An American academic has spent seven years researching the local hostess bar scene, and come up with some surprising findings: the final installment of a three-part series.
Sovan Philong/Phnom Penh Post
Girls working the streets do not have the security or support from fellow workers that bar hostesses have.
‘What do you think of the hostess bar scene in Phnom Penh?”
This is a typical opening question I’d ask people while interviewing for my research on bar work and professional girlfriends in Cambodia (professional girlfriends are women who date multiple western boyfriends in exchange for gifts).
Most often, well-meaning folks offer bits of sympathy, such as 20-year-old Dutch backpacker Annie: “I feel bad for the girls. They work in these bars and look for rich foreign guys because they have no other options. If they did, they would never choose to be here.”
It’s true – there is a tension between “free will” and the larger structural issues that make bar work a viable opportunity for women.
But it is too simplistic to say that the women wouldn’t be there if it were just a matter of other options.
With hostess bar work, there exists a number of freedoms which make it more appealing than other types of work – like street trading or garment factory work. But there are also lots of practical constraints that have to be dealt with.
This article highlights the good bits, the bad bits and the practicalities in between.
Let’s start with the negative.
Aside from the larger structural pressures related to economics, gender roles and required family loyalty, bar work itself comes with downsides. Most of these have to do with unwanted sexual advances, touching, rudeness, lewdness, verbal abuse, racism and sexism from intoxicated customers as well as management.
Chanthy, a 22-year-old bar worker on St 136, explains: “If I like one guy, I play with him … flirt … give massage on his back. But sometimes I don’t like men … and they touch me anyway. I don’t like when they do this. I smile … then I walking away.”
And as Dy, 24, points out: “Some barang men drink a lot! They talk very nasty and talk bad about Khmer girl. I say I not bad girl … but they shouting and spitting … very angry … but I not worry … just ignore …and talking with Khmer girls [instead].’
Many bars also impose a strict system of fines, which means a portion of the girls’ wages are deducted for certain infractions. These fines vary and can be created and enforced by management on a whim.
Sochua, 27, told me the story of how she was once fined $1 for eating one peanut because the Australian manager didn’t like her. Thinking he was joking, she ate another one, and he then charged her $2 – which, out of a $60 per month salary, is the equivalent of an entire day’s pay.
Many bars charge $5 fines for talking on mobile phones, or eating “personal” food while on duty.
I heard stories of bars charging fines for chewing gum, for mixing up drink orders or making drinks improperly, for not wearing name badges, for not cleaning glasses properly, or reversely, for cleaning glasses when they shouldn’t be.
The fine system is used as a form of control over the women, and a way for management to exert authority by punishing them financially.
But other downsides sometimes include unreasonable expectations from managers (eg to live at the bar or come in outside of scheduled hours), excessive alcohol and drug use, and probably the most common workplace hazard – a broken heart – which leads to depression and sometimes even self-harming (cutting arms with razors or “taking too much medicine”).
These last hazards have less to do with the bars themselves, than they do with Cambodia’s complete lack of mental health resources and services.
During times of depression, the women, instead, turn to their friends and co-workers for support and comfort, which points to some of the highlights of working in a bar.
For many women, the bar is a place of freedom, solidarity and support. As many women move on their own from the country to the city, the bar, and their friends there, act as a type of family.
As Jorani, 19, explains: “When I sad about my ex-boyfriend, I cry and cry. I go my bar and my sisters they help me. They make me laughing and I forget boyfriend!”
While in the bars, the girls enjoy the freedoms of movement, of being with their friends, of chatting with different foreigners, of drinking, dancing, learning English and of hearing about the world outside of Cambodia.
They have the freedom to play with their identities, and as Sochua said: “I like my bar because I like to be myself” – whoever that self might happen to be.
Bar life also allows much more freedom than the loneliness and isolation of being confined to the house as a wife or long-term girlfriend – which was a complaint of many women, and the reason many continued working in the bars after promising they wouldn’t while their partners were away.
The ability to work on again, off again in the bars also allows the women great freedom.
Sochua has been working at the same bar for nearly 10 years, and now has a good relationship with the European owner. Many times, she’s taken long breaks from work – to have her children, or to go to the countryside. Knowing that the bar will always be there and that her boss will take her back is a great relief to her, and a form of stability in what is sometimes quite an unstable life.
But there was also a certain network logic which defies the common argument that if there were other options, the women wouldn’t choose hostess bar work.
Tina, 25, was once offered a receptionist job at a small western-run boutique hotel. The hotel promised to quadruple her $50 per month salary and put her through university after she completed her first year at the hotel. The job was easy and the potential career opportunities seemed tremendous.
But after the first night, she walked out, and went back to work at her old bar. When asked why she would pass up what seemed to be such an amazing opportunity, she explained: “[The hotel] was too quiet. No customers ... bar is better ... learn more English ... meet more people.”
According to her logic, the potential for long-term security – which was via meeting people who might “open doors” for her – was greatly decreased at the hotel. The lower monthly salary at the hostess bar was secondary to the opportunity to meet more customers, which could potentially translate to increased economic, romantic, travel and learning opportunities in the future.
Tina found more value in the ability to network with a range of potentially useful people, than in pursuing a potentially unuseful long-drawn-out academic path.
Aside from this network logic, she also enjoyed the excitement, entertainment, social and educational aspects and freedoms of bar life.
So while there are plenty of negative aspects to working in hostess bars, the young women find them useful in different ways. Bar work tends to be seen as a means to an end, and a place of opportunity.
For professional girlfriends, bars offer unlimited networking possibilities which leads to potential future security.
Rather than being viewed as victims who are trapped in oppressive jobs and have no control over their lives, the plethora of young women I spoke to instead revealed they are hard-working mothers and daughters, loyal employees, dedicated girlfriends and wives and creative young women who are pulling up their bootstraps and taking on this world, despite all those who doubt them or try to get in their way.
And the bar is often the first stop on their journey.
Dr Heidi Hoefinger has been researching the hostess bar scene in Phnom Penh since 2003. She received her PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London, and is author of upcoming book titled Sex, Love and Money in Cambodia (Routledge 2013).