From the 12th floor of Kidz City, Phnom Penh’s new “indoor- entertainment-education centre”, Meng Hieng’s sleek, white open-plan office commands a striking view of the city, under the shadow of the unfinished grey monolith Gold Tower 42. The 46-year-old businessman and founder of Monument Books has moved onwards and upwards since the impoverished days of UNTAC-era Phnom Penh, when he began his modest book-selling business supplying foreigners with much-needed reading material. Since then the entrepreneur (and father of four), who learned English “from the street”, has astutely judged the rise of “coffee-couches-and-wi-fi” book retail, and allowed Barbie dolls and laser tag a place in his business empire. Rosa Ellen reports.
How did it all start, before Monument Books?
I was working for the Cambodiana when I got a better offer to work for an airline company. At that time it was the first airline to fly from Cambodia to Bangkok. I was 22 or 23 and the assistant representative. My connections – from the hotel and airline and friends from the UK and different parts of the US – all said, ‘Why don’t you start a tour company?’ And then suddenly this Canadian guy whose office was in Bangkok employed me to distribute books for him [as well], and then I started to do my own [book] business.
Monument was just a shop house – we put racks on the walls and put books and magazines out on display. We started off with a very small shop and moved three times before moving to where we are today, on Norodom Blvd. We had to learn [a lot] about the book business because we didn’t know anything back then. That was the time when the UN came, in 1991.
What were people reading back then?
I think at that time many people liked to read about Cambodia first of all: our temples, our culture, our people and our history – for expats, foreigners and tourists, that is. At that time not many Cambodians were able to buy books, and I think they didn’t even have a great culture of reading, so it took a while to educate people to get used to this sort of behaviour.
Cambodia 20 years ago, people didn’t speak English well – now you find teenagers speaking English. If you open a business you can always find staff who speak English – that’s the norm. I think English is now the second language in Cambodia for Cambodians.
I only have one expat here in this building, and we have 100 people working. Unlike the book business, you really need to have a native speaker and you really have to be very good at this industry.
I have to say, many Cambodians are now managers – general manager – for some companies. If you consider the development of Phnom Penh and Cambodia, the number of jobs has increased but the number of expats employed has not increased proportionally.
Did you ever envision yourself in an office like this?
No absolutely not. It was not easy at that time – because you couldn’t imagine what your future would be after the Khmer Rouge. If you talk about Cambodia in the early ’90s, things were quite rough. No press, no media, no TV
. . . I had to support my family members. I’m quite lucky to be here today.
Lucky to be here because of opportunities or because things were dangerous?
I think both. I had opportunity and I [am] capable – that’s what led me here today. If you’re not smart, opportunities can pass. You need to seize things at the right time. Luck is next. Luck is after opportunity. We have to work hard -actually, work smart, not hard! Sometimes you work hard but if you’re not smart it’s going to take a longer time.
Do you work exceptionally hard?
No, I’m not a hard worker. But I think I like to create, to develop and then let people manage. Train them to manage and I think there are people out there that are quite capable. But you need to train them so they can help you - one way is to help people along with you, otherwise … the scope is too big.
Monument seems to have virtually no competition in the English language book market in Cambodia – Do you expect that to change?
I’m not sure people want to [go into] the book business …you know that technology is advancing and attacking reading, publications, publishing. Books, newspaper, magazines, they’re all in trouble now slowly and slowly.
Except school materials, text books, course books that are still used at school. But novels, fiction, nonfiction, magazines, news - you can just read from apps. I don’t think that we can call ourselves a monopoly or a non competitive industry …Though we are the only ones selling books at that kind of level we are just doing OK. We’re not doing great, you know? Because books have a very limited margin.
Why the move into kids entertainment?
They always say you should have a concept. In the United States bookshops always work with Starbucks and coffee shops to create this kind of reading-sitting-coffee-wi-fi environment. We had this coffee shop [Java Café] but it didn’t really work … Of course it pleased some of the expatriate community but not to the massive Cambodian community at all.
So we created a small toy shop and fortunately we were able to convince Mattel at that time to give us supply. It was not easy because a big company has high expectations and talks about volume, target - but what can you do in Cambodia? Such a small market, with very low buying power.
Since we opened, we’ve had great success. We’ve seen many Cambodians buying toys ... Why Kidz City? I like the [toy shop] model but of course I could not open another one in Phnom Penh because it might not be viable commercially. I felt that if I [wanted do something else] it would involve kids and families.