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Colonial ghosts: Ice and beer with the brothers Larue

Colonial ghosts: Ice and beer with the brothers Larue


In the second of a series of articles focusing on the history of some of

Phnom Penh's better known French colonial landmarks, the Post's Phelim

Kyne lifts a glass at the National Archives to the former glory of the

Brasseries & Glacières de L'Indochine Ltd.

The imposing facade of

the old Brasseries & Glacières de L'Indochine building on Street 154 stands

in defiant counterpoint to the ruin and decay time has wrought on its

interior.

These photos by Stephen O'Connell show the toll that time has taken on the once-proud establishment of the Larue Brothers on Street 154, still graced with the jaguar's enigmatic smile.

Once a symbol of French industrial prowess in the capital of

the French Protectorate of Cambodia, the efficient bustle that once defined

Phnom Penh's premier ice factory and brewery is now a grimy shadow of its former

self.

While the outer buildings of the old brewery have survived

relatively unscathed as parking areas and warehouses serving nearby Psah Kandal,

the heart of the complex displays all the structural integrity of a Grozny

high-rise.

Just past a small group of women in the factory's main

entranceway, busy rendering a malodorous pig carcass into an unidentifiably

saleable form, the interior of the building is a filthy rat warren of rotting

human debris.

Sunlight and sorely-needed breeze filter through the

patchwork patterns of what little roof remains into the center of what was once

an antiseptic state-of-the-art facility producing thousand of liters of beer and

soft drinks and tons of ice annually.

In the former offices on the

building's second floor, broken windows and heaps of human feces in varying

states of decomposition seem like calculated insults to the memory of colonial

administrative efficiency.

It's an ignoble finale for a building whose

importance to the community caused the street upon which it was located to be

originally christened La Rue de Glacières.

These photos by Stephen O'Connell show the toll that time has taken on the once-proud establishment of the Larue Brothers on Street 154, still graced with the jaguar's enigmatic smile.

The site upon which the old

BGI factory now stands began its industrial history in 1895, following joint

permission granted by both the French Resident Superieur and King Norodom,

allowing a M. Borrelly of Saigon to open a factory to manufacture "ice to be

made with filtered water, clear without strange odors or taste."

By Jan

1906 ownership of the ice factory had passed to the Larue brothers, French

entrepreneurs from Saigon who changed the name of the plant to Glacières de

L'Indochine, and who within weeks of commencing business had already begun

petitioning authorities to allow for an increase in the regulated price of ice

"for the protection and betterment of the ice industry."

The ambition and

business acumen of the Larue brothers is reflected in many pieces of official

correspondence with French Protectorate officials documenting the steady

expansion and modernization of the factory's facilities.

After months of

consideration of potential safety risks and environmental impact, authorities

granted approval for a mechanization of the plant that necessitated the

construction of Phnom Penh's first large scale industrial oil storage

facility.

By the early 1930s, the Larue brothers earned the gratitude of

heat-stressed expatriates throughout French Indochina by expanding their product

line to include production of the region's first domestically-brewed

beer.

Featuring the familiar "Black Jaguar" logo of the old Brasseries et Glacières de l'Indochine, this letterhead from another era evokes not only the scent of beer but perhaps a trace of opium as well, for those familiar with the colorful - and odorous - history of colonial times.

Cunningly christened Bière Larue, the factory's new output

necessitated both a new company name, Brasseries & Glacières de L'Indochine

(BGI) and a distinctive black jaguar logo that survives on contemporary Beer Lao

labeling.

By the late 1930s BGI factories were busily churning out both

ice and bottles of Larue from production facilities in Phnom Penh, Vietnam and

Laos.

The entry of the Larue brothers into the domestic alcohol industry

signaled a distinct departure from the way alcohol products had traditionally

been produced and marketed under Cambodia's French administration.

Until

the early 20th century, alcohol concessions were considered by French

Protectorate authorities as a poor cousin to the far more lucrative

government-regulated opium trade.

The profitability of opium over alcohol

makes the attitude of the French authorities understandable.

A glance at

French Protectorate tax revenue statistics for 1881 reveals that sales of liquid

opium and opium boules through a regulated network of Cambodian opium dens

reaped double the profits derived from alcohol sales.

Concessions to sell

alcohol - primarily locally-produced rice wines - were paired with opium

concessions and overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Chinese merchants.

The

contradictions in French policy that fostered the expansion of an industry based

on narcotics and alcohol that were either proscribed or strictly regulated in

France did not escape the notice of French reformers of the day.

In a

scathing 1906 editorial in the French-language Saigon newspaper L'Opinion,

Cambodian French Protectorate authorities were accused of "an odious

exploitation of the most disgraceful and degrading vices upon a hardworking,

ignorant indigenous population ... enslaving them to the lowest moral

depths."

Other French observers of the Protectorate's alcohol policies

were struck by more pragmatic concerns.

M. Gilles, a representative of

French distilleries in Vietnam, felt moved to complain to the Cambodian Résident

Supérieure in 1912 that "in this region, Asian distillers, [in particular] the

Chinese, are the sole beneficiaries of this type of business."

And

although the French Minister of Colonies contemplated as late as 1927 the

potential benefits of a prohibition of alcohol in France's colonies, the

proposal prompted Kampong Cham's Chief Medical Officer to counter that

"prohibition is against our ideals and customs."

By 1935, debate over the

morality of the region's alcohol industry had been superseded by concern over

how to maximize profits.

Pioneers in early marketing concepts, the Larue

Brothers of BGI began experimenting with innovative advertising gimmicks in

order to distinguish their product in a marketplace increasingly cluttered with

imported French alcohol products.

In a stroke of marketing genius eerily

familiar to veterans of Cambodia's contemporary beer wars, the Résident

Supérieure granted BGI permission to erect a "seven meter by two meter replica

of a bottle of Larue next to the Martell sign along the road to Saigon near the

Monivong Bridge."

Such efforts apparently paid off, enabling BGI by the

Sihanouk era to expand its product line to include the addition of an eponymous

lemonade soft drink.

The unreliability and scarcity of supplies wrought

by the spiraling civil war caused the production lines of BGI to roll to a stop

for the last time near the end of the Lon Nol period.

Following the KR

takeover of Phnom Penh in 1975, the factory complex was converted to accommodate

a smelter operation for the production of scrap iron.

The BGI premises

continued to be used for that purpose until the early 1980s, when it was

converted yet again to produce bottle caps, thousands of which still cover the

old factory floor.

In the 1990s the facility served as a storage depot

for Coca-Cola. It has stood empty since 1997.

Its days of slaking

generations of Cambodian thirsts long behind it, the old BGI building now shares

the same uncertain future as so many other architectural achievements of

Cambodia's French Protectorate period.

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