It’s not often we wake up the same day that we go to bed ... we're old lesbian nanas who don’t go clubbing and so in the words of the late Aunty Mark, we should 'hand back our gay cards'. But not tonight. Tonight we’re ‘taking one for the team’ and going to a drag show.
Since we first came to Cambodia 10 years ago, the one constant in the gay scene has been the Blue Chilli. Established by Sokha Khem in 2006, it’s now an institution. Sokha was born in Svay Rieng province, and grew up as a farmer. His family and village were poor and he didn’t feel that he had a future there. He moved to Phnom Penh and did all manner of jobs: moto driver, cement worker, charcoal maker, even working for an NGO. With a bit of luck, and support from friends, he established Blue Chilli.
12 years on and the bar and the LGBT scene here has changed.
We’re welcomed warmly by the staff. The music is pumping and we sit outside where it’s comfortably loud. It’s at least an hour until the hour-long drag show, although we do wonder if the rumours are true and we might be running on gay time tonight. It’s mostly gay men, but we don’t feel uncomfortable or out of place. Sokha is talking with patrons and finds his way over to us. He starts to tell us about the establishment of the bar and how the LGBT scene was very different then. 'Now', he says, 'it’s more open'. He too laments the demise of the lesbian bars in Phnom Penh and confirms our theory that lesbians aren’t really big on the nightclub scene.
There are three drag shows a week by young artists. Sokha’s working with a new designer and the new costumes should be finished in about two weeks. He’s expanding the shows to five nights a week. He's philosophical about how it will all pan out, particularly mid-week when people do need to work the next day.
More people arrive, including some straight couples, who wander inside, turn around, and wander out again. 'Not the target market,' quips Sarah. Others stay; this is clearly a place where everyone is welcome, provided you’re comfortable running the gauntlet of beaming young men waving chilli-shaped menus (it’s not such a hardship, even two middle-aged lesbians like us find them adorable).
Surprisingly close to the advertised start time of 11pm, the music inside changes and everyone starts to press in towards the small stage. Showtime! For an hour, we are captivated by a series of young artists. The girls (and their two hardworking male sidekicks) can really dance. There are no grotesque parodies of womanhood in the dance routines, just a lot of joy, heart and skill (props to the queen who danced across the bar in towering red patent leather stilettos and vaulted back to the stage from the bar top at the end of her routine). It’s refreshing to be in a gay bar where everyone feels so comfortable, you don’t stick to the floor, and there’s no queeny cattiness to stick to you. Only one age-related gag at the expense of the queen who turns out to be having a birthday, but all is forgiven when a tiny cake is handed up to the stage and she starts to cry, jeopardising her magnificent eyelashes.
We’re almost too engrossed to notice the bar is absolutely packed and heaving by the show’s conclusion. Blue Chilli’s clearly not going anywhere, but, as the routines end and the first ABBA of the night starts up, we sure as hell are. Tuk tuk!