Members of Cambodia’s White Building Collective give AsiaLIFE an insight into their lives.
The white building
Originally known as the Municipal Apartments and inaugurated in 1963, the iconic lines of Phnom Penh’s White Building were designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Bodiansky. Part of the Bassac River Front complex, overseen by famed urban planner Vann Molyvann, the modernist structure was built during the stability of King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum period and contained 468 apartments aimed at lower and middle-class Cambodians.
In today’s Phnom Penh, the White Building is a shell of its former glory. Hints at its distinctive style survive – the stacking box apartments and iconic open staircases, for instance – but the structure is dilapidated beyond repair. Its walls are mottled with mould and the building has been associated with poverty, drugs and crime.
Yet new life is rising from the past. Despite the odds, the community is becoming a haven for artists. Along with the well-established experimental art space Sa Sa Art Projects, the forward-thinking White Building Collective – a group of enthusiastic young Cambodians aged between 20 and 26 – make the corridors of the diverse community their base.
Over the last five months, the collective’s Humans of Phnom Penh project – a homage to a similar venture in New York – has gained nationwide attention by documenting the ordinary lives of the capital’s residents, from students to security guards and cyclo drivers, through photos and interviews.
This month, in a special project for AsiaLIFE magazine, the artists have turned their cameras on their own lives, showing our readers the world in which they call home. “Aware that our country is changing fast, our work aims at engaging Cambodian citizens in a dialogue to respect the past, share the present and better build our future,” they write. “This collective work offers a glimpse into our everyday life.”
For more information on the collective’s short films and activities, visit whitebuilding.org or the Humans of Phnom Penh (HOPP) Facebook page.
Sok Chanrado, 20, finished high school last year and now works full time at the NGO Raw Impact.
“I try to deal with troubles in life in the same way that I play chess. You have to be well aware of the situation and where your pawns are, look straight at what is facing you to see in which direction it’s better to move. Sometimes, you also need to accept losing one pawn, and take a step back to gain perspective. To get out of a bad situation or to take good decisions, you have to respect different phases: observation, patience, and resilience. Only then you can set up a strategy, make a move and hope for things to turn well.”
Vourng Chansim, 20, is studying at the Royal University Of Law and Economics and works as a computer teacher at Aziza School for Empowering Youth In Cambodia.
“Cambodia is changing very fast. In the last few years, I have noticed that high buildings are growing like mushrooms around the city. Sometimes, when I see myself at the bottom of a high construction site, I am puzzled, admiring how we, humans, are always trying to get closer to the sky. I feel vertigo when my eyes disconnect from the ground to focus on the top of the building and the clouds surrounding them.”
Kourn Lyna, 23, is a social worker at Empowering Youth In Cambodia.
“The night is dark but not in the city, because the light is everywhere. Most people in Phnom Penh enjoy going out at night to dine on the street or have drinks. Some people like to dance in the clubs and some people enjoy going to Koh Pich Island to get some fresh air. But at the White Building, nighttime is a working time. Some sell food or drinks, some are moto-taxi drivers, and others are sex workers. There are people who are scared of going into the White Building at night because of the sex workers, drug users and robbers living there. But volunteering there for the last few years, I have not seen anything dangerous. I always see smiles when I walk in. There is a light and dark side to everything, but if you don’t dare to explore, you will never know. I started experiencing nightlife through the White Building community, volunteering for Aziza School and Sa Sa Art Project. We worked hard, then celebrated. I started to meet people who work at night and got to know their life and living conditions. It is like education without studying at school. Being out at night is not something bad – it is a wonderful lesson to meet people and to learn how to take care of oneself.”
Favourite PlacesDaneth Eng Rith, 21, is majoring in design at Setec university in Phnom Penh
“I would like to show some of my favourite places in Phnom Penh and the different reasons that push me to enjoy going to each of these places. First is Koh Pich. It has a lot to offer: theatre, exhibitions, weddings and even a playground for kids. I like to go there in the evening to relax and have a picnic with my friends. Second is the Peace Water Park – the perfect spot to disconnect from the city very quickly. When I go there, I feel like I am going to my homeland. Things slow down and it’s easier to share more with my family and friends. It’s also lots of fun to play the water games there. Third, is the Royal Palace. It’s a sacred place for Cambodian people and it’s also an important touristic spot. I like going for a walk along the riverside to feel the fresh air and then sitting on the grass in front of the Royal Palace. It’s like a cinema; the world is passing in front of your eyes. At Botum Vattay park, I recommend you to just sit on a bench and observe people around you. You will see many of them exercising: doing aerobics, running, dancing. I like the energy of that place, it has a very special atmosphere.”
Education through Sport
Chev Doeurn, 25, is studying at Build Bright University and majoring in banking and finance.
“A huge part of my education comes from what I have learnt doing sport and especially playing football. This photo-essay is a tribute to the people who make this special environment for me. I coach the EYC football team. It’s easy to notice that these young players are very happy to be together. We don’t often talk about the life lessons and skills we learn from football, but we all know it’s a wonderful tool to promote understanding, tolerance and peace among a group. I have so many vibrant memories of matches when I was not playing, but the other supporters and I tried to be the +1 in the team, to push our friends so they give their best during the game. Thanks to football there is a lot of knowledge transmission between different generations and remarkable respect between them. I have also managed to capture the intimacy of a football player’s bedroom. It shows how much football takes an important place in every aspect of our everyday life.”
Seng Simouy, 20, is majoring in sociology at the Royal University of Phnom Penh and has a part-time job at a music and arts school.
“For me, friendship is like two people riding a tandem bicycle. We need to trust to each other, help each other, and respect each other’s decisions. If your friend wants to turn right, you need to turn right too because if you don’t trust, help and respect their decision, both of you will fall down. A best friend is someone who I can hang out with, share my personal stories and rely on. He or she doesn’t need to be perfect or doesn’t need to have something in common with me. The thing is we are different, but we can understand one another. A best friend is somebody you can have fun with, but also somebody you can fight with and it will make your relationship even stronger in the end. “
Living in the Countryside and in the City
Chhum Phanith, 23, is a computer science teacher at Aziza School in the White Building.
“Whether to live in the countryside or in the city has been a big discussion between my parents and I, since they prefer living in the countryside and I prefer the city. My parents often tell me about living closer to nature in a peaceful and quiet environment where they have more time for each other. In the case of any problem, they can always count on neighbours or friends to help. They eat healthier and better food that they grow by themselves, and which also provides extra income for the family. But me, I prefer to live in the city. People here have better access to education and jobs. In my hometown there is no high school and people my age have to work in the field. Most of them don’t continue their education because the high school is too far away. If I wanted to go to high school there, I would have to drive a moto for two hours. So I moved to the city because I wanted to be able to go to better schools and be taught by professional teachers, and to get better opportunities for a job that could pay the cost of my education. In the city, I also have access to a lot of technologies that can improve my life and knowledge. And even though I am now separated from my parents I still go to visit them whenever I can.”