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Macabre magic of the circus

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Farmer Yoeurn Ya, a former performing traveller, piecing his cheek with a needle before a watching crowd. Photograph: Sou Vuthy/Phnom Penh Post

The weird, the bloody and the grotesque have long been fixtures in Cambodian circus acts. Like any circus performer from around the world, ritual humiliation and injury are par for the course – you would hope that anyone who subjected themselves to these torments would at least be well remunerated. Who would go through the pain without some kind of reward?

One former performing traveller, now a farmer on Kandal Province’s Ouk Nha Tey Island, is happy to dust off his old routine for nothing more than the chance to please his neighbours.

The semi-retired Yoeurn Ya’s signature act is piercing his cheeks with a 20 centimetre long needle, as big and as thick as a chopstick, without so much as a flinch or a whimper.

Sitting on a bamboo bed, Ya is surrounded by a group of villagers who have yet to watch his amazing show.

Projecting his usual tranquility, Ya prepares for his big finale while the audience collectively bite their nails or grit their teeth in nervous anticipation.

After the pulling the giant needle straight through his cheeks, virtually without blinking, the well-built farmer and popular local was rapturously applauded by his neighbours.

The needle trip is a common feature of spirit procession parades during the Chinese New Year. According to Ya, legend dictates that those possessed by spirits can perform the trick without feeling pain. The performer feels the needle’s path through his mouth – thus ruling out the influence of a poltergeist – but says he has learned to mitigate the pain through practice.

“I don’t know any magic tricks, and I’m not possessed by a spirit,” he said. “This performance is all about tolerance.”

More concerning to Ya than a visit from the netherworld is the possibility of a serious infection. Before each performance, he disinfects his needle in alcohol, a common ersatz countryside disinfectant.

“I had to put the needle in the rice wine for a few minutes, because the alcohol can help keep it sterile. When the needle passes through my cheek, I can feel the heat from the alcohol.”

Ya learnt his needle trick from a traditional circus troupe he travelled with while he was still young and single.

The team Ya worked for performed highly risky tricks, involving lacerating themselves with razors and dangerous acrobatics without the use of safety equipment. The performance was used as a means of gathering people, with the aim of selling audience members traditional medicines after the act was concluded.

These sorts of groups travelled across the country and performed both in villages and large towns, as well as participating in Chinese holidays in Phnom Penh.

In Ya’s troupe, it was his job to lay the hard sell for the medicines on the crowd.

“I was only responsible for selling the traditional medicine,” he said. “I never learned any tricks from the two circus masters, but I believed I had the talent, so I tried to practice on my own.”

Having followed the group for many years, Ya said that he learned a lot of risky tricks, and he always performs them for his neighbours upon request.

“Besides piercing my cheek with needle, I can fling a razor into my flesh and walk upside down using my hands while my head dipped in half-metre deep mud. I can walk like that for at least 10 metres.”

After years of watching his free performances, most villagers know all of his tricks inside-out, but they have yet to tire of them. Neither has Ya, for that matter.

“There’s no secrets behind any of my performance. I am able to do it because I practised a lot in the past. At my age, I’m so proud to still be able to perform in front of an audience.”

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