- Sihanoukville Stories
Tr. Soyoung Kim 2004280pp.
Somsan, a “moto” taxi driver in Sihanoukville, lost his last twenty dollars playing roulette in the alley opposite Phsar Leu Market in the western part of town before it was three thirty in the morning. He reached into his right-hand side pants pocket, pulling out battered money: two 1,000 riel bills and three 200 riel bills. Under the dim fluorescent light, the small and crumpled bills looked pitifully reddish and bluish. Somsan put the crumpled bills, worth no more than a dollar, back into his pocket before leaving the dozen or so gamblers still playing. The dust kicked up in the wind from the front street of Phsar Leu was carried into the alley, leaving a gritty taste in his mouth. Over the last three days, Somsan had gambled away 1,000 dollars. That was more money than he could save for a year, given that he made a hundred dollars a month.
Somsan trudged out of the alley, stopped at the wide front street of Phsar Leu, and looked up. The sky was black, dark, and heavy with low-hanging clouds. With an unpleasantly humid wind from the Gulf of Thailand blowing in his face, Somsan stood blankly looking at the entrance to Phsar Leu, deep and dark like a cat’s throat with its mouth wide open. A cloud of dust rose once in a while, whirling around Somsan’s ankles.
After a moment’s hesitation, Somsan crossed the deserted street and walked into the vast darkness of Phsar Leu, which looked as though covered in a black curtain. While he walked through the narrow maze of streets, still objects in the market buried in darkness emerged slowly and faintly into view. The narrow Phsar Leu streets were deep in mud, and Somsan kept stumbling, even though he knew these streets like the back of his hand. Around the corner of one street, Somsan stopped in front of his father’s one-meter square stall buried in darkness. After his release from an Indonesian prison, Somsan had come to his father in Sihanoukville and inherited his job of keeping a night watch from the hammock behind the stall, looking out for thieves.
Somsan had been in that job for an entire year until he started driving a moto taxi after getting a Chinese-made Sanyang motorcycle.
“Thieves are afraid of people,” his father had said, explaining the rationale for keeping watch over the stall—although that wasn’t the case for all thieves, as it turned out. In Somsan’s one-year stint as guard of his father’s stall, two of Phsar Leu’s merchants ended up dead with bullet holes in their bodies, and one thief not afraid of people was shot to death by a merchant.
Though Somsan had bid farewell to his father’s stall in Phsar Leu, swearing to never ever look back again, having been fed up with everything about it—how he’d be frightened out of sleep by so much as a rustling noise and how he’d been soaked in muddy water when the place flooded in the rainy season—he would return from time to time, to stay up all night after a fight with his stepmother or half-brothers or when feeling depressed. Most importantly, Somsan hadn’t found any other place, at least in Sihanoukville, that gave him such complete refuge in darkness.
Somsan took out a cigarette and put it between his lips, but didn’t light it. He searched behind the display stand, boarded up with thick rough planks and covered in rusty chains and locks, each the size of a child’s head, and he found a small wooden chair. He sat on it, and tried to clear his foggy, sleep-deprived brain.
The angry face of Duyên, who’d been begging him to marry her for months, came to his dizzy mind. She was a thirty-year-old Vietnamese woman long past her prime as a potential bride. Every time her name was brought up, Somsan’s father would frown and shake his head. Though Somsan was far from an eligible bachelor, having wasted a total of sixteen years in refugee camps and a prison in Vietnam and Indonesia—time that had been no better than the murderous Democratic Kampuchea years that had come before—his father wouldn’t accept Duyên as his daughter-in-law. “Why Yuon?”
The term Yuon, referring to the Vietnamese people, meant savages. Having expanded their territory by encroaching on the Khmer’s for hundreds of years, the Viet were regarded by the Khmer as savage invaders.
“Don’t go too far into the woods, or Yuon will take you away.”
“Yuon will take you away,” Khmer mothers would always say to scare their children. The word Yuon carried ungrounded fear as much as hatred. During the Democratic Kampuchea years, Yuon were the people’s enemies, no less bad than imperialists, capitalists, or Americans.
Democratic Kampuchea had fallen, but everyone still hated Yuon in secret, if not outspokenly, as though they were creepy insects. How the Khmer felt about Yuon remained unchanged, even after Vietnam had sent 100,000 troops into Democratic Kampuchea, overthrowing the regime and establishing the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and then withdrawing the troops ten years later. That shows how deep-seated the Khmer’s contempt was for Yuon. Though half-Chinese, Somsan’s father was no exception.
Somsan felt nothing particular about Yuon, good or bad. Twenty years earlier, he had spent seven years in a Cambodian refugee camp in Vietnam. At the age of fifteen, he decided to follow his aunt’s family to Australia, against his father’s wishes. He didn’t make it to Australia but ended up in a refugee camp in Sông Bé. He returned to Phnom Penh after seven years in the camp, seven wasted years. He comforted himself with the thought that he’d been lucky to have survived that murderous civil war.
The Yuon living outside the refugee camp weren’t particularly better or worse off than Somsan living inside it. Some Yuon would envy life in the camp for the occasional delivery of relief supplies—even though half of them would be lost along the way—from such organizations as the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross, and other Yuon would regard Kampuchea as nothing more than a colony of Vietnam.
In addition to his deep-seated contempt for Yuon, Somsan’s father had another reason to refuse Duyên as his daughter-in-law: “Do you think you can take a Yuon prostitute for your wife and still live a normal life in Kampuchea?”
Duyên was a Vietnamese prostitute. Somsan’s father knew it without Somsan telling him because everyone knew that most Vietnamese women in Sihanoukville were prostitutes. But it wasn’t as though Somsan stood a chance of finding a Cambodian woman willing to marry a man like him who had nothing to offer, no money, no house, and no land.
After spending seven years in the refugee camp in Vietnam, Somsan realized that Yuon were no different from the Khmer. There were bad as well as good people everywhere, so there were obviously some snobbish Yuon who thought of Kampuchea as no more than a colony.
Somsan replaced his unfiltered cigarette, wet with saliva, and lit a new one. Everything around him sank back into darkness after brightening for a moment in the match light, yet Somsan could see, for quite a while, afterimages of the Phsar Leu streets in the black mud and the rusty chains around gray planks boarding up the display stand. From somewhere in the darkness of Phsar Leu, there came through those afterimages the sound of someone tossing and turning in a hammock, as if sighing.
It had been Duyên’s money, the 1,000 dollars Somsan had gambled away. Smoking his first cigarette in a very long time, the smoke going deep into his lungs, Somsan was forever sinking into the mud of Phsar Leu.