When you go to the Post Office in Phnom Penh, look to your left and you’ll see Van’s Restaurant. The building is the old Bank of Indochina from the period of the French Protectorate and the childhood home of Van Porleng, who runs the high-end French restaurant today.
Her father Van Thuan, a Teochew Chinese entrepreneur from Takeo Province who became one of Cambodia’s leading industrialists during the 1950s and 1960s, bought the building in 1965 directly from the Bank of Indochina and used it as his business headquarters and family residence.
Now after the years of war, eight of the nine children of Van Thuan and his wife Ta Nguyet Trinh, who spent the best parts of their childhoods in that classic icon of French architecture, are back in Cambodia.
The youngest, Porleng, has been actively involved in the building’s restoration since her brother, Van Sou Ieng, did the work to get the old bank building back into the Van family’s possession. She took time earlier this week to talk about her family, the restoration of the old Bank of Indochina and the relationship between the past and the future.
“We have Chinese blood,” she said.
Her grandfather took two of his sons, including Porleng’s father, to China for education.
“When Mao started to take over China my grandfather came back with two sons. My father grew up here very poor and started as an artist, going door to door asking people if they wanted a portrait or a landscape. Later he became a trader in dry fish, and started to make more money. Then he started a silk weaving factory with a partner.”
Like many of the other Teochew Chinese families in Cambodia, the Vans have always been involved in business. Growing wealthier with his Chip Tong sandal factory, Van was able to purchase the Bank of Indochina building in 1965.
His family grew up in the old Bank of Indochina, including his youngest daughter, Porleng, who has since worked to restore what had been the family home and turn it into one of Phnom Penh’s finest French restaurants.
All of the family members left Cambodia during the 1970s, staying in France, England and Hong Kong.
Since they returned during the 1990s some of the family possessions have been restored, including their father’s old Chip Tong sandal factory in Tuol Kork which once again serves as a factory, this time for clothing and is now managed by Porleng’s sister Porphin.
Porleng Van credits her mother and brothers Van Sou Ieng and Van Tuon with leading the family back to Cambodia during the 1980s.
“I think the sense of family we have is from my mum,” she said. “We were very lucky to have escaped from the war. Our family was split apart during the 1970s and there was always a big desire in all of us to reconnect with Cambodia,” she said.
Once her mother declared Cambodia safe once again, the family started to return.
Porleng Van made two trips to Cambodia, before returning to stay in 2003.
“My mother and my brother met one of the officials who knew her and found out it might be possible to get our family buildings back,” she said.
Her brother Van Sou Ieng made the deal to get the building back. It had been in the possession of the National Bank of Cambodia.
It was Porleng’s idea to have a fine French restaurant which she opened in December 2007.
“Now six years later we are going well,” she said. “We have our name and they know it is very good quality with a certain atmosphere. I opened a French restaurant because this building was from the French people and we love French food too.
This is also an architectural and cultural preservation.”
The main dining room in use at Van’s French restaurant was both the dining room for the Governor of the Bank of Indochina and the family dining room for the Van’s.
She found it challenging to take on the building’s restoration which began in March 2004 and lasted for 10 months.
“I always love old buildings that have history so my priority was to do it well and keep it respectable for the style and history. Once I finished I brought my mom in and I realised it meant a lot to her. When she came in she had tears in her eyes, it was beautiful, she remember each room and what she used to do in there,” she said.
“I found satisfaction in the restoration. I did it for the building itself and history, and the passion we have for our French education and culture. I hope people will realise that preserve any old building is a treasure for the future. When we knock down a building we knock down our own history,” she said.
“I would like this building to be recognised internationally and to be protected from knocking down. I would like this building to stay in the history.”
One third of the building is in use as Van’s restaurant while the other parts are the offices of Asia Insurance and AFD, the French agency of development.
In addition to serving as General Manager of Van’s Restaurant, Porleng Van also serves as President of The Cambodia Restaurant Association ( CRA) and Vice President for Asia of The International Food and Beverage Association.