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Letter: A Bassac Theater tale

Letter: A Bassac Theater tale

Dear Editor,

It was 25 years ago in 1982 when I and my schoolmates were lucky enough to come to

the Bassac Theater at the river front south of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh and

see the early traditional arts performances after the Khmer Rouge regime collapsed.

 

Though we had little knowledge or feeling of a national pride as teenagers, we were

proud enough to see the impressive theatre and its marvelous beauty. Surrounded by

a spacious garden of blooming frangipani and other flowers, the theater was really

a good place to relax and enjoy oneself. Below the staircase leading to the upper

floor, we watched golden and silver fish swimming in a pool and dancing to the music

inside the auditorium

 

As we looked at the Bassac River through the eastern widows, we felt like we were

riding on a cruise ship across the sea when the Naga Casino, the new National Assembly

and other buildings were nowhere to be seen.

 

Before the drama began, we mischievously flipped the chairs back and forth and felt

the smoothness of their dark red velvet covers. We shouted to the tall roof and waited

to hear the echo bouncing back.

 

No sooner had we played than the lights were turned off and many of us were startled

by the beating of drums as the curtains were opened and revealed a group of gracious

dancers in front of us.

 

After about two hours, the arts performances came to an end. While we were returning

home, my feeling was still attached to the majestic theater. Over the years, I had

returned to see more dramas and performances until the theater was gutted by a fire

in 1994 during its unfinished renovation.

 

Following unsuccessful efforts by its renowned designer, architect Vann Molyvann,

and other art lovers to save the theater, this national cultural symbol was swapped

with a new under substandard building by a private company under a shady deal with

the government.

 

After it fell into the hands of a Chinese-Cambodian business tycoon, the Bassac Theater,

which was originally named Preah Suramarit National Theater, didn't stand long.

 

On December 27, the destruction started. A group of workers were hired to do the

dirty work of knocking down the theater. When the sound of the first excavator started

striking the front part of the theater, a security guard from the National Assembly

rushed to the corner to show his sympathy to the theater while our lawmakers were

busy finishing their unfinished jobs before the year-end.

 

On the fifth day, the lonely excavator was backed up by another yellow dinosaur of

the same size to help pull down the theater. Three days later, the third excavator

moved in to reinforce the existing machinery and the workers in the battle with the

old but strong theater.

 

Under the siege of the three powerful excavators and about a dozen workers armed

with hammers and welding devices, the theater was forced to surrender. The battle

was over.

 

The theater that cost multi million dollars and took years to build was reduced to

rubble in a few days, joining the fate of the shanty houses of squatters at neighboring

Dey Krahorm and Sombok Chab to the south.

 

Now that the Bassac Theater was demolished and many other old state properties sold

or swapped, many people were left wondering: Which buildings or national landmarks

will become the next victims of the war of land grabs and fearsome development in

Cambodia.

Moeun Chhean Nariddh

Phnom Penh

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