Back to the ‘multi-ethnic’ infinity and beyond: Girlfriends & Shopping

The picture is as simple as it gets. An absolute statement that minimalism is understated. When a single studio portrait can unpack so much. An invitation to question ethnic borders and limits. In a previous post it was all about Phnom Penh. Now let’s go along the river to Sala Lekh Pram, sit for a minute and see that indeed cosmopolitanism was never strictly a capital thing.

Moeun at a Sala Lekh Pram Photo Studio - 1962

Moeun at a Sala Lekh Pram Photo Studio – 1962

Of course, first you have to leave out the beauty of this sophisticated simplicity: go behind the studio light, the smile, the polished haircut, the spotless white, the pearl. Forget about the plastic roses also, that’s not about it (and I know you are relieved that it is not). The portrait doesn’t reveal much if you just stare at it. To really go beyond the romance of the good old days, the charm of the vintage, you need to sit down with the owner of the photograph, Eul Timah, 62 years old. It all comes with the tea: the pictures, the talk, more pictures, more talk. But Eul Timah is not even in the picture. In the pile she offered to go through I don’t even think I saw one single photograph of her: I certainly met the whole family, a whole band of friends, a whole lot of neighbors. The ones who left, the ones who stayed, the ones she knew, the ones she unknown. The ones who ended up in her pocket, when she held on to the memories of those who passed out, passed away, never came back. Moeun sure never did. She got lost somewhere, sometime during the war. Timah never saw her again. Yet there is the photograph. And the friendship.

Timah lives in O’Russei, Kompong Chhnang province. One of those villages that borders the tiny buoyant town of Sala Lek Pram. One of those villages that goes under the label ‘Cham’. Somewhere along the road, along the river, other villages will go under other labels: ‘Khmer’. ‘Vietnamese’. And ‘Chinese’. And right at the center of this little world, Sala Lekh Pram where all roads converge it seems. Where everybody intersects it’s sure. So Timah is Cham. And as anyone else she always goes ‘downtown’ to do some shopping. Ok not exactly the Bangkok Paragorn experience folks, more like the Sala Lekh Pram it’s-already-6am-the-fish-will-be-all-gone-let’s-rush kind of experience. That’s where Timah meets Moeun. She is there, everyday, at the market, getting the stand ready: Moeun is a tailor. In the mist of the hurry (or not), of the crowd (or the no-one-is-around-today-or-what), Moeun and Timah meet again and again. ‘’I don’t know, we just kept bumping into each other, we kind of hit it off’’ says Timah. They are the same age too – more or less. A sweet 25 in Cambodia’ 60’s. And just like that Moeun and Timah become really close friends. Oh and Moeun is Khmer. A detail. Maybe. Maybe not. As Chams and Khmers are usually seen as separate groups, and that the ‘ethnic’ boundaries are often asserted as obvious, the photograph crossing over may not be that trivial. The friendship certainly isn’t. That doesn’t make it less common. The paddy fields are vast, but crossed over and over again. Just like social borders are. They come and go, and come back: the Chinese, Vietnamese, Chams, Khmers, you name it. Of course there is the market, the economy. But that’s not it, that’s not all. How about those friendly encounters that will cross years, absence, deconstructions and reconstructions? How about those weddings at the margins, which seem to be so much at the center of it all? ‘’I remember she had a Thai husband somehow’’. Somehow… ‘’She took two pictures of herself and gave me one… That’s what friends do right’’? And Timah did hold on to the picture. The local Khmer Rouge cadre who was a ”nice Cham neighbor boy” let her do so. Because that’s what friends do right?

There is more than a bit of Moeun in this picture. There is a bit of Timah also. Some friendship. Some loss. And there is a bit of Sala Lekh Pram too: a town that is not really a town. Right in the middle of nowhere, the center of the world it seems. Home at least. And it is home because it is full of surprises. Where borders are not, where the ethnic isn’t much but a word. There is nothing to see, because it all lies in the invisible, nothing much to do, because it is not acting. Sala Lek Pram is the picture: it doesn’t say anything… yet it just says it all.

Ithaca, NY, November 8, 2013, Emiko Stock.

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