Nerds unite by the dozens at the capital’s bi-monthly Nerd Nights. Writer Joanna Mayhew speaks with co-founder Yi Wei to learn about the city’s nerdiest sub-culture. Photography by Charles Fox.
What is Nerd Night?
Nerd Night is a community event some friends and I have been organising the last four years. The concept is to get interesting people to share something they’re nerdily passionate about. The format supports this rapid-fire way of getting to know people, and is modelled after the PechaKucha format, which is 20 slides, 20 seconds each, [for] a total of six minutes, 40 seconds for each speaker. From what I’ve heard, PechaKucha means chitchat in Japanese.
How did Nerd Night begin?
I started it with another friend. He had done it one time in college and realised Phnom Penh was good fodder – lots of people coming in and out, new blood and interesting topics. The beginning was a little rough. We had one speaker out of four who really got it. And the numbers were paltry; we had 20 people who showed up, mostly my friends who I begged to come. [But] by the third event, we knew we had something special. It’s come a long way. We hit our maximum two years into it – at 300. Today, we get between 100 and 150 on a school night, so that’s still impressive.
What brought you to Cambodia?
I came in November 2010 [to] work on a project with International Development Enterprises. I knew nothing about Cambodia. I knew my work had to do with sanitation, so there were no toilets. I looked up [Cambodia] on YouTube and Google, and found out about the genocide, the sex trade, listened to terrible karaoke, and was like, “What did I get myself into?” When I got here, I was pleasantly surprised. I think it’s a very common story. People come not knowing what they’ll find and realise it’s a hidden gem, which is why I’ve stayed.
Do you consider yourself a nerd?
Definitely. I’m a proud nerd. Back in university, I was always active in clubs. I was into bringing stellar people together, creating things out of nothing, turning ideas into action. So Nerd Night is a natural avenue for me to lend those talents and exercise those passions. For me, the word nerd is associated with obsessive behaviour. I have that tendency where I get really interested in something, and really dedicate my time to it. In a previous life, I was nerdy about music. In my work, I’m obsessed with how we use business to improve lives. Now, on the side, my obsession is fitness. I’m like a nerdy jock. There’s so little time in our lives to explore all our interests, but I’ve just stepped back and said, take one thing at a time.
What have the best talks been?
There have been some really interesting ones. Local artist Chhan Dina had 10 volunteers come up, and she did rapid-fire portrait paintings. We’ve had one speaker who acted out six Shakespearean plays, one really graphic talk by a plastic surgeon [who] showed videos of boob jobs. We’ve had some thought-provoking topics on gender, the environment, and random things, like why cats suck. That’s the beauty of Nerd Night – it’s a grab bag. You don’t really know what you’ll get.
How do you find speakers?
[That’s] the biggest challenge. They say public speaking is the number one greatest fear of people, above death. I grew up with a performance background, so I switch it on and off. But I can understand for people who are not familiar with that, it becomes totally terrifying. It’s a matter of having consistent connection and making them feel comfortable. The majority are expats. A lot of Cambodians are reluctant to try it because they’re not speaking in their native language and it’s to an audience they don’t relate to as much. As more young university students get exposed to it, we see regulars coming and bringing their friends, so that’s encouraging.
Why has it been successful?
Because it’s a relatively small town, people are very inclusive and curious about the people around them. The social scene is usually more around partying, and you don’t necessarily find out such interesting, odd tidbits about people – like it doesn’t naturally come up that someone’s really obsessed with goats. When you provide a platform where the main mission is for people to divulge these passions, people get curious. Phnom Penh also attracts a certain type of person who’s adventurous, open, international, and those people are good sources of nerdy inspiration.
How do you maintain the momentum?
In the beginning there was a lot of excitement. Over time people have gotten used to it being around, so it’s about cultivating new audiences. We’ve talked about how do we reach out to universities, to different expat communities, like the Chinese, Korean and Japanese. Communities evolve, so we should respond to that. My role has been one of many voices; it’ll be for the team to decide what makes it relevant.
Why should people join?
Come along to discover who’s in your community, make new friends, and stay passionate about Phnom Penh. As you stay longer, people can get into a routine and get lazy about discovery. Nerd Night is an easy avenue to stay curious.