Into Cambodia 3

The situation looked even less promising when Valas arrived on the evening plane and we went down to the cercle together. The first piece of news that greeted him was that a business friend had been shot dead, two miles from the town’s centre, and a few minutes later we were drinking with a man who had been captured by a band of Issarak nationalists. This man, a schoolteacher, had been saved by his Sino-Cambodian chauffeur, who had convinced the Issarak in an argument lasting several hours, that his master, quite accidentally, observed the five virtues – proved by the fact that he accepted poor pupils without payment – and should be spared. He was, therefore, held prisoner, while the Issarak went for rides in the car until the petrol was used up, when they set him free, leaving him with the car.
On the next day’s programme was a visit arranged by the enthusiastic members of the local information centre to the headquarters of General des Essars, who was in command of the French Army in Cambodia. I decided that if anyone knew what the prospects of getting to Laos were, it would be the General and that these preoccupations might, therefore, be postponed for that day
Phnom Penh was one of those synthetic Chinese towns with all the warm glitter so cheering to the hearts of Sunday night Coventry Street crowds. The Chinese are not interested in South-East Asian towns until they have reached on their own initiative a certain level of population and prosperity. They then descend like a flock of gregarious birds, galvanising its life with their crow-like vitality. The feeble shoots of local culture wither away and what remains is a degenerate native slum round the hard, bright, self-contained, Chinese core. Valas and I went to look for the Cambodian ballet. In addition to the King’s private troupe there had been another in a fairly flourishing state as late as 1946 when Valas had lived there. We found the house, but it was empty, and neighbours said that the corps de ballet had disbanded. It evidently couldn’t compete against such attractions as ‘Arsenic et Vieille Dentelle’, currently showing at one of the Chinese cinemas.
But Madame Shum’s was still going strong. Madame Shum’s is Phnom Penh’s leading opium den, or salon de desintoxication as they are now, with a kind of prim irony, renamed. The salon was a great bamboo shack among the trees, its empty window-apertures glowing feebly with deathbed light. In these romantic surroundings the raffish elite of Phnom Penh meet together at night over the sociable sucking of opium pipes.
We were received by Madame herself, who possessed all the calm dignity of her social position. There was evidently a certain snob value in being on calling terms with the head of the house, comparable to the privilege of being allowed to address a well-known head-waiter by his Christian name. The rank and file of patrons were dealt with by under¬lings, but the socially prominent always made a point of calling at the administrative headquarters to present their compliments to Madame. We were served with highballs on the veranda while Madame showed us the latest portrait of her son, who was studying medicine in France, and of her daughter, an extremely beautiful girl of seventeen who was at college in Saigon. They were by different French fathers, she mentioned. Valas produced the formal banter the occasion demanded, including mild, chivalrous overtures to Madame herself and a request for the daughter’s hand.
One went to Madame Shum’s, Valas said, first because it was the thing to do, and secondly because you met all kinds of business and other contacts there. We did in fact run into one man who hoped we might be induced to buy a certain American car from him. He had imported this car with a particular client in mind, a wealthy Chinese, who, since it was the only one of its kind in Indo-China and loaded with chromed accessories, was expected to jump at the chance. Before seeing it the Chinese had asked all the questions covering the essentials. Was it fitted with radio? — Yes. Press button hood-operation? – Yes. Parking and pass-lights? – Yes. Two-tone horn? – Yes. Air-conditioning? – No, but it could be fitted. Only at the last moment when the man was sure the sale was in the bag had he turned up with a tape-measure. He was sorry, it was too small; several centimetres shorter than a Buick he had been offered. Thus have the provincial Chinese of Phnom Penh, separated from the mainsprings of their culture, turned away from the curious and the exquisite, and embraced the standards of taste which are impressed by fashion, by glitter and by sheer size.
As a concession to the atmosphere at Madame Shum’s patrons were supposed to remove their clothing and put on a sarong. At first one felt childish and self-conscious, like a timid experimenter, perhaps, in a nudist colony. But among all these corpulent officials, these chiefs-of- staff and under-secretaries padding to their pleasures down the creaking corridors, the feeling soon passed. It was nothing more than a casual encounter of elks in semi-regalia. There seemed to be no desire for privacy. The sarong was the badge of a temporary inward and spiritual state. One showed one’s determination to go native for a couple of hours after dinner and one was expected to flop down quite unconcernedly wherever there happened to be a vacant mat.
The actual smoking, a tedious process, brought no reward it seemed, unless persevered with. I was promised that with six pipes I could expect to be reasonably sick, which was as far as a beginner got on the first few occasions. However the smell of the stale smoke-impregnated compart¬ment of a ‘workman’s special’ was enough for me. It was another convention that one stretched oneself out on a mat while the blob of opium was toasted over a spirit lamp before being transferred to the bowl of the yard-long pipe. These preparatory rites were performed by a corps of uniformly ill-favoured young Cambodian ladies, whose looks Madame excused by saying that all the pretty ones had recently been abducted by some ex-bandits newly formed into a patriotic army. Valas smoked three pipes and was ready to move. No one seemed in the slightest affected by their indulgences, despite the fact that two civil servants and a very high-ranking officer in the same room had smoked fifteen pipes and said that they would smoke thirty before leaving. Apart from the sheepish good-fellowship of shared weakness, there was nothing in their manner -I met the officer later on duty – that seemed in any way other than normal.
Valas was highly suspicious of the quality of the opium, and asked whether it was contraband rubbish from Siam. The original wrapper, marked with the government stamp, had to be found to convince him.

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