Cambodia Barworld Studies: Bar BanishmentJune 27, 2006
In ‘To Admire or Despise?’ I talked at length of the lingering bitterness, resentment, and vindictiveness that some men feel after breaking up with bargirls. But the bargirls, of course, share some of those feelings. And this often leads to other questions central to the labyrinthine complexity of the social relations of the barworld.
While the man’s psychological investment in the bargirl scenario gone wrong turns into a fierce hunger to see the girl degraded, the bargirl sometimes lashes out at her errant lover with screaming, crying, suicide attempts, and desperate ploys to arouse jealousy. Yet, it’s hard to say exactly what she expects to get out of her dramatic performances and vicious mindgames.
Sometimes the girl’s rage is taken as evidence of her genuine love for the man. Some men are wont to say that the girl never really appreciated him while they were together, that she needed the shock to show her that she couldn’t act with impunity, and these men occasionally find tenderness for the girl again and interpret breaking up with her as the tough love she needed to force her to stop acting like a petulant little child and think hard about her life.
But cynics might argue just as plausibly that what stokes the fires of the bargirl’s rage is simply old fashioned Oriental loss of face. Being cast aside by her boyfriend causes her to fall several rungs down the social ladder in terms of disposable income, and the fact that she was thrown away embarrasses her in front of her friends, and since she was seen everywhere for some length of time with a foreigner, and was probably at pains to explain that they were married, since that’s the generic term they use for any longterm relationship, she’ll be embarrassed in the eyes of the Khmers she meets on a day to day basis.
The weaker girls might be satisfied by this punishing you with pity, or perhaps with jealousy by flaunting other men in front of you, but the feistier ones, like my plump ex girlfriend, need to regain face by exacting a pound of flesh. No reunion can be completed without the man paying penance. So her friends will coach her to try to break his will, to get back at him, to wind up his heart, and she, having being spurned, vengefully clutches her velvet covered gauntlet. Once he wants her, she will put away the bottle of paracetamol and play coy until she secures some gold, a new phone, or has made everyone but him know she’s been sleeping with Johnny Come Lately.
But I digress. What is unique in her obsession is that she doesn’t want him to have ‘lady one more.’ That would make her lose face: he spurns her, without the slightest feeling, and she tries, by throwing herself off balconies, downing paracetamol, and stabbing herself, to elicit some emotion. But if not, she’s lost face. And then if he picks up one more, she’s been deemed, publicly, inferior, usurped, and has lost her privileges, which is especially hurtful if they were great and she lorded them over her friends. In fact, the nastier bitch, who was arrogant to the girlfriends of other guys (‘How much does he pay you? Is that all?’) or to other girls without boyfriends (‘My boyfriend buy me new phone eight hundred dollar’), is now subject to the scorn and ridicule of these other girls, all the harsher if her boyfriend has ‘lady one more.’
So a bargirl will go to some lengths to distance herself from her ex, to enforce a period during which he doesn?t have ‘lady one more.’ She can’t, of course, stop him from sleeping with other girls, but she can try hard to scare off potential girlfriends, by threatening them or smearing his name, and she can fight like a wild cougar to make sure he doesn?t have any little romance in her bar again. And this is particularly tricky because she?s employed by the bar, but so are other girls, who are there to meet guys and probably heard how great he was when she was still trying to make her life sound like bliss, and so these other girls now think he’s ‘very good man.’
So he has opportunities. In some pokey bars, this would be awkward. It would, to be honest, be rubbing her nose in it. In larger bars, like Shanghai, it’s a bit more discreet. But there is still heavy communication going on in the background, and all sorts of jealousy can erupt at any moment. If she still loves him, or wants to be with him for his money, she can feel that he’s spying on her, when she’s hustling guys, and she might want to keep up the pretence of being desperately faithful even after he kicked her out with a hundred bucks and she spent in a few days. Or she might think he’s rubbing her nose in it, and that might drive her to fury.
In any case, it often happens that a volatile situation develops out of bar breakups. Both the man and the bargirl might be bitter about the breakup, and yet he might still go to the bar where she works. Both sides will play innocent, and the man who goes and perhaps enjoys the tension can say that he was just drinking with friends, and it’s hard to prove otherwise. And it can be the case. But nevertheless, it does happen that the girl will take it badly, or both of them make scenes in the bar, and then there?s the question of who has the right to claim the bar as home territory. Should the girl learn to get on with it and allow the man do what he wants in the bar? Or should the man give her a grace period, where he vanishes from her sight, and lets her get on with it and get over him? And if he’s truly not provoking her, and she still has a problem, is he still, no matter what, partly responsible?
Finally, what, if anything, is the manager’s role in all of this? For, he is often called in to decide what is to be done when the girl, or in some cases the stalking boyfriend, has gone off the rails. Or a bit of both. It’s tricky. He has loyalty to his staff, and some of them could earn him a lot of money, but also to customers, who may be his friends, and some of them also spend considerable money. There are all sorts of pressing factors, from friendship, to work relationships, to the hard bottom line. And if he stands on the sidelines, which isn’t always an option, he could be watching either one of them throwing a wonky and screaming, breaking things, attempting suicide, attempting murder, and generally scaring off anyone who might just want to have a drink and a chat with the girls.