Kheng Chen (left), 48, who sold her hair to make some extra money, sits in a temporary shelter that she shares with her family at a relocation site for former Borei Keila residents in Kandal province. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post
Kheng Chen had her hair cut in January and sold it to a broker for just under US$8. She isn’t happy with the close-cropped style because it makes her look older than her 48 years.
But when Kheng Chen grows her hair back in a few months, she plans to sell it again.
“Every woman loves hair, every woman wants to be beautiful,” she said. “But between beauty and having nothing to eat, which one do I need to choose?”
Kheng Chen is not alone in her dilemma. She lives in the Borei Keila community of evictees in Kandal province. They are among 133 families that were evicted in January by private security forces hired by development firm Phan Imex.
And now she is one of more than 30 women who have decided to exchange locks for bucks. Out of embarrassment, many wear scarves to cover up the tomboyish hairdos.
The buying and reselling of natural hair is nothing new, but it is just catching on in Cambodia. The Phnom Penh-based company Arjuni is edging into a field typically dominated by India and China, according to a story about the business in The New York Times this week.
Janice Wilson, the owner of Arjuni, told the Times that Cambodian hair resembles the same product out of India, a major supplier.
“Probably 99 per cent of the world’s hair comes from India. Nobody had thought of Cambodia,” Wilson told the Times. Wilson didn’t immediately return an email to Arjuni asking if the company sold hair from Borei Keila. The women did not mention the company when interviewed.
At the relocation site in Kandal province’s Srah Po village, the temporary residents have been selling hair since January. Those interviewed said that the transaction is routine by now.
Vietnamese brokers arrive on motorbikes and pull into the collection of blue tarp-covered huts that constitutes the village. They come around once or twice a month and canvass the site. The price, women interviewed said, depends on the length and consistency of hair.
Saom Sokunthea, 42, got about $7 for hers. She needed the money to buy rice for her three children. Parting with her hair, however, stirred up painful memories.
“If my husband was alive, he would not allow me to cut my hair, even if we died of starvation. Because he loved my hair so much,” she said.
The Borei Keila evictees are making these transactions voluntarily. But Sia Phearum, with the Housing Rights Task Force, said that buyers aren’t looking at the bigger picture.
“It’s really a shock to hear that, because they have nothing to sell,” he said. “People just want to get the benefit. They don’t care about social morals. They just care about the money.”
He added that the problem is one more reminder that the government has an obligation to help these people. “Authorities should reconsider the evictions after thinking that if all the matters fell on their families, how would they feel?”
Yoeun Soeun, 32, whose hair was sold three months ago, said she made a little more than $12. She attributes the higher-than-usual rate to her youth and the fact that she made frequent visits to the hair stylist. She removed her hat and ran a hand over a head of black hair. Then she put it back on.
“No one wants to do this, but when struggling without any opportunities, what we should do? In my village almost all women become old grandmothers.”
To contact the reporter on this story: May Titthara at [email protected]