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The White Building: The past, present, and future of its close-knit community

Many small shops dot the sidewalk leading up to the famed White Building’s stairway. Over half a century old, those who have never dwelled in this environment, or passers-by who so often turn up their noses at the stench emitting from huge dumpsters lined outside the building, may be hesitant to actually step foot into the building.

The White Building is a four-storey, 330-metre long building with a paint-crumbled façade that many complain is an eyesore, and is anything but white.

However, venturing further past the entrance and into the two-metre corridor – a completely dark area save for small amounts of light shining from residents’ doors – in the middle of the building, the scene of children running about and women languidly sitting on rattan benches or swinging from hammocks knitting and sewing evokes the feeling of entering a tightly bonded family environment.

The White Building has two types of unit layouts, a two-room unit of 32 square metres, and a 40-square-metre three-room unit.

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Laundry drying on the top level of the White Building. Moeun Nhean

This week, Post Property met with Hun Sarat, village chief of one the White Building’s two communities, in her modest three-room home. During the period that Cambodia was the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, according to Sarat, a majority of the residents had moved in in1980 as the government’s state employees.

She recalled, “We used to be state employees and had to work at the ministry together; therefore, we wanted to make it convenient for travelling and meal times twice a day.”

Slightly downcast, Sarat said, “At the moment, every family here can be considered poor. We only have identical homes and the state doesn’t even want to issue home ownership documents to us,” adding that “these families have no properties or status and some of them already retired.”

There are 276 families in Sarat’s community, making up nearly a thousand people.

Recently, a group of delegates including Tonle Bassac’s district chief and the Phnom Penh deputy governor escorted five Japanese visitors through a tour of the White Building and its compound.

“[The delegates] asked me to help them with the tour and we spent an hour surveying the area,” said Sarat. “I don’t know what their purpose was but the villagers here guessed that it could be related to renovations or development of the building.”

Seng Lot, spokesman for the Ministry of Land Management, Urban Planning and Construction (MLMUPC), acknowledged the tour but stated that there wasn’t any development or renovation plans on the table.

He said, “We worry about people’s safety because the building is very old and fragile. Therefore, the ministry is coming up with a plan for this problem, though the plan is still under consideration.”

“As the public administration [of the state], it wouldn’t be good for our nation if we knew the potential problem and didn’t find a solution to prevent it.”

Both the MLMUPC and their Japanese visitors have remained tight-lipped over the purpose of the visit to the White Building.

Seng Lot said the ministry is encouraging the Japanese in the research and development area for the White Building. Meanwhile, the spokesman for Phnom Penh City Hall could not be reached for comment.

Sia Phearum, director of the NGO Housing Rights Task Force, reacted positively to news concerning the Japanese delegates’ tour. The NGO has worked for many years with the White Building’s community, and has partnered with other organisations to repaint nearly every room of the building in recent times at a cost of $20 for each room.

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An alley lined with shops leading to units in the White Building. Moeun Nhean

“It would be very lucky for the occupants if the Japanese delegates contribute to finding solutions for the building, because Japan is a developed country that is concerned for their people’s safety, contrary to investors from communist countries who do not care much about the citizens’ wellbeing.”

Based on the interviews by Post Property with many other residents in the building, who requested anonymity, all of them declared that they would welcome proposed developments flagged by the government – on the condition that they are left in peace to continue living there.

Moreover, the money they hope to receive would need to be enough for them to purchase a suitable home in the city, and not in the outskirts.

“We have been living in this building for many years. We have struggled and taken care of it for more than three decades because we respect the state. This is why we will agree with the state’s plans. But the government has to prioritise our wellbeing too,” said the residents who were speaking to Post Property as a group.

When asked how much they would deem enough as compensation or a pay-out, an elderly lady in her late 50s answered, “My two-room home is worth about $50,000 to $60,000.” A few other ladies residing in three-bedroom units said their homes are worth at least $70,000.

Even though they all demand different prices, their decision is unanimous: “We would agree to sell it for the same price per square metre with the only difference being the size of the home.”

Yorng Oeurn, the other village chief of the White Building, said, “I always spend time collecting monthly data of people living in my community. In Village 2, there are 205 families and a total of 500 people.”

“I do not know the government’s project or the future of this building but if there are developments and discussions about the cost, I will work with the people because I myself am a resident here and I’m facing the same situation as they are,” said Oeurn.

Oeurn is a former soldier in the People’s Republic of Kampuchea, and moved into the building almost 30 years ago. “In 1987, I bought a two-room home for seven gold “Ji” (one ounce of gold) and have been living here ever since.”

The White Building project was co-designed by esteemed veteran Cambodian architects Vann Molyvann and Lu Ban Hab, and was built in the People’s Socialist Community era, and subsequently opened to residents in the beginning of 1960.

The government of the regime at that time had foreseen the population of Phnom Penh to bulk up to more than 300,000 after gaining independence from France, and reach one million after 1960, prompting the construction of the White Building which was a convenient means of housing for those in the working class.

Despite its colourful history, the future of the White Building remains rocky, leaving residents uncertain for now.

At the end of the interview with the residents, it was revealed that Overseas Cambodian Investment Corporation (OCIC) had, for the past two years, repeatedly expressed interest in the White Building.

To date, nothing has come out of it, and the famed building may be on its way to succumbing to a rapidly modernising nation bent on growing skyscrapers.

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