In Phnom Penh’s northern outskirts is a small house completely overrun with relics. More than 120 old clocks, ranging from 19th-century remnants of French colonialism to more modern examples from post-war Japan, adorn the walls. Cameras from the 1950s lie on a coffee table in the living room while oil lanterns and samurai swords sit on the shelves.
Homeowner Pin Kim Seng, a 59-year-old retired bureaucrat from the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, says that his house breathes life into antiques that would have otherwise been lost.
Seng says: “The owner of the clock may have died a long time ago, but now the clock can live with me, so it’s reborn again.”
Save for his modern flat-screen television, nothing in the house looks younger than 50. Even his Buddhist shrine, common to most Cambodian households, is equipped with antique statues and a photo of his father-in-law dressed in a Sihanouk-era military uniform. His most modern decoration is a framed photo of himself receiving a commendation from Deputy Prime Minister Sok An.
Seng began his eclectic collection while working in the provinces in the buildup to the 1998 general election. He noticed that many people in rural areas owned old things – particularly clocks – and were looking to sell them. But with no domestic market for antiques, their only option was to sell the objects to middlemen who would take them abroad. Seng, recognising that Cambodia would soon be emptied of its old clocks and cameras, stepped in and bought them.
He says: “I want to collect all this old stuff because I don’t want it to go to other countries. I want to keep it in this country in order to show that in our history we also have stuff from France, Germany and other countries. They are not part of Cambodian culture, but they have something that is attached to my feelings.”
Although Seng knows little about the mechanics of his gizmos – he is far more interested in their aesthetics – he takes great pleasure in his eclectic range of curios. His camera collection, for instance, includes both an old Ricohflex and Mamiya twin-lenses reflex cameras from the 1950s. He does not know if they actually function, but that is not the point.
“I have no photography skills, so I don’t know if they work or not, I just think they’re beautiful,” says Seng, adding that he prefers old analog devices to modern digital options.
“This is good technology that can work by itself with no battery or electricity.”
The objects are strictly not for sale. He was once offered $300 for a teapot he had bought at a Japanese market for $3, but the generous offer convinced him that he ought to hang on to it.
“I want to keep it as my diamond,” Seng says.
“I don’t have much money, but if a rich man wants it he can’t have it.”
Seng, who has four adult children, said that he wants the clocks to stay in his family after he dies.
“When I cannot live in this world, I will transfer to my children.
“The life of the clock will take on that of the family clock.”
Although he admits that his children may not want to inherit the scores of clocks, Seng said that he hopes they will grow on them before he passes.
“My children are busy with their work, but I will educate my children to love all the clocks in the house.”
Additional reporting by Vandy Muong.