The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

A day in the life…

I’m trying to take photos of what remains of the HIV community in Borei Keila, courtesy of talented photographer Nicolas Axelrod.

Borei Keila families evicted to ‘Aids Colony’

THE long-awaited eviction of the HIV positive families from Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila community began Thursday, with twenty families being taken to Toul Sambo, some 20 kilometers outside the capital.

Despite municipal officials claiming residents left voluntarily and will be better off at the new site – which has been roundly condemned by local and international rights groups as being unsuitable for human habitation – residents said they were unhappy with the move. Read the rest of this entry »

Picture postcards and the true collector

Joel Montague is a collector, and I mean a true collector.

Sure he has between 1,600 and 1,700 picture postcards of Cambodia from the French colonial era as well as the world’s largest collection of hand-painted Cambodian shop-signs, but you really know he’s a collector when he talks about and holds one of his postcards.

“It’s a little window on the world that people have ignored,” Joel, 77, tells me. Through his postcards, he reimagines how the French imagined Cambodia and traces the evolution of these projections.

The German cultural critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote of a true collector that as he holds his objects in his hands, “he seems to be seeing through them into their past as though inspired.” And Joel certainly sees into every postcard its distant past, imagining the sender, receiver, photographer and subject.

Joel is trying to renew interest into the French colonial era, telling me that too many historians have ignored the French influence in Cambodia. Benjamin writes that “to renew the old world—that is the collector’s deepest desire,” and though Joel is not nostalgic for colonialism, he is giving rebirth to these postcards, giving them another chance to tell a story.

Benjamin calls collectors the “physiognomists of the world of objects”—but a postcard collector is literally a physiognomist, interpreting the personalities and prejudices through the faces of others.

The Benjamin piece I’ve been quoting from is about his library and his enthusiasm for old books, and I can have those bibliophilic leanings as well. I suspect the first place where I’ll get to reunite my books from college, Portland and Asia will be the first place that will feel like Home and not some temporary dwelling. But I’m no “genuine collector”, in fact, I’d never met someone before Joel who was. For me, books are akin to souvenirs, but for Joel, I think, postcards are something more.

“Not that they [the objects] come alive in him; it is he who lives in them,” Benjamin wrote about collectors.

Read about Montague’s postcards here

Tooting my own horn

I won a Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in human rights reporting on Thursday for my piece on Cambodian men being trafficked onto Thai fishing vessels (Read it here).

The Phnom Penh Post also won the award for excellence in news photography for its coverage of the Boeung Kak Lake evictions.

In the category of local newspapers and small magazines published in English, only the South China Morning Post—Hong Kong’s daily newspaper—won more awards, and only the SCMP and PPP won multiple awards for excellence.

There are a lot of great local papers and magazines in Asia, and as the economic crisis sinks newspapers in the States, English-language journalism in Asia is getting better with terrific new papers like Mint and the Jakarta Globe.

It’s nice to get a reminder that the work we put into the Post everyday has made it among the best local newspapers in Asia, and the recognition is especially rewarding since the Post has been a daily paper for less than a year.

Remote control

All of a sudden, the cars and motos in front of me started swerving erratically, nearly resulting in a head-on collision. I was on Mao Tse Tung Blvd—one of Cambodia’s busiest thoroughfares on my way to an interview, and as we got closer, it became clear what was causing the havoc.

A young boy was driving his remote control car in the middle of the street.

The boy snickered as the cars zigged and zagged to avoid his toy, while standing next to him, a middle-aged man dressed in an all black Lenin suit guffawed.

Now, I don’t know for certain who lives in the compound where the pair were standing (it’s rumored to be Hun Sen’s nephew). Whoever owns it often leaves the gate open, and inside you can usually spot a Bentley, two luxury SUVs, a pair of identical Ducatis, and a metallic yacht.

Despite the developmental gains that Cambodia has made over the last decade, if you’re rich, you can do whatever you want. No one will stop you, and no one will dare drive over your toy car.

Phnom Penh takes a massive dump

Over the years, the Stung Meanchey dump has become a journalistic cliche. It has been written about, photographed and filmed, and as a result, the hundreds of dirt-poor families who work the forty hectares of steaming trash have become international icons of third-world poverty.

But next month the notorious dump will finally close, and the 1,000 tonnes of trash that arrive each day will be heading to a new dump located about 15 kilometers outside of the city, leaving tourists, expatriates and journalists in need of a new stand-in for the excesses of modernity (which the community, quite literally, lives off of).

Scavengers scour the dump for recyclables at the Stung Meanchey dump.

Despite the years of press attention, donations and NGO-run schools and training programs, life for Stung Meanchey’s residents remains grim.

Last week, Phorn Sreymean, 14, sprinted towards an incoming garbage truck, hoping to fish out plastic bottles and cans before the dozen or so other people clustered around the back of the truck get to them first.

When the truck lifted its tray, garbage rained down and the bravest of Phnom Penh’s scavengers – including Phorn Sreymean – stood right below hoping to scoop out the most lucrative recyclables.

Scavenging can be a high-risk occupation, especially for young people. In February, a cart on top of a dump truck fell onto a teenager, and she fell headfirst onto her metal pick, killing her.

The garbage fires at the Stung Meanchey dump are a long-term hazard, releasing large amounts of dioxins into the air, a known cancer-causing agent. Phymean Noun told me that her students often have skin, hair and lung problem, even though most no longer work at the dumpsite.

Yet news that the dump, which opened in 1965, will be closed has instilled fear, rather than relief, to the 1,000 families people that depend on it.

“I am worried that when this dump site moves I won’t be allowed to work anymore,” Phorn Sreymean said, adding that losing her current daily income of about 5,000 riel ($1.25) would spell disaster for her and her family.

Though it’s easy for journalists in Cambodia to role their eyes whenever an international reporter helicopters in and tries to capture the Dickensian aspects of third-world modernity, international attention has helped bring in funds to the NGOs that train members of the dump community.

Though Phorn Sreymean fears what will happen to her family when the dumpsite closes, she does not want to scavenge forever. She has another dream, one where the NGOs can help:

“Sometimes I am really disappointed with myself that I was born into a very poor family and have to work at the dump since I was young,” Phorn Sreymean said, “I want to be a beauty specialist.”

Co-reported with Mom Kunthear

A version of this was published in the Phnom Penh Post on June 3