and she was doggedly focussed on finishing. While her skeptical workers thought it all a tired, purposelesss escapade, they labored away. Walls up one day, down the next. It probably seemed useless.
I often wondered where she had learned building skills as woman in a man’s world. But most of all, I wondered where she summoned the courage to rip, bang, tear down and rebuild with such wild abandon.
Her management skills were innate. Someone like Kim Lay has to be born with them. These habits and behaviors are not taught or learned. They come with the territory, at birth. No doubt she was an unrelenting spirit in utero who kicked into life with such energy, it was to carry her through the hardest of lives and times. Surely, the workers were incessantly and regularly irritated. Never mind, Kim Lay took absolutely no notice.
Kim Lay in Mandarin (which she must be in part) means “Kim arrives” or “Kim comes”. Her arrival ultimately translated to Cambodia’s salvation, for it was women like this who would rebuild a gutted nation and do it single-handedly. Banging, ripping, hammering and cementing ruins back into one solid whole. If only Hun Sen had stepped aside and invited these women their rightful place with greater voice, the job of rebuilding a nation would have gone much faster and with far greater taste and attention to detail.
I think she must have learned about gutting buildings as an exile and refugee living, working and raising her family of 4 in Paris, where she fled during Pol Pot with her husband-to-be, one of Cambodia’s intellectuals who lived.
It is a marvel to watch the Parisian landscape being renovated. Ancient buildings survive renovations under banging, ripping, cementing and pasting. She must have seen these transformations often as she walked the neighborhoods of Paris in search of the next meal for her family. A city could renew itself, with determination and commitment.
I imagined the courage she summoned to bang and rebuild, lived like a fire inside her, leftover from birth. It carried her on her flight through Cambodia to the Northern Thai refugee camp. Whatever strength drove her in the oppressive heat and humidity of Cambodia, through jungle terrain under the deadly watch of the Khmer Rouge, with her 2 babies, alone, on foot to the Thai border, emerged anew with each bang, each nail, each new piece of tile laid.
Cambodia was getting new layers of fresh paint. Too much of life had been taken during the youthful years. On the cusp of when everything is vital and alive; when dreams are just in the making, ready and eager to be launched, Kim Lay’s generation lost them. There was no time now to rest or look back. It hurt too much. The hurt was disguised by constant motion, tearing and building, to bury the old memories and create new ones.
Paradoxically, our apartment and the entire building was filled with peace. How this happened is a mystery, given Madame Bang Bang’s active life. Each morning and evening, the safety and welcome of home was palpable. Tall windows and wide balconies let in maximum light. If one didn’t look to closely, the green belt almost looked like a personal lawn.
Opposite our building, on the far side of green belt, were old colonial buildings. Monkies from Wat Phnom often played on the telephone wires in front of them. And at 5 PM Wat Phnom’s single tourist ride, a gainly elephant with it’s master behind, ambled toward home. She occasionally stopped at the corner restaurant where she was fed old baugettes. If we thought ahead, we arrived in time to feed her bunches of bananas.