Words by Marissa Carruthers. Photography by Lim Sokchanlina.
“I love hairdressing, music and dancing so it made perfect sense,” says Space Salon and Bar owner Chuk Sopheak on why he launched his venture in the capital four years ago.
Having trained as a hairdresser at Arya Vong Kim Professional Beauty Salon in Phnom Penh, the perfectly preened 34-year-old decided to launch his own business, settling on a small spot on Street 136.
“I had always wanted to be a hairdresser and it was my dream to have my own place,” he says.
Initially opening as a unisex salon, business at Space started off slow so Chuk decided to get creative with his concept.
“The salon wasn’t making much profit,” he recalls. “I’m gay and that was one of the reasons I moved to Phnom Penh. I wanted to help the gay community here so I decided to run a daytime salon and then a gay bar at night.”
The result is Space Salon and Bar, which has become one of the capital’s go-to spots, regardless of sexuality.
Serving up everything from haircuts (from $7), colouring (from $25) and highlights (from $15), to make-up (from $5) and eyebrow tints ($3) during the day, after dark, the music turns up, the lights go out, the pretty posse of bar staff arrive, and the party gets started.
Hailing from a small village in Battambang, like many gay men in the provinces, Chuk was bullied and discriminated against for his sexual orientation.
“For many years before she knew, my mum would try and force me to get married; it was difficult,” he recalls. “For gay people, it’s not always easy here. In Cambodia, many people, especially in the provinces, are not open-minded.”
At 18, he relocated to Siem Reap to work as a receptionist and it was here that he publically came out. Five years later, he moved to the capital. “In the city, you can walk about with a man holding hands but in the provinces, it’s not easy,” he says. “That’s why I moved to Phnom Penh.”
Determined to make his business succeed, Chuk recruited the help of his family to launch Space. As the eldest of five siblings, his mum and sister came to Phnom Penh to help. Chuk’s younger brother Keatha also changed high schools so he could study and work in his spare time. Chuk now funds his brother’s studies at Pannasastra University.
“I wanted to help my family; they are poor,” he says, adding his mum stays at home and his dad is a moto driver. “It’s not easy to make a bar popular in Phnom Penh. There is a lot of competition and you need to push it a lot. I would say I work almost 24 hours.”
As Space’s sole stylist – although two staff are undergoing training – Chuk opens the salon at 11am, catering to the trickle of customers wanting a new look or sprucing up for a night out. “I love to make people beautiful,” he says.
The salon switches into a bar at 6pm, when Chuk heads home for a quick break, before returning for the evening’s entertainment at about 9.30pm.
Spare time is spent hitting social media hard to promote that evening’s events. “I didn’t want to just copy what other gay bars do – drag shows and drag shows,” he says. “I wanted to do something different.”
That difference comes in the form of the 12 barmen adorning entertaining outfits depending on the day of the week. For example, every Wednesday expect pecs to be flexed in bokator outfits, superheroes take over on Thursdays, and Sundays see the bar awash with uniformed men in the form of police, soldiers and firefighters.
“I love meeting new people and making new friends,” says Chuk, whose clientele is a healthy mix of locals, expats and holidaymakers. “It is important that people feel at home when they are here, like they are with friends, and that’s what I teach my staff.”
Chuk also takes on the role of advocate for his homeland, dishing out advice and recommendations to tourists wanting to learn a little more about the country. “They often want to know where to go or what to do, and I’m happy to help anyone with that.”
With the bar staying open until about 2am and Chuk remaining on site to wave goodnight to his finals customers, bedtime often doesn’t come until the early hours of the morning. “It is a long day but I enjoy every minute,” he says.
Space Hair and Salon, 66 Street 136, also produces a cheeky calendar for $20, including two free drinks and a behind-the-scenes video into its creation.