By Scott Liam Soper
The youth have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations—all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. Aristotle
If you didn’t know and you are interested, Phnom Penh’s most popular teen disco is on the second floor of Pencil Super Center River side, #483, Preah Sisowath Blvd, The Club Fever is its name and ‘Fever’ has its reputation. It opens and closes early, the ages of its clientele are 15-23, and yet it’s not at all restricted. To get to it though you first have to navigate around the first floor of individually owned boutiques for value shoppers. In a 10-foot radius of one corner I count 33 rows of women’s shoes on display. “Copies from China,” a passing shopper explains. The lighting around all of the space surrounding Fever casts a cold-vein blue pale over everything. That and the gaudy teenage fashion shops of Bobby Fye and Koo Fashion hardly build up momentum to hang out where Phnom Penh’s rich kids make their scene.
Sitting in the courtyard outside of Fever, 22-year-old Udam Vuth explains to me that he moved to Phnom Penh from Battambang three years ago. He goes to school at a large local university and studies finance and banking in hopes of working in a bank. “If you work in a bank, it is a very good career” he believes. Later before walking into the club we pass a dress shop where the mannequins are defects with six toes, and he confides to me that he himself doesn’t yet have a bank account.
I want to view the full blown Khmer teen style of a weekend night and there is a duenda pulling at the front doors of Fever as it opens. It is the excitement of clubbing combined with awkwardness; it’s as if I’m a teenager again walking into Ole Charley’s Liquor Store and trying to muster the confidence that I’m a legal age to drink. What’s more awkward than that is the very real possibility of bumping into some of my high school students; I know several of them frequent Fever. None of that matters to the manager Vatta. He brings me a bowl of peanuts and tells me later I will see that his patrons are “Mostly dancing persons.” That seems to be accurate, but earlier that morning, across the Pencil shopping complex at the Cambodiana Hotel I coyly kept watch on two effeminate boys making out at poolside. And now at Fever the first thing I notice away from the square black granite bar are several boy couples in the shadow zones of the club petting each other. Later they will step into the bathroom together but then quickly come out not having spent enough time in there to do anything, not yet.
The techno music blare at Fever is so loud that all of the senses are affected by it. I thought Udam Vuth was going to follow me in but he has vanished or I lost him while getting used to the earth-quaking reverb. The place has maybe six or seven girls dancing together away from the spotlights. As I shuffle to the corner of the dead bar, no big deal so far, I thought, and then here they come, clusters of fashionable girls quickly filling up the place: Asia’s new cherry bombs have arrived. First the girls in bouffant neo-Egyptian Cleopatra hair mostly colored in tinty light rust, tight designer t-shirts and mini-skirts or the very trendy Able Jeans, and of course high heels of some leopard skin variety. Then the boys with somewhat defiant razor-shag haircuts and motocross inspired Balmain skinny jeans and designer slip-on closed shoes. In about two minutes there has been an invasion of glamor puss statues. About 30 units in all and I couldn’t have welcomed it more. They want to vamp it up with the foreigner near-by, click a few pix, speak out loud some form of English and then they drop their gaze back onto their matrix of iPads and smart phones. After such an entrance, they are after all, teenagers. Best I could tell the boys are not concerned right away about getting a drink, but getting back to their computer game of choice, Kingdom Rush. The girls are no longer paying attention to anything, instead scrolling through their gallery of Khmai and Korean Icon girls. Whether it’s for fashion or technology I have been told that most of these kids get their parents to do their shopping for them in Bangkok.
I’m doing what I can to be part of it. Swiveling in my chair and not lighting up a smoke every five minutes my only fear is that that was it. A great entrance and energy spike in the room, but the rest of this will be unglamorous and just not interesting. And the Khmai kids will know that I know! They’ll catch me slack-jawed or yawning and that’s it; the world spins and they are not really part of it: game over. The music being the same non-Khmer upbeat techno grind won’t be able to winch-up the general experience if it is not itself interesting. And here comes a tester in an orange Izod polo shirt, Pheata Pech was one of the few guys who sported facial hair and I could see it only when he got up close to me to find out if I was having a good time. After some nervous smiling and me joking that he was a “playboy,” he asked my permission, “Can I go away now?” He rejoined his friends at a distant table and filled them in on his fact-finding journey to the foreigner.
Still, I’m keeping my head down but feeling lively enough to pull out a small note pad and do my own fact finding– $499 price for a bottle of 30-year-old Glenfiddich—I’m still sensitive that everyone in Phnom Penh is guilty before proven innocent and the club kids and staff could judge me as foreign uncle pervy coming to the teen disco. But 15 minutes after walking through the security guard pat-down, no one was clocking me. Two bottles of Chivas–$300–along with a bucket of ice , four cans of coke and six bottles of mini Evian water have just been brought to “Meta’s” table. It’s his 16th birthday. He and his friends (all boys) do shots and chase it with sweet crisp snacks until the birthday cake comes. Meta blows out the six candles, then the cake is cut up by bar staff (all dressed in suits) and then another round of shots chased by–you guessed it—pieces of birthday cake. Buckets of ice and buckets of hormones, it’s going to be a night of teenage power drinking and this is what Fever is known for. At least the security guys know what to expect. As the night takes hold they are constantly walking the boys out in groups or as individuals. They know that three or 10 shots of aged Scotch working through the veins of a 16-year-old male can make for some unwanted muscle movements. That, and the fact the teenagers are so damn alive that they always take everything personally. If someone looks at them the wrong way or makes a disrespectful gesture to them on the walk out, it’s like they have eyes in the back of their head and hell can break loose faster than a New York minute. And when the teens wander out the front door to meet someone or figure out where they are, their attendants are there to help them stumble back in when they are ready. The bouncers have a particular work style that reminds me of a good woodshop teacher I had in high school. His classroom management policy was the same as the men and women working at Fever: don’t be overaggressive and you will be treated honorably. And for sure, the select members of the Khmai new royalty are not without plenty of attendant others, whose dark coverall uniforms also help to block the day light sun. One middle-aged woman who undoubtedly has a teenager of her own won’t look back at me to answer a question. She’s wearing orthopedic-like slip-on sandals, the white kind that nurses and orderlies where in a hospital. She walks around the tables at Fever with a broom, but her real job is to escort the club kids through the dance floor and to the bathroom. She has learned to read them. When they drop their heads into their laps there is a good chance that they are getting sick and she intervenes and gets them to their respective bathrooms. When they are finished vomiting she either escorts them back to the table or through the front exit doors. As a rule the female attendants walk out the girls and the male attendants the guys, but when the teens are coming straight out of the toilets that just doesn’t apply.
At the end of her shift I spy her wrapping non-servable sandwich baguettes up in fresh tissues and filling her nondescript hand bag up to the top. I see her outside downstairs in the disco parking lot looking to see how drunk the patrons of Fever are when they get on their motos. The boys and girls seemed to favor Honda: “Icons” for the boys and “Scoopy” for the girls. The very real danger of drunk driving calamity is not lessened by the flip-a-coin chance that before the night started these teenagers might have chosen designated drivers amongst themselves.
One thing true about any teenager is that they don’t want to be ignored, and anyone can see in the recent generations of Khmai kids that they have had strong calcium and protein diets and the benefits of having protective moms keeping them out of the unyielding sun. The Khmai-now generation is wanting and growing into the physical typology of northern hemisphere Asians. In other words, they all want light skin and sharp features like the Korean pop-life icons. They all want to work it and be stars and in a club like Fever they can be. Friday night was full of icons in waiting. They didn’t seem that interested in me except for the fact that I was sitting in the corner of the bar which had a round columned mirror that the girls would routinely dance by for a beauty checkup. So using three par avian letter envelopes as placards , I wrote the numbers 8, 9 and 10 largely in thick sea-blue marker on them and started to hold them up to the girls as they strutted by. Nobody could keep a straight face for long and I pretended to shuffle the envelopes and shuffle them again so as everyone got a “10.” I thought there might be some teenage cattiness from the girls, like the ones sitting at the table waiting to take their runway turn would shout, “zero” or “minus 100″ toward their friends or a witty one or two would call out at their friend, “Hey mushroom head,” but not so. Curiosity soon got the best of the boys and they would also stride over to check out their score and pretend like they didn’t care. It was all good fun that lasted about five minutes or until Psy’s Gangnam Style came on. When the dance floor filled up with teenagers mimicking the prance of a horse, for sure this was not a community matchmaking dance that any of the kids’ elders could have recognized. It then occurred to me that teenage anger has been turned upside down and inside out. Teenagers don’t compare and contrast what the adult world pretends to be and what it really is anymore. The teen experience has been reduced to: “Am I hot?” “Could I be a star?” and most unfortunately in Phnom Penh at least on this night, “Am I rich enough that you have to respect me? I am a 10!”
I’m told Sunday and Monday nights are the main event and that more kids of “mixed incomes” hang out. There is a silent code that Monday/Sunday nights are for the regular teenagers and I can experience the making of the high school clans without wealth being the only marker. Monday night is in fact, Gangster Time for Fever. Forearm tattoos, hip hop swag, more dancing less posing or at least more hands on the crotch posing, no bottles of Scotch, and knock-off Gucci jockey hats and flip flops are okay. There is much more smoking on Gangster Time and it seems everybody wants to come up, clink glasses with me and shout out their names. My set of questions for them is simple enough: What are your parents jobs, and, do you want to go to university, and finally: what is your dream? But it was all happening too fast. What I found out for sure is that the less rich the crowd the more they were interested in—who is the foreigner? There was so much high-tide-vibe for a Monday night, that I wanted to shout out to them all that they were the coolest kids on the planet, but they wouldn’t have been able to hear that so I showed them with a knowing smile and a wink. And of course what teen doesn’t want to go to university and seeing that the wealthier club kids can afford the price of drinks in Fever, they’ll be able to afford the tuition and fees for the schools they would get accepted to, and of course this still being that Cambodia, they can bribe their way into the school of their choice. A 21-year-old male nicknamed “Voodoo” brought over a mixed drink, that I saw him take out of his friend’s hand, to toast with mine. Everyone here seemed to know him and he chose not to answer any questions about himself but let me know that his future was in real estate and if I ever needed a place I should come back to Fever and ask for him.
As “Voodoo’s” friend, a kid dressed in plain jeans and a Che Guerra t-shirt approached me, I noticed that he looked a little older than the rest of the crowd. He is 24-year-old “Dj Maker.” He didn’t know how to write down his name in English but comped me several cans of ABC beer. And Pheata Pech the 16-year-old in the orange Izod shirt and mustache is standing next to me and was at Fever all three nights I was. I asked Pheata to ask “Dj Maker” if he will play Nirvana’s, Smells like Teen Spirit. The reply is, “Fever only hears House and Techno music,” and I reply that I am asking just for “One song.” Pheata goes around the back of the bar and talks to the current DJ. He’s making a fuss for me and I know if they spin that song I’ll get to jump around and play air guitar to the rock anthem of teenage anxiety. I’ll have to wait for it, if they’re going to play it at all. You really don’t want to get into a beef with anyone in this place especially about the music. Things could get nasty in a hurry, and as I thought might happen sooner than later, Pheata Pech is being escorted out. I called to him what we used to say to each other in high school, “Death or Glory!” He didn’t hear me yet I somehow knew that was already his fate. At Fever I saw nobody push the panic button and a fight never broke out. But something dark is there, in the close up on the faces of the guys and girls as they exit. Even with the well-connected gilded rich kids the hint of something dark is discernible. They could be up against a 9 o’clock curfew or a messed up family life or most definitely up against an uncertain future. What’s known is that the driving numbing house-beat of the music at Fever helps these teens to not care about much. Especially the fact that they are just one or two generations out of the coffin of poverty and into the chariot of prosperity. Yet I have a gut-feeling that as teenagers they just know there is only one way for them to go in life and that’s forward. In the morning after my last night at Fever, I woke up in a flashback; my balance off and ears ringing in a strange back and forth tug-of-war. I remembered how cool it was to wake up on the wrong side of equilibrium. It’s like the first time you fly overseas and there’s the muffled hearing as the plane taxis to your new destination. Or the morning after the night spent jumping around too close to the speaker stacks at a rock n roll show. When you’re a teenager everything is vague but you are sure you are moving forward. There are more places to go, gigs to see and strangers who are going to want to know your name, and that’s because, yes, even in Gucci knock-offs and flip flops you are all ‘10’s.’