Dr Heidi Hoefinger completed seven years of research on the hostess bar scene in Phnom Penh from 2003-2010. She received her PhD in Media Communications and Social Science form Goldmiths, University of London. She is the author of the upcoming book Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia (Routledge, 2013).
Creating New Meanings of Khmer Womanhood
“Some girls make $60 a month; I spend $1,000 a month,” Trang proudly stated as she sipped from her chocolate Martini while relaxing in a Phnom Penh hostess bar. As if to emphasize the point, the sparkling diamond rings on her fingers were complemented by two diamond studs encrusted in her teeth.Trang, married to a British doctor, is considered a ‘success’ story – someone whom many other bar girls (a self-referential term) admire. This is not only because of her spending power and prestige, but also the financial and emotional support she provides to the younger, less experienced girls, whom she calls her “sisters”.
Although every woman in this much-maligned industry has her own unique life history, seven years of in-depth research into the hostess bar scene in Phnom Penh has revealed something of a common story. It is one that revolves around family obligation, curiosity, and desires for adventure, love and future security.
These aspirations and obligations drive the girls from the countryside to the cities in search of opportunity. For many, a sick family member was the initial impetus, but for others, it was also a personal desire to earn money, after seeing friends like Trang return to the provinces bedecked in gold, make-up and new clothes.
As Veata, 25, explained, “A lot of girls from my village, they come to Phnom Penh… [Then] they go back [to the village]… They pretty… they very white skin… they have gold… they have shoe… they have clothes… and I think I want to take care my mum. Support money to my mum hospital… So I come Phnom Penh.”
Upon arrival in the capital, the easiest and most fruitful job for a newcomer is work in a hostess bar, where the monthly salaries range from $60-$100. On top of that, tips and ‘ladies drinks’ (a $1 surcharge added to drinks bought for them by customers, which is then given back in their wages) can increase their earnings to as much as $300 per month.
In a country where the average monthly salary for a teacher or police officer is approximately $60-$80 (with no tips except for those gained through corruption), bar work is incredibly lucrative. In addition, it is a vocation that requires little prior education, and is considered by many to be more ‘fun’ than other unskilled employment options, such as garment factory work or street trading.
The more experienced women, like Trang, look after the new girls, showing them the ropes – skills like how to pour beer, play Connect Four and chat with customers. Most women arrive unable to speak English, but learn within months. In many stories, the bars themselves emerge as places of education, romance, freedom and alternative families.
When asked if she would rather stay in the countryside than work in a bar in the city, Sochua, 27, replied, “No. I want go back to Phnom Penh. I like to work.” Chea, 25, who worked in hostess bars for four years, admitted that she loved “being young”, “free” and able to do “whatever” she wanted.
Thy, 23, said her job was fun because she got to “talk, drink and go dancing” with her friends, and Mom, 28, claimed that she “loved” working in the bar because “I practice my English and meet nice customers”. In fact, the majority of the bar workers interviewed (a total of 125 from 2003-2010) said they enjoyed their work.
Of course, the usual complaints surfaced: tales of grumpy bosses or stingy customers, and of days when the women didn’t like being at work. Yet they enjoyed the friends they made and the financial power it gave them. All people who subscribe to a global capitalist ideology need money to survive; they work because of economic-based motivations. These young women are no different.
This is not to glamorize the bars – there are plenty of downsides, such as structural inequalities, exploitative bosses, large fines and gropey customers who are sometimes racist and rude. However, the bars can also be viewed as places of opportunity, which the women exploit in order to empower themselves and improve their lives. As Sochua pointed out, “My bar is good to me… Good manager… Help me a lot in ten years. Good money and good customers, too. I take good care my family… I buy two houses.”
Yet, because of their work in bars, these women are highly stigmatized by wider Cambodian society. And those who decide to supplement their incomes by trading in sex or by developing multiple overlapping relationships with foreign boyfriends – who have more access to money and power than they do – are considered srey kouch or ‘broken whores’.
These ‘professional girlfriends’ provide love and affection to Western boyfriends in exchange for gifts and financial security in relationships they view as “real” and non-commercial. They rely on the partnerships for their livelihoods and usually have multiple boyfriends at one time, but they don’t view themselves as sex workers, nor their quest for foreign men as work.
However, due to traditionally strict moral and social rules which require ‘good women’ to stay at home and take care of their families, be indoors before dark, and remain virgins until marriage, professional girlfriends and bar girls are seen as the epitome of ‘bad women’.
Drinking alcohol, wearing sexy clothes, staying out late and having premarital sex (though many bar workers remain virgins) can ruin not only their own reputations, but also cause permanent damage to their entire families. Women are burdened with maintaining not only family honor but also Cambodian tradition and culture.
Paradoxically, within their families, the ability to speak English, learn about life outside of Cambodia, socialize with foreigners, and use the internet to communicate are also all markers of prestige and status for the women. As professional girlfriend Chanratha, 24, explained, “My family surprise when they see me talk English… They happy when see my new phone… and when I buy new TV for family. They not look me like bad girl now… Now good girl!”
Chanratha’s comments epitomize the simultaneous stigma and praise many bar girls and professional girlfriends experience. On the one hand, they completely defy all the social rules of respectability, such as being submissive and ‘virtuous’. Yet the high status their families receive as a result of material goods provided by the women sometimes helps the women improve their reputations. In the end, they are virtuous for the help they give to their families.
One thing learned after years of conversations is that bar workers and professional girlfriends work hard to resist the stereotypes they face as a result of their work or relationships. They don’t want to be viewed as bad women or helpless victims of exploitation that are in need of rescuing. As Chea stated, “I strong… I take care myself, and I take care my family.”
And although the ‘success story’, Trang, may be symbolic of the materialism that some people use to stereotype Cambodian women as inherently greedy, she, in fact, filled the role of mentor and provider for many of the girls in the bars, and looked after them like extended family. There are countless other examples of recently acquired friends lending money, or offering up their homes to others who were experiencing suffering or violence.
These ‘virtuous’ women are resourceful and creative, and use the space of the bar as a place where they can experiment with their identities and learn about new languages and cultures. They then use the relationships that ensue as forms of security and pleasure in an otherwise difficult world riddled with poverty, corruption and instability.
And while they are adopting modern consumerist ideals, the young women are not entirely abandoning their traditional Khmer identities. Instead, they are reconstructing them, incorporating global styles and practices to create new, hybrid Cambodian identities.
They embrace ‘modernity’ and the freedom that allows them to earn a living in the ways they prefer, while at the same time, they are still influenced by their obligation and desires to materially support their families.
As Rattana, 27, explained, “The number one important thing for me is help my family.” And in this way, by acting as providers, bar girls and professional girlfriends are recovering their tarnished images and creating new ideas of what it means to be a ‘good’ Khmer woman in the 21st century.
EXPAT Regarding this Story: The side of the story that is skipped is what happens when they turn 40 and end up selling Mangos or stinky fish at the market. The girls have a short shelf life and that is skipped also. There seems to be way less success stories than this lady puts across. I think that there are many Bar Girls’s who rise to great financial heights only to loose it as they age. Getting old is a bitch.
Your comments are welcome and appreciated.
More Information: The riveting and beautiful memoir of tragedy and hope. This is the most inspiring book on the fate of so many Cambodian girls and the efforts to rescue them, a highly recommended read that will affect you, The Road of Lost Innocence: The True Story of a Cambodian Heroine
Video about this book and it’s amazing authoress: