Somsan and Duyên

  • onJuly 20, 2017
  • Vol.32 Summer 2016
  • byYoo Jaehyun
Sihanoukville Stories
Tr. Soyoung Kim

Sihanoukville, Cambodia.

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.


The early morning rain turned into a downpour but tapered off by late morning, still raining hard on and off all morning.

“Poor Somsan, he’s been hard hit for the last couple of days. I wonder where he got that much money,” Soktree, a low-ranking police officer and a regular gambler in Phsar Leu who just stopped by the house to take shelter from the rain, muttered as if to himself, shaking water off his hair in front of Duyên, who was eating a breakfast of noodles, slurping the broth. As soon as Soktree finished saying it, Duyên blinked her eyes a couple of times before she understood what he was trying to insinuate.

“I’ll tear him to pieces!”

Realizing that Somsan had gambled away her 1,000 dollars, Duyên sprang to her feet and dashed into the backyard, looking for the knife she used to chop firewood into small pieces.

Watching as she stormed out like a mad woman, overturning her noodle bowl, the low-ranking officer nodded, pleased that his plan was going well.

He’s dead meat, he thought.

Soktree hated Somsan, an English-speaking snob who used his ability to speak Yuon to hang with the Vietnamese and took advantage of others. Besides, Soktree thought that Somsan was too foxy. Not that Soktree would classify Somsan as a gun-carrying thug selling ganja or heroin as well as pimping. A crafty coward, that’s what Soktree thought of Somsan.

Duyên’s mama-san also saw her fuming. The mama-san’s face creased with stifled laughter as she crossed her arms. “What did I tell you? If you’re looking for a man, a full Kampuchean would be better than a half Chinese.”

The mama-san followed Duyên out into the backyard, but as Duyên glared at her, knife in hand and eyes narrowing, she quickly turned around, her face turning pale, her mouth pouting, and went back inside the house, into the hall.

With the knife tucked in her waistband, Duyên sped from the house on an 80-cc motorcycle, the heavy rain slapping her face. Though constantly spitting out rain from her mouth, she was seething with too much rage and hatred for Somsan to even realize that it was raining. I’ll kill that damn Chinese as soon as I see him.

Somsan knew exactly how Duyên had made that money. All the young Vietnamese prostitutes in the house avoided serving Western customers. They weren’t welcomed—not only for their looks but also because of AIDS, believed to have spread into Cambodia by Westerners who’d entered the country with the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). Duyên, on the other hand, being a thirty-year-old prostitute, couldn’t afford to be picky. Westerners couldn’t tell—or didn’t care about—her age, and, what was better, they would pay her as much as five dollars, sometimes even ten on her lucky days.

Although chosen without shame for the purpose of surviving, and sometimes making money, prostitution wasn’t an honorable profession anywhere. That was why her mother had left Vietnam, to bring Duyên to Sihanoukville, Cambodia. Prostitution with Westerners, in particular, was considered the job of the lowest of prostitutes. Duyên had made 1,000 dollars from that lowest of jobs before giving it to Somsan.

“Look, a 3,000-dollar house is on the market in Mithona.”

When Somsan had said this to her a week earlier, Duyên was secretly excited. Mithona was the street leading to the beach between downtown and the pier. On the top of the hill, about two hundred meters to the left of that street, there was a small, poor village of about twenty households. Duyên thought she wouldn’t mind living there, even though it was a shabby neighborhood with steep paths and no electricity, as long as she could be brought out of prostitution.

After Somsan told Duyên that he was 1,000 dollars short, he mentioned that the price of the house could possibly rise at least to 10,000 dollars in a few years, and he also promised that he would register the house in her name. Even if he hadn’t done either, she would still have willingly given him 1,000 dollars, essentially her entire fortune.

“Buy the house, save up some money, and we’ll get married in six months,” Somsan remembered to assure Duyên once he’d pocketed her 1,000 dollars.

While Duyên was combing Ochheuteal and Sokha beaches, Somsan’s house in Ekareach, the downtown bus terminal, the pier, even Hun Sen Beach, and every nook and cranny of Sihanoukville to find him, Somsan was hiding in Phonery’s house, located in Phum Thmey by the pier. He would’ve been confronted with Duyên’s firewood-chopping knife, had it not been for the rain pouring down on him, fast asleep in the hammock after staying up for three days. Fortunately for Somsan, it had roused him out of sleep, and he fled to Phum Thmey in the early morning, feeling that Duyên might come looking for him.

Phum Thmey was the quayside red-light district that Somsan sometimes visited. Phonery was the host of the house to which Somsan brought guests, each for a dollar in commission. On rainy days, the Phum Thmey streets were filthy as a cesspool, muddy and reeking of rotting fish. After hiding his motorcycle behind Phonery’s house, Somsan entered the plank-walled room and fell into a sleep from which he didn’t wake until past noon.

When he did wake up, Somsan felt hungry, his mind muddled. He wasn’t lying when he said he would buy that house in Mithona. The problem was simply that he hadn’t had the 2,000 dollars in the first place. Worse, he had been unlucky. Given some luck, there was no reason he couldn’t have tripled the 1,000-dollar investment.

Staring up at the exposed ceiling of wooden planks, Somsan sighed, shaking his head in his disgust at his bad luck, which he felt he’d been cursed with for almost all his life.

In the year that saw Khmer Rouge advance into Phnom Penh, Somsan was only eight years old. Some years earlier, when quite a few US air raids continued throughout, a B-52 had dropped a bomb, sending shrapnel flying around the field where Somsan’s mother had been working, killing her on the spot. Later that year, Somsan’s family left their home in Ta Keo for Phnom Penh, where they settled down near Phsar Thmey and had been eking out a living.

Only a few days after Phnom Penh fell, the new regime started evacuating the city. For many days, Somsan’s family moved through the country, walking all the way via Battambang to a collective farm in Sisophon, not far away from the border with Thailand. One of Somsan’s aunts died of malnutrition in Sisophon, but everyone else survived not only that arduous journey on foot from Phnom Penh to Sisophon but also the three-and-a-half years of Democratic Kampuchea, when people were treated as though a human life were worth less than a water buffalo’s. Once the Vietnamese army came as far up as Sisophon by way of Phnom Penh, everyone in Somsan’s family returned to Phnom Penh, where Somsan attended school for five months, the thirty-five-year-old’s only education.

The following year saw the breakup of his family: Somsan, his two half-brothers, two aunts, and grandmother left for Saigon, Vietnam, after receiving word from his uncle, who had emigrated to France. Ten months later, Somsan and the others were sent from Saigon to a refugee camp in Sông Bé, where Somsan spent seven years. After those seven years, Somsan returned to his father in Sihanoukville, and tried to go to Australia via Indonesia but ended up in the Galang Refugee Camp for another six years. At the end of his six-year stint and right before his imminent repatriation, he escaped and spent the next six months wandering from place to place in Kalimantan before he was caught by the Indonesian police and sent to prison in Jakarta for a year. Again, he returned to Sihanoukville after his release.

Given that he spent fifteen years in refugee camps and prison, Somsan thought he had been unlucky. After the refugee camp in Sông Bé, one of his aunts had gone to live in Australia and one of his half-brothers to France. But Somsan had ended up back in Cambodia.

In Phonery’s small room, where dim light was seeping through the door cracks, Somsan took his passport out of the small bag he always carried, tucked carefully inside his belt. A Cambodian passport with the red cover. It had cost Somsan a whopping hundred dollars. Twenty to bribe someone for an ID card and eighty to get himself all the way to Phnom Penh and stay for two days. Printed in France, his passport looked spotless and sturdy.

Six months earlier, Somsan had met a Vietnamese man from France, a passenger on his moto for two days. Supposedly a manager of a clothing wholesale business in Marseille, he sent Somsan a letter four months later, explaining that his boss was looking for a clerk for a clothing shop in that city and that he would like to invite Somsan over if he, Somsan, was interested in that job. Though not entirely convinced, Somsan wrote back the next day, promising to work his fingers to the bone if offered the job. A week later, he set out to get a passport. The Vietnamese man of Marseille had yet to reply.

Do they no longer need a clerk? Somsan wondered. He said the job paid 1,000 dollars a month.

Somsan opened his passport to the first page and studied his photograph and the information on it. The name on his passport was “Ping,” a Chinese name. He had decided to use it because his aunt and nephew by the same name had emigrated to America. Every time he looked at that name, Somsan felt his faith growing stronger, faith that he could actually leave Cambodia this time. Somsan was caressing his passport, trying to feel less depressed, when the door opened and Phonery, the crippled former Khmer Rouge member, stepped inside.

“Now you’re in serious trouble,” Phonery barked, his eyes glaring. “I can’t believe you’ve gambled away a Vietnamese chick’s money, 1,000 dollars at that! Incredible! A chick named Duyên has just been to Phum Thmey, looking for you everywhere. With a knife in her waistband! If I’d told her you were here, you’d be dead by now.”

As Somsan sat up from the bed, Phonery plopped down on its edge, slapping him on the back of his head, as if trying to knock some sense into him.

pp. 9-13, 19–25



Translated by Soyoung Kim


Author's Profile

Yoo Jaehyun is a novelist and journalist. Deeply interested in Asian history and culture, he has published several books on the topic. Yoo has also published seven titles as part of the reportage series On the Road based on his experiences in Asia, Eastern Europe, USA, Israel, Palestine, and Cuba.