The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Hong Kong Phooey

I’ve left Cambodia and the Phnom Penh Post, and I’ve landed back in Hong Kong with Time Magazine. By and large, it’s been an easy transition back to a city with mass transit, dumplings, and the rule of law, but I’ve really struggled to explain my last year to people.

When people ask what was it like in Cambodia, it’s difficult to whittle it down to a few statements. Sometimes I ham it up for people, and Cambodia has provided enough adventures good bar talk.

I tell people I lived in a coldwater flat that overlooked the spot where a Scottish teacher was shot. I mention that I was punched in the face twice protecting a woman after being pushed off a scooter next to an old torture chamber. I sip my own drink and tell them about downing homemade whiskey with former Khmer Rouge soldiers while trying to smuggle myself across a border. I say that I once woke up to find a tarantula in my toiletries bag, that I rode on the back of strangers’ scooters to go places, that I lived in a house without internet (the horrors!), and that for fun I partied in abandoned mansions with felons.

This is all true, and these stories might impress the person on the bar stool next to me, but it doesn’t really capture what it was like living in Phnom Penh. Between my home and my office, there were four places to buy gourmet muffins. Danger does not lurk around every corner in a city with so many muffin options. I labor on this point, because if you understand Phnom Penh’s muffins, you understand its expat life.

There’s the all-white Fresco’s. With its sleek, minimalist interior and high-prices, the Frescos stand out along the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. It represents the Phnom Penh fabulous life. If you don’t look out the windows, you could be in a posh coffee shop anywhere in the world, and then there’s the Living Room, where all the NGO consultants and freelance journalists go on their laptops. Closest to my apartment was Jars of Clay that was always full of nice old British ladies talking about church. Finally, there’s Java Cafe which doubles as a gallery. Each stands for a different part of the expat scene: the moneyed who miss the luxuries of home, the small army of consultants and freelancers, the religious groups, and the art lovers.

At different times, I frequented all of them. My life in Phnom Penh is better described by its muffins than its muggings. But then again, muffin-shop monologues rarely make good bar talk.

Whitman and Journalism

In Walt Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass, there’s an engraving of the young author. He stares out from the page with a dark, scruffy beard. His hand is on his hip, and his black felt hat is tilted—he has the brash, cocksure attitude of a Harrison Ford character.

But on my paperback, there’s another image of Walt Whitman: a photo of him with a scruffy, white beard—a sort of proletarian Santa Clause. In it, the face of youthful rebellion has been replaced by a pensive gaze.

Whitman spent a decades editing and adding to Leaves of Grass, and the two different images of the iconic poet represent more than just his physical aging. As he got older, he experienced the world differently.

In the first version of Leaves of Grass, he wrote:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself …. and let sounds contribute toward me

And in the much later version, the poem reads:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it

Only four words changed, but Whitman changed the focus of his experiences. In his youth, his listening and learning is directed only to his self. As he became older, he’s still listening and learning, but it’s directed towards a creating something new, his ‘song’.

The life of the young Whitman and the old Whitman both involve learning and experiencing the world, but the later one adds meaning beyond the self while sacrificing the joys of experiencing the world for its own sake.

Now as a reporter, I’ve become the old Whitman, constantly trying to accrue experiences that could contribute to an article. I wish sometimes I took more time to do nothing but listen, but when I do, it has become impossible to turn off the journalist. Off hours, reporters are constantly listening to the world with an ear out for a story. Being a reporter becomes part of one’s identity, permanently affecting the way one experiences the world.

And what happened to Whitman between his first edition and his ninth?

I’m no Whitman scholar, but after he published his first version, he became a Civil War correspondent.

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.

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.

There’s a new Foreign News Editor in town

As of 2009, I became the Phnom Penh Post’s foreign news editor. I only reluctantly took the position. It’s neat being an editor at a daily paper, and the position looks cool on a business card. But it means fewer journalistic adventures to drug hotspots, tropical islands, or city dumps. It means less writing and photographing.

I’ll be stuck at my desk reading the wires and deciding what people will read (or ignore) the next day. Without any reporters under me, it’s just me making the decisions and a couple of subeditors fixing my screw ups. No more waking up and wracking my brain for a story; no more losing sleep over how to structure an article, and definitely no more hour long lunch breaks.

In college, I procrastinated by reading the news, and—like all college students—I procrastinated a lot.

On the brightside, my new job means that—finally—I won’t have to feel guilty about spending all my time reading the news.