King Norodom’s Capital 5

That evening, which was my last at Phnom Penh, I had an extraordinary piece of good luck. In the course of my travels I was coming to accept that wherever I was I was fated to experience a subnormal amount of the customary activities. The theatre would be closed, the custom abolished, the service discontinued, the road cut by bandits, the tiger invisible, the season just over – or not yet started. But at Phnom Penh, I was in luck. I went out of the hotel at about five in the evening and walked right into the most rampageous of Chinese celebrations – the procession of the twenty-five spirits, which the police had done their best to prevent and which had now broken loose, providing as fair an example of the medieval Chinese idea of a good time for all as it would have been possible to see in these days.
There is an alien northern vigour about such Chinese divertissements which is quite outlandish in the languorous and debilitating tropics. Moreover a century or two’s sojourn in the deep South has done nothing to calm the Chinese temperament, nor caused them to develop any relish for the sedate posturings of Indonesia. When the Chinese dance, they leap and twirl, a spectacle I had observed before at the Mardi Gras comparsas in Havana, when the Chinese community decided to partici¬pate, suddenly appearing on the streets with their dragon, and startling even the bloodshot-eyed negroes of Cuba with their exertions. Wherever there are Chinese communities such celebrations as the twenty-five spirits tend to be discountenanced, as they disrupt all activities while they are in progress, and produce a state of exaltation which sometimes ends in riot. There had been an official attempt at interference with the Phnom Penh procession which should have accompanied the Chinese New Year, and was some two weeks delayed.
By five o’clock the non-Chinese citizens had long since given up trying to go about their business and had resigned themselves to calling it a day. All the cars were taken off the roads and the shops were shut, while the twenty-five spirits, incarnated in their human representatives – both male and female – were carried round and round the town, in palanquins, on thrones and on stages accompanied by their altars and cult objects from the various pagodas. Each spirit was preceded by a dragon, a rabble of standard bearers, and a horde of attendants running amok with gongs and drums. The spirits themselves looked like the old-fashioned idea of Chinese pirates, even to the sashes tied round their foreheads. They kept up a lusty howling, twirled their swords and frothed at the lips. Occasion¬ally a particularly energetic spirit would make a flying leap from his throne or platform, seize a bystander and join with him in a frenzied Tartar dance, while the surrounding cult devotees clashed their cymbals and howled like damned souls. Other spirits confined to their palanquins swayed from side to side in the throes of cataleptic seizure, pausing only to inflict slight self-mutilations with their knives or to thrust skewers through their cheeks. I was told that the celebrants had all drugged themselves with hypodermic injections before setting out, five hours previously; but now it was evident that some of the effect was wearing off, as under the strain of carrying the altars and palanquins, some of the bearers were beginning to collapse. When this happened a spirit would be thrown into the crowd with even more violence than he bargained for.
At this stage the rickshaw coolies were beginning to reap the harvest. They lay in wait in the side-streets ready to pick up the victims of syncope, self-inflicted wounds and various types of seizure. By the time the proces¬sion had disintegrated they had done a roaring trade. That night half the coolies in Phnom Penh were gambling in the Casino and owing to a temporary hold-up in the workings of the laws of average a lot of them actually won. For the first time in its short history the syndicate found themselves down on the evening. This shocking circumstance was fol-lowed next day by the dismissal of all those girl croupiers who intone so melodiously the winning numbers; not because they were suspected of cheating, but because they were unlucky.

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