In the cramped bedroom of a rented house near the Olympic Stadium, shared with a friend, a dark skinned girl with curly hair labours under the weight of sad memories and an uncertain future.
Sor Untac was born to a Cambodian mother and an African father who was an attaché to the United Nations. The couple met in a hotel, where the woman worked and he was quartered.
Like others of her generation born to foreign fathers, the transvestite performer was named Untac after the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia, the peacekeeping force brought in to oversee the 1993 elections. The name has since become a pejorative for dark-skinned Cambodians born during this era – one of the reasons why Ms. Sor took the nickname Zamel later in life.
Before she was born, her father travelled back to Africa without saying goodbye. Her mother did not even have a photo of him.
“I never even knew my dad’s face,” the 20-year-old says, tears running down her face.
Any occasional hopes of his return or some contact with his estranged family were dashed time and time again.
“I heard my neighbour say that when my father went back to his homeland, he left his address with another house in the neighbourhood. When my mother went to ask about the address, they said they didn’t know.”
Without a decent income, Zamel’s prospects were bleak, and circumstances constantly conspired to remind her of her absent father.
“When I was seven years old I couldn’t go to school like the other children,” she says. “My family was very poor. I sold vegetables with my mother on the market. In my free time I wanted to play with other children, but they wouldn’t let me because I was black. They hated me and my family; those children would say to me, ‘African boy doesn’t have a father.’ When I heard these words it would really hurt. It made me cry all the time.
At 13, Zamel worked at a small restaurant in Kampong Chhnang for a year, until she received word her mother had died. Back in Phnom Penh, she worked at a motorbike garage for a month, only to be ostracised for the colour of her skin and her effeminate behaviour.
After a year working repairing boats in Sihanoukville, Zamel returned to the capital to work as a nanny and house maid for her aunt, only to face the same prejudice that made her last job in the city such an unpleasant ordeal. From there, she took on some itinerant jobs around the city, sewing shoes and washing clothes to make ends meet.
One day, a chance encounter with a friend led to her introduction to John, a performing arts teacher. After an adolescence marred by menial jobs and discrimination, her friendship with John opened up a world of new opportunities.
“He taught me how to perform comedy, and gave me the opportunity to perform at the Night Market,” she says. “I worked like this for few years, then I was asked to appear in shows at the Classic Club [on Street 63].”
“I’ve worked there since with a $70 monthly salary and I earn some extra money from guest tips. $70 is not enough for me, because I have to share my earning with my siblings in the provinces, rent a room, and buy new clothes for my performance.”
With her newfound exposure, Zamel was invited to take minor roles in a couple of local movie productions, earning between $10 and $20 per day for her efforts.
All the same, money woes continue to plague the performer. Without the ability to read and write, she has found it hard to find a steady income outside of singing and dancing in clubs across town.
Many well-known Cambodian performers, even those with the celebrity status afforded by television or movie appearances, struggle to make ends meet without the patronage of a spouse. While Zamel has worked hard to succeed, and her recognition has certainly grown since her movie roles, she has never been romantically involved with a man. Unlike many of her ladyboy friends, her lack of English has prevented her from engaging in a relationship with a westerner.
Though Zamel has suffered a lifetime of hostility, she believes that ladyboys in Cambodia can overcome these adversities and lead a successful life. “We must give value to ourselves and do good work in society.” She hopes that the pursuit of self-respect through a life well lived will spare ladyboys of the future generations from enduring the torments she was subjected to.