Samnang, a professional bet backer, has a problem: his family-in-law, who share his
interest in gambling. John C. Brown, in part two of a three-part series on
the life of a Phnom Penh family, finds that bad luck seems to be the name of the
Piap was awakened last Friday morning by a shout from the alleyway below. At first
he thought it was one of the gang members returning drunk from a nightclub, but it
was 4am - late, even for them.
The call came a second time, and was answered from the balcony above. He heard a
quavering voice, asking what the matter was. It was the grandmother of the family
that had moved in upstairs a few months before.
The voice below shouted: "Your granddaughter is dead. She was killed in a car
accident at Independence Monument tonight."
Piap - the nephew and assistant of Samnang, the professional bet backer - went back
to sleep in his makeshift home in the office where the pair work. Samnang was peacefully
asleep in his house around the corner.
By Friday evening, everyone knew what had happened. Rasmei Kampuchea carried the
story. The front page of another newspaper, Koh Santepheap, was almost entirely covered
with pictures of the crumpled car, the point of impact at Independence Monument,
and - of course - the bodies.
One boy and three girls had died immediately, Piap's neighbor among them. On Saturday
morning the word went up and down the alley that the remaining boy and girl were
dead. It may have been a little premature; other newspapers were reporting that the
pair were seriously injured and unlikely to survive, but not yet dead.
Piap's neighbor was a prostitute. She was 17 and beautiful, a sometime singer in
a bar, who made $200 or $300 a night, according to some of the gang of men who hang
around the alleyway. "Her customers were only the high ranking: military, Excellencies
and businessmen," they say, noting that the car she died in had military license
An aunt of Piap's says she doesn't know much about the dead girl, but had heard that
she gave money to her widowed mother, whom she lived with, along with two younger
sisters and their grandmother.
Some local men speculate among themselves as to whether the driver was drunk, and
whether the four would have died if the car had taken the collision head on, rather
than spinning out and bouncing off the monument several times.
At her cremation later that morning, her mother says that she had been crushed by
the car door, her chin, one leg and arms broken.
Guys in the alleyway say only that they regret the loss of the girl's "youth
and beauty," an interesting locution that contained no direct compassion, just
simple regret that such youth and beauty had been wasted. It was nothing personal.
The men read the newspaper reports, talk about the accident a bit, and then start
a card game.
The young man who helps Piap and his uncle in their bet backing business is asked
what he thinks about it all. After considering it a long time, he says he is just
worried what would happen after seven days.
"Right now she doesn't know that she is dead yet," he says, reflecting
a deeply-held belief in Cambodia. "But after seven days she will realize that
she is, and will try to come back to the place that she knows."
The young man has a part-time overnight job, guarding the power lines which run through
the alleyway; he isn't looking forward to a visit from the dead girl's ghost.
But it is other bad news that is preoccupying Samnang and Piap. The word had come
from the Phnom Penh Appellate Court that the family's lengthy court case - pitting
Samnang and his wife against their own relatives - had again been delayed. Two months
after the case went to the court, there was still no judgment. The court was pressuring
the family to settle the dispute privately.
At the center of the legal tussle is the house of Samnang and his wife. It's in a
great location, along a major thoroughfare, and worth around $150,000.
Four of Samnang's sisters-in-law used to live at the house, and another one still
does. They claim an ownership share of the building, and for more than a year have
been pressuring Samnang's wife to sell it and give them a slice of the money.
Samnang married into a family of gamblers. That is one root of the problem; most
of the sisters, and their mother, appear to have debts. The mother (we'll call her
Navy) is apparently the worst. They say she gambles all the time and smokes three
packs of cigarettes a day. It is not clear which they think is worse.
Navy, it seems, has no bounds to her desire to obtain cash. She once stole her own
mother's clothes - leaving her only the dress on her back - to sell to get gambling
Of Navy's seven children, one, a son, is a trained accountant with a good salary.
He's not a gambler, but his marriage is on the rocks: something to do with his wife's
radio cassette recorder, which Navy stole to feed her gambling habit.
Of the six daughters, the oldest is Samnang's wife, who has run a lucrative beauty
shop from her house since the late 1980s.
According to Samnang, only one of his wife's sisters is a full sister; the rest are
half-sisters. Their mother, Navy, was married three times.
The full sister lives in part of the house, and runs a drinks and cigarettes stand
to make money. She is said to be a hard woman, to put it mildly, and prone to rages.
Relations between this sister and Samnang and his wife are less than pleasant, but
still they share the house.
Of the half-sisters, the youngest is 20 and a prostitute; she is gone for months
at a time. She is something of a persona-non-grata, having stolen $3500 from Samnang
and his wife, spending $1,000 of it in one night's fun before they caught up with
Before she became a prostitute, she used to skip school to hang out in the alleyway
with the men who loiter there. One day a group of them raped her. Soon afterward
she became a prostitute.
Of the remaining sisters, one is a noodle-seller, with a husband and child and a
keen interest in gambling which keeps her family financially insecure.
Only one of the other two sisters is reasonably well-off, despite having two daughters
and no job. She is the "second wife" of a lucky man, as Piap calls him.
Why lucky? He recently sold one of the buildings that he owns for $100,000. An older
man, he apparently held various positions including Prawtean Krom (Group Leader)
under the communist period. It appears he emerged from those times well-endowed with
real estate. Neighbors say he owns as many as five more buildings. He's just another
gambler, but now something of a high-roller. He lives with his first wife, but some
of his spare cash makes its way to his second.
In fact, it was the Prawtean Krom
who started it all. In 1985, when he was the local district chief, he tried to force
Samnang's wife and her five sisters from their house. The chief (who had yet to take
one of the sisters as his second wife) claimed they weren't authorized to live there.
Samnang worked for the Ministry of Commerce and was able to get an authorization
for the house, but to justify its size, she had to register her sisters and her mother
as occupants. That is the basis of their claim. The sisters argue that they are part
owners in the house, and they want their share. Now!
When they made their demands known about a year ago, Samnang of course tried to settle
out of court. Acknowledging that the sisters had some claim to the property, an offer
was made to buy them out. But Samnang's wife and her sisters couldn't agree on the
The youngest sister, the prostitute, was easiest. For a one-off payment of $1500,
she agreed to drop her claim.
The other sisters held firm, and the only full sister escalated the dispute. She
moved her drinks and cigarettes stall directly in front of the beauty salon which
Samnang's wife ran at the front of the house. The salon's door blocked, customers
were frightened off and the shop had to close. Samnang and his wife were outraged
but could do nothing, but take the case to court.
After six months, Samnang got the beauty shop reopened when the court ruled in his
wife's favor. Samnang is pragmatic about the $2,000 payment he made to the judge:
"Even if you have the law on your side, you cannot get justice unless you pay
Finally, a deal was done with three of the four remaining sisters: Samnang and his
wife would finance another apartment for them to live in, with their mother Navy
- the avid gambler - and they would drop their claim.
But the oldest sister, his wife's only full sister, has not given up, and that is
why the case in now in the Appellate Court. She is still supported by the three sisters
who signed the quit claim - they remain "witnesses" against Samnang and
The full sister still lives in the house, hardly an amicable arrangement, but at
least the beauty salon has now been reopened.
Ng has followed most of the saga. He is the only male hairdresser in the beauty shop.
His brother used to work there before it was closed. The salon attracted many customers,
because his brother was really good, Ng says. During UNTAC the shop made $100-$150
a day. But when the shop closed, all the hairdressers left. The brother was perhaps
the luckiest. A Vietnamese immigrant, he was able to use his purchased Cambodian
passport to go to a third country. He now lives in Australia. When the shop went
back into business, Ng replaced his brother.
Ng also remembers the prostitute killed in the car crash at Independence Monument.
She would come in twice a week to have her hair fixed up before she went out. Nothing
fancy. She kept her hair short, but she rented a long hairpiece that fell to her
The picture the dead girl's mother clutched in her hand at Wat Lanka last Saturday
morning showed her daughter without the hairpiece. The girl was leaning against a
shiny black sedan, her hair cropped short on the side, wearing a leather mini-skirt,
and boots at the end of her long bare legs. She had a nice smile and large round
liquid brown eyes like her two younger sisters.
On the other side of the temple, the body of one of the dead young men was watched
over by family and friends, almost all of them men. The young woman's coffin was
surrounded by family, all of them women; the mother sat with tears streaming down
her face, clutching the photo, and nursing a five-year-old daughter. Nobody knew
if the dead young man was the car's driver or not, or whether the driver was drunk.
It didn't appear to be an issue.
An old woman from the temple reminded everyone that it would be seven days before
the girl would know that she was dead. Some temple men carried her coffin to the
tall concrete crematorium. The grandmother sprinkled puffed rice mixed with 100 riel
notes along the way - streetkids dashing in to grab a few - but collapsed weeping
as blood began to dribble out of the coffin bottom. But there was nothing to be done,
except to finish what had been started, and soon the fire was burning.
Later that afternoon, one of the temple Achars (laymen) accompanied the mother and
her two daughters back to the apartment to say the magic words that would protect
the place from the girl's ghost.
As Piap put aside his chemistry books and began to help his uncle calculate the days
bets, they heard taps on the floor above them and the chanting of the Achar.