Cambodia's 'Beer Girls' Learn The Dark Side of Selling Brew
By Samantha Marshall and Steve Stecklow

May 31, 2000 11:17 a.m By Mr Steve Stecklow

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- At the bustling Shady Bamboo bar and restaurant, a flock of uniformed young women descends on arriving customers, each woman pitching a different beer. "Uncle, uncle, please try my brand," they playfully plead.

Tain Aeng is among them. Dressed in a bright blue blazer and miniskirt, with a badge that says "Made in the USA," she flashes a big smile and pushes a Pittsburgh export called American Beer. While scrawny chickens dart under the table and a boy peddles grilled crickets, eight other "beer girls" jostle to promote Becks, Carlsberg, Tiger and other brands.

It's a successful marketing technique used by beer and liquor distributors in Cambodia, Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia. But behind the brew and banter, it is a business with a hidden side, as Ms. Aeng well knows. Male customers have pulled her arms and grabbed at her breasts, and the one time that she complained to her supervisor, she says, he just laughed.

A greater blow came later. Like many beer girls, the 24-year-old Ms. Aeng says, she has supplemented her $50-a-month salary by sometimes going home with customers. Now, although thin and often feverish, she still works seven nights a week. But she has the AIDS virus.
How beer girls became a part of Southeast Asian restaurant commerce isn't clear to the distributors. But at this point, they say, they can't afford not to recruit a small army of attractive young women to promote their brands at the point of sale. Their competitors do it, and customers expect it. "Most guys who drink beer, probably they don't want to taste the beer or know the quality of the beer," says Bunthean Chin, who recently hired 37 women to promote American Beer. "They just want to see the pretty girl."

Hok Bor, sipping his drink at the Lively Evening restaurant, concurs. "Sometimes I prefer Fosters, sometimes Victoria Bitter," he says. "It depends on the girl."

Bad Habitsbr

Distributors say they provide the young women with transportation home from work, and if they don't use it, that is their choice. "We cannot meddle in their social life," says Dennis Soon, sales and marketing manager for Sutl Corp., which distributes Budweiser here. Women who don't take the company van home after work are simply asked to change their clothes so they aren't "seen wearing the uniform and going around with guys."
Hong Kong Baptist University