Before rising to fame as sex symbols in Cambodia’s street food industry, the cooks at Single Man Fried Rice shop were just another group of guys selling bowls of rice in Phnom Penh’s bustling Toul Tom Poung night market. But they had one thing most competitors lacked: abs.
To attract customers, the Single Man crew started taking off their shirts to cook for videos posted to social media platforms TikTok and Facebook. Naked male torsos are an everyday sight in Cambodia, as commonplace as sleeping dogs and speeding tuktuks. However, the Single Man chefs were not your average beer-bellied, towel-clad uncles strutting the streets after their morning showers, they were dedicated bodybuilders who had spent years in the gym.
The group’s first two TikTok videos, posted in November, show the four shirtless male cooks stirring pans of rice, prepping sauces and dancing, the spectacle raking in more than 6.4 million views. A January TikTok post viewed 3.7 million times features professional trainer turned chef Sak Bunthy frying rice in only an apron, while two young women coo and squeeze his impressive biceps. Admirers filled the comments with smiley emojis and heart eyes flanking their appraisals of “Wow,” “I want to touch you,” and “Ohh daddy.”
ផ្អែមហើយម៉ុត រ៉ូយ៉ាស់🤣❤️🔥នេះ♬ សំឡេងដើម – Kim Jame – កំលោះបាយឆា👨🏻🍳
Single Man embodies sizzling male sexiness. Yet it also represents a corollary: openly expressed female and queer desire, which is often smothered by Cambodia’s patriarchal cultural norms.
Single Man’s videos have attracted plenty of critics, their discomfort seemingly focused on the delighted reactions of women enjoying the muscles. “This is a joke, not a Khmer woman at all, this is a show of lust,” one TikTok commenter wrote. Others jumped in, claiming “the value of women is starting to plummet” and the videos displayed “not good neary [woman] attitude.”
While female sexuality is frequently wielded to market products aimed towards straight male consumers, Single Man represents what appears to be the first time male sex appeal is being used explicitly to sell food in the Kingdom. The trend is part of a broader generational divide, a rift underlined by a growing embrace of women’s empowerment, sexual liberation and acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, all of which clash with Cambodia’s historically conservative, patriarchal cultural norms.
Attempts to regulate women’s sexuality have been the focus of government policy. In 2020, Prime Minister Hun Sen called for government ministries to form a working group to monitor and discipline online female sellers who dress too “sexy” on the grounds that doing so undermines Cambodian culture. There are precedents for these disciplinary actions, notably the government’s year-long ban in 2017 of actress Denny Kwan from the entertainment industry due to her allegedly provocative social media images.
Catherine Harry, who runs the popular feminist blog and Youtube channel, “Dose of Cath,” said negative reactions to Single Man highlight a double standard rooted in misogynistic and patriarchal cultural norms in Cambodia.
“It’s about how women are flocking to them, how women and gay people are reacting to that,” she said. “Because one of the ways that people have been controlling, shaming, and oppressing women in this country and in many patriarchal countries is by controlling their sexuality.”
On a Friday night in February, 22-year-old Kan Sovan Morakot travelled all the way across town to visit Single Man for the first time after discovering their videos on TikTok, like most other customers. She said she was excited to meet her favourite cook, Nem Mann, a former Phare circus performer whose social media content previously featured one-armed handstands before evolving to feature paid TikToks of himself promoting local businesses.
“One of my fans,” said Mann, in a tight workout shirt, winking from behind his curly bangs as Morakot giggled back.
The Single Man cooks only take off their clothes for social media posts due to sanitary concerns, but if Morakot was disappointed, she did not show it.
The boys gave her the luxury treatment, bringing out a special table for her and her friend and coming over to chat, comparing exercise tips and flirting. One chef, Ly Hou, leaned in to serve her a beer and she brushed her hand against his chest.
“I came for the rice,” she said.
As the men chatted with Morakot, Mann’s wife Seab Phearom prepared carrots and chillies for the 100 bowls the stand produces over the course of several hours each night. She was unperturbed that many of her customers come to oggle her husband, citing an “open mind” in dealing with the restaurant’s female fanbase and marketing ploys.
Phearom claimed many Cambodian women, including her, were not drawn to muscles. She was adamant she was in the marriage for Mann’s personality, not his pectorals.
“I didn’t like the men who had muscle – but I like him,” she said. “When I meet him, he is different. Most important, the mind. The body is not important – he does [bodybuilding] for himself.”
She believes the controversy over the shirtless videos is in part backlash to the abundance of delighted reactions by Cambodian women.
“When they do the video, show the body, some girls like it,” she said. “Most people think it’s not good for the girl — they think the Cambodian girl has to be gentle.”
Cambodia’s Chbab Srey, or Women’s Code, taught in schools until 2007, enshrined cultural expectations of women as docile and quiet servants of their husbands. In rural communities, they have historically not been granted the education opportunities of boys. And the still widespread use of bride prices shows how women are still treated as passive objects, Harry of “Dose of Cath” said.
One consequence of viewing women as objects is the legitimation of gender-based violence. A UN survey found one in three women in rural Cambodia had experienced physical abuse.
Many Cambodian women are taught their duty is to fulfill the sexual needs of men, Harry added.
“There’s like this worshipping of virginity here in Cambodia,” she said. “And people think that if a woman expresses her sexual desire, if a woman talks about her sexual desire, then she must not be a virgin.”
Homophobia is another undercurrent running against Single Man’s social media posts, which are dismissed by some as ‘gay.’ Such strong reactions are forms of masculine insecurity, said Dr. Heidi Hoefinger, a professor at Berkeley College who studies gender and sexuality in Cambodia.
“As everyday Khmer men compare themselves to the male rice sellers, they are also, perhaps for the first time, holding themselves against what likely feels like unrealistic body regimes and unattainable physical standards (and physiques),” Hoefinger said. “This also creates envy and anxiety, as they experience the same pressure and insecurity that women and girls are constantly subjected to within society, the media and the relentless fashion-beauty complex.”
Single Man did not intend to be at the vanguard of sexual liberation in Cambodia. The men behind the fried rice said they merely liked to work out and were searching for ways to earn a living and help their business grow in a difficult economy. But they are happy with the attention.
Single Man founder Kim Jame said he hopes the publicity will help him find love. The name Single Man was a two-fold marketing scheme, appealing to people’s hunger for food and romance.
“The fried rice name should be funny, catch your interest,” he said. “Easy, so people remember.”
A former seafood restaurateur and trained barber, Jame learned to cook fried rice via Youtube in hopes of starting a new venture during the pandemic.
“I had no income,” Jame said. “I wanted more money, so I can support my family.”
During the day, the storefront rented by Single Man shop belongs to a moto repair shop and Jame had to secure a rental agreement for the prime location on the edge of the popular Russian Market. Despite its fame, the restaurant is far from glamorous, consisting of several plastic chairs, a small metal table and a kitchen attached to a motorbike, which Jame folds up and brings home at the end of the night.
Still, the motos line up for takeaway and patrons are willing to wait for their $2.75 bowl, even as other local fried rice vendors nearby long for customers. The owner of a popular franchised fried rice stand down the block has developed the habit of driving by to scout out his new competition, Jame said.
According to Jame, the key to good fried rice is not just marketing but the sourcing of the rice itself. Good fried rice should not be mushy when cooked, each grain must remain separate, filling but not decadent. Every wholesaler claims their rice is perfect, but the truth comes out after the grains hit the skillet.
Managing the culinary standards and the logistics proved exhausting, even for the energetic Jame. In mid-2021, he met professional trainer Bunthy and agreed to exchange workout tips for cooking lessons. They decided to go into business together and Bunthy brought on two ripped friends, Mann and Hou.
Under the influence of the bodybuilding trio, Single Man’s social media presence transformed into an exhibition of taut trapeziuses, popping deltoids and glistening, hairless chests, Cambodia’s fried rice equivalent of the sexy fireman calendars popular in the West.
Intent on maintaining the social media momentum through daily content and keeping up with the ever increasing fried rice orders, the Single Man crew don’t let their critics bother them, though they acknowledge some people do not appreciate the humour in the videos or their gains from the gym.
While not primarily focused on pushing the boundaries of sexual liberation in Cambodia, the Single Man crew assured they are committed to staying fit, flexing for fans and keeping the rice bowls and the chefs hot and steamy.
“I’m not interested in being a celebrity,” Bunthy said. “I just love to be healthy and in good shape.”