Writings

The Financial Times- Standing up in Cambodia

21 January 2012

Standing up in Cambodia

 

By Shazia Mirza

 

A funny thing happened when comic Shazia Mirza was booked for Phnom Penh's first-ever international comedy show

 

 

I have done stand-up comedy all over the world. Occasionally in strange places: a tent, a kebab shop, a public toilet. At other times, in precarious places: the Middle East, a cave in Kosovo and in Pakistan amid speculation that the Taliban was arriving. (The day after I performed, a suicide bomber blew up the venue - and it wasn't because he'd seen my act.)

 

So when I was asked to do a tour of the Far East covering Singapore, Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bali, I immediately agreed. Compared with my previous encounters, it would be like performing in the Cotswold's - and I could stock up on fake Calvin Klein underwear while was I was there. Then I had an call from the compere of the shows, who said: "On this tour you'll be doing an extra gig: Cambodia. There has never been international stand-up comedy in the country; this will be the first time. Is that OK?"

 

I shouted down the phone: "Pol Pot and Gary Glitter?"

 

"Yes, that's the country," he replied. "And don't worry, they won't be coming."

 

I couldn't imagine it. Comedy in Cambodia? That's like doing burlesque in Afghanistan.

 

The extreme poverty, corruption, appalling history, crime, exploitation of women and children ... why wouldn't I want to perform there? Maybe they are desperate to laugh, Ithought, and who better to perform at this first trailblazing show than an American (Ward Anderson), an Australian (Jonathan Atherton) and a Muslim (me).

 

I flew into Phnom Penh with Ward. Being American, he had never travelled outside the US before, but with Cambodia boasting more guns per capita than any country in the world, I knew he would feel at home.

 

We were picked up in a rickshaw and transported to the Lux Hotel in Phnom Penh. It was located on a street full of bars, food stalls and middle-aged white men who looked like they'd just landed in paradise with 72 virgins. I had just one day and one night before the show, and I was keen to get an experience of Cambodia that I might be able to turn into some material and use in my act.

 

Being with two male comics and two male promoters, I got to see Phnom Penh from a very male perspective. First, we stopped at a place called the Candy Bar. We walked in and a group of Cambodian girls, who looked as if they should be doing their homework, pounced on the men. Giggling and trying to communicate in broken English, they invited themselves to sit with us but then didn't say another word, just stared at the men. Then the attention turned to me; they all looked confused. Why was there one woman with four men? One of them turned to me and asked: "Are you a man too?"

 

Next we were taken to Sharky's, a bar popular with westerners. We hadn't been there long when an Englishman put his hand on my knee, smiled and said: "Drink?" Shocked, I said: "No thanks! I'm not a hooker." He looked doubtful. I said: "I'm a comedian and I'm doing a show here tomorrow night." He looked even more doubtful and responded by running his hand further up my leg. I said: "Do I look like I work for Sky Sports?" He burst out laughing and said: "You are a comedian, I'm coming to the show."

 

Later that night, we paid a visit to the venue where we would be performing. The Pontoon Club, formerly on a pontoon in the Mekong river, is now a chi-chi club in the Street 51 entertainment area, around 30 minutes' drive from the "Killing Fields". Owned by a Glaswegian, it is a big, glamorous nightclub with nice décor and a bar in the centre of the room. We were relieved to see a proper stage, not one made out of haystacks or egg cartons. However, I was beginning to get nervous. This was a groundbreaking piece of history and I kept being reminded of it. Every time one of the organisers looked me in the eye and said: "This is history we're making," Iinterpreted it as a euphemism for "you'd better not ‘die' on stage."

 

The next morning one of the promoters asked us: "What would you like to do today?" Iimmediately said: "I want to go to the ‘Killing Fields'." I had to see the place that is such an important part of Cambodia's history.

 

First he took us to Tuol Sleng - also known as S-21 - Cambodia's most notorious prison. More than 14,000 people were tortured here before being murdered at the ‘Killing Fields'. Evidence still remains of the atrocities of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge: cells, instruments of torture, dossiers and lists of prisoners. It was all too much for my fellow comedians, who had totally disappeared. As we sat in silence in the car nauseated by the impact of the atrocities we'd just seen, the promoter said: "Right! Off to the ‘Killing Fields'."

 

All three of us entered the eerie grounds. The first thing I saw was a lone memorial comprising a tall glass column full of skulls. Nearby were bones and clothes belonging to the dead. Visitors were walking round silently, faces blank with disbelief. After about 20 minutes I lost my fellow comedians again and continued the walk by myself. We met up at the end. I said: "Any material?" Ward looked depressed. "I think I'll stick to doing jokes about my wife."

 

We then went off for a quick lunch of fried tarantulas, worms and other ghastly dishes that tasted wonderful. I wondered if the audience would want to hear our take on the macabre surroundings that they already knew about, or did they just want us to make them laugh about men, women, sex and cake?

 

A Cambodian man I'd bumped into on the street that day, who was coming to the show, told me Cambodia recently got its first escalator in a shopping centre and people had gone wild for it. They were jumping all over it like a toy and didn't know how to use it. The excitement was unbelievable. It must have been how drunks felt when Boris Johnson first introduced bikes to London. He said the excitement about the first ever comedy show in Cambodia was the same. People had been talking about it for weeks. It was the event of the year.

 

I don't usually get nervous before a show, unless it's very big or I think my parents are going to turn up and drag me off the stage. I entered the Pontoon Club, where there was a buzz, everybody laughing, chatting and drinking. It felt warm. About 300 people were sitting and standing around the sides. A lot of the audience were ex-pats and western professionals such as office workers and teachers, but some were local Cambodians and returnees. People were arriving in groups; even Cambodian celebrities had come to witness the event.

 

Cambodia's most famous comic, Prom Manh, had his own little section where people would be brought over and introduced to him. He has been a comedian for more than 20 years. He once performed to 40,000 people at a concert in Siem Reap and has made regular trips to the US to perform for Cambodians there. Not many of the western people in the audience knew who he was, though, so not being recognised was making him very uncomfortable.

 

The other comedians and I were introduced to him, and when I tried to shake hands with him, he looked me up and down then swept his hand past mine, like he was swiping his credit card through the till at Tesco. I became even more nervous and paranoid. "Is it because I'm a woman? Do they not like female comics?"

 

I went and sat outside on a cracked bit of pavement. I saw people arriving in rickshaws and I wondered what material to do.

 

The show was about to start when the owner of the club turned to me and said: "Thank you so much for doing this. It's a piece of history and I'm so grateful. Five years ago I used to make $200 a month and tonight I've been able to charge 300 people $10 each - that's amazing in Cambodia. We've only been able to do that twice before - once with Goldie, the other time with Leroy from TheProdigy - and only then were we able to charge $10. We'd never be able to charge more as people don't have the money here." It's strange but I'd heard the same thing a few weeks earlier in Wolverhampton.

 

The show began and the compere burst on to the stage. Normally when this happens there is a round of applause or at least some kind of reaction, but the audience seemed passive. He started talking, warming up the crowd for about 15 minutes before bringing on Ward, the American comic. Ward and I had been touring together for two weeks, and it had always gone well so we were sure the pattern would continue. I asked him if he was nervous, he said: "No, I'm really excited."

 

When Ward went on stage, some of the audience went quiet - they looked as if they were watching Panorama - others carried on talking, including Cambodia's most famous comedian. Isat at the side. At least they're facing in the right direction, I thought. It took about 20 minutes for the audience to get the notion of what was going on: comedian tells the jokes, you laugh, then we all go home. He told jokes about being an American living in Canada, his Jewish wife, his dog and his sex life.

 

As he came off stage, I said: "Well done." He replied: "That was rough. I got the feeling some of them didn't like me because I'm American. I think they should stick to just having Europeans do this gig."

 

I don't think an audience would inadvertently blame a comedian for the US bombing of Cambodia but there could have been some anti-American sentiment. I became really nervous myself. This gig wasn't as easy at it looked.

 

I went on stage and felt at home with the audience: a row of gay men from Brighton, to my right; a bunch of rowdy women from Scotland, at the back; a group of American men, to my left; and two former drug dealers from Liverpool, now teaching English in Cambodia, right under my nose.

 

The Cambodians were scattered all over the venue. I belted out some jokes about how the rickshaw corruption and old men with young women reminded me of Birmingham. The men from Liverpool kept telling me how well I was doing, like I'd never done it before. I began to feel more relaxed especially when I saw the Cambodians' faces moving and then laughing. Ieven began to enjoy it slightly. But I knew it had gone really well when one of the former drug dealers shouted: "I haven't laughed this much since Feltham!"

 

Link to article: www.ft.com/cms/s/2/07ddddf6-424e-11e1-a1bf-00144feab49a.html#axzz1kCBjMn93