The great whitewash

December 27, 2015

There’s been a bit of an uproar in Phnom Penh in the last few days, after city authorities painted over a recently-created mural in the centre of town.

The White Building is an iconic 450 metre-long part of the fabric of the city, and is known to everyone who has spent any time here. It was designed as social housing in 1963 by architect Lu Ban Hap, and since then has become ever-more dilapidated, filthy and disreputable. Nevertheless, it is much loved by those who live there: prostitutes, drug dealers, artists, social campaigners, charity workers and working families. It has been hymned by the New York Times, Slate and Salon in recent months, and is widely regarded as a wonderful example of a New Khmer building.


A couple of weeks ago, an American artist called Miles “El Mac” MacGregor painted a 10-metre green and black portrait on the side of the White Building, of a woman called Moeun Thary, who is a seamstress and resident of the building. The project was paid for by millionaire US artist David Choe, and was wildly popular, and rather beautiful.


The mural, and Moeun Thary.

But, best laid plans and all that: it turns out that despite asking for municipal permission, and spending some $2,000 on permits, the artist and his team had only got verbal permission before starting work. And if you know Cambodia, you’ll know that that’s not worth the paper it’s written on. So after the mural had been up for about a week, City Hall came along and painted over it. Seamstress Moeun said she was sorry to see the painting go, and said that she thought that the mural showed a woman’s strength in supporting her family.


It can’t seem to be anything than a giant ‘fuck you’ to artists, women’s rights groups, those working for the poor and underprivileged and those who like to see a more vibrant and colourful city generally. And in a town that is blanketed with huge and garish advertisements for beer and motorcycles featuring half-naked women, it seems petulant, churlish and politically counterproductive.

Artist El Mac had approached the project in the right spirit. “I hope this mural can serve as a respectful tribute to the importance and perseverance of Cambodia’s creative legacy, and possibly, in some small way, offer inspiration for younger Cambodian artists to sustain this legacy,” he said, before the mural’s defacement.

He went on to say: “Since I had the opportunity to paint such a large, visible wall in a place where there are seemingly no other large-scale murals like it, I felt an extra sense of responsibility to paint something beautiful, meaningful, and uplifting.”

City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said that the authorities have no reason to apologise. “We are the people who obeyed and implemented the rule of law; they painted without permission,” he said. “We cannot say sorry.”

Spokesman Long later declined to comment on another popular mural which the authorities want to remove. Clearly frazzled by having to defend his political masters’ obdurate stupidity, he was quoted as saying: “I am not able to give an answer for this case and I wish to request that journalists stop writing this useless story.”


The kingdom of bloody hell

December 14, 2015

The tourist authorities here call Cambodia ‘the Kingdom of Wonder,’ and I have to say that that’s quite accurate, because it really does make you wonder sometimes.

The latest news to make me shake my head in sad astonishment is that six people have died in Kratie province after eating the meat of a dog that had been poisoned.

As a local paper put it: “the tainted carcass was first eaten by 76-year-old Chea Reth, who found it on Sunday morning and died the same evening. Unaware of the cause of death, dozens more locals consumed the meat at his funeral on Monday, leading to [five] more deaths and dozens of hospitalisations.”

The local commune police chief said that authorities are now driving around issuing loudspeaker announcements calling on anyone who ate the meat to come forward for free medical care.

Kratie is fairly poor, even for Cambodia, but it’s not that far from Phnom Penh, so there’s really no excuse. And why are people poisoning dogs in the first place? That’s just bad manners.

Those six deaths go along with another 13 in the province that have been chalked up to badly-brewed rice wine over the past couple of weeks. Personally, I’m not making any Kratie-related dinner plans any time soon.

Trendy as hell

December 7, 2015

I went to an intriguing party over the weekend. One of Phnom Penh’s more exciting restaurants, The Common Tiger, closed down a few weeks ago when the villa it was situated in was sold off, to be turned into a block of flats. (The Mighty Penh, passim.) But it has just reopened, reincarnated, as The Tiger’s Eye, and it promises to be even better than before.

I know the chef/owner, who has an adorable French bulldog called Hunter, so I got a coveted invite to the opening. And it made me feel very old indeed.

I’ve been to quite a few parties since I’ve been in Phnom Penh, but never one that was so achingly trendy. About half the people there wouldn’t have looked out of place in Williamsburg, with their lurex baseball caps on sideways, waxed moustaches, bow ties and trilbys. They spent all their time taking selfies – at one point I spotted nine camera phones being held up above the throng.

Despite their utter pointlessness, I was rather charmed by them. It felt as if Phnom Penh was finally coming of age, if it now has hipsters. God knows, Cambodia needs more than artisanal sourdough bread, Sylvia Plath cardigans and fixed-gear bicycles, but it must be moving in the right direction if these things are popping up. Nevertheless, I left at about half-past eight, to go and have a quiet dinner with my dog.

Another feature of this weekend was what is apparently known as Brangelina popping up everywhere in Phnom Penh. Ms Jolie-Pitt and her husband, who have been filming in Siem Reap, were in town to take part in the Cambodian International Film Festival, and blimey, but you heard about it. Call me a snob, but I entirely fail to see to point of getting excited about glimpsing a celebrity from a distance. But it seems I’m in a minority. Even relatively sober journalists were texting me describing what Angelina was wearing. Some friends of mine got to meet the couple and gosh, did the sheen of stardom ever rub off on them. I don’t suppose they’ll have to buy themselves a drink for a month. No one seemed to mind that the pair got around town by helicopter, or that the film they’re currently making is being produced by their son Madox, who is 14 years old. I guess if it makes you happy…

One thing that does make me happy is our new quarterly literary and cultural magazine, The Mekong Review. The website is now up and running, and you can buy PDFs or subscribe. Just sayin’.

And finally, I have just been voted on to the board of the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia. Our first order of business was to decide which bar the OPCC would designate as the watering hole for hacks in town on a Thursday night (Red Bar, Street 308, as it happens). It seems like this might be a fun gig.