December 17, 2017


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Phnom Penh hasn't left its colonial character behind

The top of a French colonial-era church seen above a neighbourhood street in Phnom Penh; long out of use, the church has been filled with families who live in cramped quarters. Photo by Joseph Freeman, special to The Washington Post.
By Joseph Freeman
Special to The Washington Post

In November, as Cambodia’s rainy season was coming to a close, my girlfriend and I looked at a new apartment in Phnom Penh’s old French district. Located in the central part of the city near the US Embassy, the building was advertised as the modern incarnation of the colonial-era Hôtel Manolis.

Now chopped up into apartments, the hotel provides a footnote to French literary and colonial history. In 1923, the writer and future French minister of cultural affairs André Malraux occupied a room there. Malraux was a young man, traveling with his wife, Clara, and a friend, when he was caught trying to spirit Cambodian antiquities out of the country.

Criminality, scandal, intrigue, the ghost of Malraux: what more could you want in a potential living space?

The French real estate agent, however, offered a better-known selling point when we met him for a walk-through. The area, he told us, had been featured in the 2002 Matt Dillon movie City of Ghosts.

I’ve lived in Phnom Penh for nearly two years and thought that I knew the city well. But when we ascended the staircase and opened the door to the flat, a much older model appeared. The apartment had slatted royal-blue shutters and tiled, dusty floors. There were no air conditioners: ceiling fans pushed the hot air around. From the living room windows, whose many locks took about three minutes to open, small steps led down to a low-slung balcony.

Five minutes earlier, we’d been immersed in a bustling Phnom Penh. Here inside, past and present merged. We were being shown an apartment with French colonial roots by a transplanted Frenchman 60 years after King Norodom Sihanouk led the crusade for independence from France in 1953. Perhaps the strangest thing was that there was nothing strange about it.

French Feel

Despite the sprouting of skyscrapers, the arrival of mega malls, the rise of English as a dominant second language and the hurried urban development, Phnom Penh still retains a strong French feel. The French Chamber of Commerce has seen an uptick in small to medium enterprises. According to the French Embassy, the number of French citizens living in Cambodia has doubled over the past 10 years and grown at an average annual rate of 10 percent over the past three. France has one of the largest Cambodian diaspora communities outside the United States, largely because of the refugees who fled there to escape the terror of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. In recent years, many have been coming home.

In Phnom Penh, I’ve met a lot of French people without going out of my way to meet French people. Our landlord at the time we looked at the apartment was French. A skinny French guy had shown us another apartment weeks before. I ate at French restaurants, bars and cafés every week. Some of them, like the apartment, were in refurbished versions of buildings constructed during the French Protectorate, which started in 1863 and ended under Sihanouk 90 years later.

Although the protectorate was dismantled six decades ago, the French-Cambodian relationship seems to have continued in a less exploitative form, like the aftermath of a breakup where two people illogically remain friends. I remember what an advocate for the French business community said to me while leaving Van’s Restaurant, which serves pricey but tasty French fare out of the former Indochina Bank building in Phnom Penh. Lamenting the modern development threatening to overtake the city’s architectural past, he gestured to the leafy, elegant courtyard: “To me, this is Cambodia.”

The French government and Sihanouk’s distant forerunner, King Norodom, agreed to swap protection in exchange for trading rights in 1863. A few years later, the French persuaded the king to move the capital to where it is now. In one of my favourite guidebooks ever written, Strolling Around Phnom Penh, the French scholar Jean-Michel Filippi makes a valuable observation. French rule endured for more than half the number of years that Phnom Penh has been Cambodia’s modern capital. As such, French architectural and planning legacies abound.

Filippi’s book, which is full of several self-guided walks in different quarters of the city, offers one way of exploring. Acerbic and funny, he begins the first stroll of the French area by condemning a building as an “architectural absurdity” that’s between a “hideous bunker and an architectural piece of nonsense which fulfills the function of a hotel.” He’s good company.

Walk The City

But a friend had recommended seeing the colonial era through a preservationist group called Khmer Architecture Tours. Half of the three-hour excursion takes place on foot. In between stops, we each hopped briefly into a cyclo, or cyclopousse, the bicycle rickshaw that was invented, appropriately enough, by a Frenchman, Maurice Coupeaud, in 1937. In Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History, historian Milton Osborne writes that Coupeaud pulled off a colonial publicity stunt by riding a cyclo himself from Phnom Penh to what is now Ho Chi Minh City, about 200 km away. The journey took 17 hours.

Tuk-tuks, motorbikes and taxis have pushed the cyclo to the edge of extinction as a form of transportation, which is probably for the best. Riding in a cyclo is very uncomfortable ethically, as a human being is pedaling another human being around. But the shameful secret is that, for the passenger, it’s very comfortable physically. There may not be a better way to see the French footprint than through the slow roll of the cyclopousse.

Our tour guide was a Cambodian architecture student from the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh. First, he took us into the surviving Post Office, which is still in use and right across the street from Malraux’s onetime hotel room. He led us over to a wall where we gazed up at photos of old counters lost in the changing restorations of the place. The high ceilings, he pointed out, created a cooling effect necessary in the tropical heat. “Sometimes, I really admire these colonial architects,” he said.

We walked across the road into the aging French police commissariat, whose future is unknown. The cream-colored building on the corner is falling apart and seemingly uninhabitable, although I occasionally see lights on inside at night. During the day, volleyball games take place in the courtyard.

Apart from a few notable exceptions — the National Museum, the Central Market, the National Library, parts of the Raffles Hotel Le Royal and sections of the Royal Palace grounds — most French structures around today were brought back to life to serve a different purpose, some hilariously different. One building site is now home to a branch of Cambodia’s dominant coffee chain, Brown. I’m sure that the French developer behind a large colonial hotel on Phnom Penh’s riverside would be delighted to know that it’s now a KFC. Other buildings have been put to use as government institutions, property developments and, in a win for cultural preservationists, UNESCO’s Phnom Penh offices. Many have simply been left in disrepair or demolished to make way for more practical offerings, such as an office supply store.

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