Into Cambodia 4

Valas could find no one among the opium smokers who wanted to buy the car, but there was at least news of the disbanded ballet. The girls had gone to work in the Lap ton dancing places. Breaking away from Madame Shum’s sombre haven, we therefore got into the car and plunged back again into the vast, brazen clamour of Phnom Penh’s centre. It must have been a great day for the Chinese, who have always enjoyed noise, when the principles of electrical amplification were dis¬covered. Here, as at Cholon, the crowds had an air of exultation, of crisis. Heralds with banners stood at the crossroads. Trumpeting loudspeakers yelled an actor’s lines, their rhythm fiercely marked by the crashing of cymbals. Stone-faced men in flapping silk bowed their heads beneath the thunder of celestial drums, and sing-song girls sobbed an immense cosmic anguish from the open casements of good, first-floor restaurants.
But the places where the Cambodians go to dance are quite properly a little withdrawn from all this Tartar fury. We found a quiet back street with waste paper kicked about all over its dusty surface, and a few sad, yellow dogs. The noise of someone banging a drum came to us through a broken fence, on the other side of which was a kind of beer garden. There were a dozen marble-topped tables and a stage with a row of Cambodian girls sitting with their hands in their laps at the back of it. Out in front was a microphone and a band in the form of one man who was beating a drum. The centre of the stage was marked by a small table with a bunch of fleshy red blooms in a large whole-milk tin. The place was lit by the early- type, ghastly fluorescent tubes, and there were notices about minimum consummations in French, Chinese and Vietnamese. All the customers were Cambodians but the Chinese who ran the place didn’t even bother to put up a notice in their language. The Chinese management sat at a table right up by the stage, with their backs to the patrons, doing the accounts, while the Cambodians sipped their blood-coloured lemon-ade and smiled as if delighted by inner visions. The Cambodians kept arriving on bicycles that were decorated with pennants and all kinds of gadgets. They came from those shacks we had seen on the outskirts of the town and were very dapper-looking with their sports-shirts, American ties and slicked-down hair.
Someone on the management table struck a small gong and the drummer started up again. A moon-faced young Cambodian, who had been egged on by his friends, went up on to the stage and began to croon into the microphone a Tino Rossi song called ‘Gardien de Camargue’. After the first verse he was handed a pair of maracas and, still singing, began to slash out some kind of unrecognisable rhythm which the drummer did his best to follow. It was now the turn of the ex-members of the Cambodian ballet to go into action. As soon as one of them caught the eye of a patron, she got up, left the stage, went over to his table and putting her hands together in the attitude of prayer made a solemn-faced bow. The young man then followed her back to the stage and joined her in a kind of processional dance round the centre table with the flowers in the milk-tin. The couples kept three or four feet apart, their hands and arms weaving about in the formal gestures of the Ramayana and their feet doing their best to conform to a rhythm which was not quite a foxtrot, a rumba or a beguine. No charge was made for the dancing. It was all included in the price of the beer.
The girls’ faces wore the frozen expressions demanded by tradition, since in the classic dances the emotions must be interpreted by a reper¬toire of postures. Their partners seemed to have emancipated themselves from this courtly discipline and did not mind looking as if they were having a vulgar good-time. When a girl felt she had given her partner his money’s worth she just turned back while the dance was in progress and bowed to him. The pair then turned away and left each other without so much as exchanging a glance. This dance had been imported in recent years from Siam and in it were enshrined thus, on the verge of oblivion, the gestures from the mimes of the Cambodian kings.
Valas pointed out the star performer, whom he remembered from the old days. She was not the best-looking of the girls and the extraordinary mask-like effect of her features was heightened, rather grotesquely, by a red stain, the size of a five-shilling piece, caused by cupping, in the dead centre of her forehead. For all that she had the truly impressive sinuosity of a girl who had spent more than half her short life contorting her body into the strange rhythmic moulds demanded by the representation of the fabulous serpents, birds and apes of the Ramayana. In the interval, the half-hour relief from the doleful conspiracy of crooner and drummer, the girls wandered off the stage. Valas caught the prima ballerina’s eye and she came down to us swaying slightly as she moved through the tables, with the undulation of a charmed cobra. As she lowered herself into a chair there was the faintest tinkle of concealed ornaments. With the gesture of a drowning arm raised from the surface of an enchanted lake, a silk head-shawl was discarded. It was most unfortunate that we spoke no Cambodian and the lady knew only two words of French: soupe Chinoise. The soup was served and we had reached a conversational impasse. However, the universal language of art came to our aid. The controlled face relaxed in the beginnings of an anxious, half-smile. A bond was to be created that would defeat the barriers of speech. Sita, the beloved of Rama, opened her plastic handbag and groped in it for a picture which she passed across the table to us. It was an indecent photograph, of the Port Said kind, vintage about 1925.

We finished the evening with a visit to a nightclub called, I believe, the Florida, or something equally absurd. Valas had endured mild heart¬burnings for several years over a Vietnamese dance-hostess who worked there, known as ‘La Panthere’. He paid her an immense sum to come and sit at our table for about half an hour. She was immaculate, regal and rather surly. They soon fell out over the provenance of some jewellery she was wearing, and the atmosphere became heavy with suppressed re¬crimination.
But the Florida was well worth a visit for a study of its patrons. A French woman in a sarong was pointed out who had married a Cambo¬dian prince and had gone so completely native that she refused to speak anything but Cambodian. There was a Chinese millionaire of seventy, a grave little fellow, who came there every night to rumba with the same statuesque professional partner. Two representatives of distinguished Cambodian families with Portuguese names were present – descendants of Fernao Mendes Pinto’s two shipmates, left behind when he escaped from slavery in the country. The owner of a small fleet of cyclos had come here to relax. He made the equivalent of 1000 per month from the hundred coolies who worked for him and was therefore able to spend ten months of the year in Paris. From this it was clear that a rickshaw coolie who owned his own cyclo could live comfortably. But on further inquiry I learned this was ruled out because only Europeans with a great deal of pull could get the licences, which were strictly limited. In any case, whatever the coolies earned, said Valas, they would only gamble it away; and the only difference as things were was that one man squandered the money instead of a hundred.

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