Memoirs of a Grizzled Expat 7: Secrets of the Skin TradeJuly 1, 2012
Last time I half-jokingly referred to the place I’m staying in as a brothel and it is, but really if you interpret the term through western lenses it is very misleading, just as the term ‘prostitute’ is. There are certainly hundreds of establishments that would fit your conception of ‘brothel’ around the city – and indeed in every small town and village in the country but they mostly service the local populace.
The place I’m staying at is nothing like that. The girls start work at six and finish at two and apart from the cashier they are hostesses, meaning they make pleasant conversation and flirt with the customers over a drink.
If they do their job well the customers will buy them ‘lady drinks’ for which they get a dollar per drink. The ones who speak little English tend not to be too successful on this score but the best ones will garner up to ten per night which adds up to serious money.
If the customer propositions a girl there are rooms upstairs which are available for $5 per hour (that’s what I pay per day which makes me a disaster in terms of profit margins especially as I don’t spend much on drinks either.
The girls are entirely free to accept or decline a customer’s proposition and they negotiate their own fee and keep all of it.
I quickly discovered that two of the dozy motodops who loiter outside the establishment are actually the husbands of two of the working girls. They hang out to ensure no punter takes their wives out of the establishment, oblivious of the rather obvious fact that they do their work upstairs.
For a long time I assumed they weren’t really that stupid and it was a face-saving thing in the same way that wives here commonly accept their husbands’ infidelities so long as their faces aren’t rubbed in the reality, but then I learned the real deal.
I agreed to help one of the wives – she’s 21 and is by far the most beautiful and popular of the girls – to read and write an email. Some besotted idiot who had slept with other girls but not this one is under the delusion that she’s unmarried and has never been with any man (er, it’s a brothel!) and wants to send her money (and is trying to work out a way to do so without his wife finding out) so she doesn’t have to go on the game.
She wants me to help her open a bank account. I said I’d also ghost-write her email reply but she’d have to think this through a bit. Is she going to tell him she has a husband? How is she going to explain to her husband why he’s sending the money? When the fool next shows up he’s going to expect exclusive rights – how’s she going to square that with her husband?
The whole situation left me feeling somewhat uncomfortable but with the other men offering wholly unhelpful and unsavoury advice I had to help out when she turned to me.
Talking it all through it did become evident that both men really are unbelievably stupid, to an extent that it’s hard to have much sympathy for either. It gets worse: I ran the story by the cashier who told me that the girl asked me to help as she dislikes the cashier. The cashier helps most of the others write emails and many have two, three or even four hapless besotted idiots sending money.
Finally, you may recall I actually came to Cambodia on a specific mission and I haven’t said much about that.
I need paid employment to pay my way and unfortunately all the options involve working at the same time as any voluntary organisation might require assistance, so I’m limited in what I can do to help street kids at the moment.
What I have been doing is patiently and carefully sizing up the kids that work the tourist strip along the riverfront, which is where I’m staying. I’ve been quietly sussing out the politics and the various tricks and lines to part tourists from their dollars.
Generally speaking the kids are not always subtle but they are very smart and you cannot take anything they say at face value. I’ve been consistently making them aware that I’m no mug and I won’t buy anything from them ever (it’s the ‘minders’ who get all the takings), but that if they want to talk to me with a degree of honesty I’m interested and there are a few who have begun to do that. I also occasionally buy them a meal.
Most of them go to a school at 7 or 8 am for two hours for which they pay $6 – 10 per month. Some of them dropped out either due to lack of interest or lack of funds. For the latter I offer them an option; if they are completely 100% truthful with me I’ll pay the fees and buy their uniforms and equipment but they have to show me every two or three days what work they’ve covered.
The slightest whiff of bull and they get nothing more from me – ever. To be fair, as I learned from the beggars in Calcutta whom I was living with a year ago, a lot of the kids (and adults) don’t even know they are lying since they’re so conditioned to operate like that, and out of jealousy or malice some are liable to stir things up, and if I’m going to prioritise those ones fall to (or through) the bottom.
What sometimes happens is that the kid is honest with me but then an older kid or adult gets to them with a ‘milk the idiot barang’ tactic like claiming the fees are higher or that you have to pay six months’ fees at once; this is why I’ve taken my time to get my facts right and am taking such a firm line, but bit by bit I’m putting kids into school and by checking their English work afterwards in the late morning I’m giving them a little extra tuition.
Words: Andy Ahmed
Photo: Chris Coles (To see more of Chris’s Cambodian photos, go to Noir Nights in Phnom Penh.)