Nobody could accuse Jean-Michel Filippi of lacking passion for this city’s storied history. A linguistics professor at the Royal University and author of the new book Strolling Around Phnom Penh, he has spent the past two years chaperoning walking tours through some of the subtle remnants of Phnom Penh’s rapidly receding pre-war character.
“I think that what is deeply missing in Cambodia is history,” Filippi says. “I strongly believe it is possible to preserve an environment – but to do this, you need a reason: you need people to protect it, to be proud of it.”
Beginning with the establishment of the French protectorate in 1863, when King Norodom I was prevailed upon to relocate the capital to a small town built on the banks of the Tonle Sap and Bassac rivers, Filippi takes the reader through the establishment of the machinery of foreign occupation through its geography.
One of the quirks of the 19th century’s increased European presence was the concentration of the foreign community in the streets north of Wat Phnom.
In a marked difference from the concentration of expats around the riverside and BKK neighbourhoods since the beginning of the 1990s, foreigners were separated from the local administration in the area around Royal Palace.
Filippi says the reason was anchored in colonial practice.
“There was a rule in French and British imperialism that required separation of the institutional character and the residential and private character from the local population.
“The protectorate building was at Wat Phnom, and the protectorate offices were close to what is now the Ministry of Finance [on Street 92].
“Further south was the Chinese community, and south of them the Cambodians. The essential thing was to be separate from them.”
Filippi here alludes to two instrumental and long-forgotten fundamentals of Phnom Penh’s urban character: the rigid segregation of the town’s ethnic groups prior to the 1975 evacuation, and the dominance of the Chinese in the city’s affairs.
According to an estimate by French historian Michel Igout, Phnom Penh’s population doubled in the eight years to 1897, of which 22,000 were Chinese nationals and their descendants.
“This is true of almost everywhere in Southeast Asian history: the towns were Chinese,” Filippi says.
“You have on one side the Chinese, who are the town dwellers, and on the other side the Khmers, who are peasants and are in a rice monoculture. You take, for instance, all the merchant traders: they are all Chinese.
“The Chinese minority was differently appreciated by different regimes and even hated. The French, in particular, didn’t really like it.
“As you can imagine, the French wanted to control opium, commerce and rice export, but these are the fields the Chinese were already settled into. The French set up an opium company at one time and, little by little, the Chinese took it back.”
By his own estimate, Filippi speaks more than a dozen languages, although he abashedly admits he has lost count of the exact number. His command of Mandarin has been instrumental in cataloguing the evolution of Chinese settlement.
One of his anecdotes is the result of making the acquaintance an O’Russey Market café owner.
The area still has a significant Hainan Chinese presence, and one of the enduring habits of the café’s patrons is betting on what time it will rain for the first time on a particular day.
During the prohibition of gambling in the 1960s, according to legend, people in the area had to walk with their eyes fixed on the road because looking at the sky was taken by police as evidence of illegal activity.
Since the city’s resettlement in 1979, much of the geographic and ethnic distinctions have been lost.
Taoist festivals no longer block off entire boulevards, marriage between different community members has become common, and the city’s communes are much more ethnically mixed.
For Filippi, the nature of the city today belies many of the tensions and ructions that characterised cross-cultural encounters in Phnom Penh.
“There were big conflicts, even before 1975. Sihanouk, for instance, had several problems with some Chinese here, because at that time they were manipulated by the Chinese Student Association, which was openly Maoist. For Sihanouk, it was important to make a choice: either you are Chinese or you are Cambodian.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Sean Gleeson at [email protected]