One of the first things a new visitor to Phnom Penh, Cambodia, is likely to notice is how well dressed most of the men are. Monsoon rains may turn the streets into shallow lakes, the electricity may be erratic, but the men are fairly consistent in their outfit–a pair of slacks and a neat button down short sleeve shirt.
The supply of T-shirts I brought suddenly seemed woefully inadequate, perhaps even disrespectful, and so I set out to buttress my dress shirt supply. I went straight to the Central Market. I’m always greeted with great warmth and enthusiasm at the Central Market, due to a happy coincidence regarding the Khmer language: I am quite tall, a little over six foot five, and my name is Tom, which is the Khmer word for “big.” Thus, everywhere I go people call out my name.
It soon become apparent that the fact that I am Tom, so to speak, was of no advantage in the shirt department, as none fit. I wound my way through the labyrinthian byways of the market with increasing desperation, but it was only when I arrived in the meat section–amidst the dripping livers on hooks, the goose-bumped skin of plucked chickens hanging by twisted necks, the chopped pig hoofs–that I stumbled onto the fabric shop of Ms. Huon Na Lin.
At the back of Ms. Lin’s stall was an arrangement of solid colored fabrics arranged in a neatly overlapping spread. From 1979-1988 this was the prevailing fabric of choice, but then a new fabric arrived called “Spok.” The old style was from China, the new one from Thailand. The old style was solids, the new was stripes. It was no contest. Now, she explained to me, the stripes reigned supreme. A glance around the market confirmed her statement–stripes abounded. A yellow background with white stripes is the best seller, and I asked for it. She looked me up and down and produced a handsome blue with white stripes. The yellow is for girls, she said. I bought 2.5 meters at a cost of five dollars and set off for a tailor.
I found the Paris Mode Tailor a block from the central market. Every other store on the street had used auto parts out front; Paris Tailor Mode had a pair of tattered headless mannequins on which Tweed jackets were draped.
The proprietor was Ving Chea, a sixty seven year old man with sloped shoulders and a row of gleaming gold teeth in the corner of his mouth. He wore a tank top T-shirt and has a tape measure draped around his wrinkly neck. His thinning hair rose off the top of his head in disarray, pointing in different directions like the periscopes of a lost fleet of submarines.
I presented Mr. Chea with my fabric and then produced a Brooks brothers Oxford –the one dress shirt I had brought–and asked that he duplicate it. Mr. Chea examined the Brooks Brothers product with the hasty assurance of a man who knows shirts.
I asked Mr. Chea about his background. He explained that he was born in Phnom Penh in 1929 and had been in the tailoring business since he was seventeen. He studied with Vietnamese tailors who were all disciples of French tailors. Mr. Chea was clearly pleased with his French connection. Most of the fashion photos on the wall advertised Christian Dior.
Mr. Chea returned to Phnom Penh in 1981, after fleeing the Khmer Rouge in 1975, and struggled to earn a living by sewing other people’s shops and by making dresses which he could trade for food. “It was very difficult to find fabric,” he said. “Every day I saved money until I could open this store.”
He stood in front of a large table strewn with fabrics. The ancient mannequins stood out front like sentries. He waved his arm and made a broad sweeping gesture indicating the whole store. “I started with an empty hand,” he said.
Mr. Chea didn’t so much sew a shirt for me as concoct one. I collected it several days later and, ever since, have possessed a shirt of great distinction. It has proven to posses nearly magical powers–the main trick being that people immediately comment on it favorably. My theory about why is as follows: So much about Phnom Penh was aesthetically strange and unfamiliar to my eyes, it made sense that my shirt made there should leap out at my compatriots in New York as something profoundly, viscerally, unusual. Perhaps it was the deep purple, I mused, or the bright white stripes.
One evening I stood wearing the thing at a party. I’d been back in New York for months, but had yet to grow weary of advertising my travels. A fashion enthusiast rubbed the fabric between her fingers, and made approving and appreciative noises on the cut. I was about to launch into another windy and over-proud explanation of the shirt’s exotic origins when something caught my eye. For the first time I noticed a small sentence printed on the inside of the fabric. It required a double take to fully apprehend it, and had a chastening effect. It read: “Made in the U.S.A.”