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Cambodia's rebels without a cause

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Cambodia's rebels without a cause

Known for attention-grabbing dress sense and loitering, the Kingdom’s 'steav' are widely regarded as little better than gangsters. But the ‘young bulls’ themselves say that they are just misunderstood

About 4pm every afternoon, groups of young people begin to congregate at an empty concrete lot on Koh Pich, aka Diamond Island. As the sun sinks, hundreds arrive via the bridge at the end of Sihanouk Boulevard. They ride around on their motos, chat, smoke and check each other out.

Mostly male, almost all are in their teens and early 20s. Some sit on benches under the mango trees that divide the lot from the road – the small, unripe fruit hanging above caked in dust. More drape themselves over their bikes. Others – particularly couples – loiter on a dirt embankment next to the Mekong.

Meet the steav, a much-maligned demographic of Cambodian youth widely considered little better than adolescent gangsters.

According to social researcher Tong Soprach, the term – which is pronounced “stiew” and sometimes translated as “rebel” – started being used as a pejorative referring to teenagers about 15 years ago.

The Kalip Mode hairdressing salon near Bak Touk High School
The Kalip Mode hairdressing salon near Bak Touk High School is a popular place for steav to get a stylish haircut. Charlotte Pert

“The word is similar to bong thom, or gangsters … but for younger people, adolescents, about 15 to 20 years old,” Soprach, who also writes a weekly column for the Post’s Khmer-language edition said.

Steav rejected traditional values and were thought to be obsessed with material goods – new clothes, motorbikes and mobile phones, he said. They also had a reputation for bad behaviour: gathering in public places, like at the Independence Monument and Koh Pich, to talk, drink and smoke, and skipping school.

At the extreme, they would steal money from their parents and get involved in robberies and bag snatching, fighting and taking drugs.

It’s a subculture that fascinates French-Cambodian filmmaker Davy Chou who is making a feature film called Diamond Island about young people who work and hang out there.

“The word steav originally came from ko steav, which is a young cow, a little bull or something,” said Chou, who with his bouffant hairdo has occasionally jokingly been accused of being a steav himself. “I think it’s a good image.

“They’re youngsters, this kind of free young people. Not rebels, but kind of showing off and expressing their freedom. A little bigger than life. The opposite of steav would be the very polite young guy who draws exactly within the lines of what a young guy should be. But I’m sure they’re sometimes the same people at different times.”

Chou, who is best known for his documentary Golden Slumbers about Cambodia’s film industry in the “golden age” of the 1960s and 1970s, said the steav reminded him of American youth in the 1950s, a time when the culture there was becoming less conservative and more free: like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

“Everyone had their own motorbike and this feeling of freedom,” Chou said.

At a casting call for Chou’s film last week, singer Nen Tum, who was auditioning for a role as a steav, said they were just young people who wanted to have fun.

“The word steav is a bit sensitive, it basically means just teenagers, but somehow people just assume that it’s bad. Whenever they hear the world ‘steav’ they think that steav are just useless teenagers who love to waste their time doing nothing.”

Dara Tola, 19, believes the reputation steav have for bad behaviour is undeserved
Dara Tola, 19, believes the reputation steav have for bad behaviour is undeserved. Charlotte Pert

On Monday afternoon at Koh Pich the young people hanging out at the concrete lot identified themselves as steav, but said they were misjudged.

Dara Tola, a 19-year-old university student sitting under one of the mango trees with a group of friends, said not all steav were the same.

“They just call anyone who hangs out here steav,” he said.

Some steav were bad people who didn’t have jobs or money and used drugs and fought with each other, he said. They sometimes drag-raced at the Koh Pich lot. But others were good, normal students or workers.

“Good steav just have a good way of dressing and nice hairstyles, like fashionable people,” Tola said. “It doesn’t really matter what they call us as long as we don’t do bad stuff.”

Nearby, a group of young men sat on larger motorbikes. They were reticent to talk until they called their “leader” – who was at a different spot on Koh Pich – and received permission to be interviewed. Even then they were reluctant to have their photos taken.

The group, which has about 30 members in total, meet every afternoon, said Vann Sotheng, a 17-year-old grade-11 student at Beltei International School.

He said they spend their time planning rides out to places like Kirirom Mountain and Kampot, and charity drives to donate money to poor children in the provinces.

Sotheng, wearing a blue shirt open at the collar and tight black jeans, and sitting on a big neon yellow motorbike bought by his parents (a sticker reads: “I love my family”), said he came straight to Koh Pich every day after going home to change out of his uniform.

“The word steav is not bad. They just call us that because of the way we look and all the stickers on our motorbikes,” he said.

Chou said steav style was influenced by outside trends – like Western movie stars and Korean pop singers – but was distinct to the Kingdom. “I’m not sure if we can find Cambodian steav outside of Cambodia,” he said.
“It’s a social type that is very new. It couldn’t happen when nobody had things like big motos before. It’s also linked with this emerging middle class.”

Young people who hang out in empty parking lots, such as those found on Koh Pich, are often pejoratively labelled ‘steav’.
Young people who hang out in empty parking lots, such as those found on Koh Pich, are often pejoratively labelled ‘steav’. Charlotte Pert

Chou said the classic steav look for guys was tight trousers, a colourful shirt with wide lapels and flip-flops or nice sneakers. The girls often wore sexy short pants.

He said the place to go for a “supercool look” was the hairdressers behind Bak Touk High School.

At the Kalip Mode hairdressing salon there on Tuesday, nearly a dozen male hairdressers were busy sharpening up their customers’ already stylish hair. Cambodian-style dance music pounded on the sound system. Most of the customers were teenage boys.

“About three-quarters are male and the rest are lesbians,” said hairdresser Ban Soravorn, 18. “We rarely get any [straight] female costumers.”

Soravorn said a steav was someone who was “young and fresh, with a good style of fashion that looked cool with a nice haircut”.

“No, I don’t think steav is a bad world at all. Steav is someone who is cool,” he said.

Appearances were important, he added. “You cannot look like an old-fashioned person, you have to look cool. I have to look good because I want to attract people’s attention, especially girls.”

Reaksmey, a 21-year-old university student, said she considered herself a steav because she was different from “normal people who don’t like to try cool and new styles as steav do”.

“I know some people think that steav are bad people who are young, crazy, wild and like to cause trouble, but, for me, it depends. Not all the steav are bad. Some are good people who love to dress up just to make themselves look cool, follow the new trends and be happy about themselves and to attract other people’s attention.

Singer Nen Tum (left) auditions for Davy Chou’s (right) film Diamond Island.
Singer Nen Tum (left) auditions for Davy Chou’s (right) film Diamond Island. Charlotte Pert

“People shouldn’t judge others just by their appearance.”

She added that she felt comfortable being a lesbian because there were many people like her in the subculture and it was considered normal.

Chou said he wanted to make it clear that Diamond Island, which is set to start shooting later this year, wasn’t all about the steav.

“The main inspiration of the film is how to catch something about the youth today, in this very specific time of modernisation of Cambodia, in a place that for me is very symbolic of that specific moment, and maybe symbolic of the future of Cambodia,” Chou said.

“The steav are a part of that: the very ephemeral moment in the life of the young Cambodian guy – that two, three years of feeling the freedom, trying to experiment, trying to be himself before becoming, as everybody in the world, more of an adult and having responsibility and stuff.

“It’s an interesting parallel to how this country is and where it’s going.”

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