Gara, Rose and Vatey are all cosplayers who are reluctant to reveal their true names.
Eileen McCormick caught up with them recently at a huge cosplay event at the Royal University of Phnom Penh, where participants, called cosplayers, wear costumes and fashion accessories that resemble specific superheroes or fictional characters.
Gara is a child prodigy who completed high school at 16 and shortly after finished a medical degree. He is now in the final stages of a second degree in accounting while supporting a community of cosplayers by taking on the role of event organiser. Rose is considered as one of the first to introduce cosplay in Cambodia and continues to support the expansion of the art to the younger generations. And Vatey is the youngest in the group, who started her journey into cosplay while she was only 15 and has now evolved into a community leader. For the purposes of this article, I will call them cosplayers and we all had an open chat about how the art of cosplaying has evolved and changed in the kingdom.
Good Times2: How did cosplay start in Cambodia?
Cosplayers: There was a guy from Japan who went around helping communities hold cosplay events. His name was Condo and he also tried to organise a big cosplay at Aeon Mall some time back. But his event had a low turnout. Those of us who attended it had a ball of a time. Condo went back to Japan and we waited for him to come back but he never did. So we decided to organise cosplay events ourselves. First, we were part of the Nou Rue Tail group but over time, we started to have different concepts and ideas.
Good Times2: Tell me about your upcoming event.
Cosplayers: This is the third time for this dark cosplay event. We have at least four events in a year. Nou Rue Tail was a community of cosplay people but they have taken a break. Now, dark fantasy has become more of a thing. When we first started in RUPP, we had 800 people showing up in costumes. We have invited a famous cosplayer from Thailand who goes by the name ‘Hey Lady’. Previously, we could not give out many awards but this time, any group who performs has a chance to win something. There is a gift for everyone.
Good Times2: How has cosplay evolved in Cambodia?
Cosplayers: More and more people, especially young ones, are spending more time in this subculture. Look, if it was not big enough we would not have got all these sponsors and support from companies in Cambodia. We would also like to point out that the costumes have become more detailed and cosplayers seem to have better background information for them to effectively reenact their favourite fictional characters.
Good Times2: Do Cambodian parents support their childrens’ involvement in cosplay?
Gara: For me, my parents are not very happy with it. The thing is, because I am the organiser, I often spend a lot of money from my own pocket. When my parents found out about it, I’m always blamed for being reckless. For this event, the budget was about $1,000 but last year, I spent close to $2,500.
Cosplayers: We also get around our parents by donating the proceeds of the cosplay events to charity. We have given money to organisations that work with street children. We also worked with an organisation run by Hun Many, the prime minister’s son. From our cosplay events, we managed to donate money to Hun Many’s organisation that was building houses for poor people in Svay Rieng province. We’re proud to say we helped build 3 houses.
It’s actually funny that this year when we ran out of tickets on the first day, many parents actually complained saying they wanted their kids to attend the cosplay event, and they, too, wanted to follow them.
Good Times2: Do people have to get dressed up to be allowed into the cosplay event?
Cosplayers: Anyone can get in even if they are not in costume, but we have incentives like best costume prizes. This encourages people to want to get dressed up with their friends and try to win. The way the winner is selected is through the power of the people. Those who get the most applauses from the crowd wins.
Good Times2: This is dark cosplay, so why is it being held in the day?
Cosplayers: Most Cambodians especially ones in high school or living at home cannot be out late. We are not living in a big city like Bangkok or Tokyo. Parents, here, really worry when their children stay out after dusk. Taking into account Cambodian culture and the fact that most young people need to be home by 6:00PM, we planned this event from 1:00PM to 5:00PM.
Good Times2: You are a leader in the cosplay community. How does that feel?
Gara: I am okay if everyone else is happy. There is a lot to juggle and understand about the community to make everyone happy. We don’t want people to get fed up and angry and we also want to make sure it’s a safe creative place for everyone who wants to participate. This is the only way cosplay can keep expanding and stay relevant to the youth.
Good Times2: How do you manage both school and cosplay?
Gara: Well it’s not always easy but I actually already finished my medical degree so I am technically a doctor. However, now, I have decided to go back for a second degree in accounting. Most people assume I would want a degree in costume design but I think we have enough community members studying that. If I were to get another degree after this one, I think it would be in marketing. I can say having an outlet to have fun and be creative helps me to focus on school and my academic life.
Vatey: I think kids who only have studying as their priority miss out on a lot of opportunities and limit themselves later in life. I would not be as successful without cosplay in my life.
Good Times2: Where can cosplayers buy or make costumes?
Cosplayers: We have one tailor in Phnom Penh who makes all our costumes. Her shop is located on the road towards Aeon Mall, but sort off on a small side street. She can do most costumes now but you must bring her the material you want to use. In the beginning she did not understand what we were trying to do but now she has become very skilled.
It takes about 3 days for her to do the cutting for the costume and it can cost a little or a lot depending on the details and complexity of the design.
On average it’s from $20 to $35 to have a full set cut. It’s a bit expensive but in the end it is better quality and cheaper than ordering online from another country – which can be triple the price.
We like to get new costumes made for new events. But sometimes we share our costumes. The most popular website to order cosplay costumes is from Taobao Cosplay Stores in China.
Good Times2: What life skills has cosplay taught you?
Cosplayers: Patience, first and foremost. It takes a lot of patience to put together a cosplay costume, and it’s easy to get angry and throw in the towel if things are not going well in the design.
The other main skill would be leadership because it takes a lot to keep people happy, while at the same time not allowing them to step all over you. There is a lot of organising because if a cosplay event is not run well, people will just walk away and it will ruin the group dynamics.
We also like that dressing up has broken down stereotypes of hierarchy and allowed all of us from different social classes to meet. Just because someone is older in real life doesn’t mean we have to call them ‘bong’ in cosplay.
The cosplayer who plays out the oldest character in the event gets that title. This really shakes up the dynamics of social norms in Cambodia.