Red-Light Theater District

The theater at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh is buzzing, even on this sticky Sunday night. Hordes of young people are pulling up on their motorcycles or chatting on cell phones -- the kind of crowd I've seen at free rock concerts by the city's riverfront. The young people are here to see a much more sobering performance tonight: a modern Cambodian play called A Wounded Life. Looking down at my program, I meet the sad gaze of the play's heroine, Poeu, an innocent country girl whose family is deceived into selling her into prostitution.

Written four years ago, the play was the result of a collaboration between three playwrights -- and even more activist groups and funders. Local and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have long struggled against Cambodia's insidious sex industry-- one that helped fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS in the country and drew or coerced tens of thousands of women and girls into prostitution. What better way to inform the public about the horrors of the sex industry than to make a play, thought some NGO staffers -- one that would both entertain and educate?

Some were apprehensive about the idea at first, including one of the play's writers and its stage director, Ros Kuntheara. “We tested this play many times,” he says, before the performance. “The audience stayed quiet; some cried. And they didn't walk out! We were afraid they would leave -- a lot of Cambodian people don't understand what modern theater is about.”

Playing to Phnom Penh audiences is particularly challenging, he says. “There are all these TV, karaoke, and fashion shows to compete against.” Audiences in the provinces are far more interested and are key targets for the play, as urban brothels are often full of women from the countryside. But the play's producers still lack the funds to take their work to provincial audiences or, even, to compensate fully the company for its work.

The actors make do with what they are given; it's a labor of love for them and for Ros. “Trafficking is a Cambodian crisis,” he says. “Actors have to work to rebuild our society and culture.” So he sets out, in the week before the performances, leafleting throughout the capital -- focusing particularly on the young rural women who have come to the city to work in the garment industry. Away from their parents and fending for themselves on an average $45 per month, the young women are particularly at risk of falling into the sex industry, especially now that Cambodia's garment industry has seen a rise in factory closings since the expiration of preferential trade quotas at the beginning of this year.

The play is a little rough around the edges, but the audience soaks it up anyway. Actors' voices waver in and out over the uncertain sound system; the set for a luxury hotel room features a few straggly plants and rattan furniture. The young people couldn't care less. They roar at the drunken brother-in-law's antics and clap enthusiastically after a tormented scene between Poeu and her boyfriend. Poeu's sham wedding has them spellbound -- she's marrying a wealthy merchant who has paid her desperately poor family for her hand in marriage. Poeu is then drugged, raped, and sold to a brothel, where sex workers recount their tragic tales (e.g., sexual abuse by a stepfather, a brothel owner who deliberately addicted one prostitute to drugs). The play is all very broad brush -- slapstick humor, cackling evil, tears of the innocent.

The play has the audience rapt … until the very end, when Poeu's boyfriend breaks into the brothel with an NGO worker, a policeman, and various other do-gooders. They deliver a chunk of message, condemning sex trafficking and advising the audience of the country's laws. But no one is left to listen; they have started to exeunt left and right, even as the actors strain to make their voices heard.

“I wrote a happy ending, because I couldn't bear not to,” says Ros. “It's not like that in real life.” The play is based on the experiences of a real-life former sex worker; but her story does not include a happy reconciliation with her boyfriend. Prostitutes who have escaped the life may find it even harder to shake off social stigmatization. Some who are “rescued” in dramatic brothel raids by NGOs run back to their pimps and bosses, desperate to send money back to their impoverished families. In 2003, in an internationally publicized raid, 37 girls and young women were freed from notorious red-light district Svay Pak, outside Phnom Penh; at least six have run away from liberation, presumably returning to their brothels.

Maybe the audience knows the happy ending rings false. On the way back home, I passed the Independence Monument, where the young girls and their motorcycle-driver pimps were plying their trade as usual, like they do night after night after night.

Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She first reported from Cambodia on a Pew International Journalism fellowship.

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