Station Wine Bar owner Tony Munro and his troupe. From left to right: Rayuth Phal, Srey Leak (kneeling), Rattana Pich and Maro Sim. Photo by: MICHAEL SLOAN
It’s the middle of a weekday in Siem Reap inside the Station Wine Bar, as 24-year-old cross dresser Carole gyrates onstage to the Jennifer Lopez song “On the floor” clapped on by an audience of bar staff and fellow performers, barely visible in the dim mood lighting.
As Carole exits stage left, fellow performer Rayuth Phal turns and confides to one of the wait staff watching the mid-afternoon rehearsal that mimicking Lopez’s frenzied dance moves in the music video for “On the floor”, is a risky move.
“[Anyone] that performs “On the floor” should not dance, as people might think you dance like a crazy girl because you cannot dance as well as Jennifer Lopez,” cautions Rayuth Phal.
Looking dismissively up and down at Carole, he adds: “If you want to try that song, you have to have the right shoes.”
As Carole and Rayuth Phal swap places on stage, the clock strikes 3:30, and we’re halfway through dress rehearsals for the first publicly advertised performance of Station’s new four-person troupe, and owner Tony Munro is understandably nervous. The show is set to debut the following Saturday.
“They’ve been rehearsing all week and I haven’t seen their new songs until now. I don’t want to have to tell them to start over with so little time to go,” says Munro.
The dancers were recruited two weeks earlier, and daily three-hour rehearsals appear to have paid off, with the show ready for its premiere according to Munro, who says adding four cross-dressers to his permanent staff is part of his plan to make Station different.
His idea is to make the bar gay-friendly, and a comfortable environment for men like him who have recently declared their homosexuality.
“I wanted to make it different to all the other places around town. Up until a couple of years ago I had been a closet case all my life so I thought: ‘Oh well, this is one way of having a place for people like me.’ We don’t advertise as a gay bar, but it’s a gay-friendly bar. It’s a place that if people see the gay flag and if they were like I used to be, they know it’s somewhere where they can come in and feel comfortable.”
Meanwhile, Carole, real name Maro Sim, soon reappears downstairs in a Christina Aguilera-inspired black latticework dress that leaves little to the imagination.
Joking that’s she’s “not like the typical Cambodian lady”, Carole bats away questions about the social status of transvestites and transgender individuals, and says she is simply here to be a star.
“It’s what I do. I have no idea about any of that other stuff. I’m just doing my thing and if I’m good at performing at this bar then I can be a famous star.”
As well as Carole and Rayuth Phal, Station’s line-up includes 28-year-old hairdresser Rattana Pich, as well as veteran performer Srey Leak, who declines to give his age but has been performing in Phnom Penh since he was 15.
Rattana Pich, who introduces himself by explaining the name Pich translates into English as “diamond”, juggles performing at both the Station and Linga Bar with running a hair salon that also employs Srey Leak.
“I started from zero and now own my own salon, but I like performing,” says Rattana Pich. “I like the makeup, and seeing the crowd come to look at me makes me feel beautiful. I came to Tony to audition because my friends told me he wanted to start a [transvestite] show, and I’ll switch careers if this job is good. It’s a chance for a lot of money and a bright future. Once I start performing for a long time many people will know my face.”
Originally from Kampong Cham, Rattana Pich has identified as gay for as long as he can remember, something his mother suspects.
“It’s a secret, I think my mother knows but my father doesn’t. If he found out, he’d get very angry. They don’t know about my singing, and once I moved away from home I could start singing at night if I didn’t have any salon customers.”
Before long, Rattana Pich, who leans towards performing Chinese and Cambodian love songs, is back on stage with the other three members of the group performing a series of Khmer vaudeville skits.
The most gory involves a husband whose three wives find out about each other and start hassling him to choose a favourite, a dispute he settles by machine gunning all three to death and then strumming his mock AK-47/broom handle like an air guitar before being chased around the stage by their ghosts.
The bewildering array of English, Chinese, Khmer and Arabic songs the performers lip-synched to during the 90-minute show means that each performer changes costumes multiple times.
Yet, on this occasion, the stars of the show were not just the established members of the troupe but also 32-year-old Koa Veasna, who walked in off the street mid-rehearsal to audition.
Flooring the crowd with a dance routine involving US cheerleader moves, belly dancing and ‘the robot’, performed to a medley of Queen songs and Khmer pop, Koa Veasna then switched tracks to sing a Khmer song entitled Badaja in which a mother serenades the corpse of her dead baby, complete with real tears.
After dropped jaws were picked up again, the words “I think we just found number five” were heard from one of the onlookers; an unplanned expansion of the troupe which Tony later confirmed as an offer too good to refuse.
Koa Veasna was laid back about the impact of this impromptu audition which more or less resulted in being offered a job on the spot.
“I just came in today for testing by Tony. I do this to make money but it’s also who I am. I love men and I dress as a girl on the street, but in the future I want to open a coffee shop.”
Koa Veasna’s energetic performance drew several interested onlookers into the bar, among them Odom Vent, the manager of the neighbouring La Boulangerie Café, who says such shows are still rare in Siem Reap.
“Five years ago you would not see them … Now attitudes from Europe are more common and Khmers are [less] confused if a girl loves a girl or a boy loves a boy. It’s same, same.”
Next to him, tuk tuk driver Ngan Sareth quietly disagreed, saying: “I don’t interfere with what they do but my view is a man should act as a man and a lady as a lady. Five years ago there were only a few [cross dressers] in Siem Reap and they hid … They cannot marry and have a family. What happens when they get old?”
Meanwhile, inside Station, Rayuth Phal’s signature performance is coming to an end: a rendition of a love song performed in a kimono while wearing kabuki theatre makeup.
As the performance draws to a close, Tony gathers Koa Veasna and his other four performers together to congratulate them on the show, joking that Rayuth Phal needs to tone down the makeup.
“Why does your character have to be ugly? She’s beautiful, but we don’t see it. When you’re up there we have to see your beauty.”