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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Svay Pak's Catholic church outlasts the brothels

Svay Pak's Catholic church outlasts the brothels


Despite periodic police raids, the sex industry in Svay Pak commune - also known

infamously as K-11 for its 11-kilometer distance outside Phnom Penh's city

limits - flourished during the 1990s.

A heavily mascaraed statue of Jesus inside the Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Svay Pak.

Although clean-up attempts were

frequent, brothels were closed and reopened regularly. The occasional NGO-led

foray to "rescue" sex workers was countered by brothel owners merely ordering

new girls to feed Phnom Penh's sexual appetites. Early in 2005, however, the

government shut down Svay Pak for a film production and used the opportunity to

uproot the existing brothels.

Today, prostitutes no longer operate with

impunity. Visitors now may find their attention drawn instead to a small

Catholic church sitting quietly at the end of Svay Pak's unpaved main street.

The Mary Magdalene Church was established in 1998 and has played a key role for

the predominantly Vietnamese community in Svay Pak, providing both spiritual

guidance and practical assistance to the immigrant population.


Vietnamese living in Svay Pak occupy an unusual space apart in Cambodian

society. Some have obtained Cambodian ID cards and nominal legitimacy; others

have no papers at all. This community adrift - fully part of neither the

Vietnamese diaspora nor Cambodian state - has found an unlikely savior in the

form of a church willing to pursue highly unconventional tactics to help its


Sister Simone, a nun in charge of Mary Magdalene -who is

sometimes regarded as the patron saint of repentant prostitutes - explained that

initially the church helped new immigrants establish small businesses like

coffee shops or vegetable stalls. During the time when the brothel industry

thrived, these small enterprises proved lucrative. The shops, while not selling

sex directly, were dependent upon the flow of customers to the neighboring


The conjunction of church and brothel-based business, though

incongruous, was successful: To operate under the auspices of Catholicism was a

means of guaranteeing oneself a certain degree of protection. But following the

closure of the brothels, business opportunities have waned and the Mary

Magdalene church now focuses its attention on running a small school for the

second generation of Vietnamese immigrants.

Sop Chanthou works at the

school that adjoins the small but vibrant church in Svay Pak. The school, which

caters for children under the age of eight, was established in 2001. It prepares

Cambodian-born Vietnamese children for primary school by teaching basic


However, dislocated children - second generation immigrants on the

cusp of two societies - understandably prove difficult pupils. Incessant chatter

and infinitesimal attention spans are the bane of any good teacher's life and

Sop Chanthou is no exception. Yet in Svay Pak the children's boundless energy is

channelled into productivity: Clapping hands and chanting voices bounce over the

tiled walls. The church helps negotiate the morass of bureaucratic complications

and finds available places in local schools, enabling some of the school's

pupils to continue their education.

The unique brand of Svay Pak

Catholicism bears little resemblance to orthodox European conceptions of

adherence to the Holy See. Services are held in Khmer and Vietnamese every

Sunday and become more frequent in the run-up to Chinese New Year. The

syncretism of the church manifests in an exceptional aesthetic: Jesus wears

mascara under a crown of fairy light thorns, and the Virgin Mary, wrapped in a

rosary, has a colorful dignity as she accepts offerings of bananas from

well-dressed Vietnamese women.



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