Forget love, Valentine’s is a ‘day of fortune’

An impromptu shop selling Valentine’s Day knickknacks juts out onto a Phnom Penh sidewalk yesterday.
An impromptu shop selling Valentine’s Day knickknacks juts out onto a Phnom Penh sidewalk yesterday. Heng Chivoan

After eating her breakfast, Ben Muycheang, 24, sets up an umbrella, stall and table in front of her family’s house and business on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard.

Most days she helps with her family’s brick-and-tile shop, but this week she is taking advantage of an opportunity.

From the inside of her home, Muycheang brings out bouquets, real and fake, which she has spent nearly a month putting together using instructions from a flower design magazine, along with chocolate and teddy bears. This is her seventh year as a Valentine’s Day vendor.

“Valentine’s Day is the day of love to many, but to me it is the day of fortune,” Muycheang says. “In previous years, I used about $1,000 as my capital, and although my stuff was not sold out, I made about $200-300 dollars of profit.”

Muycheang is one of many vendors out on capital streets this week to cash in on a holiday that is widely celebrated, at least commercially, despite yearly warnings from the government that it is not in line with “Khmer values”.

Sitting in front of a table with bouquets brimming with roses near Central Market, Heng Rim says the holiday gives him a chance at some extra cash. The 29-year-old is a motodop driver most days, but he and his wife work together selling flowers he bought from a Vietnamese wholesaler.

“A lot of people are buying, and I don’t need to be worried about losing my money,” Rim said. “However, we have to spend at least one month to prepare.”

Another vendor on Street 286, who asked to remain anonymous, has put some thought into the appearance of more than just the bouquets.

“Who will buy from an old man like me?” he said, laughing. “Most of those who buy flowers are men, and they only buy from young, pretty sellers. I pay each of them $50 for the whole day, but I will still make profit.”

According to vendors, most customers are young working men who buy gifts for their girlfriends or wives. Just a few are students, most of whom get gifts for their parents or teachers. Still, there is concern from older generations about the potential corrupting force of the holiday.

Last Friday, the Ministry of Education once again issued guidelines suggesting young people risk losing “the reputation and dignity of themselves and their families” if they use the holiday as an excuse for romance, which “is not in the cultural tradition of the Cambodian people”. And yesterday, Prime Minister Hun Sen himself entered the Valentine’s fray, writing on Facebook that the holiday “means loving the nation, loving families, loving grandparents . . . loving siblings and friends”.

“Please all children, nieces or nephews, do not give your bodies to anyone,” he wrote.

Since 2015, the government has banned minors from checking into guesthouses without parental consent. A survey conducted the year before of more than 700 15- to 24-year-olds in Phnom Penh found that more than 15 percent of couples were planning to have sex on the holiday, while more than 47 percent of men interviewed said they would try to force their partner to have sex even if she didn’t want to.
Koy Seda, the principal of Tuol Tompoung High School, says every year he stays vigilant against “incidents” that could happen in his school on Valentine’s Day, even asking the police to stop vendors from doing business near the school.

“When the day is approaching, I always give lectures to the students in the morning gathering,” he said. “But I am delighted to see the students buying gifts for my teachers on this day to show their love and gratitude, which is the real Cambodian values.”

Kieu Udom, a graphic designer who was buying a teddy bear for his girlfriend yesterday, said the emphasis on sex is an unnecessary part of the holiday.

“People can do it any day they want,” Udom said. “I think there is nothing wrong in celebrating Valentine’s Day, to show our love to our partners by giving them gifts.”