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New app testing cultural norms

A person watches a video stream on the Bigo Live application in central Phnom Penh yesterday.
A person watches a video stream on the Bigo Live application in central Phnom Penh yesterday. Pha Lina

New app testing cultural norms

A decade ago, Prime Minister Hun Sen banned 3G cellphones after his wife, Bun Rany, issued a public letter warning of the “gravely negative consequences for social morality” and “sexual exploitation of women” that the video-capable phones could allow.

“Hold it. Do not yet start the mobile phone services through which the callers can see each others’ images,” the premier said during a speech in May 2006. “Maybe we can wait for another 10 years or so until we have done enough to strengthen the morality of our society.”

A lot has changed in a decade. Hun Sen is now himself a broadcasting star, streaming his activities on Facebook Live, while hundreds of young Cambodian women compete for their own viewers from their bedrooms using another app called Bigo Live.

Launched by a Singaporean tech firm in March – two months before the premier’s long-forgotten target to allow video phones – the Bigo Live app has this year become the third-most downloaded app in Cambodia both on iOS and Android smartphones.

Amid a proliferation in phone usage that has left the country with more SIM cards than people, the openly sexual streaming app has also proved something of a locus of a generational clash in a country that has long imagined itself as uniquely socially conservative.

“Bored? Hot Girls’ and Boys’ Live shows in your hand, all day!” read Bigo Live’s ads on Facebook, alongside images of a fair-skinned young woman recording herself in a revealing black top and another – even simpler – message: “BIGO Hot! Hot! Hot!”

At the tap of a button, the app allows users to instantly broadcast from their phone’s cameras, and allows the viewers to choose what channels they watch either by selecting from a grid of profile photographs or simply by swiping up or down inside a broadcast.

The viewers interact by sending public text messages – or by mini iced doughnuts that are blown onto the screen by a cartoon dragon. They can even purchase and send special “stickers” to their favourite broadcasters, which add to a “bean” count.

Once a broadcaster has 6,700 beans (worth about $30), they can redeem them for cash – but only if they are in Thailand or Indonesia, for now.

Yet for most Cambodians, the value of the app lies in interactions between the broadcasters – some of whose outfits are more modest than others – and the viewers, who egg on a type of exhibitionism that has led to a number of critical articles in the past months.

“There is one Cambodian girl who is making all the men agitated on Bigo Live by not wearing a bra,” reads one article posted last week on a local entertainment website about a 19-year-old starlet who gives her real name as “Phim” but broadcasts under the pseudonym “Amm Roth Ta Soing”.

“This young woman with an attractive body has also made live videos on her Facebook, and in those videos there are millions of people watching her in her showering outfit, which attracts great interest,” it said.

“According to her own words, this woman only wants to be live to create connections via social networks like Facebook, and to show her feelings to all her friends. But on the other hand, there are still some people who criticise her for wearing inappropriate clothes.”

The same debate plays out almost daily on Phim’s live streams – her Facebook account has a modest 57,000 followers – with the starlet eating up the attention of fans and defending herself against those who watch her videos only to rebuke her.

“I think that this video is too sexy!” one commenter complained on a video streamed on Tuesday, which showed Phim gyrating to music in her underwear and was captioned: “If you watch this, don’t curse me. If you curse me, I’ll curse you back.”

“Oh, is that so?” Phim replied to her critic.

“That’s right – and in posting it, what do you want in return?” the critic retorted.

“I want happiness,” Phim said.

“You are thinking about happiness? So do you not think about people who would look down on you for dressing like this? Are you not ashamed?”

“No,” she said. “It is my individual right.”

A comment on another video suggested the broadcaster’s next video show her naked, in order to attract more fame. “Wait until your mother gets naked for you, then I will get naked too,” she responded.

While much has changed in the past decade to allow young people to stand up for their decisions to express their sexuality openly, many officials still remain on the lookout for those who step outside the bounds of self-appointed gatekeepers of culture.

The Culture Ministry in May even summoned 23-year-old actress Denny Kwan “to educate her” after photographs of her in skimpy clothing spread on social media, while the Information Ministry in July banned two popular songs it deemed too sexual.

Neang Sovathana, who rose to fame as the radio host “DJ Nana”, answering risqué questions on love and sexuality, said the generational friction over sexuality was a product of youth testing how far beyond the old restrictive social mores they can push.

“Freedom can easily be interpreted to an extreme end of ‘I can do whatever I want’, partly because women were living under social pressure for so long,” said Sovathana, 30. She said the freewheeling displays on apps like Bigo Live were a natural blowback.

“When they start to demand ‘freedom’, it becomes the extreme end of it. It is like you never express your anger, so when you can no longer hold it, it explodes. This is not to say it is right or wrong.”

In any case, the generational gap on what is deemed acceptable when it comes to displays of sexuality is likely only going to continue growing wider, with appeals to “culture” falling even flatter with the women it seeks to influence, Sovathana said.

“It has been changing so fast, and it is going even faster in a very near future,” she said. “To educate young women by saying that ‘It is bad for Cambodian culture’ has no use, and to use legal action against wearing sexy clothing is just another mistake.

“As the world and Cambodia are changing, sexuality should be an education, and people need to talk about it, rather than just say, ‘It Is Wrong.’”

For his part, Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government should have no role in regulating streaming services, even if their broadcasts conflict with older social mores, as Bun Rany once feared, and show more skin than many can accept.

“For me this is the downside of new technologies, but it is their freedom,” Kanharith said in a message on Facebook. “Young people are always trying to find a way to affirm their identity. Unless they display their indecent video in public, it isn’t a crime.”

Jimmy Meng, a model and presenter on PNN television who streamed a more demure six-minute show at 10am Wednesday – attracting 375 viewers – said it ultimately remained up to the users of streaming apps to decide what they watched or broadcasted.

“Some just sit there and show their sexiness, and this can have a lot of effects on this generation’s youth,” she said, estimating that about 80 percent of the women she knew with partners “do not want them to watch Bigo Live” because of the app’s reputation.

“When their husbands sit and watch it in front of them, generally it will affect their sentiments, and these 80 percent can have domestic disputes if the men use Bigo Live without any consciousness.”

“Everything has its advantages and its disadvantages,” Meng said. “So when we use it, we have to be conscious about the way that we are using it.”

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