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The Single Serving Society

By: John Weeks and Sin Yang Pirom Posted: August-29-2008 in
John Weeks and Sin Yang Pirom

take a look at the ubiquitous neighborhood shop.

Newly arrived in Cambodia, I strolled down to the corner store for a soda. A customer pedaled over on his bike and purchased three cigarettes. He lit up via a lighter attached with string to the display case, and cruised off serenely. Such was my introduction to small scale trading in Cambodia. The store itself, like most of its kind, was crammed full of products both familiar and foreign: a cabinet of curiosities. Every neighborhood has one.

On another visit I noticed a crate of what seemed to be rusty aerosol cans. How could these have any resale value? Upon inquiry, it turned out they were filled with cooking gas, retailing at 1300 riel each.

Be it skin whitening cream, monosodium glutamate, or dried squid, your local all-in-one-shop has everything you could need - and some things you wouldn't imagine - all in affordable portions.

Usually a family operation, the average community store carries an enormous variety of items that would make any Seven-Eleven franchisee shudder. Products with a high sales turnover like drinks or cigarettes are restocked by roving company representatives. Other items (like chewing gum or laundry soap) are bought in large quantities and repackaged for smaller scale sale.

Any money manager will tell you buying in bulk is one of the simplest, most cost-effective ways of saving money. But in a country where many are under the poverty line, subsistence is the goal, not saving. When you're flush, a container of shampoo can be bought at the local market. In leaner times, individual packets can be purchased down the street.

No local shop would be complete without plastic jars of sraa tnam (medicinal alcohol) as well as the favored tipple of budget drinkers, sraa saa ('white' alcohol). I've yet to find a decent mixer for sraa saa, but the chemical aftertaste (and much of life's worries) fades after the fifth cup.

The single-serving sensibility encourages both experimentation and moderation. Spiced Tofu? Why not? Shrimp Crackers? More please. Durian candy? One for now, thanks.

The punk rock band Dead Kennedys (of Holiday in Cambodia fame) titled one of their collections 'Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death': a critique of corporate consumer conformity. If the band took their 'holiday' in the present day, they'd find a Khmer consumer culture that at its roots caters to the individual, out of sheer economic pragmatism. Sure, chain stores are making tentative forays into the market, but they'll never be competitive enough to beat the customer care of your friendly neighborhood shop.

Largely self-taught, Sin Yang Pirom created over 90 novels and comics during Cambodia's publishing resurgence of the 1980s. Her work has been featured in local publications, exhibitions and television. Currently working as a freelance illustrator, she is developing plans to publish a new graphic novel. Interview:www.studykhmer.com . Contact: 012 304 863 Thanks also to Vuth, Vuthara, and Channa.

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