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Sunday, March 18, 2007

New Digs for ‘Queen of the Fish’

BATTAMBANG II, a grocery near Fordham University in the Bronx, could easily be considered a video and magazine store that also sells groceries. A wall is dedicated to contemporary Cambodian movies and karaoke videos, and the shelves are laden with Cambodian fashion magazines and Khmer-language newspapers. The small back room bulges with thousands of VHS tapes of serialized Cambodian soap operas and folk tales.

The store, which is owned by a Cambodian named Tek Vandy and is named for the city that is the birthplace of many of the 2,000 Cambodians living in Fordham and University Heights, has now raised its profile even further as a clearinghouse for Cambodian popular culture. An actual Cambodian movie star is in residence, one who despite her stardom can be found bundling vegetables and making change.

Mr. Vandy, a sharp dresser who favors Polo shirts and sports a watch bearing the image of the Cambodian prime minister, was married last April to Ratana Veth, a popular Cambodian actress and karaoke singer whom he met during a trip home in 2005. In September, the 43-year-old Mr. Vandy brought his 24-year-old bride to New York, and since then the two have spent weekends barnstorming the country’s other Cambodian neighborhoods, where Ms. Veth sings on the Khmer heritage festival circuit.

These days, all the free wall space in Mr. Vandy’s store is devoted to posters advertising events that give top billing to a heavily made-up Ms. Veth, dressed in the brightly colored silk gowns that constitute traditional Khmer formalwear. “Dance Party With Cambodian Movie Star,” proclaims one poster promoting a New Year’s Eve affair in Long Beach, Calif.; others describe similar gatherings in Atlanta, Dallas, Seattle, Philadelphia and Lowell, Mass.

Cambodian actresses and karaoke singers — the country’s equivalent of pop stars — have immigrated to those cities, Mr. Vandy said, but Ms. Veth is the first to settle in New York, which has a relatively small Cambodian community.
One recent day in the store, at 229 East Kingsbridge Road, Ms. Veth was less formally dressed but looked no less elegant in tight black slacks, open-toed black high heels and a pink-and-white-striped Tommy Hilfiger blouse as she helped her husband tie rubber bands around bundles of potato leaves in the store’s back room.

“I still miss Cambodia very much, but I’m happy that my movies help people who also miss Cambodia,” said Ms. Veth, who says she prefers traditional roles based on Khmer folk tales to the racier material that appears in Cambodian cinema.
Whatever her preferences, she is a decided draw in this corner of the Bronx.

“Customers come in all the time and ask to see her,” said Mr. Vandy, who interprets for his wife. “They say, ‘I’ve seen you on TV, and now I am seeing the real thing.’ ” The fans tend to be older, because, as he explained, “the young people all watch American movies.”

Like Mr. Vandy, most of the local Cambodians arrived in the 1980s, refugees from the repressive Pol Pot regime. Many of their children either were very young when their families emigrated or were born in refugee camps, and have no memories of their home country. While their parents, many traumatized from the war years, struggled to assimilate, the younger generation drifted away from Khmer culture and language.

But for older Cambodians, Ms. Veth’s arrival has been big news. Moreover, because she had a backlog of unreleased films when she left Cambodia, DVDs of her new movies are still arriving at the grocery.

In one popular new release, whose title is loosely translated as “Queen of the Fish,” Ms. Veth plays a mermaid; in another, she portrays a ghost who seeks vengeance against the thief who robbed her grave of her wedding ring, along with the finger it encircled. Particularly popular among Cambodian traditionalists is the DVD of her wedding to Mr. Vandy, an hourlong, 12-act opus with no shortage of traditional songs and dances, banquets and monks’ blessings.
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