Mealea Lay is the front woman and swooning voice behind Miss Sarawan, the 1960s throwback musical act that has been performing around the country for nearly two years and will be recording their first studio album later this year. This week, she sat down with Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon to talk about the places that have set the tempo of her life in the capital ever since she moved to the city from Kampong Cham’s Batheay district a decade ago.
Srah Chork Temple
When I came to Phnom Penh to study, I lived in a temple for nearly five years. That temple is called Srah Chork. I lived there for parts of high school and university. I would sing for the monks and they would raise money for me to go to school. The monks would see that I was unhappy that I couldn’t pay for school, and they would gather around and put down 5,000 riel for me to sing a song. It’s just a bit west of Wat Phnom. I lived there with my family, because my brother is a monk. In the evening, I would help clean the temple and take the rubbish out. The name Miss Sarawan is related to my life story, because Sarawan is the name of another temple in Phnom Penh and also the name of a Khmer traditional dance.
Sisowath High School
I got a call to perform [on January 20] at Sisowath High School, where I went. It’s been 10 years since I’ve finished high school, and the other day I went back to visit my teacher and bring her presents and say “thank you”. She remembered me very well. So I’ll be performing there, and there will also be one painter there, sister Chhan Dina. When I lived in the temple, it was a hard time for me; you know, the countryside girl comes to Phnom Penh and doesn’t have money to study for examinations after school. But some teachers helped me a lot; they know I had no support, so they would let me study for free if I helped hand out documents in class.
Farm to Table
After the temple, I was working in a restaurant where I met my husband, Joe Wrigley. It was called Baitong, which means “green”, but it’s no longer there. It had good food and live music. Every Thursday, Scott Bywater would sing there, and so at the end of his performance, he would let me jam with them for one or two songs. I would sing songs like Chnam oun dop-pram-muoi [“I’m 16” by Ros Sereysothea] or Chol chnam thmey [“Happy New Year”] that were Khmer rock ’n’ roll. It was on Street 360, not far from Farm to Table in BKK1, which I really like because of the garden space. You can bring your family there and have good food, relax, have a meeting or enjoy any event. It’s friendly and not noisy, but they have live music there also.
The Mansion at FCC
I like the FCC (Foreign Correspondent’s Club) because it’s a special place. The building is very old, especially The Mansion, which is in the French-colonial style. When I’m inside, I feel like I’m in a flashback, and I imagine how it was at that time. It’s a historic place and I like to learn about history. I never studied music. I always loved dancing and singing, and from when I was a child I would listen to the radio. People ask me: “You’re the young generation. Why do you like to listen to that music from the 1960s?” I say because when I listen to those songs, I imagine what happens in the song. They educate about life and love. My favourites are Ros Sereysothea and Pan Ron. Pan Ron is cheekier and has more comedy when she sings rock ’n’ roll, but Ros Sereysothea is more smooth and gentle, singing romantic songs. When I perform, I dress up and have a 1960s hairstyle, and so I feel that at the Mansion I fit very well with the style.
I have to look around for my 1960s outfits. I know some tailors. I look on YouTube at recordings of 1960s singers, but most pictures of singers are above the waist, and there’s not too many photos of Cambodian singers. So I’m hunting around in O’Russey market, Boeung Keng Kang market and some second-hand stores to find 1960s-style clothes. There are places in BKK market that have nice dresses for ladies in the old style, and sometimes they’ll have rock ’n’ roll outfits for a man. I’ve got Joe a few very nice outfits there. If you just go the market, there’s a place called “Number one second-hand shop”.