Thursday, May 27, 2010

Moral Dilemma 3: Do You Copy?

From KFC (Khmer Fried Chicken) to my genuine Tushiba-branded fan, copying is not just an artform but also a way of life here. Just a bit of harmless fun, no?

The copy-cat culture certainly starts young. The education system, explains Kelsey, the other westerner in my village who teaches English at the high school, engrains lifting and plagiarism as soon as kids start class. Teaching usually involves simply copying from the board. And testing is no better - pupils just reproduce each others’ work, and this is completely tolerated if not encouraged. Thus the education system utterly fails to develop critical faculties and independent thinking in children – and so the culture of copying continues.

And so these copy-cat kids grow up into a counterfeit country - I had no idea before arriving here that there is no copyright law in Cambodia (or if there is it universally ignored), so anything goes. Knock offs of branded consumer goods are everywhere, from jeans and trainers to CDs / DVDs, from pharmaceuticals to books, from food and drink to artwork.

You do have to laugh sometimes - the ‘Toys Are We’ in Phnom Penh and ‘6 – 11’ store in Siem Reap show cheeky creativity, and imitation posters for Les Adventures de Tintin et les Khmers Rouges display a dark if witty ingenuity . But why then do so few Cambodians develop their own business ideas, rather than just cloning those of others?

So is it a bad thing?

I confess that part of me rather likes it. On a modest VSO allowance it’s rather good to buy a ripped Mika album for a dollar or a photocopied Lonely Planet for three. The fact that my guitar playing is more Friends Pheobe than Franz Ferdinand cannot be blamed on my faultless, forty-buck ‘Yamaha’ from Phnom Penh’s Russian market. I even bought a pair of Levi jeans in my village – “genuine fake, only ten dorra” explained the happy hawker. And they really were indistinguishable from the real thing, save the sewn up pockets and a little tightness in the crotch area.

But I have a nagging feeling that knowingly buying fakes isn’t a morally neutral act – can it really be ok to take part in this culture of copying?

5 Reasons why it’s completely fine to buy clever copies:

  1. Everyone does it – even nice, ethical VSO-types. Not because we’re bad, just because that’s the system. You can’t buy originals of many goods such as CDs, clothes etc even if you wanted to – fakes are the only game in town. And as there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a copyright law here it’s probably perfectly legal too.

  2. Even if it’s technically not legal, it’s at worst a victimless crime – you wouldn’t buy the stuff at full (read rip-off) price, so all you’re doing is supporting poor folk trying to make a few bucks on the grey economy – where’s the harm?

  3. Why pay more? Even if you could get originals, why should you pay five or ten times the price for say a book or DVD? Isn’t the money better in your (hard-working) pocket than in that of an already rich publisher or multinational music or movie conglomerate? When did you last see a starving pop star / Holywood actor?

  4. The fakes here are good! Don’t swallow the propaganda about paying more for the real deal, everyone knows that Asian folk can copy anything, and do a jolly good job of it.

  5. This isn’t just about cheap stuff, this is a way of fighting back against the great branding swindle that Western consumers have been subjected to for too long. Think Napster, Pirate Bay, Spotify; think open-source software; if you want to get really angry think drug companies charging so much that poor people die because they can’t afford the medicines, whilst they callously block cheaper substitutes. Reject over-priced brands, and help fight back against the great rip-off!

And 5 reasons why you should never support piracy:

  1. It’s illegal. Whatever the detail of Cambodian statute, it’s clearly against international legal norms. The very least we should be doing is doing the right thing and obeying the law - especially those of us who are role-models in developing countries. And anyway, since when has ‘everyone else does it’ been a good reason for doing anything?

  2. It’s a harmful racket, not a victimless crime. At best you are propagating a culture of copying which stifles innovation and inhibits major companies from investing as their intellectual property is not protected – thus damaging the development of the country. At worst this is this is piracy, sweat-shop produced goods, sold through exploited pushers, controlled by the same gangs who direct the drug and sex trades. Buy fakes and support organised crime – still a price worth paying?

  3. You can pay the correct, legal price, and the money will go fairly to all those who have helped bring you the goods. Or you can pay the knock-off rate, save yourself a few bob, and you’ll have helped to deprive those who developed or designed the goods – the writers, artists, designers etc – of what is rightfully theirs. How is that fair, exactly?

  4. You get what you pay for – books which fall apart, DVDs with crappy pictures, CDs of dubious quality – pay peanuts, get junkies. Worse, if you’re daft enough to buy fake medicines (which account for anything up to 80% of those on sale over the counter here), you’ll be lucky if it’s simply a placebo – more likely it’ll be heavily cut with harmful thickeners. And how do you feel when your plucky counterfeiters use their special skills to refill and seal bottles with unclean water or alter best-before dates on expired food – not such heroes now are they?

  5. You know it’s wrong, so don’t do it.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The French Connection - where anglophones fear to tread?

I arrived in Cambodia, the old heart of colonial French Indochina, having previously spent the summer volunteering in Rwanda, on the edge of Franophone West Africa - an enticing prospect for a confessed Francophile.

Despite the inexorable march of the English language, there’s a fair number of countries who still speak French. Might this be my chance to rush in where Anglophones fear to tread?

Well, no. Cambodia, sadly (like Rwanda), is no longer a Francophone country. In fact I’ve had to try very hard to find any French connections to speak of here.

Certainly in terms of language, French is all but dead, whilst English is boringly ubiquitous. You can buy the Cambodge Soir in Phnom Penh (but hardly anywhere else), and there are still a few old blokes who can speak a bit, but they too are dying out. Phnom Penh even boasts a stylish and generously-funded French Cultural Centre – but with a notable lack of Cambodians grasping for the pristine Molière texts.

Part of the demise can be attributed to the Khmer Rouge, whose Paris-educated cadre later equated French with bourgeois thinking and brutally killed many of those who revealed they could speak the language.

But that doesn’t really explain it – there are plenty of opportunities for the new generations to learn French as well as English. The fact is that all the younger generation – and I really mean pretty much all of them – want to learn English, and have no interest whatsoever in French. English is seen as the way to get a good job, earn money, get on. French is simply irrelevant here.

So what’s left? Well if you look hard there are a few remnants. Phnom Penh and maybe a few bits of Battambang have some attractive French colonial-style buildings with shutters and balconies, connected by pleasantly shaded boulevards.

The government and administrative structures also owe something to the colonial heritage here, with communes, gendarmeries and the like. And when the leader of the main opposition party recently went into self-imposed exile he chose France as his destination – surely that counts for something?

There are a number of active francophone charities– there is an local branch of the social organisation Enfants du Mékong in the village next to mine, and my hospital was originally established by Médecins Sans Fronitères. In fact many doctors go to France to train, making healthcare one of the few areas where the language retains some relevance.

These few souvenirs of Frenchness are occasionally reflected in the Khmer language, which borrows words in those areas– carotte, café in food; pharmacie, antibiotique in medicine; gendarmerie, poste de police in administration.

And as you might expect there’s at least a whiff of crushed gallic in the cuisine –the Cambodian staple food is definitely rice, but pang - sweet, airy versions of baguettes - are available in most towns. There are a few fancy pansy French restaurants in Phnom Penh. Onions are called ptum barraing (barraing meaning ‘French’ in k’mai). Not the most extensive menu I confess.

Ah, but the French are still big in business here, stressed a rather hopeful young French guy I met on the bus the other week. And it's true that the airports and oil firms like Total are French-owned, and the restaurant / wine, clothing and pharmaceutical industries have strong ties. But according to the Cambodia Daily, French investment here was just under $20m in the last few years, with China a whopping 30 times greater! ($19m compared with $594m for 2001-2005).

So I conclude that there is no longer a significant French influence here. But does it matter?

Yes, according to the incomparable Madame Sonia von Breitenstein, a fascinating Parisienne with whom I shared numerous banana beers back in Rwanda. Her view is that there is something intrinsically cultured and civilised about the French language, which is simply not there in our prosaic English. Importantly, this in turn had a civilising influence on those who speak it. So in short, much of the lack of ‘culture’ I bemoan in today’s Cambodia is because they don’t speak French here any more.

Quel dommage?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Creepie Crawlies

Perhaps for some reason you're not so keen on your home country all of a sudden so you up and go to the other side of the world. Say to Cambodia for a couple of years. So what would be your biggest worry?

Maybe practical stuff like where you’d live, whether you’d have enough money, what the hell you’re actually going to do there?

Or emotional concerns, going to a place where you know no one and don’t even speak the language; whether you’d fit in, whether you’d miss your family and friends too much?

If you want to be properly scared, the fact that the Khmer Rouge were slaughtering thousands of their countrymen here just a few years ago might be a worry – not to mention that there are millions of remaining landmines just waiting for you to choose the wrong bush for a pee...

Or maybe you’d have more prosaic concerns about the climate, cuisine, culture shock , or just whether your postal vote will make it in time – all very reasonable things to fret about.

Well top of my worry list, rightly or wrongly, were creepie crawlies.

Frankly I can handle the heat, dodge the goat instestines and spar with the twenty-something vowels of the Khmer language - just please don’t stick a big hairy spider in my toilet of a morning.

Or indeed stick a snake into the board room at work, a sure way to spice up a day in the office. Or invite a family of genetically modified cockroaches to play tag on my kitchchen worktop every evening. Or station a scorpion at the foot of my stairs, undoubtedly sizing up my shoes as overnight accommodation. (Unfortunately all of the above have happened to me already).

And then there are the giant flying beetles. Really they should be pretty funny – I’m not sure what bit of evolution gave them flight, but their pathetically dainty wings are totally inadequate for their great torsos, making them lurch around like drunken Khmer blokes at new year. They should be amusing but they’re not, because getting a huge beetle in your face when you’re trying to listen to the election on BBC World Service is no joke.

Then there are their scarlet beetly cousins, smaller and wingless, but also red with two distinctly evil black spots on their armoured backs.

real villain of the buzzy community here is the malevolent mosquito – as mentioned in an earlier blog, these nasties are to be splatted with extreme prejudice. As if their annoying buzzing and infuriating bites aren’t enough, the night ones menace you with Malaria and then the day shift takes over to threaten you with Dengue – bastards.

Which is where another creepie crawlie actually comes in handy – the groovy gheko (not to be confused with the cool chameleon), not only singer of a song which, no matter how you try to ignore it, distinctively says ‘fuck you’ 6 times in a row and then falls silent, but also the heroic eater of mozzies. They do have a tendency to sit on the ceiling and drop their poop occasionally (which is incidentally another good reason to sleep under a mosquito net), but they are still the idol of my crawlie world. (I know guppy fish also eat mozzies, but they can’t really be called creepie crawlies, can they?).

My biggest crawlie problem at the moment is with ants. There’s no denying that they are clever buggers, but my admiration is limited when they use their ingenuity to successfully break into my heavily fortified YumBar tin – an act of provocation little short of the Thai’s claiming Angkor Wat.

To be honest, I was wrong to be mostly worried about the creepie crawlie thing; it hasn’t been anywhere near as bad as I expected - and I think you just get used to being surrounded by ugly, wriggly, heartless, poisonous creepy things after a while. Which I guess is reassuring for both me and for David Cameron as he tries to form a new government. Someone pass him the jumbo can of Raid spray!

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Peaceful Laos

Arriving just over the border in Laos, I was astounded to find that it is actually possible to be more laid back than Cambodia.

At the southern tip of the country the Mekong splits to form thousands of islands and sandbanks, creating a community largely protected from the march of time. This seems to have produced inhabitants who are even more relaxed than their neighbours. As the French aptly sum it up “the Vietnamese plant rice, the Cambodians watch it grow... and the Laos listen to it grow”.

On a tour of the northern island of Don Khong, watching the sun set softly over the water from a traditional wooden fishing boat, it was easy to see why the place had a reputation in colonial times for turning French administrators native. The lucky fonctionnaires were known as ‘lotus eaters’, though lao-lao drinkers, after the ubiquitous local rice-wine, would be just as appropriate.

This does make for a long wait for an iced coffee (or for a scheduled bus), but it’s worth it – the setting of the lazily flowing river and lush, coconut-palmed islands really is idyllic. And – joy of joy – the thumping speakers of Cambodia are absent, including on the backpacker island of Don Det. Even the dogs are friendly.

My book of the moment, Norman Lewis’ occasionally brilliant and surprisingly timeless 1952 memoir A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, suggests that “Europeans who come here to live soon acquire a certain recognisable manner; they develop quiet voices, and gentle, rapt expressions”.

The gaggle of bearded American travellers on Don Det were sadly lacking in such attributes, but no matter – the place is just too chilled out to get worked up. Even our romantic sunset boat running out of fuel, or the shyster minivan driver dropping us at the wrong boat ferry to save a few kip – and the consequent 3km stroll in the sun – failed to wind me up here.

There must be some relationship between the environment and our mental state, and when you’re surrounded by clear, gently drifting water on all sides then good karma must be easier to find.

Not everyone sees this as a good thing though – a harsh (Western) assessment of the Laos psyche is of a people at worst lazy, or at least lacking in ambition. There did seem to be evidence of the idea that ‘too much work is bad for your brain’ and also sometimes ‘pity for those who think too much’. I’m not sure I’d relish the challenge of being a Peace Corps or VSO education volunteer here!

Of course, all this laid back atmosphere belies a recent history which is anything but peaceful. Sandwiched between Thailand to the west and Vietnam to the east, Laos has been a victim of regional power struggles for generations. During colonial times the British-influenced Thais pushed from one side and the French colonised Vietnam from the other.

The cold war only replaced the powers with Americans and Soviets (there are still hammer and sickle flags, alongside the Laos flag with its white circle representing the great white light of communism). And this was no minor skirmish: whilst the world fretted about the Vietnam war, a huge covert conflict was taking place over Laos. The United States Airforce – with pilots dressed in jeans and t-shirts it was so secret - doused the land with Agent Orange to clear the jungle (and poison the land and water for generations). They also dropped two million tonnes of bombs on Laos in the early 1970s. It’s not easy to visualise how much this is, suffice to say that it was around half a tonne for every single person living in Laos at the time – and that this makes it the most heavily bombed country. Ever.

Looking at it from that perspective the Laos people can hardly be blamed for enjoying their peaceful existence. And as I gazed out in search of freshwater dolphins or floated down the river in my tractor innertube, I couldn’t think that anyone would want this place to change.