As Cambodia says farewell to the father of the nation, former king Norodom Sihanouk, AsiaLIFE takes a look at Phnom Penh residents who are celebrating the past. From vintage fashion to 1960s-inspired rock music, people are looking back to a ‘golden age’ of the country’s history and its legacy in the modern day. Words by Bridget Di Certo, photography by Chatti Phal.
The scene could be a video clip from 1960s London or New York. A sultry singer with bright eyes and jet black hair flicks the hem of her brightly coloured skirt, dangerously short, back and forth over her thighs as she twists for a cheering crowd of young, hopeful, social shakers. The scene could even be from Phnom Penh’s own swinging 60s set — a golden era where the capital was affectionately adorned with the colloquial title ‘The Pearl of Asia’.
Actors, musicians, artists, architects and socialites all thrived under the rambunctious rollercoaster that was the 60s in Cambodia. Dotting the skyline were newly constructed, ingenious feats of architecture, such as the Independence Monument, the now infamous ‘white building’ and a new university along Russian Boulevard. Populating the airwaves were charismatic crooners and svelte songbirds whose popularity had reached nationwide fever pitch.
International thinkers, poets, writers and journalists jetted to the small Kingdom to lavish in the rich opportunities and sensory overload that was a country exploding in psychedelic flashes from the shackles of colonialism. Then again, the scene with our sexy songstress and gyrating fans could be one from 2013.
A reawakened love affair
As prosperity and economic growth flourish in the Kingdom, today’s social arena is brightening from sheer survival to one where arts and culture are blossoming in a golden glow, echoing the tenets of Cambodia’s golden age.
Vespas, vintage clothing and memorabilia, re-creations of 60s rock, and exploratory and experimental art, have all experienced a renaissance of late as historically-minded Cambodians, both local and diasporic, and the same character of curious, creative and culture-craving barang gravitate to Phnom Penh.
Four years ago, 33-year-old Srey Channthy — the woman in our opening scene — was plucked from the rice fields of Prey Veng province to become a modern-day psychedelic rock singing sensation. She is the front woman for the now-popular funk band The Cambodian Space Project, and with her dark hair, bright, big eyes framed by an ultra-heavy set of lashes and spontaneous smile, Srey has the kind of retro look and sass that would have launched a thousand fans during the Kingdom’s swinging heyday.
“The old style of music is such a high quality — sexy hair, sexy dress, the music tells beautiful and funny stories,” Srey says of her passion, and the inspiration she draws from 60s Cambodian singing idols, especially Pen Ron. “Today the popular music is not a very sexy story anymore. They are not writing from the heart.”
The soaring success of the Space Project highlights that a contingent of Cambodians — and the world — wholeheartedly agree with the softly spoken singer with a big smile and voice.
An emphasis on innovation, creativity and the arts was the hallmark of Cambodia in the decades after independence, and talented musicians from The Cambodian Space Project and US-based rock-band Dengue Fever are bringing back the block-rocking beats of the time. The two bands have achieved worldwide popular and critical acclaim for their compositions inspired by 60s greats Sin Sisamouth, Pen Ron, Ros Sereysothea, Ho Meas and Youl Aurong.
“By the mid-60s Phnom Penh was swinging, or to be more specific — twisting. The twist dance craze had swept the world and took far flung backwaters like Phnom Penh by storm,” Julien Poulsen, of The Cambodian Space Project, explains.
During the early 70s, after a coup ousting then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk, the threat of war hovered over Cambodia. Civil resistance and guerilla forces were strengthening in power and territory, and the Vietnam War boomed across the border. “Political intrigue manifested itself in the hipster urban lifestyle in Phnom Penh,” Poulsen says.
Like the set of a James Bond movie, ‘The Pearl of Asia’ was now crowded with CIA and KGB agents, Maoists and young Khmer political groups. “All drifting by the opium dens, dance halls and bars of a city increasingly under threat, but seemingly oblivious to the looming tragedy on its doorstep,” Poulsen muses.
At the time, artists had the freedom, inspiration and technology to experiment. British and American influences spun together with a French colonial legacy under the unique velvet of Khmer vocals.
“This mixed all together and was a kind of Phnom Penh musical soup, a wonderful, hot, spicy recipe for a special kind of rock’n’roll, and the sounds of these original recordings are still as fresh and spicy as ever,” Poulsen says.
Dressing the art
For Rachel Faller, founder of fashion line and NGO KeoK’jay, there is a unique beauty in rediscovering something old and bringing new life to it, in a similar fashion to bands reinvigorating retro Khmer pop and rock.
Faller has been working with second hand and vintage textiles since her college days and brought her concept of giving a second life to forgotten but fabulous fabrics through redesign to Cambodia several years ago. “I feel like second hand objects of all kinds, especially textiles, have some inherent use already imbedded in them and there is this beautiful story there,” she says.
A fascination, albeit chiefly an expat phenomenon, with vintage and vintage-style clothing in Cambodia has soared in popularity, with retro outlets burgeoning in tourist meccas Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Local music personality Amanda Bloom has also found an avid following in what was to be a one-off vintage clothing sale called ‘The History of Things to Come’. It is now a regular event.
“Expats here are wearing things they would never be able to wear in New York City or London. I feel that’s because everything around us in Cambodia is so bright. The colour of fruit, flowers, the buildings and decorations,” Faller emphasises. “We can wear much brighter things than we would wear at home partly because we are in a tropical climate … you get used to being barraged and bombarded by colours that you get more into the feel.”
Retro memorabilia and recycled resurrections
It’s not just clothes but also a demand for retro memorabilia that is rising. Russian Market Vintage Shop was opened with much fanfare in 2011 and has since developed a following.
The founders describe the shop as a tribute to the greatest Cambodian artists of the 60s and 70s, as well as to contemporary artists and organisations who acknowledge Cambodia’s urban cultural heritage and make a difference. The collaborative ownership group states its belief that the 60s scene is just as relevant a part of the country’s heritage as the ubiquitous Angkorian artefacts that dominate other Russian Market stalls.
Vintage Shop boasts an enviable collection of exclusive album prints and cinema release posters, as well as memorabilia and merchandise from modern-day artists on the same retro wavelength.
Popular interior design think tank Beyond Interiors has jumped on the reinvigoration bandwagon and is developing a line of products and fixtures produced from recycled materials. Malito Ho, a Phnom Penh interior design student, recently showcased armchairs she fashioned out of woven garbage baskets as part of a recycled materials forum at the store.
Ho took two garbage baskets, strapping their bases together to create an hourglass shape and modified the top basket, cutting away one half of the wall and lining the inside with comfortable cushions to create her chair.
“A lot of people in Cambodia don’t give value to old things, they want new things all the time, but people in Cambodia don’t have lots of money so there is [an economic benefit to recycling],” she says.
There is also a unique romance to restyling old objects into something new and functional. Cambodian antique enthusiasts Marianne Waller and Douglas Gordon have taken this concept to a new level with their modern take on an antique store at Trunkh in Phnom Penh.
The pair scour the countryside and urban landscape for lost or overlooked magnificence waiting to be resuscitated. A rusted fence becomes a coffee table; abandoned window shutters shine again as a mirror frame.
With so much creative energy and passion being poured into reviving and recovering Cambodia’s golden age, the arts and culture scene is experiencing the beginnings of a retro renaissance, at least in terms of material aesthetics and discrete productions.
The mounting momentum of interest and players on the scene is hastening a new dawn — a golden glow — for Cambodia’s culture and innovation.
For fashion entrepreneur Chum Sovandalis, the thrill of vintage clothing comes from unearthing something unique from the past. “I don’t want to wear something that two or three other people are wearing as well, I want something unique and good quality,” the trained tailor says.
In 2011, Chum launched Color — a store dedicated to affordable and quality vintage fashion in Phnom Penh — with her American business partner. “What we try to do here is real vintage, good quality and unique items. I like the idea that we have one-of-a-kind items,” she says.
The popularity and preference in Cambodia for the mass produced culture of modern clothing appalls Chum and can dissuade budding Cambodian fashionistas from drawing a distinction between second hand goods — seen as low value — and vintage clothing.
Some merchants palm off second hand clothes as vintage even though the items may only be a few years or a decade old. “We really try to get the genuine article that is vintage. We have things from the 50s, some from the 70s, sourced from many countries in the store,” she says.
The popularity of Color has soared among the expatriate population. Chum says her main clients are drawn to the bright colours, neat lines and retro feel of the clothes.
“About 70 per cent of my customers understand the vintage fashion and have a good eye,” she says. For everyone else? Chum smiles, “They are learning.”
Color Vintage, 168 Street 13
In 1967, United States First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy visited Cambodia to fulfill her lifelong dream of seeing Angkor Wat. She toured Cambodia with then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and attended a gala dinner at Raffles Hotel Le Royal where a champagne cocktail was designed to match the rosy hue of her lips. The Femme Fatale was born. Exactly 30 years later, Raffles Le Royal launched the Elephant Bar, a cigar and cocktail lounge that recreates the charm, elegance and historic ambience of yesteryears. The centrepiece of its drinks menu is the Femme Fatale. Made up of champagne, cognac and crème de fraise sauvage, the nearly 50-year-old cocktail remains the venue’s most popular aperitif by far. With a selection of timeless cocktails like the Manhattan, Side Car and Tom Collins, Elephant Bar and the Femme Fatale are bringing to life the warmth and luxury of Cambodia’s golden age.
Rollin’ Retro: A Day In A Life
8am: Roll out of bed and pop on some psychedelic rock from The Cambodian Space Project to wake you up.
9am: Head to Color or KeoK’Jay vintage to pick up some funky accessories or a whole new outfit for your groovy day ahead.
10am: Take a spin in a cyclo to spot 60s architecture such as the Chaktomuk Theatre, Vann Molyvann buildings and even the Cambodiana Hotel.
11am: Make your way to Russian Market Vintage Shop and pick up some retro prints to kit out your pad, maybe a boom-box too?
12pm: Grab a bite to eat for lunch at the colonial set of Van restaurant overlooking the Post Office.
1.30pm: Scoot over to Sticky Fingers record and memorabilia store in Golden Sorya Mall on Street
51 and flick through some records and CDs of 60s-inspired music while chatting with singer Srey Channthy.
4pm: Slide into the Elephant Bar at Hotel Le Royale and sip on a Femme Fatale or Tom Collins and collect your thoughts during a live performance of soft jazz piano as the sun goes down.
7pm: Take a walk down the riverside promenade past the courtyard lit with colonial-era street lamps outside the Royal Palace.
8pm: Pop into retro-themed Garage Bar for a nightcap, while winding down to the sweet sounds of 60s and 70s Cambodian, British and American pop rock.