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During the peak of New York’s crack cocaine epidemic the NYPD reported over 4,200 homicides between 1986-88. Amidst the scourge of addiction and violence, New York boxing legend Micky Rosario with his wife Negra were hammering fighters, known locally as “The Gladiators”, into shape.

Working out of the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center in East Harlem, Micky and Negra sculpted a string of Golden Glove and national champions throughout the 1980s and 90s.

One decorated alumnus is Evelyn “Evy” Rodriguez (age undisclosed: “that’s my ancient Chinese secret”). Born to immigrant Puerto Rican parents at the Metropolitan Hospital, East Harlem, Evy won two successive Golden Glove (statewide) tournaments, 1998-99.

Evelyn was crowned national champion the following year after the 156-pound middleweight Southpaw triumphed on points in the final at Madison Square Gardens.

Despite putting George Foreman’s daughter, Freeda, into retirement in a split-decision victory in Texas, November 2001, Evelyn’s five-fight professional stint failed to live up to earlier promise.

A career-ending illness in 2002 resulted in a double hip-replacement. After spending one year rehabilitating in a wheelchair, and another on a walker, Evelyn returned to the sport in a coaching capacity.

She currently has a range of protégés at John’s Boxing Gym, (the “Home of Champions”) nestled on the border between Melrose and Mott Haven in the South Bronx. “Just to be able to walk and do what I’m doing right now, I’m blessed.”

PIE MASH

 

Whenever we visited my grandparents at the family home in Leyton in the 90s, we’d stop off for pie mash. We’d drive via the North Circular away from where the precursors to today’s identikit high streets – Our Price, Burger King, Dixons, Woolworths, Boots – had taken root. The menu is solely ratios of beef mince pie to mash. The only real choice whether to go for the ‘one and one’ or plump for a double. Sitting on chairs fixed to the saw-dusted marble floor we’d top bowls of scalding parsley liquor with chilli vinegar from pierced lids of vodka bottles, never daring to try the jellied eels.

For a six-year-old it was a peculiar experience. Someone said once that the past is a foreign country. The photos of Pearly kings and queens, great tanks of writhing eels and long-dead boxing champs spoke of magic and exotic climes. M. Manze’s pie mash shop in Walthamstow, which opened in 1929, was awarded Grade II listed status in October last year for its “beautifully preserved interior” but it’s the people that populate the shops that keep them breathing.

Before we set out to make the video we were weary of a predictable narrative bemoaning the loss of a bygone era. Instead it’s an industry on the wane perhaps but by no means in decline; far from a tourist curiosity. Everyone we spoke to – on a ritual family expedition, lining the stomach before a Saturday at the Millwall, or grabbing a working lunch – had some affinity with this or that eel joint (my favourite is A.Cooke’s on Goldhawk Road). Owners three of four generations deep into the business were without exception named after the eateries they grew up in. Pride runs deep amongst punters and purveyors.

The European Eel is classified as critically endangered, but recent signs suggest the decline has halted or even reversed. Once upon a time, the eel’s voyage from the depths of the Sargasso Sea via the Gulf Strait to the industrial filth of the Thames, would end on the working class dinner plates of London’s East End. Most of the UK’s supply is now shipped from Holland rather than plucked from Estuarine mud flats. They’re able to survive in almost any quality of water, and just like their wares, the pie mash shops are still going strong. As Robert Kelly of Bethnal Green Road said “we’ll carry on until there’s no one to carry on.”

CNRP President Sam Rainsy

CNRP President Sam Rainsy

This interview was originally published in The DiplomatJanuary 10th 2014

These are troubled times in Cambodia. A disputed election last year prompted ongoing protests andopposition boycotts. Emboldened by a surprisingly strong performance in the July 28 polls, the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been insistent on calling for an investigation into election irregularities. Strongman ruler Hun Sen has been equally stubborn in resisting them.

Entering 2014, and the protests have spread, with tens of thousands taking to the streets to demand Hun Sen’s resignation. Joining the CNRP were unions, notably from the country’s crucial garment industry, demanding a hike in their minimum wage.

Those protests prompted a government crackdown last week, resulting in a number of deaths and throwing the protests into disarray. Court summons were issued for opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, and Cambodia is on the verge of returning to a police state.

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Rainsy outside Australian Embassy

CNRP Chief Sam Rainsy outside the Australian Embassy at the three day protest earlier this month | © Charlotte Pert 2013: http://www.charlottepert.com

Speaking to the Phnom Penh Post on Tuesday, Sar Kheng, Cambodia’s Minister for the Interior said “my phone remains open” to opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Sam Rainsy should he wish to contact him to resume negotiations. Mr. Rainsy wasted little time. After a ballsy challenge from a journalist to make the call there and then at this morning’s press conference at the CNRP headquarters, Mr. Rainsy was handed a Nokia and gave Sar Kheng a ring.

He got only his answer machine. Mr. Rainsy declined to leave a message.

But another face-to-face meeting between the two sides, the first since 16th September, looks increasingly likely. If the CNRP are still singing from a familiar hymn sheet – pushing for a third-party observer over an investigation into electoral irregularities, the resignation of the National Election Committee (NEC) and sweeping electoral reform – the key has changed, if almost imperceptibly: these are now “suggestions not conditions” explained Kem Sokha, CNRP co-president.

Mr. Rainsy has consistently rejected out of hand the CPP’s previously held condition that the CNRP takes up their seats in the National Assembly before talks resume. But as part of the “he said, she said” merry-go-round that is contemporary Cambodian politics, CPP Spokesman Cheam Yeap denied yesterday that the government had any such prerequisite for negotiations to take place.

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© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

© Thomas Cristofoletti/Ruom 2013

Excerpt from collaborative project with Ruom Collective.

In the weeks following the last three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) the coils of razor wire that barricaded most of Phnom Penh’s main traffic arteries could be spotted being put to altogether more innocent uses. Wet clothes hung from several to dry, another became an impromptu stand for an enterprising florist, another a display rack for a grocer’s ladyfinger bananas.

Just days previously the barriers had served as a catalyst for violence, igniting clashes between riot police and protestors during the demonstration. When blockades prevented people getting home, tension escalated and the result was six seriously injured and one man shot dead when government troops opened fire.

During this week’s protests the roadblocks were entirely absent. Mu Sochua told Ruom that this showed that “the local authorities are learning to face the reality that using force is not appropriate at all.” Others may argue that incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen had made a shrewd calculation to avoid the confrontations that had the Kingdom of Wonder briefly flickering on the global news radar…

Read the full story and see more of Ruom‘s superb photography go here.

IMG_6138

© George Steptoe 2013

Spirits were buoyant in the Freedom Park camp the night before the final day of the three-day opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), where about 3,000 protestors from myriad provincial regions were bedding down for the night.

By 10pm a blind sitar player and his backing percussion ensemble clattering pans with wooden spoons had quietened down and the 20 revellers dancing under the light of a lamppost had retired to their cardboard matts. The camp was still abuzz with optimistic chatter: although the CNRP’s efforts to secure an independent investigation into the 28th July election that they claim was mired in widespread fraud have borne little fruit you wouldn’t have been able to tell that here. 71-year-old Yien Chhay who had travelled with five other villagers from Kampot’s corner of the Kingdom was confident that governmental change was imminent.

Photos courtesy of Si Allen (silunariot@gmail.com); Click on an image to launch slideshow.

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Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner

Sam Rainsy speaking outside the United Nations Office of the High Comissioner | © George Steptoe 2013

A popular Cambodian protest song, first composed a decade ago but with remarkably enduring popularity, uses the allegory of a filthy shirt worn everyday for too long to chastise the festering stasis cultivated under the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). Banned for many years, it was performed by a live band in front of 20,000 protestors on the first of a three-day demonstration held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) over complaints of electoral cheating at the national elections, now a whole 87 days ago.

CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, dressed as ever in his pristine white pressed shirt, marched from the stage in Freedom Park to the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights some 1600m away flanked by tens of thousands of protestors. He popped inside to deliver a petition of over two million thumbprints demanding an independent investigation into election irregularities, a petition he described afterwards as being “the will of the Cambodian people”.

“We are very grateful to the representative of the UN in Cambodia to have accepted the petition and to act as a [custodian] to keep in safe haven those thumbprints. They told us that they will send the petition to the UN headquarters in New York to ensure their safety” he said.

After the broad ten-point legislative agenda announced at the People’s Congress, today’s demonstration saw the CNRP’s dress code return to a well-worn wardrobe favourite. Gone was any talk of their program of reforms to prevent land-grabbing, deforestation and rights abuses. In its place was a redoubled focus on the opposition’s central complaint: electoral fraud, plain and simple.

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Lifeline

© George Steptoe 2013

With tears streaming down her face, 36-year-old El Sarifat describes how she is “terrified” of losing the modest wooden two-tier home she shares with 13 relatives. She returned to the house that perches on stilts over the Sangkae River, Battambong province last Friday after it was completely submerged by this year’s month-long flooding, which to date has left 134 confirmed dead.

But having weathered the impact of natural forces, Sarifat is now cowering under the threat of having to sell up the family home she’s lived in since 1979 to break free of an already suffocating debt cycle fuelled by multiple loans from micro‐banks and private moneylenders that this latest disaster has rendered unbearable.

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