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,
"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,"
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
"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
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.