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Bassac renovation mired in complacency

Bassac renovation mired in complacency

Working on his latest film, director Rithy Panh is shooting inside the ruins of Phnom

Penh's Preah Sura-marit Theatre, known locally as the Tonle Bassac Theatre.

Lakhoun khoul (male masked dance) performers rehearse under teacher Pok Saran in part of the theatre damaged by fire and open to the elements.

Using actors from the National Theatre Company, Panh is exploring familiar themes

of memory and identity post-holocaust, but also what he calls "the inability

of artists in present-day Cambodia to express themselves".

He sees the Bassac theatre as the very symbol of this malaise.

Viewed from the outside, the Bassac's brick and concrete shell has survived mostly

intact, as did the imposing triangular foyer areas with cantilevered staircases suspended

over shallow pools of water. But during renovation work in 1994, a massive fire devastated

the entire auditorium and stage area and left hundreds of Cambodia's finest dancers,

actors and acrobats without an artistic home.

Built in 1966 and designed by the architect Vann Molyvann, the 1,200-seat theatre

emerged during the country's short period of prosperity following the end of French

colonial rule in 1953. Known as the Sangkum Reastr Niyum, this era, which many consider

"golden", spawned a strong revival in the performing arts. Then-Prince

Norodom Sihanouk himself was a prolific filmmaker, while his eldest daughter, Princess

Buppa Devi, became the country's most celebrated classical dancer.

An uncredited aerial picture (circa 1968) shows the Bassac in foreground, Phnom Penh Centre behind it, and The White Building behind that.

The Bassac Theatre is still the official home of the National Theatre, or the Department

of the Performing Arts. Though derelict for a decade, it remains a hive of activity.

On that fateful and fiery day in 1994, actors and dancers continued to rehearse once

the conflagration had abated. Today too, the place hums to the comings and goings

of actors, puppeteers, costume makers and staff. A growing number of tourists visit

the site, not to mention architecture buffs who consider the theatre a tour de force

of 1960s modernism.

Yet, while the older generation of Cambodians has fond memories of working in the

theatre, few of their younger colleagues care very much for the finer details of

the Bassac's architecture. They just want a theatre.

National Theatre's head, Mao Keng, a former dancer, equivocates on the issue. He

says he wants a brand-new, state-of-the art building. Then, in the next breath, he

extols the virtues of Van's original. He also claims that Sihanouk vetoed the idea

of a completely new theatre.

Among Keng's sets of architectural drawings, the most recent, a $20,000 project by

the late Cambodian architect Brum Dar-ravudh, provided for several rehearsal spaces

but, for reasons best known to himself, failed to include a stage. The plan was rejected

by the Council of Ministers. A more ambitious project for a completely new theatre

that includes dressing rooms, a cafeteria (and of all things, a swimming pool), dates

back to 1999, but is just as unlikely to materialize.

National Theatre Company musicians practice in the Bassac foyer for a US Embassy-sponsored event at Chaktomuk Theatre.

In the ensuing years, neither the Ministry of Culture nor any other luminaries within

the Cambodian cultural or political establishment have managed to raise the money

to restore the theatre or even put flesh on any concrete proposals. Whether this

is the result of indifference, corruption, internecine squabbling between political

factions or a combination of all of the above, the result has been one very lengthy


Hard facts are difficult to determine. At the time of the fire, the building was

not insured. The culture minister at the time, Nouth Narang, who hadn't signed any

contract with the French company carrying out the renovation work, immediately launched

an appeal for $12 million to rebuild the theatre. The minister reportedly offended

the International Technological Committee overseeing the renovation and with it the

French Embassy who put up the money by inferring that arson was involved, or at the

very least incompetence of the welders. The arson claim was perhaps given credence

by one man's claim that he had been paid 500 Thai baht to set the fire.

Molyvann himself watched firefighters battle the flames. "I know when the King

comes back to see this, his tears will flow," he said.

In fact, King Sihanouk declined to come to the aid of his friend, suggesting instead

that the money be used to help to install irrigation projects for the country's ailing,

agriculture-based economy.

"The King will only give his money to the poor," commented the architect

later. Money was offered by the French government as some form of compensation, but

ended up being diverted by the Council of Ministers for flood relief, a moral imperative

that might ensure the theatre never gets rebuilt.

Molyvann says he pressed the government to bring the French contractor "under

the architect Pompain" to book, but the Ministry of Culture "refused to

make a legal case" on the basis that no contract had been signed.

What happened over subsequent years is murky. A Japanese government gift of $50,000,

which also went to flood relief, was followed by a doomed plan to build a Japanese

Cultural Centre near Bassac in return for money to restore the theatre. The Chinese

government offered between $7 and $10 million, but this rebuilding estimate was rejected

as too little by Molyvann, who set the price at $15-20 million.

Narang's successor as culture minister, Princess Norodom Buppa Devi, also failed

to lend her authority to any fund-raising effort. One of the greatest dancers of

her generation, who performed for De Gaulle in 1964, she would have been ideally

placed to do just that, yet she failed even to establish a foundation for the Bassac's

resurrection. Interviewed on the subject, the princess pleaded poverty, calling on

UNESCO and other familiar mainstays of the international community for support. "They

understand that we are weak, but that our culture is strong and a vital part of our

identity," she said.

Sisowath Kulachad, speaking on behalf of the latest culture minister, Prince Sisowath

Panara Sirivuth, claimed in November 2004 that Prime Minister Hun Sen and National

Assembly President Norodom Ranariddh have conceived a plan to create a new, much

expanded theatre. It would cost between $28 and $30 million and be situated in the

middle of Boueng Kak Lake. Whether there is any credence to this latest twist, or

if this will prove yet another diversion, remains to be seen. In either case, probably,

the fate of Van's theatre will be sealed.

Molyvann himself seems disturbingly out of the loop. A former rival of Nouth and

shunned by the CPP hierarchy who removed him as President of the Apsara Authority,

this imperious genius cuts quite a solitary figure in the power politics of present-day

Phnom Penh. He is rarely consulted on the fate of his buildings and is thus forced

to watch from the sidelines while his work gets ripped out or ineptly renovated.

Close to the King and independent politically, he is pinning his hopes on the international

community to save the theatre.

He refuses to comment on what happened to the money allegedly offered to save the

theatre, claiming ignorance. Instead he salutes the strong growth of cultural activity

since the end of the civil wars, the fact that it happened in spite of corruption

affecting all areas of life and leaders who show little interest in culture. In spite

of it all, "we have proved that culture is at the root of the Cambodian identity,"

he says.

That remains to be seen. On tour abroad, the gilded apsaras and tribal drummers enjoy

lasting impact and are viewed as among Cambodia's most precious resources. With the

death of so many artists during the civil wars, international funding bodies have

focused on research and training and the results have been outstanding. The financial

impetus has largely come from abroad.

But a wholesale cultural revival requires equal commitment from the host country.

In Cambodia, a handful of surviving classical dancers and coaches are revered among

their own communities, but the majority are treated by the government as aging functionaries

and forced to live off salaries of $25 a month. The younger generation, meanwhile,

faces an enervating daily struggle against nepotism and corruption. Given the chance

to travel, some choose to leave, especially to the United States, where they work

in difficult conditions and have few opportunities to perform.

It is this state of affairs that prompted Rithy Panh to lay the case for the arts

in Cambodia.

"Many at the top see the arts as something not entirely serious," he says.

"They can't see how culture can rebuild our society. If the new casino had been

the one to burn down, I wonder how long it would take to rebuild that?"

He compares homelessness for the National Theatre Company to the Comedie Francaise

having no Chatelet Theatre or Japan's best Kabuki troupe without its famous home

on the Ginza. In either country, it wouldn't be tolerated.

But there's another crucial element in the story.

Before Pol Pot, at least 300 artists were professionally engaged at the Bassac theatre

to give fairly regular performances of classical and folk dance, bassac opera, yike,

spoken theatre, acrobatics and live music. About 80 percent never returned. During

the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture made a concerted effort to identify and lure all

surviving musicians back to Phnom Penh, triggering the beginnings of a cultural revival

punctuated with a 1988 festival inside a Bassac Theatre which had been little affected

by the wars.

As a new company began to form around the theatre, many artists joined scores of

other returnees in setting up makeshift homes in Dey Krahom (literally Red Soil),

not far from the theatre. Growing to 5,000 people by 1994, the shantytown community

occupied a central strip of land between Molyvan's dilapidated "White Building",

erected in 1964 to house municipal staff, and his "Grey Building", once

fancy apartments but now completely altered and home to Build Bright University and

an ANANA computer store.

Attempts by the government to prevent settlements like Dey Krahom was overridden

by UNTAC authorities. But the result today is that the settlement is seriously overcrowded

and has become something of a white elephant for the municipal authorities. By the

beginning of 2004, Dey Krahom housed up to 12,000 people, of which at least 300 are


Many residents eke out livings at Dey Krahom selling garbage or groceries or scouring

the waterfront for work. They play chess and pool and croon away to karaoke, seemingly

oblivious to the debris piling up around them. Underneath a veneer of cheerfulness

are the most unsanitary of conditions. Occupying dwellings of plywood and tarpaulin,

dwellers are surrounded by the raw stench of open sewers and uncollected rubbish

and come down with easily preventable diseases.

The artists have formed a strong community. Through long established networks, apsara

dancers, chapei players, Rama-yana monkeys and acrobats, many who worked in the Bassac

and watched its demise, pass opportunities to each other to play weddings, private

parties or religious ceremonies. In tiny huts they teach each other's children classical

disciplines and there's even a makeshift stage cobbled together from bits and pieces

in an orphanage right in the middle of the site. There, wasp-waisted, eight-year-old

girls dance the apsara for anyone who might be able to contribute a few dollars or


Here too reside some of Cambodia's most famous musicians. Blind Kong Nei and Naith

Pe, two great chapei players, live practically next door to each other. Nearby, competing

with pop refrains are the dulcet tones of 71-year-old Tep Mani, who teaches the roneat

to her seven students. Tep once performed regularly for King Sihanouk. She now receives

a steady pension of 50,000 reil per month from the Ministry of Culture, enough to

last for about a week, if that.

Mao Thy, a monkey dancer, was playing baseball in the grounds of the theatre when

it burned down. Tears streamed down his face as he tried to douse the flames with

any water he could find. Today he is rehearsing a new Lakhoun Khoul at the rear end

of the burned out Bassac stage. His fee: one dollar a day, and no prospect of work

in the immediate future.

Next door, Meas Mari, an instrument maker, is putting the finishing touches on a

chapei made of beng wood. He collects 80,000 riel per month from the army, but with

a large family he needs considerably more. There are few orders these days. What

instruments he hasn't sold he keeps in a truck outside the compound. Like many at

the Tonle Bassac, he fears the entire place will go up in flames any day.

He has reasons to be scared. The "stray match"-or bos chheukous, as the

Cambodians call it-plays a suspiciously typical role in the way land becomes available

for private developers. On November 26, 2001, a fire destroyed about 2,400 homes,

sending families on to the grounds of the Bassac Theatre. This came days after a

similar incident a few hundred meters away and a few weeks after a third fire devastated

Chbar Ampeu Market near Monivong Bridge.

The authority's response in the catastrophe was to forcibly relocate the squatters

to two areas 17 kilometres and 30 kilometres from the centre of the city. Offered

a big bag of rice and a tent, a title to a sliver of land in the boondocks with inadequate

sanitation and no chance of getting to where work is to be found-let alone schools

or pagodas-most took the first opportunity to move back. They rented or sold their

small plots and headed back to the Bassac Theatre to build another makeshift home

with the proceeds.

Interestingly, the fires coincided with Phnom Penh's former-mayor Chea Sophara's

ambitious attempts to beautify the capital and, in particular, face the problem of

the squatter communities along the river area. The consequent chorus of criticism

from human rights groups, especially UN HABITAT, forced the government to drop this

policy in favour of in-situ upgrading through private-public partnerships along the

lines of a proposed development at Borei Keila, a larger shantytown community behind

the Olympic Stadium.

In this case, Phanimex, a private company, plans to develop 30 percent of the land,

taking the lion's share for itself while erecting a series of cheap high-rise apartment

blocks for the squatters with rights-around 1,000 out of 1,776 households. They won't

get the tenure of a communal land title unless they accept the deal, according to

UN HABITAT's Toy Someth.

"The problem is that residents don't want to be seven stories up, or even three,

or accept Phanimex plans to retain the commercially lucrative ground floors,"

Someth says. "It's hard for many to have to mount stairs that high."

At Dey Krahom, things are more complex still. None of the squatters have titles,

yet some families handed over their life savings to corrupt middlemen for the privilege,

while others erroneously assume ownership of their dwellings for having occupied

them for over five years. But these terms, set out by the land law of 2001, do not

apply to land owned by the government or municipality. Officials at the town hall

flatly reject claims of ownership. "They don't own this property at all, and

we're very sorry if they think they do," said Mr. Aunny, a town hall official.

With a wide smile, Pat Nuon, the sprightly septuagenarian who runs an orphanage inside

Dey Krahom, remembers CPP officials arriving during the last election campaign to

promise squatters land titles in return for votes. "They cannot get rid of us,"

he says optimistically.

The CPP guys never returned with papers, he notes. He bought his land for $250 to

set up the orphanage from the Ministry of Culture, he says, pointing to an imaginary

line beyond the perimeter, where the old road had once been. This, he says, remains

public land.

In spite of the best efforts of several NGOs, there seems no way out of the imbroglio

at Dey Krahom. Three companies have tried unsuccessfully to persuade the community

to accept three different deals, according to Seoung Chhenry, a community leader.

The use of high-rise apartments is once again the sticking point. "The fact

that private companies are forced to negotiate with us proves to me that we must

own the land," says Chhenry.

Inaction is the likely outcome, as is the continuing hardship for the community of

artists and artisans still in some way dependent on this derelict masterpiece of

a theatre. The sadness and frustration has spurred the city's growing network of

arts organizations to launch their own investigation into the tragedy of Bassac Theatre

and proffer solutions.

In consultation with Molyvann, the Phnom Penh-based architect Geoff Pyle has teamed

up with Salapa Khmai Amatak (SKA), AMRITA performing arts, Sov-anna Phum and other

specialists in the arts community to provide assistance to those who are interested

in looking at options for renovating the Bassac Theatre. They see the process as

linked with the government developing a cultural policy and its approach to supporting

the arts, and this will necessarily draw in other sectors such as education and tourism.

Pyle said that it would be possible to reconstruct the Bassac, but the artistic needs

of Cambodia in 2004 are different from when the theatre originally opened in 1968.

It makes sense to forecast what the performing arts will need over the next ten or

fifteen years before working out building plans. He hopes to create a commission,

eventually leading to a feasibility study for renovation.

By raising awareness about the theatre, Pyle hopes they can prevent it from falling

into the hands of developers and their political allies. Any design, he said, can

be adapted to include enlarging the stage and creating valuable rehearsal space as

well as installing state-of-the-art equipment, all without losing what he calls "the

clarity of the concept."

A revived Bassac would then require a management team, a tall order in present-day

Cambodia, where training in arts management is in its infancy. And that is a best-case

scenario. The worst-case scenario would be an emulation of the fiasco of the National

Sports Stadium, a botched restoration of another Molyvann creation.

Robert Turnbull is a Phnom Penh-based journalist who covers Cambodian arts and culture

for a number of international publications and agencies.


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