three pairs of lovers with space

GREEK LOVE IN CAMBODIA

 

There is no record to suggest that Greek love was ever a clearly recognised form of love in Cambodia, as it was in so much of the Far East. This may very well have much to do with the gender-differentiated form of homosexuality involving transvestites having dominated the public imagination from an early date, possibly a reflection of the old Khmer Empire’s Hindu cultural heritage; it has been shown that in old cultures one form of homosexuality tended always to predominate. A disgusted Chinese ambassador to the Khmer capital at Angkor in 1296-7, Zhou Daguan, reported the presence of transvestites prostituting themselves:

There are a lot of effeminate men in the country who go round the markets every day in groups of a dozen or so. They frequently solicit the attentions of Chinese in return for generous gifts. It is shameful and wicked.[1]

The translator of the preceding explains that what he translates as “effeminate men”, Er xing ren 二形人 … means literally “people with two forms or appearances.”

After many centuries of decline, Cambodia became a French protectorate in 1867, retaining some real autonomy only until 1897.

A commercial street in Phnom Penh

Writing in 1900, the French explorer and linguist Étienne Aymonier, the first to survey systematically the ruins of the Khmer Empire, touched on the subject in his authoritative description of the country. In Chapter IV, “Laws”, he explained that the ancient legal code had last been revised under King Norodom in about 1870, and, listing the sex crimes in it, that, “La pédérastie, totalement inconnue sans doute, n’était pas prevue (Pederasty, doubtless unknown, was not anticipated)”.[2]

If that had truly been the situation until 1870, it no longer held two decades  later, by when Aymonier was long back in Paris and considerably more French colonials had settled in Cambodia. Writing in 1893 of the conjoined dangers of "syphilis, opiomania, and pederasty … the three elements of a sort of nosological tripod, which one encounters among different peoples of the Far East," the French physician and member of the Société d'anthropologie de Paris, Paul Michaut said: "In all of our colonial empire of the Far East - Cochinchina, Annam, Tonkin, Cambodia - public hygiene finds itself engaged with the same enemies, this sort of morbid triple alliance that saps the health of our colonists."[3]

The same year, Dr. Jacobus X., a French army surgeon who had spent five years in Cochin-China, the French colony of southern Vietnam, and then several months in Cambodia in 1866,[4] wrote the following about “Perversions of Sexual Intercourse amongst the Cambodians”, evidently taking on board developments since his visit:

I ought also to say in praise of this people, that, in spite of their decadence,[5] their manners have remained pure. […]

Pederasty has not, in Cambodia, the place of honour that it holds in Cochin-China. There are, it is true, pederasts, or rather passive agents, amongst the poor homeless children who wander about the streets of Pnom-Penh, but they only constitute exceptions to the general rule. When they do consent to commit sodomy, it is with repugnance, and not like the Annamite, who is ready and willing to take either the active or passive part,—whichever is required.

The result of this is, that the Frenchman, who comes from Cochin-China to Cambodia, has to take a native mistress, for he finds neither the "daylight whore", the nay, or the boy.[6] This is a fresh and evident proof that we did not import these disgusting practices into Cochin-China, since they do not exist in Cambodia, the boundary province of our Eastern colonies, and yet we meet with them again in Tonquin, which is also inhabited by the Cochin-Chinese race.[7]

 

Khmer Boy. A postcard of 1952

[1] Zhou Daguan, A Record of Cambodia, The Land and Its People, translated by Peter Harris (Bangkok, 2007), Chapter 6.

[2] Étienne Aymonier, Le Cambodge: Le royaume actuel (Cambodia: the present kingdom), 3 vols., Paris, 1900-4, I p. 92. He was not singling out true pederasty as opposed to male homosexuality in general: because “pédérastie” was traditionally the predominant form of the latter, it was frequently used as a synonym for it by 19th-century French writers.

[3] Paul Michaut, "Syphilis et pédérastie, fumeurs d'opium et climat," in Bulletin Général de Thérapeutique Médicale et Chirurgicale  124 (1893) p. 275.

[4] Untrodden Fields of Anthropology: Observations on the Esoteric Manners and Customs of Semi-civilised Peoples, Being a Record by a French-Army Surgeon of Thirty Years’ Experience in Asia, Africa, America and Oceania  (Paris, 1898) I 173, an expansion and translation of L’amour aux colonies. Singularités physiologiques et passionnelles observes Durant trente années de séjour dans les Colonies françaises Cochin-Chine, Tonkin et Cambodge—Guyane et Martinique—Sénégal et Bivières du Sud—Nouvelle Galédonie, Nouvelles-Hébrides et Tahiti par le Docteur Jacobus X… (Paris, 1893).

[5] By “decadence”, he means the political and cultural decline he has earlier described.

[6]Nay” and “Boy” were described earlier in the work (Vol. I, Chapter VII) as being Annamite (central Vietnamese) street-boys commercially available for sex and aged respectively 7-15 and 15-25, though both were physically immature for their age by global standards, especially the latter.

[7] Dr. Jacobus X…, op.cit., I pp. 213-4.