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Back to black fashion stirs memories

Back to black fashion stirs memories

Phnom Penh's latest fashion statement: black clothing hung out to dry near the Olympic Stadium.

MORE than 20 years after the fall of the Democratic Kampuchea regime, black uniforms

still haunt the memory of older Cambodians. The color reminds many of them of harsh

years spent toiling in the Killing Fields.

Phnom Penh youth, however, see the color black differently: to them it is elegant.

And when they want their clothes dyed black, there is no shortage of places that

will help.

"Some people still feel hatred with the Khmer Rouge when they see me dyeing

clothes black," says Noun Oeurn, a 57-year-old woman at her sidewalk business.

She says that a Vietnamese man taught her how to dye clothes properly a few years

ago.

At her patch east of the Olympic stadium, Oeurn soaks a variety of clothing in a

steel drum of boiling black water. Behind her hangs a selection of shirts, jeans

and trousers waiting for their owners to come back and collect them.

Mistakes made when dyeing clothes annoy some people, says Oeurn. Two recent customers

were livid when she dyed their shirts black rather than blue in error.

"They said they don't like black clothes because it makes them look like the

Khmer Rouge. It reminds them of the KR time," she says.

Oeurn first got involved in dyeing clothes during the rule of the KR. Soldiers insisted

that she use fruit to dye all her clothes black. She can sympathize with those customers

who find the color offensive: she dislikes it herself, but says this business is

the only one open to her.

Black, however, is not the only color she uses. Blue, dark green, light and dark

brown are common, she says, but black is by far the most popular, particularly among

young students and teenagers.

" I wonder why they like the black color?" she asks.

Chan Samnang, a 22-year-old IT student at the Norton University in Phnom Penh, is

clear why he likes the color: Hollywood films and American TV shows have a big influence

on Cambodia's youth. Actors such as Will Smith, star of the Men in Black movie, cut

a dashing figure in their dark outfits.

"I feel that I look very handsome when I wear black clothes and black shoes,"

he says.

When he followed the fashion among Khmer youth of wearing black, he was unaware of

the association with the Khmer Rouge uniform.

Another black clothing enthusiast, Ouk Reasmei, 20, says that although he likes wearing

the color, his mother is less impressed.

"Sometimes when I wear a black uniform my mother says that I look like Pol Pot,"

he says.

The color does not always last, he says, and he regularly returns to have his trousers

dyed again when the color has faded.

Kuong Thol also runs a small clothes dyeing business. Most of her customers are farmers,

manual laborers and soldiers who want their old uniforms dyed. Second-hand clothes

sellers who want to improve the look of their wares are also in the dyeing trade.

Oeurn and Thol have much in common: Like Oeurn, Thol has run her business for five

years. She too learned the trade from a Vietnamese, and also makes around 5,000 riel

each day.

It's hot work dyeing clothing near the Olympic Stadium.

Thol also complains about the impact chemical dyes have on her health.

"Dyeing clothes is like burning myself," she says. "The smoke is hazardous

to my health. My doctor tells me that I now have bronchitis."

Chhok Sam Oeun, 45, was waiting for two items of clothing the day the Post visited.

He had been head of a civilian militia group under the KR. Unlike normal civilians,

who had to dye their own clothes black, the soldiers were given black uniform to

wear.

"When I escaped from my village and went to another, I lied to the Khmer Rouge.

I told them that I was a low-ranking Khmer Rouge soldier and gave them false papers

that showed I had been promoted," he said.

He was glad of the color: with his uniform and a krama around his neck, he says he

was given more food.

The lure of black, though, is not restricted to Khmer youth: many foreigners in Phnom

Penh also stop by, says businesswoman, Mei Yong.

"Among my customers are Vietnamese, Chinese and Thai," Yong said.

The majority of clients, though, are Khmer, and this is not a lucrative trade: for

each piece dyed - and she gets about 10 items a day - Oeurn charges 1,500 riel. She

has been dyeing clothes now for five years and would like to stop.

Standing over a vat of bubbling chemicals is a dangerous way to make a living. Both

Oeurn and Thol are aware of the risks, but say they have little choice: each has

eight children to feed and this is the only way they can make ends meet.

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