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White Building
The filthy exterior of the White Building belies the tight-nit, friendly community within. Pha Lina

At home in the White Building

With a facade stained by time and lack of care, Phnom Penh’s iconic White Building – known among Cambodians as the Bodeng – has a reputation for being a slum and a haven for drug addicts. Peek inside the doors and meet the residents, though, and a whole new picture emerges of a close-knit community of mostly artists and performers. But with rumours rife of evictions and development plans, some fear for the future. Interviews: Vandy Muong. Photos: Charlotte Pert

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SOPHEARY, 24, DANCER

My family moved in to the White Building in 1979. The apartment is now split into two: my aunt and uncle live in one half with about 17 people, and myself and 10 other members of my family live in the other. I dance at the National Museum twice a week with Siv Meng and I also teach history. My mother was a performer in Cambodian traditional operas. I wanted to be a performer because my mother and relatives were. It’s in my blood. Before the Khmer Rouge it was possible to survive just being a performer, but it’s not any more. All artists need another skill or profession to earn enough money to live. I think the White Building is safer than it used to be. Around 1999, people felt afraid and threatened because people would come here to take drugs, but the police have been making more arrests and coming up with ideas like putting bright lights out front. Now I worry that there may be evictions, because the building is in a prime location in the city centre and is good for businesses. The poor will suffer if that happens.

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CHAN SORY, 19, STUDENT AND MUSICIAN

I moved into the White Building with my mother in 2002, but I have been living alone since she left in 2012. I am a musician and dancer, and studying in year 12 at Boeung Keng Kong high school on my last year of a Cambodian Living Arts scholarship. Neang Kavich made a film about me and my struggles trying to make it on my own. Kavich’s mother sleeps with me every night because she worries about me being alone. She looks after me. Lots of artists live in the White Building, which pushed me towards music. I live in my teacher Ieng Sithol’s apartment, which has instruments for me to play. The building has changed a lot since I arrived – it’s messier now even though people have tried to paint it. When people look at the building from the outside, it looks unsafe and dangerous. But inside it is still good and safe. Growing up, I was never afraid of eviction, but now I worry about that happening and the state of the building as it gets older.

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HUN SARATH, 63, SINGING TEACHER

I’m a singer and I work for the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts. I wanted to be a dancer, but I was told I was too tall and should sing instead. I used to sing at the Royal Palace before the Khmer Rouge. I’ve lived in the same apartment in the White Building since November 1979. In 2012, I became village chief. I’m responsible for helping the community with paperwork like birth and marriage certificates. My home is my office and people are always stopping by to get documents authorised. While the White Building is old, it’s a good place to live as the community is strong – everyone knows and helps each other. Some people do use drugs, but that’s not a problem because they do it in the privacy of their own homes and do not trouble other residents. The building’s bad reputation comes from rumours and gossip – no one has ever been attacked. The building needs protection and should be made a heritage site.

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KEY MOM, 80, RETIRED SINGER

I used to sing at the Royal Palace with Hun Sarath, and I moved into the White Building at the same time as her after the Khmer Rouge because we both worked for the Ministry of Fine Arts and Culture. I used to own my flat in the White Building but sold it in 2000 because I needed the money. Around the same time, I stopped working for the government. For 12 years I worked as a teacher for Cambodian Living Arts, but I retired completely in 2012 because I was so tired. CLA still pays my rent. My daughter and granddaughter are also singers. I used to be happy when I was working and had money, but now I have nothing. I can only afford food but not medicine. My daughter is often away performing in the provinces, but Sarath still helps me when I get sick – she takes me to hospital and pays for medicine. I pray for my ancestors once a week, always offering five things like five cigarettes. The White Building used to be full of people with the same background – singers, dancers, artists – but there are new people living in the White Building now. I am no longer happy living here.

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SIV MENG, 25, DANCER

I live in my family’s flat in the White Building with seven people – me, mum, dad, my sister, her husband and their two children. We moved here in 1991 because we had relatives here and it was cheap. Normally, when people become a performer, it’s because of their families. I studied with Cambodian Living Arts from when I was 12, and I now dance at the National Museum and teach dance. My family are not artists, but I was inspired by watching performances on television, and my neighbour growing up was a dance teacher. I liked how they dressed up, like how my neighbour would dress nice before performances. The building has changed a lot since we moved in. Back then, I was uncomfortable, as the place was untidy and there was a slum next door. I would never tell my friends I lived in the White Building because people used to say it was full of bad people – like prostitutes. After the people in the slums were evicted, fewer bad people started coming into the White Building. It has a better reputation now, and I feel more comfortable and safe.

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