An American academic has spent seven years researching the local hostess bar scene, and come up with some surprising findings. This is the second in a three-part series.
One night while sipping a drink in a hostess bar in Phnom Penh with Sam, 31, from England, he shared the most common stereotypical complaint about “professional girlfriends” – or those women who exchange love and affection with multiple boyfriends for material things:
“They’re all liars … you can’t trust any of them … they just want one thing … they’re straight hoodrats [conniving people].”
In a typical here-there comparison, he continued:
“The difference between slappers [prostitutes] in the UK and here is that, here, they are more manipulative, more devious, more calculating … there’s a financial motivation behind everything … their intentions are different, because that’s all they know.”
Because his Cambodian neighbour, Sreymau, 26, had worked in a bar and had a few boyfriends that she dated, he immediately labelled her a prostitute and assumed she was only motivated by money and greed.
He associated this with an innate fault – as if “they know no better”, and are incapable of feeling, being or acting any other way.
Despite the fact that the women’s motivations to get involved with certain men are complicated and varied, it is this idea of ulterior motives which many men sometimes use to position themselves as innocent victims of female manipulation.
As Tom, 36, from Australia pointed out about his ex-girlfriend: “She wanted everyone to feel sorry for her. But really, I was the victim in that relationship. She just used me for my money.”
But what if we stop for a moment and look at these relationships between Cambodian women and foreign men through an historical and cultural perspective?
The very foundations of Cambodian culture are based on what’s called the patron-client relationship – the overall framework of which is Buddhist and refers to the ways in which people accumulate merit by redistributing resources and wealth to others further down in the pecking order.
Basically, someone in a position of power grants favours and gives stuff to people with less power in exchange for loyalty or practical help with things.
The entire Cambodian government is run in this way, for example.
It’s an unequal, but mutually beneficial system of exchange.
And one could possibly view the relationships between western boyfriends (read patrons) and professional girlfriends (read clients) through the same cultural lens.
The Cambodian women attach themselves to foreign men in the hopes of gaining social status and material things. The foreign boyfriends have economic power over the local girls and, in return, they gain not only personal satisfaction from their philanthropic contributions of support (what I refer to as hero syndrome), but also practical assistance with translating from Khmer to English, or securing land, for example.
In exchange for financial security, girlfriends are intimate, nurturing and wait – sometimes years – for the men to return and hopefully marry them. The girl’s security and status, then, grows with her affiliation to this man.
As historian Dr Trude Jacobsen, author of Lost Goddesses: Denial of Female Power in Cambodian History (2008) points out: “The women who enter into partnerships, however brief, with western men, are seen as having improved their access to wealth and opportunities.”
The things gained in the exchange are shared with her family, which then increases her own good karma, power and prestige.
Although this model can’t be applied in all cases of foreign-local relationships, there needs to be some understanding of patronage in the Southeast Asian context in order to understand how the girls might view their relationships with foreign men.
As Pich, 22, pointed out: “I have two boyfriends send me money to help with my family. I pay for school for my brothers, and I buy a moto for my father. When I go to the province, I bring a big bag of rice, and sometimes small gold for my mother. In my family, I’m the rich girl! I’m happy I help them a lot. I wait and I hope one boyfriend will marry me sometime. Then I give my family the milk money.”
This leads to another cultural concept that should be considered in these foreign-local relationships – the idea of bride wealth, or milk money. This is the practice of men giving gifts and literally paying back the “mother’s milk” that was spent on raising the daughter, to the family of potential brides in order to secure marriage.
According to Dr Jacobsen: “It is important that the groom’s family show that they value the bride, or her family will not permit the marriage; the ability of the groom and his family to support the couple and any future children is a matter of prestige.”
The practice of paying back the milk money to the female’s family in the form of a gift is still practiced, but as she continues: “Value is more often shown today in the form of the latest equipment, an apartment in a desirable location, or modern furniture.”
As Khmer male student Rattana, 27, explained: “I want to get married, but I cannot. I do not have milk money to pay the family. So I work first [as a tuk tuk driver], then I have money to marry.”
What this highlights is that it is culturally expected that a daughter’s marriage will bring status and material benefits to the entire family.
So, a Cambodian woman’s desire to meet a man who will support her and her family should not be attributed to some form of inherent greed, but rather, to a deeply rooted historical and cultural expectation.
Something else Dr Jacobsen points out is the timescale of inter-racial, inter-ethnic, foreign-local partnerships in Cambodia, which, she explains have been taking place for nearly 2,000 years.
First, the pre-classical Khmers and Chams (Camobdian Muslims) were mixing with Chinese and Indian merchants, diplomats and kings, and as early as the 9th century the historical records show that foreign men were offering gifts to families to secure their marriage to Cambodian women.
These political and economic alliances between Cambodian females and the first Europeans extend into to the mid-16th century, when Spanish and Portuguese mercenaries, merchants and missionaries entered Cambodia.
The local women would offer themselves as “temporary wives”, which lasted as long as the foreign men were in town.
Once compensation was agreed upon, the female moved into his house, served him by day as a maid/servant, and had sex with him at night. The relationships were mutually beneficial: the men got help with translation and trading in the market, and the women got improved status, prestige and wealth associated with their “marriage” and patronage to Europeans.
These foreign-local relationships, which have been happening for hundreds of years, have interesting similarities with contemporary partnerships between professional girlfriends and western boyfriends.
So the next time you overhear someone accusing a Cambodian bar worker or professional girlfriend of being a greedy thief, take a moment to educate them on the cultural and historical relevance of the women’s motivations.
As Socheata, 27, concludes: “I wait to meet a good barang man in my bar. I want to get married so he give us [her family] money to build a big house. Then I love him forever. This is my tradition.”
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).