February 20, 2005
Joe Frerich: Expat American, owner of Red Sun Falling Restaurant and Books in Kratie, Cambodia.
A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW
STREETBUZZ: Joe, when and where were you born?
JOE FRERICH: March 8, 1960 (International Women's Day) in Glencoe, Minnesota.
STREETBUZZ: How about your childhood?
JOE FRERICH: Childhood, well, we moved to the suburbs of Chicago when I was three. Yeah, I had a happy childhood: well behaved, Catholic. I thought about becoming a priest, like every gay Catholic boy (it offers an excuse not to get married.) I came out / had my first experience at age 15; it wasn't so bad. I was high school valedictorian. Then I went to the U of Iowa, studied music, French horn. I got my BA in 1982. The horn instructor was OK. I was a top-10 student.
STREETBUZZ: And then?
JOE FRERICH: I worked at McDonald's for 17 years.
STREETBUZZ: Get outta here....not really McDonalds!?
JOE FRERICH: Yup! Then I managed a bookstore for seven years. I stopped paying my horn for 12 years, then picked it up again.
STREETBUZZ: How did you come to Cambodia?
JOE FRERICH: Five visits to Cambodia. First time: my first time in Asia. Spent eight days at Siem Reap and Phnom Penh, in 1999. When I got here, I realized I needed more time. So I kept coming back. I fell in love with my moto driver my first trip. But he got married between my third and fourth trips: scary / weird. I wrote a book about it. No, I haven't published it. In the book I made him into a bastard and I committed suicide! I learned here, men can marry men. I was going to propose to him. But then I found out he was already married to a woman. Guys here just lead foreigners on, even if they're not gay. You know, I bet any man in this town would have sex with you if you paid him enough. It's just all about money. He asked me for a car on my second trip.
You want to hear my towel boy story?
I was in Cambodia for one month, getting a business visa. I was staying at a Phnom Penh hotel. First night, there's a knock on my door at 11 p.m.: this guy was at the door with fresh towels. So I took the towels, even though I already had a bunch. Next night, same thing, a knock at the door, same guy, but this time he had rolls of toilet paper. I already had rolls and rolls of toilet paper. Third night: same towel boy again, with toilet paper. Finally I figured it out. I invited him in. Crappy sex, but I paid him. It's too weird.
Heck, even the new King is openly gay. You know his father finally abdicated last year and turned it over to his son.
STREETBUZZ: So where all have you lived in Cambodia?
JOE FRERICH: OK, so I lived in Siem Reap for six months, then in Sihanoukville for one year. Now I've been here in Kratie for 2 1/2 years.
STREETBUZZ: What can you say about Cambodia?
JOE FRERICH: Cute guys, cute men. I like it here in Kratie, a nice little city. A quiet little river town. Nice climate. Decent market, nice locals.
About Cambodia, there's no separation between straight and gay. Sex is just about sex, about releasing. So it doesn't matter if it's straight or gay. There are probably more secret lesbians then guys. Because look, during hetero sex here, the guys are very fast, no pleasure in it for the women. So young monks at the monsatery: I don't think it's a big thing, if their release if with men or women. But for the older women in the monasteries, you know, have you seen the older women in monasteries with shaved heads? Their comfort is with other women.
STREETBUZZ: So the whole nature of sexual orientation is different here?
JOE FRERICH: Yeah. A lot of my staff, young guys, think "that's not good"; but they don't know why.
STREETBUZZ: Is Cambodia making progress?
JOE FRERICH: Not making progress. At this point, all the foreign aid projects (you now that's what's keeping the country afloat), need to stop for awhile. It needs to stop for a while, yes, stop the foreign funding. We need to stand on our own feet. Foreign aid is only helping the rich, and they don't need any more. You can even see it in Kratie, increased wealth.
Here's an example: two years ago, rice was 970 Riels a kilo (.24 cents US) now it's 1350 a kilo. That inflation! So peasants growing rice are doing better. But if they're not growing rice, they're paying higher prices. So prices and costs are getting higher. I don't think the government knows what's going on. This next election is important; I worry about the government, what's going to happen. In 1979, there was a post-Khmer Rouge baby boom. Now those children are 25, starting to have kids. It's gonna get bad. We have this baby boom that wants jobs, where are these guys gonna go to? It's going to get scary here the next four to five years. I could get repercussion because having a successful business, "You're taking our jobs." Even though I employ Cambodians.
STREETBUZZ: How about the end of the garment industry quotas? That'll be huge.
JOE FRERICH: I don't know about that.
STREETBUZZ: OK, tell me about your business.
JOE FRERICH: It's a restaurant, bar and bookstore. I have six staff. They all live, eat and drink here; that's a fringe benefit worth about $1 a day. Then I pay salaries: my cook about $50 a month, my waitress who only speaks Khmer about $30, my waiter who speaks English $40, my cleaner girl $25, and my partner $30 plus 20% of the liquor gross, his alone comes to about $165 a month. Yes, that's much more than other local, Khmer employers.
For me, last year I made about $1200 from the restaurant and $800 from the bookstore, so that's $2000 a year. It's OK, it's not that big a deal. Anyone who comes to Cambodia thinking they're going to make shitloads of money is just stupid. But if they're practical, they can survive.
Now about taxes: I don't have to pay personal income tax here, because you have to make at least $4000 a year before needing to pay any. But I do pay business taxes, which are cheap. Actually they tried to raise it 600% last month. But my landlord is a bigwig in the CPP (Cambodian People's Party) so I just told them who my landlord is and so my taxes didn't go up at all.
Grease money? No, no problems here. But if you're in Sihanoukville, all the foreign business owners there have to pay everybody off every month.
STREETBUZZ: Closing comments?
JOE FRERICH: Cambodia is what you make of it. If you want it to be more than it is, it can be. It you want it to be less than it is, it can be. I don't know, I don't think about it that often. It's what things are, how things are.
My family still worries about me. Here, look: my sister called me up after the tsunami. I told her "Did you look at the map?" After all that, she's like "Are you OK?" Hell, I told her "I'm safer than you are!"
The Muslims here are so benign. Cambodia is not scary; I don't think so.
A STREETBUZZ INTERVIEW
Joe can be contacted at email@example.com
"But I haven't checked my email in 3 1/2 months now. I think they take away your address if you don't check it every month or so"
Red Sun Falling Restaurant and Books is right across the street from the Mekong River in Kratie, Cambodia.