We are at the Olympic market in Phnom Penh spending an afternoon with Chhit and her two sisters to understand the young women of Cambodia. All three are turned out in the latest fashion. Their hair is coloured and styled in keeping with the latest international style. Chhit greets us enthusiastically and we begin our journey through the crowded and dimly lit aisles.
Olympic market is popular with young Cambodians looking for fabric, fashion and beauty products, many of them imported from Thailand, China, Korea and Vietnam. Although set up in a proper building structure; Olympic market has most of the same characteristics as the traditional markets in the city. It is packed with small shops selling their wares. There is no air conditioning although the building has been constructed to keep cool. Visual communication is loud and obvious as it needs to stand out in clutter and communicate simply. Each store is crammed with products in an attempt to maximise space and only the store owner can make sense of how each store is organised.
For a while we just weave in and out till eventually we are at a store selling beauty and skin care products. Chhit and her sisters are clearly regular customers here and are warmly greeted by the girls running the shop.
While we try to make sense of the densely packed store that is both visually and physically overpowering, the three girls have already walked into the store and are exploring for the newest products in the shop. The salesgirl introduces them to the latest new foundation from South Korea. Chhit definitely wants to buy this. She trusts the salesgirl who she considers an expert in beauty products.
We spend 20 minutes exploring the products in the shop. There is a lot of laughing and excited discussion about the products and some giggling about how much effort women need to make to look attractive.
In the end Chhit and her younger sister buy a basket of products that includes a 1 kg bottle of unbranded homemade face mask, a bright red Mac lipstick – a colour that is all the rage at the moment – and several other make up products. Their eldest sister has made no purchases.
The sisters represent two different generations in Cambodia. Chhit and her younger sister are a part of the new generation of Cambodians that is benefiting from the growing economy. She and her younger sister are both educated, still single and have office jobs. They take pride in their jobs. Finding jobs which can be fun and pay well is not always easy.
Their elder sister in contrast is married with 2 kids. She is not very educated and reflects the previous generation’s life although she is only in her late 30s. She has to content with managing her family and running a mom and pop shop.
The market highlights the tension point between indulgence and responsibility on the young generation to rebuild the country. Given the recent war history, Cambodia has a relatively young population (50% of the Cambodian population is younger than 22 years old). Whilst being under pressure or focusing on rebuilding life and society back into shape, spending a pinch of time in cosmetic stalls/hair salons at the market where women buy their daily groceries seems to be their daily indulgence. The markets allow the girls to experience a new world that is otherwise not so easily accessible.
Chhit and her younger sister represent the future of the country. They are aware of the opportunities they have but also of the responsibility they carry of building the country. Chhit wants to set up her own online fashion/beauty business.
There has been a new mall that has opened in the city but Chhit and her sisters prefer to shop at the markets. The mall is just to have some dessert not really to shop. For now, the markets represent the hopes of the country, the cautious optimism and the responsibility of the young generation.