The thought of having to leave another home has left Chhet Saveourn anxious. The mother of four stands in the doorway of her two-room apartment in the iconic White Building, commonly referred to by the capital’s residents as “Boding”.
Saveourn and her family have come to find solace in the white-painted walls of the four-storey apartment block, nearly a decade after they were violently uprooted from their previous home.
“Before I used to live in Dey Krahorm,” she said, referring to the community whose homes were razed in 2009 to make way for development. “We were violently evicted then, so this time we were too scared to make an objection.”
Saveourn accepted $3,500 in compensation for her eviction from Dey Krahorm, which she put towards buying an apartment in the White Building for $15,000.
“But I feel very sorry for my children, who now have to move from one place to another,” she said.
Saveourn’s family is one among 493 who are leaving the building, which is slated to be razed and redeveloped by Japanese firm Arakawa Co. While given the option to leave and come back once the project is finished, almost all the families have chosen to take a buyout and relocate around the city.
The five decade-old building will be replaced with a swanky 21-storey high rise, complete with three floors of parking and a commercial area on the ground floor. Inspectors have long maintained that the White Building is structurally unsound, but the stories nurtured inside are testament to the complex’s unique place in the city’s evolution.
While the circumstances of her coming to the White Building were painful, Saveourn has only happy memories of her time there. Most importantly, her children had access to a non-profit school barely five steps from her doorstep.
With the school saying it will relocate nearby, Saveourn is feeling pressure to find a new home in the neighborhood.
“My kid is outstanding at the school,” she said. “But I am struggling to find a new place –a better place.”
Starting June 6, families living in the dilapidated structure began the process of packing up their belongings and moving to different parts of the city. Always abuzz with activity, the White Building these days is still chaotic, but for different reasons.
For nearly two weeks, residents have been carrying plastic bags and cardboard cartons filled with clothes, kitchen supplies and bedding, even metal gratings and bathroom fixtures, to a waiting line of open trucks, ready to take them to a new home.
A truck-mounted crane has barely left the site in the last 10 days, as it unloads electrical appliances and heavy furniture from the structure’s narrow hallways and balconies.
Walking along the dimly lit halls, one can see the remnants of the lives once lived there. Old Coca-Cola posters, family photographs, soiled toys, garbage and even children’s notebooks can been seen strewn across the floors of the building.
Arakawa officials man the stairwells waiting to sign off leaving residents, after which they immediately board up the empty apartments. Security guards roam the hallway to keep out squatters. “We have to make sure there are no drug addicts coming in,” one guard said.
As of Wednesday the top three floors of the building had an almost post-apocalyptic look, with desolate hallways and a carpet of debris. Once an entire block of apartments has been vacated, Arakawa officials board up the hallway, restricting all access.
Often confused for a Vann Molyvann design, the White Building was actually designed by Cambodian architect Lu Ban Hap and Russian-born architect Vladimir Bodiansky, and was inaugurated in 1963 as the “Municipal Apartments” – a low-cost housing option for low- to middle-class families.
The project was part of the urban transformation undertaken by then-King Norodom Sihanouk following independence from the French. Archival images of the White Building show it flanked by manicured lawns on both sides, with the Olympic Village apartments and Molyvann-designed National Theater closer to the river.
The rise of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime saw not only the building but the entire city of Phnom Penh nearly emptied of its citizens in 1975, and it was only after the downfall of the Pol Pot-led government that people started to filter back into the city.
What started as a housing project for Cambodian families turned into a haven for artists, actors and dancers, who found shelter in the structure, as well as for civil servants assigned to live in the building by the Vietnamese-backed government.
One of these artists is Pen Pherun, who carves wooden chess sets. He is quick to bring out his intricately carved pieces, tools and all, and explain how he goes about turning wooden blocks into pawns, rooks and bishops.
Pherun’s family is one of the many who run small restaurants or shops along the ground floor of the White Building. His small coffee shop has an added allure – unlimited, free chess games.
As patrons smack chess pieces on the board as they make their next move, Pherun says mostly outsiders came to play the game, with only a few in the building able to play it.
“Not so many families are coming now because they moved out,” he said. “But I hope the people will still come to our business [when we move].”
Most of the vendors – selling anything from fresh produce to grilled fish and pickled vegetables – have chosen to stay to eke out the last bit of business from remaining residents.
Up three flights of stairs, 29-year-old filmmaker Neang Kavich and his father, a sculptor, are peering through the wooden grates – their apartment now inaccessible.
Kavich has lived in the building his whole life, after his family moved there in the early 1980s.
His early years centred on the artists who lived in the different blocks. His block had singers and dancers, and a short walk away was a unit of painters. All the way at the end of the block were classical dancers.
“If you go to another building in Phnom Penh, I am not sure you will find that – the variety of arts in one place,” he said.
The building is a unique combination of two villages within one structure, he said. If a resident fell sick, there was a chemist next door. Run out of ingredients and there was a small market downstairs. Want to sing karaoke or celebrate Khmer New Year? Anything was possible within the structure.
“It was like any other community but within a building, and many people didn’t seem to understand this,” he said.
Indeed, the building constitutes two villages, with Hun Sarath and Ngem Sovann as their chiefs. But as the exodus of residents begins to slow, the two are now in an unusual position: village chiefs with no villagers.
“I am not sure if they are going to delete this village or not. It is the Ministry of Interior who decides, and I am not sure if I will lose my job or not,” Sovann said yesterday.
But it’s not a potential job loss that worries him. It’s the physical absence of the 210 families that made up his village.
“Now there are no people. The people have moved out. I cannot see their faces,” he said. “I miss them a lot because we used to see each other every day.”
‘We are not dirty’
As the city has metamorphosed from a post-conflict town to a growing metropolis, the White Building has also changed in step.
From an ambitious housing project to a post-Khmer Rouge sanctuary for returnees, it has also seen its reputation sullied as a home of prostitution, drugs and perceived dereliction.
In a hallway littered with garbage, Chhum Srotum stands at her doorway, a little forlorn and the only one yet to move out in her block. She is one of the few residents who have occupied the building since 1979, after she started working for the then-Ministry of Propaganda – later re-christened the Ministry of Information – performing odd jobs and, at times, helping out at the Royal Palace.
Srotum associates her apartment as the home she raised her children, and refutes any claims that it was a “dirty” place. “Each house has also changed. They use colours [inside] that look beautiful, even if it looks unclean outside [on the façade],” she said.
Srotum insisted the nearly 500 families living in the building – despite the unique nature of the structure – were no different from those residing throughout the city.
“We are not dirty. We want to earn a living and afford for our children to study, just like everyone else,” she said.