Posts Tagged ‘Cambodia’

“Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist” Vol. 9

Monday, October 17th, 2016

With this ninth installment, Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo continues “Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist,” a travel series focusing mostly on art, literary exhibitions, and “artist areas” around Asia (and perhaps beyond).

Art Spaces in Phnom Penh

Spoken Space

We (you and I, let’s say) stroll along Street 308, an “up and coming” (read: gentrifying) area of Phnom Penh, speckled with packs of foreigners and tourists armed with open-carry bottles of wine and thin needles of hash, their bodies attached to tall resident walls like seaweed wavering to and fro against a stream. The street directs us to the dawdling Mekong river that flows from southwest China, bordering Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, before drifting through Phnom Penh and into Vietnam.

But the street comes to an end at Cloud bar, a “unique culture, art and music venue,” according to the googlemaps reviews I looked up, which also recommend the “excellent homemade punch.”

We squeeze into the back row of a shark-fin shaped room, where Kosal Khiev, the renowned refugee spoken word artist, will perform. A refugee to America at one year old, tried as an adult at sixteen for attempted murder, imprisoned for fourteen years, and at thirty-two, named an “alien” and forcibly deported to Cambodia, Kosal’s very survival is stunning. That his heart still beats after so much pain, that his mind still functions after fourteen years in prison, that his head still holds high after eight months in solitary confinement. That he’s not only here, but that he exudes a force both calming and energetic, alluring yet visceral.

Kosal Khiev

Kosal Khiev from "Why I Write"

One of Kosal’s students, Conrad, introduces him as a survivor: “He was one of the survivors of the Khmer Rouge, he was a survivor of the war, he was a survivor of freedom, of the American dream, whatever you want to know, he is a survivor of violence, more importantly he’s a survivor of the system.” Conrad mentions Kosal’s community work, too long to list for a simple introduction. What comes first? His mentorship of young artists? His work with Cambodian children? His national stardom at the 2012 Olympiad? His starring role in the documentary Cambodian Son? In a city that has become a symbol of survival, he is its offspring.

Kosal takes the stage. He’s a scrawny man in a black hat and black T-shirt. He makes room for himself, removing the microphone stand, the lectern, the chairs, forcing a circular space where he can spread his tattooed limbs. Then the words flow out of him in a soulful song, “I’m on a midnight ride on a rail of a beaten down trail / I got my hat down low and I just made bail,” then the words push us down, submerging us, his rhymes splitting us against a barnacled floor more shallow than we could see from above:

call me a murderer, a homicide, I just died by a pack of wolves dressed up as the uniformed service, a flock of crows purposefully moving with guilty verdicts, executing and shooting anyone moving with purpose.

Kosal Khiev

Kosal lunges out, hands shaped like glocks towards the sky, words charging in bullets. His face captures us, dense in desperation and prayer, wrinkled from an age apart.


Dancing Space

It’s Kosal’s face that haunts us as we jump into a tuk-tuk towards the weekly drag show at Blue Chilli’s bar. The show has become a ritual jaunt in Phnom Penh, an event that pleads to us more than the killing fields, the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, the markets, the river itself. Speaking of: our driver follows the Tonle Sap river north, against its stream, passing hand-in-hand pedestrians, jostling youth, and women exercise-dancing near the river walk. I watch the water’s unstable darkness and remember there is a drought in Cambodia’s countryside. The worst in fifty years, the dry wind and dust has left tens of thousands in need of water and food.

Naked colored bulbs welcome us into a rectangular bar overflowing with alcohol. We watch the queens slam things into the ground: their heels, their asses, their wigs. We drink and shout to new friends over loudspeakers. We duck below coiled wires leading to electric lights. We grip each other, facing the dancers like flags fluttering in trade winds.

Miga, the queen of Blue Chilli, takes the stage with a looming intensity. Her eyes flutter. Her body seems weightless as she breezes up and down a silver pole. Like Kosal she wears black–black dress, black bouquet. You spy something odd about her hat–not a hat, but a revolver, held onto her hair like a perched bird. We can’t help but gawk at it–a symbol of American cowboys, of violence, whisked easily into a drag queen’s ornament.


Like Kosal, Miga has been a community pillar. The amount of events she headlines, teaches at, and supports, is a testament to what the “community artist” can really do. Her pride in drag coupled with her unstoppable talent and energy has made her a powerful symbol for the LGBT community. She is a drag queen who has appeared on national television and hosts fashion events. Her makeup tutorials have brought her to issues of wildlife (The Jungle Project), and her fem performances have brought her to breast cancer awareness groups. Given this dedication, it’s no surprise that she has also been violently attacked in clubs by, as she calls it, “people who hate sissys.”

I Am What I Am

Miga featured in the 2015 campaign, "I Am What I Am"

After Miga’s performance, we share a dinner with her, now going as ‘him.’ He says he’s never met Kosal Khiev. We ask if the two worlds collide–one of spoken word American exiles, the other of queer Cambodian revolt. Perhaps it’s a sign of my American-ness that I see them as part of the same project, both of them upending the tired, toxic tides of masculinity. They fire not with bullets, but with words and make-up. Their audiences may be separate, but they’ve both become symbols of hope, having lived through hardships that, in the West, are often summarized on the back of a memoir’s book-jacket. And their talent has to be seen to be believed. It makes me wonder what happens to less talented artists in this city. Surely, many had gone lost while trying.

As we talk to Miga, I notice he never uses the word “survive.” He explains himself without this word. He has no lovers, but loves only his passions, his community work, his performance art, and his full time job as a barista. All of this, and he never makes it sound like a struggle. These things bring him life. It’s not merely a way to survive–but to survive well, to inspire, and to exclaim: “We are here.”

Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist StudiesDrunken BoatTayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.

“Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist” Vol. 3

Friday, March 11th, 2016

With this third installment, Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo continues “Stamped: Notes from an Itinerant Artist,” a travel series focusing mostly on art, literary exhibitions, and “artist areas” around Asia (and perhaps beyond).

Phnom Penh’s Blue Chilli Drag

You arrive in Phnom Penh expecting the New Golden Age. The talk is everywhere. You’ve followed Cambodian artists on Facebook, seen the advertisements for Phnom Penh on backpacker rows in Bangkok and Chang Mai, and in Siem Reap, on your way down Pub Street, you heard the news: Phnom Penh is back. Cambodia is no longer just Angkor Wat.

I imagine this is how a lot of the white tourists came to be here, dancing beside me on Street 272, here to stay for an eleven-hour-long street party. Next to me Kid Rock-like live music drowns out the car horns from near the Independence Monument. Electronic music spills out of every nearby doorway. Every face around me is white. I see white arms sticking up from tank tops; there are more white people in a single place than I have seen since I moved to Asia two years ago. The banner above me reads “Golden Street Party,” and I think, if this is Phnom Penh’s new golden age, what kind of age is coming next?

Eager to move, I climb a stairway up to a well-known club that doubles as a hostel hang out. Inside, tank-topped backpackers, holding bright red balloons, sprawl out on bean bags. Every now and then they kiss the balloons to suck in more nitrous oxide. For better or worse, at least here are some black people I can stand nearby and not feel like part of the monochrome street.

From the balcony I spot street vendors selling kebabs and gyros. I watch dancing backpackers surround a refrigerator-sized tank of Angkor beer, with a sign that reads: ALL YOU CAN DRINK! I watch the backpackers and NGO workers circling around the tall silver canister, handing in their plastic cups, then picking up their beers, then circling, circling, circling, until they arrive back at the vendor where Cambodian waiters give them a refill. I become mesmerized by the pacing, a vortex pleading for me to jump.

Unable to go on in the vortex, I hail a tuk-tuk taxi to the Blue Chilli gay bar, where something completely different is happening. Yes, music also spills out into the street, but it’s not electronic dance music. It’s love songs from pop divas like The Temptations and Lady Gaga. Lounging outside, I meet the expat gays: a man from America, who currently lives in Tokyo and speaks fluent Japanese, and another man from Sweden who is dating one of the dancers. I meet artists from all around Cambodia, ballet dancers, traditional dancers, and a modern dance choreographer from Los Angeles who runs a Cambodian dance crew in America.

Hot like a Chilli

At Blue Chilli, Saturday night, like the two nights before it, is drag night. The woman dancing in a black shiny tank top and webbed leggings levitates over us, held afloat by three half-naked back-up dancers. She pulses out a Beyoncé song, asks “Who runs the world?” and the mixed crowd of Cambodians, travelers, men, women, gays, lesbians, chuggers, sippers, and perhaps people high on nitrous oxide, all belt along: “girls!”

“Who runs this mother–?”

I find that word, “girls,” lunging out of me. My voice comes out, chanting with the crowd, some of us raising our fists, others our drinks. We chime along with the songs we’ve heard a thousand times, tunes that never really connect until you’re chanting them with a woman clung into place by three shirtless men, lyrics that never really register until you hear them sung by a queen bathed in green light, splashing the air with the whip of her fingers, her high heels slamming onto the bar top as the disco lights above her pierce your eyes, when all you want to do is gaze.

Only blocks away, Kid Rock imitators perform for a full crowd of over-oxygenated white backpackers. The contrast isn’t stark, it’s cosmic. Another world, another planet, but not another age.

See Blue Chilli Bar

Prose Editor Kawika Guillermo spends his days traversing around Asia, with Hong Kong as his beloved base. His fiction has appeared in Feminist StudiesDrunken Boat,Tayo, and The Hawai’i Pacific Review. His debut anti-travel novel, Stamped, will be published in Spring 2017 by CCLaP Press.