Pearls and Swine

June 23, 2012

Phnom Penh used to be a rather beautiful city. The Pearl of the Orient, as everyone tells you. That may be stretching things a little, but there is no denying that the French architectural influence, filtered through a Khmer sensibility, with Chinese characteristics, produced a little city that was, once, a gorgeous little confluence of East and West. Three rivers formed a gigantic X on the map where they met and then debouched toward the sea, and the city, sitting on the west bank, was home to progressive and enlightened architectural and urban design concepts.

Pictures of Phnom Penh during the 1960s show a city with tree-lined streets, wildly diverse architecture, plazas, and open and accessible public spaces. A recent book by long-term resident John-Michel Filippi is utterly fascinating when it comes to the riches still available to those who care to look.

Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew said in 1967 that he’d like to see his city-state develop along similar lines to Phnom Penh. Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt expressed how impressed he was with Phnom Penh’s “charm and grace” the same year.

Nowadays, not so much. In my job as property dude at the local paper, I get a ringside seat at what’s going on. And it’s not pretty. The skyline is ringed with half-completed high-rises, scattered like dragon’s teeth, testament to the rapaciousness of Korean property developers, and their inability to secure sufficient funding to build things no one wants or needs.

The latest kerfuffle in town has been with the possible redevelopment of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium. The stadium, built in 1963 on a 40-hectare site, was formerly an old colonial racetrack on the outskirts of the city. Designed by Cambodian architectural wunderkind Vann Molyvann, the 40-acre stadium was seen “not simply as a meeting place for sport but as a symbol of Cambodian rebirth” marking a break from its colonial past. The stadium was built for the 1963 Southeast Asian Peninsular Games, which were then cancelled.  Vann’s design was stunning, and is typical of the period known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, between independence from France in 1958 and the awfulness from 1970 onwards.

But, despite the fact that there is about a gazillion square feet of oversupply of office and residential space in this tiny city, developers are looking greedily at the few open feet of space left. While other cities in Asia of roughly similar size have between 8-12 percent of public open space, a planner at the Ministry of Land Management reportedly suggests Phnom Penh has roughly 3.5 percent. The biggest local developers said last week they weren’t planning anything there, apart from 10 skyscrapers along one edge. So that’s OK then.

Just after dawn or just before dusk and the Stadium pulses with life: the elderly dance to Khmer pop, energetic youth cluster along the brim of the stadium; hopeful Olympic and Paralympic athletes mix with joggers of various ages, nationalities and abilities around the stadium’s field, and others simply sit in enjoyment, or sell food and drink to the visitors. It is lively, happy, uncomplicated.

I was planning to go down to the Olympic Stadium this evening and take pictures of ordinary people of Phnom Penh having a good, sociable time. Unfortunately, it turns out to be impossible to hold an umbrella while on crutches, and the rain has fallen fearsomely today. But, to anyone who thinks that it’ll be easy to snap up the stadium and build gated communities: trust me, I’ll crawl a thousand miles over broken glass to make sure that you don’t. The ordinary people of Phnom Penh deserve that.

The academic Jeff Chase quotes a local, when asked why the stadium matters, saying “this is Phnom Penh’s house for all people.”

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