Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Phnom Penh on fire and Olympic Sponsors under fire

I am now in Kathmandu, Nepal but received this urgent email from Sophon, the director at Riverkids ( Please pass this message along and help if you can.

Dear All

Please find the photos of the a slum area in Phnom Penh had been burned during Khmer New Year. Over 450 houses had been burned and over 1000 people including children are homeless. The rain season starts soon. The people will face much problems,but they get little help from the Government. I really appreciate if you could share little help to those people.

From Sophon

It's the third big fire in Cambodia in 6 months. "In January, a fire destroyed a riverside shantytown in Kampong Chhnang, leaving some 1,500 people homeless. And about 15,000 people, mainly ethnic Vietnamese, were made homeless when fires swept through two squatter camps in Phnom Penh last November." (

I will be back in Cambodia mid-May. On Friday I will be off to Pokhara to visit a Tibetan refugee settlement. Tourists are still barred from Tibet so I am unable to go to Lhasa. I have managed to speak to a number of Tibetans who are living in Nepal though, and will post their thoughts later.

In the face of fresh protests in Tibet, some consumers have already started protesting against the Olympic sponsors.

"In the first signs of a wobble by the Games’ commercial backers after a wave of demonstrations, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lenovo will not field their logo-covered vehicles as the flame makes its way through Nagano."

If you are interested, here is a list of some of the sponsors, courtesy of blogger hunterseeker.

International Olympic Committee Partners
Atos Origin
General Electric
John Hancock
Eastman Kodak Company
Lenovo Group Limited (formerly Legend Computer Systems Limited)

Corporate Partners of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China
Air China
Bank of China
China Mobile
China Netcom
General Electric

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Dogs in Nepal and Cambodia

It's almost 2am and soon I will be on a plane bound for Kathmandu, yay! This is my first holiday (not counting home visits lah!) since moving to Cambodia almost 2 years ago, and I am so excited. Why Nepal? Well, a Bloom customer from the UK, Anne, told me she loves Nepal so much she has been there 16 times! She then invited me to join her for her April trip. Among other things, I will be checking out the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre. Anne told me Nepal is so poor that many of the dogs suffer from malnutrition and mange. She showed me some heartrending photos when we met in Siem Reap.

Although Cambodia is also a poor country, Khmers love their dogs and take care of them to the best of their ability. When Nessie was expecting, practically everyone we know asked us for a puppy. I have never seen a dog with mange here. Most of them seem to have happy lives, running freely, rolling about in the dirt and sniffing and eating away at rubbish. Still, Isabelle, the German vet we go to here in Siem Reap, says medium sized dogs live on average, only 5 years in this country, mainly due to a poor diet (dogs here are fed mostly rice, but as dogs are hunters, they need protein more than carbohydrates) and lack of vaccinations. Female dogs have it especially bad, as they just reproduce and reproduce which takes a toll.

Dogs in the countryside are even worse off. When I visited Takeo, I actually arranged to have two starving dogs brought back to Phnom Penh where they would have homes. Unfortunately, one died. I had given him to Neang and she was unable to take him to the vet when he was sick, as she simply could not afford it. I did not know he was in bad shape as Neang never tells me her problems. I only found out later the puppy had died. At that time Neang and I cried together at the little lost life. It is still traumatic, thinking about this and I feel sad. Here I was thinking he would have a better chance in the city where there is more food, when I probably brought him to his death (perhaps it was a virus he got, as Austin contracted Parvo in Phnom Penh). "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."

I love dogs and want to investigate the possibility of starting an animal shelter here in Siem Reap. The challenges for me are (1) funding, as it is very expensive to feed and medicate the animals (my personal finances are committed to Bloom) (2) finding land that is big and far away enough from neighbours so they won't complain and (3) getting a vet involved.

So anyone reading this who is interested in the project, please contact me. I'll wrote a post when I get back from Nepal on the lessons I learnt at the Animal Centre.
I will also try to visit Lhasa if possible to see for myself the Tibet situation.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


This is Neang, with her paternal granny and her cousin. I love the photo below of Neang and her grandmother. They have such character and are such strong women. I think Neang is very photogenic. She is the one who was working as a construction worker for 6000riels (about USD1.50) a day. I have written about her elsewhere because Neang is the one whose situation moved me most. She stayed in a hut made out of cement bag walls and had no electricity, water or a toilet. This is her new home in Chhbar Ampou, for which she pays USD22 a month. The entire room can be seen in this photograph and this is her home. You can see she has very few possessions. It looks dingy but believe me, it is steps up from where she was (you can see older photos of her former home on this blog). Here, in her concrete room, she is protected from the elements and she has a wooden bed frame to sleep on. She also has access to water and a common toilet and bathroom (shared toilets are common for poorer Khmers, often 6 or more people share a single toilet and bathroom) and importantly, she has electricity, which means she has the fan for the terrible April heat. She is another one who is always thanking me, and keeps telling me she loves her job as if she is worried all the time she may lose it. Neang's husband used to beat her, before he moved on to another woman, a friend of Neang's. She is 30 and lives with her grandmother. Neang has no children. Photo courtesy of Bloom customer Corey Torpie ( Update on 23 May: I just learnt that Neang's granny, the beautiful old lady in this photo has died. She died sometime in April, around Khmer New Year, so soon after we met her. It was a big shock to me. She looked well, although I'm sure she was not. That is the way in Cambodia. On average women live below 60 years and Neang's granny was 60-something.


Sophea is a fantastic worker and I really appreciate her hard work. She is very shy but when she opens up, she has a really nice laugh. I find Khmers like to laugh--they are not a sullen lot at all. She is always saying "aw-koon thom thom, bong srei" or "thank you big big, elder sister" (even though I am younger than Sophea--it's a form of respect). She is actually not well, and has a cyst which causes her much pain sometimes, yet she is always the first to help me with my bags when I arrive from Siem Reap. I have considered taking her to Vietnam to see a doctor but she says it is not necessary. Here she is in her house with her mother (left). On the walls of Khmer houses you will find pictures of singers and actresses and you can see some in Sophea's house. Also photos of her relatives, dead and alive. Sophea has had a very very tragic life, but to protect her privacy I won't go into details. She has one teenage daughter, still in school, who lives with her and her mom. Photo courtesy of Corey Torpie (

Edany and her daughter

Beautiful photo of Edany and her 8 year old daughter. Corey took such a great pic with the little boy from the neighbourhood running to the riverside. We were at the riverside across the bridge--I love this area, it is cool and breezy and not yet developed. No doubt it will be one day, as the villagers are sitting on prime land that is quickly being snapped up by developers who want to build all sorts of riverfront businesses. Dany's mother (pictured below) pays USD10 a month to rent a small plot of land on which to build her own wooden house (that's the wooden patio they are sitting on below). It is only USD7.50 to rent a plot of land at the riverbank because sometimes houses fall into the river. Dany tells me they are worried one day they will lose their homes as soil erosion means eventually the riverbank will move closer inland. Dany is divorced from her husband and also has a 19 year old daughter. Photo courtesy of Bloom customer Corey Torpie (

Sewing Silhouette

This is Sophea in silhouette. It looks like she is working in the dark, but take a look at the next pic! This one is a aerial view of Sophea and Kamhut at their sewing machines. Photos courtesy of Corey Torpie (

Outside and Inside the Bloom workshop

This one shows the outside of the workshop. It's in a little lane in the city, just off street 163. It's a nice little neighbourhood and neighbours often stop by to chat and their children play along this corridor. The women love children and are happy to be around them and their noisy games. Most of the Bloom team cycle to work and you can see their bicycles parked here. Edany's bike was stolen one day from right under their noses! Now they lock their bikes.
Inside the workshop. The typical Khmer flat "ptayh l'wairng" is a terrace house that is longish (usually 4m by 20m). "Wairng" in Khmer means "long". That's me and Sipha sitting on the floor trying to decide on how many pieces of the new designs we should make. Photos courtesy of Corey Torpie (

Quality control

Here you see our QC mean machine! Sareoun is a star--he's responsible and is always joking with the women. Because he knows he is better off than all of the women (his parents own a pig farm), he puts their needs in front of his. Sareoun is married with no children and previously worked at a Chinese garment factory and then at Hagar, the Swiss NGO, where they all trained to make bags. Photo courtesy of Corey Torpie (

Handmade Bags 2

This one shows Saroeun using a lighter to burn the edges of the nylon strap to stop them from fraying. It sounds very primitive, the tools we use. The bags are handmade so we do not use expensive equipment like you find in factories. With machinery, all the different parts are mass produced efficiently, whereas it's more time-consuming to do it the "traditional" way. Photo courtesy of Corey Torpie ( Corey came by to buy our bags one day and spent the next day with the Bloom team. She is a brilliant photographer--go check out her site and you can see beautiful photos of China and Europe.

Handmade Bags

I really like this pic. It shows Sophea straightening the edges of the rice bag before sewing. Photo courtesy of Corey Torpie (

The Bloom team

One customer, Corey, from the US, took a series of photographs of Bloom. She aims to write a story on Bloom and get it published, to help raise awareness of our little project. We all had fun showing Corey our workshop and how we make the bags. Then we took her around Chhbar Ampou where the women live and Corey took some great pics of the women and their families. This one was taken outside the workshop. From left: Sareoun, Kamhut, Sipha, Neang, Sophea and Edany. I'm the one squatting in front! We are al carrying Bloom's handmade recycled fishfeed bags. Photo courtesy of Bloom customer Corey Torpie (

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Sex trade in Cambodia, Childish Khmers and the Blame Game

I am posting a comment I wrote on this website run by a Khmer-American. In general Oudam is a good, thoughtful, site, and gives an insight into overseas Khmers and they way they think and feel about their country. But it also has horrors such as, "After all, we Khmers built Angkor– it’s in our blood to be great."

It's like the Chinese always saying we invented gun powder, paper, bridges and what have you and so are destined to rule the world. It always disturbs me, this misplaced sense of pride. I am sure if we went into it, most cultures would have produced something great at one time or another, so how should we play this game of my invention is bigger than yours?

Anyway, the comment I left was in response to Oudam showing Dan Rivers' CNN report on the sex trade in Cambodia

The comment failed to appear, but since I've written it, I figure I may as well post it on my blog.

This is the quote I take issue with:

"The work of Mam Somaly, the former prostitute featured in this video, is admirable. However, a glaring omission from the report is the throngs of Western sex tourists and pedophiles who come to Cambodia each day to exploit our women and children and help fuel the sex trade. They’d arrive by the plane-loads, fanning out across towns and villages taking advantage of impoverished Cambodian women and children."

This is what I said:

Please give us facts and figures. You do not help the discussion by fanning racist flames and repeating hearsay information.

Do a bit of research and you will find actual figures:

October 08, 2007
High demand for virgins from mostly Asian clients is fuelling the flow of underage girls into Cambodia's sex trade, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) says.

About 38 per cent of the women and girls surveyed working in the sex trade in Cambodia entered the industry by selling their virginity, IOM found, while 85 per cent of the clients paying to sleep with them were Asian men. See

and this March 2006 report:

Bearup (2003) also conducted a quantitative study with convenience sampling of 580 young people (13–28 years old) living in Phnom Penh and found that 60 percent of male university students knew others who had been involved with bauk (gang-rape).

Percent beaten by gangsters in past year - 60.6

Percent whose money was taken by gangsters in past year - 67.2

Percent raped by a single gangster in past year - 43.7

Percent gang raped by gangster in past year - 42.7

"While the level of violence reported here from clients seems high compared to the limited data available from elsewhere in Asia (Jenkins et al., 2002), the interviews reveal that many of the men referred to as clients are in fact gangsters and out-of-uniform police.

"Altogether, 86.8 percent of female freelance sex workers and 90.8 percent of srey sraos (transvestites) had been raped in the past year. The percent raped by police last year was 41.8, and the percent raped by gangsters last year 62.0, whereas the percent raped by clients last year was 73.8. In total, the percent of freelance sex workers raped by anyone last year was 85.3.

Please don't tell me the people the university students know, the gangsters and the police are "Westerners". They are clearly Khmer. So you can understand my fury at Khmers who abuse their own people and then have unwitting allies like yourself who distract from the problem by trying to point fingers elsewhere.

If you really want to do something to help your people in this area, you need to get your facts right first. It is far simpler to take the easy way out and blame foreigners for a problem that is mostly caused by Khmers and can be solved by Khmers, by the Cambodian government and police themselves, if they weren't some of the biggest perpetrators.

Diana Saw
a Singaporean woman living in Cambodia

I get really angry at what I perceive to be a common Khmer trait: blaming other people and not taking responsibility for one's own actions. This happened (notice i use the past tense, because things have changed) a lot with the Bloom team. It was impossible to get anyone to own up to any wrongdoing and forget about getting anyone to say "Sorry". Every single time, workers would blame one of their peers for a mistake. It was always somebody else's fault. And it was always done behind the other's back. It was terrible and reminded me of primary school, when kids lie and blame someone else when confronted by the teacher. I am still reeling from an incident where two women gave two completely different accounts of the same incident, one of them clearly a barefaced liar ("Barefaced" or "Boldface": "Barefaced is one year older than bold-faced; its first print appearance dates to 1590. But the original meaning of barefaced was literal: it meant "having the face uncovered,".... barefaced soon came to describe something "unconcealed or open"; and then something "showing or having a lack of scruples." Merriam-Webster Online).

Of course they were worried about consequences, but being an adult means taking responsibility for one's actions. In this regard, I find Khmers to be very childish--if you reprimand them, for instance, they will laugh or giggle, as a way of hiding embarrassment, instead of discussing the issue like adults. It used to drive me crazy when our first housekeeper (the one who ran away to the province, taking my camera etc with her) giggled every time I pointed out the things she did incorrectly (like putting the rice cooker pot in the microwave!).

As I said, things have changed with Bloom. It has taken almost 2 years, but the team leaders Sipha and Saren are now (sometimes) willing to point out mistakes on their own and apologise for them, even before I notice anything. Part of it was reassuring the team that it is ok to make mistakes, as long as we learn. I repeated this constantly, every time someone made a mistake at work--it could be drawing the wrong template, so the bags would turn out wrong, for instance. I honestly think it is ok for me to lose a bit of money for the workers to learn, because they will improve as workers which will benefit the business in the long run. And I am glad they seem to have more confidence in themselves and appear to be more responsible than when we first met.

Khmer Paratha and Singapore Food

For dinner yesterday, I bought couple of banana Parathas or "Prata" as we lazy Singaporeans spell it. Yes, Cambodia has its own version of the paratha: it's made with prata (I gave up trying to spell it properly), egg, condensed milk and bananas and it's sold by a mobile hawker. The man I buy from is usually in front of Molly Malone's in the old market area. He is there only in the evenings. The prata is cut up into bite-sized pieces, then stuck into a plastic bag with a paper base and you eat it with a long satay (skewered meat) stick.

The prata costs USD1 (it was only 3000 riels 2 weeks ago...damn this inflation. I have been thinking of writing about the topic for a while now. Inflation here is a crazy 11 per cent). It's really expensive. I remember eating plain pratas at the prata shop near the university in Singapore for only SGD0.40 (about USD0.30 at current exchange rates). It was SGD0.60 when I left 2 years ago, although the price has probably gone up now. You can also get pratas in the Makmak's Corner in Phnom Penh (USD1.20 with egg) and a plate of Mee Goreng (fried noodles) for USD2.50 (it's only SGD2.50 back home!). Teh Tarik is USD0.80!

So although Malaysian and Singapore food is available in Cambodia, I seldom eat it, because it's so expensive (Westerners though, rave that the pratas here are "true bargains") and it usually can't compare to the real thing back home. I remember being so disappointed at my USD2.50 bowl of prawn noodles at Sophia's Kitchen, a Malaysian run restaurant. The only one I like is Klang Boy, around the Central Market in Phnom Penh. It's run by a Malaysian man and although he is famous for his bakuteh (pork ribs soup), I actually prefer the wanton mee. The best on in Cambodia (and some say Batam...hahaha!)

A motodop told me Khmer pratas were introduced to this country only 3 years ago. Everyone knows it's Indian food but I wonder how many locals can afford to eat it. Actually, I have only seen foreigners buying the food.

The prata man asked me about "New Zealong" yesterday when we were talking about Singapore. My Khmer is only so-so, so I didn't understand him. It was only when he said, "Like Hun Sen," that I realised he was asking me about Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore's Prime Minister!

Khmers like to show off that they know something about your country. It is a useful trick to pull with tourists. You hear the little child book-sellers on the streets reciting, "The capital of Australia is Canberra, the population is 20 million..." to Aussie tourists, who are usually so impressed, they slow down and listen to the little hustlers (and maybe even buy a book).

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Philosophy and NGOs

Today's New York Times had 2 very interesting and pertinent articles for me. The first, "In a New Generation of College Students, Many Opt for the Life Examined" reports how students in the US are rediscovering the importance of philosophy and are enrolling into Philosophy courses in droves.

I majored in philosophy in university (I loved it so much, I went on to do an MA in the subject). At that time, many people didn't understand why. It was seen to be a flaky subject and oh, "How will you get a job? Who wants to employ a philosopher? What could you do?" Actually, a lot. It helped me head the company I was working for in four years.

Here is why: Philosophy comes from the Greek word "Philosophia" (φιλοσοφία), which means "the love of wisdom" (philein = "to love" + sophia = wisdom). In philosophy, you do not sit under trees talking about pointless things. You learn the skill of analysis, because the love of wisdom requires the analysis of arguments, which is really the analysis of thinking itself. How do you know what anyone is saying is true? You examine his/her premises and conclusion(s). Philosophy clarifies your thinking and if you are honest, forces you to come to conclusions whether you like them or not.

Here are 2 quotes from the NYT article which I think succinctly describes why philosophy is making a comeback:

David E. Schrader, executive director of the American Philosophical Association, a professional organization with 11,000 members, said that in an era in which people change careers frequently, philosophy makes sense. “It’s a major that helps them become quick learners and gives them strong skills in writing, analysis and critical thinking,” he said.

“If I were to start again as an undergraduate, I would major in philosophy,” said Matthew Goldstein, the CUNY chancellor, who majored in mathematics and statistics. “I think that subject is really at the core of just about everything we do. If you study humanities or political systems or sciences in general, philosophy is really the mother ship from which all of these disciplines grow.”

I won't rip off the entire NYT article. You can read it here:

The second article is called "Your True Calling Could Suit a Nonprofit".

People looking to move to Cambodia to join an NGO should read this. It's written in a Q&A format and dishes some very good advice, such as forget about sending in your resume.

"Nonprofits tend to obtain referrals from staff members and other nonprofits, or to look to their volunteers when they hire. So consider working your way into an organization by volunteering first, either at your chosen nonprofit or one with a similar mission. Be sure to volunteer in a way that uses the skills you already have or helps you learn new ones.

One person interviewed eventually turned his back against nonprofits:

“No matter how good a volunteer board is, it’s not the same as a corporate board, because everyone has a different agenda,” said Mr. Olson, who returned to the private sector a year later to be vice president for public affairs at Video Professor Inc., a company in Lakewood, Colo., that sells self-tutorial programs. “There was a purity to corporate life I missed,” he said.

There is value, he said, to “a company just getting the job done based on the needs of the marketplace.”

I think there are only two nonprofits or NGOs I would work for: Oxfam and Doctors without Borders. These 2 organisations seem to me to be doing real good work, although I have to say I have not investigated the matter. Oxfam is not allowed to register in Singapore as a charity [ everyone knows you Brits are troublemakers! :) ] but they are here in Cambodia. As for MSF, I don't have medical training, but hey, I am trained in philosophy, so will definitely be of help, somehow.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

China Blue

I was motivated to post this comment on the site after someone said he wondered about minimum wage in China, when I pointed out what it was in Cambodia (USD50 for 48 hours a week):

Thanks for all who wrote encouraging things about Bloom. I really appreciate the kind words.

Re the comment about China's workers. You can easily Google the minimum wage in China. A June 07 report from Reuters: "The highest current minimum wage in China is [USD]$106 a month in the southern business center of Shenzhen. The lowest is $35 a month in the eastern province of Jiangxi. Shanghai, one of the world's most expensive cities, raised its minimum monthly wage by $7.80 to $98 a month last year."

Whether factories pay is another matter. If you've watched the documentary "China Blue", which follows the lives of a teenage factory worker and her boss, you will understand factories in China that try to treat and pay workers fairly simply cannot survive. They need to compete for the business of your Wal-marts and the like. These latter companies drive prices down because a) they need to sell clothes at the low prices demanded by customers and/or b) because they want to line their pockets and those of their shareholders.

I face the same challenges at Bloom. Many, many customers bargain with us, or try to drive prices down because they think, as a business located in the third-world, we should be priced like a Chinese factory. If I disagree, they take their business elsewhere. This means Bloom suffers. But I stick to my guns and tell these people (politely, of course) to piss off, because a) I am not running a Chinese factory and b) I believe strongly people should be paid fairly for their work, and I am not going to screw Bloom (which belongs to the workers) and c) Bloom invests in quality, which I believe is worth paying for.

At the end of the day, let us not kid ourselves and take the easy, unthinking, way out of blaming the factory owner and other people along the supply chain. The buck lies squarely with consumers, with people like you and me. Workers all over the world get exploited because we persist in buying things at a bargain, without understanding, or caring to understand, real world prices (the actual cost of a product, if workers were paid fairly) and we persist in buying branded goods, whatever the prices, again, not giving a thought as to how they were made.

It requires effort, certainly, to make an informed judgement about our consumer purchases, but don't you think it is worth it, to know that a teenage girl and her friends were not kept up 20 hours straight to produce x pairs of jeans, for which they were paid pittance, just so you can enjoy wearing a label on your backside? As a consumer you can make your voice heard. Vote with your wallet.

You can read more about the excellent "China Blue" here:

Diana Saw

Update from my last blog entry: Today, China has jailed yet another person for giving 2 interviews and writing 5 articles. Hu Jia is 34 years old and is a well-known human rights activist.

Another person, Yang Chunlin, who called for human rights to take precedence over the Olympic Games, was sentenced to five years in jail in late March. Meanwhile, veteran dissident languishes in Beijing Number 2 Prison, where 5 inmates have died from illness in 2007 alone. Human Rights in China alleges that inmates have been deprived of meat, fresh vegetables, and adequate outdoor exercise for an extended period of time.

Do people need more reason to boycott the Beijing Olympics?


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