Hou Som An has a strength that belies her age. Her eyes are gentle yet determined. She’s still fit and active as she nears eight decades old. Sitting on a terrace of a restored colonial villa in Phnom Penh near her home, down an alley off one of the city’s main boulevards, she spoke of her life through an interpreter, her youngest daughter.
Her life is testament to family, determination, survival, strength, and the human spirit. The fact she is alive is all the more remarkable given she survived the twentieth-century’s worst genocide as measured per head of population in any country; civil war when the Khmer Rouge triumphed and set about waging a different kind of war; famine; carpet-bombing and a host of other horrors most people can only imagine, and in many cases wouldn’t want to.
She’s the woman who said “no” to the Khmer Rouge and lived to talk about it. Her life during that time was saved in no small way by her occupation, factory worker, in a cigarette factory in a time when smoking was still fashionable, and during a period of horror in her country, when the people perpetrating the horror, still required the factory turn out its popular product, tailor-made cigarettes. Her family later even sold packets of cigarettes outside the family home to make ends meet; the brands found everywhere like 555; and that unique to Cambodia; Alain Delon, maybe the only brand named for a foreign film star.
In fact, you could say that is some twists of fate, smoking saved her life – though she’s never smoked a single cigarette in her life.
She’s still strong in a country where it’s hard to find people aged over 65. Where those who are stay active, and get by without the aid of walking sticks or walking frames. There are no wheelchairs, healthcare is limited, and where social security is called family. She comes from a country where most people do not own a passport, have never used bank accounts, use wood as their main fuel source, do not travel – to leave your city is still rare for some – clothes are mainly hand washed, and food is bought daily from the many markets, and partly because food is sourced locally and always in season, you see few obese people.
Her life mirrors that of her country. In her lifetime, she’s seen off colonialism, witnessed independence, experienced Cambodia's modern golden age, referred to as “Sihanouk Time” after the country’s royal ruler – the so-called Sangkum Era (1953-70), coups, anarchy, autocratic rule and relative political calm and prosperity in what is, the world’s fastest growing economic region; Southeast Asia. Regardless of who rules and in what style, life in Cambodia in her lifetime has been a daily struggle for survival.
Born Or Som An in Kandal Province near Phnom Penh in 1944, she doesn’t remember which month, Som An – the family name is given first in Khmer – grew up on a farm in what was then still French Indochina. The French called it Cambodge, the Khmers call it Kampuchea, and today it’s known internationally as Cambodia. In French colonial speak it was a Protectorate, a euphemism for colony.
One of her first memories of childhood were when she was 12 and she made silk products for sleeping and cotton scarves, the krauma – the traditional checked scarves seen everywhere –for people for the family. She recalls doing these tasks, “very well”. She learned to swim, unusual for Cambodians, and recalls playing in the water near the family farm.
Her parents were also born in Kandal and owned their own land and home. Her father worked for the French colonial authorities as a cleaner, mainly engaged in domestic duties, in Phnom Penh, and he would travel into the city and back every day.
Som An had six siblings, two brothers and four sisters. Of these now only two remain, Som An, and one of her sisters, Som Art. Until recently Som Art lived near where Som An and her family now reside in Phnom Penh, but sold her one-bedroom apartment and has moved to live with her daughter near Phnom Penh’s airport.
Starting when she was seven-years old, Som An attended the local primary school, a daily walk for her of one hour each way from her home, five days a week. Thursday and Sunday were the days off from school. The teachers were Khmer who taught classes in the Khmer and the French languages. The uniform was the predominant black or dark bottoms and a white shirt or blouse, and still seen today in Cambodia and all over Southeast Asia. Asked if she enjoyed school, she said it was a mixture for her, sometimes she didn’t pay enough attention in class.
The family owned two parcels of land that grew vegetables and fruit. Surplus produce the family sold at Phsar Thmei, the Grand Market, then Southeast Asia’s largest, in Phnom Penh. The family came by boat down the Tonle Sap and docked at the Royal Palace. From the riverside produce was transported to the market by horse. Her mother and older sister would take and sell the fruit and vegetables to market vendors and then make the journey home again.
Until the 1970s much of the Sisowath Quay/Grand Rue comprised 3-4 storey shop houses where vessels of up to 6,000 tonnes gross docked in the high water season, and a constant flurry of stevedores, and when thousands lived on houseboats, and many still do.
Whenever she came to Phnom Penh she said she would see barangs, the local term for foreigners but then reserved for the French, on the city’s streets. She said she never saw French people in the countryside near the family home. Most French she saw wore civilian clothes, and when younger she saw some uniformed French officials some of whom were armed.
In the 1960s accounts of Phnom Penh were of Southeast Asia’s most attractive city from the 1950s through to 1975. At that time Phnom Penh had several thousand French living there divided between the colonial officials, and the expatriates engaged in various business activities; legal and otherwise. Social mixing between the two French groups was discouraged by officials, as was mixing with the locals.
Aside from the French, Phnom Penh at that time was roughly one-third Chinese and one-third Vietnamese, with Khmers making up the balance with a mixture of other ethnic groups and nationalities living in ethnically defined quarters. Phnom Penh’s European quarter, the heart of the colonial administration was located north of the market, and described as a “little bit of France transplanted to Southeast Asia”. Other descriptions of Phnom Penh by travellers during that time range from “polyglot” to “cosmopolitan” to the less flattering.
Her first job was when she was 18 working in the French-owned Mach Cigarette Factory. She worked on the cigarette making machine that packed all the cigarettes into their packets for sale. The packets were all red in colour. The factory was large, and located near where the bridge to National Route One heads out of the capital towards Vietnam. About 200 people worked there, all Cambodians. Occasionally she says that the French owners would turn up but people hardly ever saw them.
She recalls it being very hard work physically, moving big cases onto the machine. It was hot, dusty and smelled of tobacco. Ventilation was poor, the ceiling fans inadequate, and temperatures unbearable in the hot season, from March to October. She doesn’t recall her first pay packet but remembers getting 8,000 riel for one month’s work, about USD4 today.
Som An was already married when she started work. She met her husband in her native Kandal Province. Her husband, Hou Som Ol (Hou pronounced "Who"), lived in Phnom Penh but was originally from the same area. They met when he came home to visit his family. Som Ol was eight years’ senior to his wife, “born in the Year of the Rabbit” she said with a smile. Together they had six children born before, during, and after the Khmer Rouge. Five have survived.
Hou Som Ol worked in the personal service of Norodom Sihanouk, Cambodia's one-time regent and political ruler, sometimes at the palace in Phnom Penh, and sometimes at the queen’s family residence at Somkar Moun near the intersection of Norodom, Mao Zedong and Sothearos boulevards. She says she doesn’t recall when he started working for the king, one of Asia’s more enigmatic characters, and a figure who dominated modern Cambodian politics like none other during the 20th century, but his family had held positions in the royal court for “some time”.
They lived together in a house rented by Som Ol’s family near Wat Phi Pobay at the front of what is now Aeon Mall, near where the remaining US personnel were airlifted from Phnom Penh before the city fell to the Khmer Rouge in April 1975. On their days off, the couple stayed home cooking for their two oldest children, a boy and a girl.
She recalls the government of Lon Nol, a general and sometimes defence minister, Prince Sirik Matak, and In Tam, a former prime minister, taking control in 1970, when the Khmer Republic was established and Cambodia descended slowly into civil war. Widely reported as a coup, this was in fact a vote of the cabinet taken in Norodom Sihanouk’s absence to depose him as the country’s political ruler. Sihanouk had abdicated his throne in 1955, in favour of his father to become prime minister, ruling through his Sangkum a kind of peoples’ movement, or at least he liked to think so. Later the government was overthrown by Pol Pot and its leading figures, those that stayed, were executed.
The city’s population from 1970-75 was steadily swollen by increasing numbers of refugees fleeing the US bombing campaign in the country’s eastern provinces when as many as 800,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped by B-52s in an attempt to break North Vietnamese supply lines along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Slowly the city starved, the refugees fairing worse than the residents, but times were tough for all.
When the Khmer Rouge came to Phnom Penh in April 1975, the family moved to the area around the Russian Market, Tuol Thom Poul, and now a popular area for expats living, shopping and dining with its many cafes. After that the family moved themselves to the family home in Kandal Province. After a time the family moved again to Kampong Cham Province. The family moved for up to three months at a time, just walking through the countryside. There the Khmer Rouge caught up with the family and wrote down all their occupations.
After she said she was a factory worker they ordered her back to Phnom Penh but without her family. She didn’t want to leave her husband and children behind so she asked the Khmer Rouge if they could all go to Phnom Penh. She said that the soldiers went away to talk about and when they came back she said she thought she was going to be killed. But then the commander agreed and the family moved back to Phnom Penh and lived in the Mach factory. She continued to work there despite being pregnant with her third child, a boy.
During this time the factory was run by Khmer Rouge cadres. Som An remembers working all the time, every day and the family stayed in rooms nearby. One day she says that the Khmer Rouge “were gone”. When the Khmer Rouge left she says that the family ran again along National Route Four past the airport towards Sihanoukville. After about two weeks walking along the road the columns of people were overtaken by Vietnamese troops, who told everyone to go back.
When they came back the family stayed near Stam Chea, the “smelly water”, near the city’s rubbish dump, for five months. Out walking one day while looking for food she came to the cigarette factory where she saw a sign asking that former staff came back to work there.
After that the family moved back to the factory to live and she returned to her old job. She also asked that her husband get a job there, so the two of them were working together. The factory was run by the same Khmer factory manager as before the Khmer Rouge takeover.
For one year they worked at the old main factory on National Route One before being moved to the Bayon factory on Sothearos Boulevaard on what is now the site of the Pencil supermarket near Wat Botum, near where the family home is today located. Eventually the Bayon factory was sold to new owners and they returned to work at the old main factory. The eldest son also worked at the factory as a security guard after Som Ol had asked that he be given a job.
While Som An never smoked her husband, Som Ol, was a heavy smoker despite the risks. Eventually he died of lung cancer in 2014 aged just over 80. He was cremated at Wat Tung Krausung, out beyond the airport. Every year the family goes to the temple for his birthday, Khmer New Year in April and the festival of Pchum Ben in October, the traditional time when Cambodians celebrate their deceased relatives. His ashes were scattered on the small lake in the temple grounds.
Som An has never visited another country. She’d like to one day own her own passport. Aside from her time wandering the countryside during the days of the Khmer Rouge, she has rarely seen much of Cambodia. In her later years her family took her see Angkor staying in a hotel in Siem Reap. Another family outing was to the coast at Sihanoukville, along the road the family had walked in 1979 when Vietnamese tanks had overtaken them. The family went to the beach at Kep, her only ever other visit to the seaside.
Two years ago the family rebuilt their old house, a wooden structure with rudimentary plumbing – bathing meant pouring a bucket of cold water over oneself. The family now lives in two small apartments, with others rented out to Khmers and sometimes foreigners. Som An is surrounded by her children and grandchildren. She still walks to the market some days and others can be seen seated gracefully side-saddle on the back of a motorcycle behind one of her sons or grandsons. She grills fish on red-hot charcoal briquettes in the traditional style, and is comfortable seated on the floor than seemingly on furniture, exhibiting that Cambodian ability to seemingly mould themselves to any surface, a feat beyond most Europeans.
When asked what has changed most in her life, she is reflective and paused. The food she says is not as sweet as it used to be, the taste different. Perhaps down to all the chemicals now used. She is not sure about global warming. Cambodia is just hot she says, as it’s always been.