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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Businesses vacate White Building

A motorist passes local businesses that operate on the ground floor of Phnom Penh’s White Building.
A motorist passes local businesses that operate on the ground floor of Phnom Penh’s White Building. Eliah Lillis

Businesses vacate White Building

As families begin to move out of the iconic White Building, small business owners who have operated in the capital’s dilapidated landmark are facing tough decisions.

For Neang, a 37-year-old vendor who sells everything from 1-litre bottles of gasoline to cases of beer and cellphone cards from her corner stall in the White Building, the decision to accept the buyout from the Japanese firm that will tear down the housing complex and build a 21-storey building in its place, has put future business operations on unsure footing.

“It’s hard for me to move my business to another location and I am concerned that I will not be able to earn as much as I do here,” she said.

“But I have no choice,” she added, watching her household belongings and dismantled vendor stall being loaded into moving trucks for relocation.

Neang, who declined to give her full name, said that her stall in the White Building netted a daily profit of about $30 from selling goods to the building’s residents and people passing by late at night on the congested Sothearos Boulevard. The money primarily goes to supporting her two children, she said.

“Even if I received all of the compensation handed to me, I don’t know if it would be enough as I am not sure if I can still run a profitable business,” she said, adding that she had been a resident of the White Building since 1993 and had operated her own business for the last decade.

While Neang said she was compensated $49,000 to move to any location of her choice, she fears that she may follow in the footsteps of the communities that are being temporarily relocated to the outskirts of the city.

“There are no profits to be made on the outskirts because it is so quiet,” she said. “In order for me to start a new business and buy a house that I can run it from, I would need at least $300,000.”

Neang is just one of more than 50 vendors that are facing the same business decisions as residents move out over the next month to make way for construction.

But not all are as pessimistic for what future business will bring.

Further down the street, Orm Sokheng, a 43-year-old mechanic, paused while doing a routine tyre repair in front of his shop. With his hands covered in grease, he said that with his 10 years of automotive experience, it would not be a problem for him to find employment.

“For me, I don’t worry about finding another job because I am not affected by the construction of the new building,” he said. “Although I do not want to move away because my customers know me and I get a lot of business because it is a crowded area, I will be able to survive.”

He said that over the last decade he had been paying the same flat $30 a month rental fee to authorities to run his small business. On a good day, he said, his profits of $10 a day easily offset what the authorities were charging.

While some vendors said business was as usual yesterday, salon owner Thoch Leakhna, sat idly in her shop, now flanked by shuttered stalls. She had yet to see a customer for the day.

Determined to move her salon to Takeo province, where she has a family home, Leakhna was anxious about the future of her relocated business.

According to her, she has been paying $300 a month to operate in the White Building while the lowest prices she found for suitable shop in Takeo was $400 per month.

However, 56-year-old Heng Kimhong, a noodle soup vendor who operates a stall along the weathered building, was ready to start fresh after securing a flat house in the capital’s Chak Anrel commune for a down payment of $15,000.

“Once I can operate out of my own flat, I will be able to save on the rental fees which are currently $250 a month,” she said.

Kimhong is optimistic that with a larger space to run her business, she could earn around $1,800 to $2,500 a month.

“I am happy with my decision,” she said.

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