The Little Princess
By Chath pierSath
One Sunday, as if on a mission to bring God to a Phnom Penh slum, I decided to visit Ke Mom, one of our master musicians teaching children under the Cambodian Living Art program. The slum, known as “Bolding” is a poor community adopted by prostitutes and drug dealers. It is also a community of artists coming home, which centerpiece is a high-rise artist residence built by King Sihanouk, now a decayed shell with water dripping from floor to floor. Surrounding the building are shacks made of tin, tarps and packaging boxes, densely packed with adults and children like a refugee camp in the middle of a metropolitan city. From a distance, the tall building looks like a wasps’ nest of cones, squares and zigzag lines. Wires connect and disconnect. It is a modern ruin in an ancient city, a collage of clear blue sky and despair. Persistent social and political forces keep it alive like a cancer survivor dangling from an invisible thread. Every day the occupants climb the multitude of stairs dreaming of taking a share of the new capitalism that is rising in modern Cambodia. In Bolding, weary souls curl inward for protection and pray for the arrival of a righteous, cleansing monsoon flood to transform the rotten sewer into green grass and serenity. I walk past a small family-owned store. There are puddles of black water and feces, a field littered with condoms, syringes and candy wrappers. It feels wrong here, like a hastily covered mass grave with bones of animals scattered about. The stench is raw and sour, perverted. The humid air sticks to my shirt while a dusty sun sprays my face, prickling its rays into my skin. Eyes question my presence. I come well-dressed with a calm composure and an air of confidence in my walk. I have books in my hands. “It’s the Bible Man,” I can hear them whisper. I carry a school bag. Although I don’t have a tie, I wear a white shirt and blue slacks like the Mormons and other missionaries trolling for the downtrodden to convert. “Jesus saves,” I was told. “Give your life to the Bible…all your problems solved.” Meanwhile, Buddha remains in the background as only an idol face to Christians, as a shaved-head monk in a saffron robe begs alms in front of a brothel. A young prostitute cleans herself nearby with five hundred riels taken reluctantly from her last night’s business. She bows before the monk wishing for her next life as a married woman not a prostitute, even though she knows she might be better off single. Buddha granted her even a larger wish that she may be burdened as a new mother of Cambodia rising from the ruins of war and genocide. But like any demagogue born to earth, even Buddha himself would not be able to comprehend the indescribable cruelty and loss of the Khmer Rouge holocaust brought to a gentle people.
“What just happened?” He asked. “My teachings of compassion are thrown out the door.”
“It isn’t so,” I told him. “Your teachings are becoming a money making business. It’s big. I do it all the time. I see the poor, I hand them money. Beggars moan and groan. I can’t stand it. I give so they will go away. Often time, I think you should go away, too. You make me feel so guilty for being alive while these people are in misery. Look at them.”I jump over a puddle in my Birkenstocks. I don’t want them to get wet. I think I might get worms, but the children are running around without shoes. They are wearing shorts. The little ones don’t have any clothes at all. They’re laughing, “Hello,” they say. “Hello,” I say back. To them, I am one of the Barang, hissing the French and English languages they must learn in order to escape the dust. They are the languages of the educated and the bourgeois linked to an outside world beyond anything they can imagine now. I can’t remember where Ke Mom’s house is. One woman is sitting down to breast feed her beautiful child. I thought she might know who I was looking for. “The old woman who teaches Yeké dance,” I told her. She thought for a moment before she pointed forward. It was only a few shacks down. The old woman for whom I was searching bends into a narrow door within a crude mud brick structure roofed with enough of a tin roof to keep her out of the rain. Her square box is tightly squeezed between other boxes lined up along a dirt pathway, the only access in or out of the place. I pass children, people selling things, ice scream man, sitting old men and women chattering away, joking and laughing about sex sustaining an ancient oral tradition of story telling. Once a musician for the royal court, she is now a widowed pauper in her seventies. Her fairy tale life with a comfortable home, family and close social circle of artist friends now transported to this little house in Bolding surrounded by poor children. She is short and wrinkled but she is the Diva of her own palace. She rules with force. The children jump in line quickly when she stamps the floor because she can no longer yell or shout. Her voice has become an insignificant growl, too low to pierce their collective high energy chirping. “Yeay?” I called out to her. I put my books down on a sitting stand and clasped my hands in the Buddhist greeting. “Jom Reap Suor, Yeay. Do you remember me? I came with Bong Arn once to see you. I am Chat.” Her eyes are black turning cataract white. Her hair is thin, parted in the middle, curly and gray. She smiled and then swung her arms for a hug. “À Arn doesn’t come see me anymore. Where is he?”“He is in the
US raising money so you can continue to teach,” I told her. “There are many good people over in Ama-rich who want to help,” she takes a step back for a moment, looked at me again and smiled. I entered the narrow entrance without a door, taking off my Birkenstocks, squeezing into a living room full of kids practicing their dance steps. “Where is Seng? I need to talk to him about the stipend,” she quickly gets to the point of business. “I have a new kid,” she secretly pointed him out, the boy with dark complexion, age thirteen, but looks as if he’s nine. He’s tall but gaunt like a stick. He moves fast. He’s malnourished, stunted by lack of love and food. “That poor child. His mother just left him here,” she continued. “We have to feed him. Would it be possible to include him in the stipend pool so he can dance with us? He can play one of the jesters or the narrator in the Yeké epic story.”“I don’t know, grandmother. You have to ask Seng. I don’t know anything about the stipend. I will let him know. He should be with you soon, next week I believe. Today, I come to see you. How is your health?” I asked. She takes a long and labored deep breath, as if a heavy weight had suddenly fallen on her head. “I don’t have a lot of time left as you can see, I have become very frail. Grandmother has headaches. Grandmother’s bones aren’t what they used to be.”I see behind those cataract eyes decades of struggle and endurance. How could she have survived this long in these conditions? I asked myself. “I am living for them,” pointing to the children as she pulled my right arm to a seat. The children stopped practicing their dance listening into our conversation. Yeay Ke Mom ordered one of them to fetch me a drink. “No, no, uncle doesn’t need a drink,” I told her. “I have seen enough in my life,” she tells me. “I have lived through three regimes: King Sihanouk, Lon Nol and the Khmer Rouge. The Khmer Rouge killed my husband and starved my children. I have only a daughter left,” she pointed to the kitchen in the back. The daughter is the chubby woman who portrays the air of a five star General’s wife. Her nails are painted. Her face powdered white, with spots of rouge on both of her cheeks. She is the assisting teacher of the singing and dancing theater. She has a few children of her own in different roles in the group.“What brings you here today?” Ke Mom walks slowly toward her alter, her Buddha, her spirit house, her ancestral link to dancers, musicians way before her. She lit some incense, bowed in prayer, prostrating to divinity. “I come to see you. Also, I want to see if the children would be interested in learning English. They can learn a few phrases to practice with friends of Cambodian Living Arts.” “Will you come teach them?”“Yes, once a week. Do you all want to learn English?” I asked the little ones. “Yes. Yes!” Hands rose high, shaking feverishly with joy. “How about I come every Sunday at eleven, before your dance practice?” They all nodded their head calling me teacher. Their oil black eyes full of sparkles, starving for new human contact and stimulation. They continue to dance as their hands bend to the music, swan-like, innocent, and divine like floating celestial, human figured Apsaras running excitingly in mid-air, visiting earth bound blossoms. One in particular is cast as the lead princess, a child with a moon shaped face and large captivating eyes laughing like motionless water, brilliant with joy. She takes center stage, crowded in that tiny room, a flowered curtain in the background. Behind the curtain there is a kitchen brewing with activity, women making food for the children, chopping prohoc, the smelly fish paste to put in the sour stew. The bed and the kitchen are in one room. The wall is full of spider webs. The dirt floor covered with a mat. The children maneuver arm to arm, body to body, a line of sister angels sing and dance to the old queen’s ruler stick, hearts beating like her own pulse. Occasionally there would be weak inhale and exhale as the kids grew unruly, but a small outburst of energy as an old arm waved, and the kids would drop silent. Other kids from the community looked in full of curiosity. The rehearsal becomes a daily show, an alternative to their Karaoke. They are utterly fascinated by the Yeké epic of how the gibbon became a gibbon. I remember the story so well from childhood. I used to listen to it on the radio. This time, I get to see it live from Yeay Ke Mom’s wondrous young singing and dancing theater. The lanky new boy and his partner come in to set the stage. The children laughed at their silly gestures.The two of them take on the Charlie Chaplin look, with their painted mustaches, acting clumsy and dumb, but wise and funny. Like a Shakespearean play, the jesters narrate the suspense of the ancient tale. The gibbon was once a woman, who betrayed her husband for the love of thief. The irony of the story is that the thief, true to his bad nature, convinced her to kill her own husband and then tricked her into climbing up a tree to pick fruit for him. “If she can kill her own husband, what am I to her?” so the thief thought. The thief decided to leave her in the tree, after having tasted the succulent fruit she had dropped down to him, while her husband lies dead on the ground. An angel saw this and took pity on the husband, brought him back to life as a prince and turned the wife into a gibbon. This is why gibbons always produce the sound of sadness in the forest, their call like the sorrowful voice of a woman pleading for forgiveness. The husband, who was now a prince, on the other hand, was sent away in search of a princess, his bride to be, in a palace far away waiting for his love as it was prophesized to her. Upon the arrival of the prince, the lonely princess had been courted, but no one but the destined prince would her heart notice, and so it is, the prince did arrive and the kingdom becomes a joyous, happiest lot once again. The little girl in the lead role of the princess is in her room singing to her maidens how she long for the arrival of her prince. Her eyes drip tears of joy, glistening, as she really becomes that princess. As I watched her perform, I thought of the happy ending and her fate. Will she have a prince in Bolding or outside? If she doesn’t become a dancer, what will become of her? She lives in a world with a voracious appetite for child prostitutes. When she grows up, there won’t be many options for her. Pessimistically, she will end up selling foreign beer and cigarettes in a
Phnom Penh bar and selling herself in the process. This child is only a breath away from the fate of the young prostitute who prays for a husband in her alms. But sadly, once violated and no longer a virgin, a Cambodian woman is shunned and turned into a gibbon. Once she is seen as a whore, no man will ever take her for a bride. For now, the little princess is happy here in Bolding, sheltered in her role in the singing and dancing theater. It keeps her perfect spirit alive untainted so far by a world outside that has the potential to devolve her humanity into commodity. While
Cambodia’s real queen and her king travel all over, with little presence in
Cambodia, these little princes and princesses could one day become rulers in their own kingdom, although now they are struggling for survival. They sing and dance the stories told from generation to generation. “These are my grandchildren,” Ke Mom tells me. “They are what I am living for. I must teach and prepare them to be good men and women before I die.” Yeay Ke Mom knew that they are still unaware of the looming social and cultural probabilities around them. “We are poor,” she pounds her chest, “But here is what keeps us strong and happy,” she points to her heart vowing to protect and shelter her young dancers and actors. Ke Mom and her daughter will continue to pass on what they know and protect these young girls from the dragon’s breath of the modern world. In their daily rituals, Ke Mom and her daughter invoke the gods through dance and music as spiritual guards of their innocence until they can themselves stand up and make wise choices of their own. The little princess embodies the virtue of a celestial Apsara. She is embellished and transformed on a public stage wrapped in her silk pro-mong, she floats down to earth during blossom season to pick the scented flowers and admire the earthly paradise which humans, in their misery, cannot see or appreciate. As she dances, she takes jasmine and braids it into her long black hair, while her maidens surround her with a single flower that they each pick for their princess. The little princess smiles, hiding seduction. Her moon face glows. A prince of uncontested valor enters her palace, yet she remains the master of the house behind closed doors as she gracefully wields her power.In awe and in tears, I retreated from Ke Mom’s shack, imagining her kingdom now an empire sacked, invaded and shrunk to a puddle of rubbish, divided by the rich and powerful, her people sold into bondage, her rice fields taken for money, and her people driven further and further into debt onto street corners begging. Everywhere, land mines prevent the free roaming feet of her people looking to nature for food and shelter. The palace of her great lineage is now empty without a grandfather king to praise her glory. It is left to her to grow flowers in these sad places among the ruins to entice the Aspara angels to visit earth once again and to bring blessings to her land and people. In utter defiance, her spirit lives in dignity. Nothing will ever take it away. From the mass graves voices of the wise are waiting to spark and stage the next legend of a just prince and an evil giant battling for control. Hope pours into seeds preparing to flower into grandeur and beauty. I smile with the same hope thinking of the little princess dancing on her impoverished stage, as a lotus pedestal, with her heart as her voice, her dignity her way to light. She asks that every mortal would take her place as she grows into her role and dies a million reincarnations always providing hope, heart and dignity to the down trodden, the poor and powerless. She will continue to dance, her gown bejeweled, bedazzled; her fake gold and silver adorning her hair, the tropical scented flowers replacing rotting death and poverty. Humanity is the center stage of her being, the sun her light and darkness her journey into wisdom. I leave bowing, taking with me a lineage connection and a new sense of purpose. I see Ke Mom the old queen with her entourage of young maidens preparing to take her place in her rubbish palace. Among squalid dreams, the spiders bring good omens to the troupe, and behind it, the little princess continues to visit earth. I am thinking of next Sunday, how I would teach them in English how to describe and name their gestures and the story they tell through Yeke, the epic story of how the gibbon became a gibbon, and the happy ending of the little princess longing for her prince.