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The obstruction of grandeur: the Expo of 1955

The obstruction of grandeur: the Expo of 1955



On the cover, things look impressive. Wat Phnom is dotted with exhibition pavilions

and a zoo, walled off by closed roads, temporary fences and entrance gates delineating

the ten-hectare large 1955 International Exposition of Phnom Penh.

The preface of the Exposition pamphlet lists the names of Commissioner Hem Chiam

Reun, chief architect Seng Suntheng and director of the managing consortium Hem Khanh.

The only French name is Pierre-Jean Laspeyres, "expert advisor".

The pamphlet describes the four large temporary pavilions at the foot of Wat Phnom,

displaying the "resource areas" of Cambodia. Sketches by the chief architect

show long, low exhibition pavilions of glass and plastic, their modernist facades

broken by jutting vertical column accents: the Cambodian pavilions of Natural Resources,

Technological Resources, Social Resources, and Cultural Resources. France, Holland,

India, Japan, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam and the United States

each built national pavilions featuring nightime light shows, while smaller rental

stalls for international businessmen lined the Avenue Maréchel Joffre all the

way to the Hotel Royal. The American pavilion featured "a new machine that has

just been invented which allows people to listen to the sound of voices and to see

figures of people at the same time" (television). Special events included sports

competitions, International Festivals of Asian Film and Song and Dance, an International

Competition of Asian Childrens' Drawings, an International Photography Competition,

and an Exhibition of Asian Masks and Puppets. The Exposition of 1955 was to show

that newly independent Cambodia was a legitimate member of the international community.

Organizers hoped that an influx of foreign visitors would also show that the country

was secure and that the process of independence had been relatively peaceful. "If

there are any problems", the pamphlet explains, "it is those problems of

petty theft known to all countries throughout the world". But there was also

an economic aim. A country with plenty of natural resources would not be prosperous

until foreigners knew that it existed: "Things only have value when people buy

them and if no one knows what things our country has, how can they come and buy them?

It is for this reason that our country has decided to organize this International

Exposition. To put it concisely, the Exposition has as its goal to publicize the

goods and products which our nation possesses and produces".

Given this expansive language, one would assume that the International Exposition

was a state-initiated and sponsored event. Instead, documents published a year later

in a special edition of Angkor trace a story of private interests using public means

for an imagined future windfall. The idea for the Exposition came rather from the

"expert advisor" and freelance journalist, Laspeyres.

In Laspeyres' own words, "his" Exposition was meant as "a kind of

grand inventory... a general taking-of-stock of all the resources of the Kingdom.

Impelled", as he gushes in his post-Exposition report, "by the feeling

that Cambodia was insufficiently aware of its own resources" - that "preoccupied

with war, political competition, and the fight to gain independence", the country

had neglected its own energies and resources. "My Exposition" would, "in

the interest of the State, offer the world a demonstration of the National patrimony."

There was however a hitch. As Laspeyres was aware, "in practical terms, an International

Exposition is a very burdensome enterprise which States undertake as a labor of prestige,

as a means to bring about fruitful commercial contact and exchanges, which therefore

cause them to consent to great financial sacrifices". Such financial risks and

sacrifices could not however be expected from a newly independent nation and Laspeyres

hit instead upon the "revolutionary formula" of "auto-financing".

Although Treasury funds would be borrowed and the State enlisted for support, all

loans would be repaid on the anticipated success of the grand Exposition. After approaching

his "acquaintance", Sirik Matak (then Minister of National Defense) and

being introduced to Yem Sambaur (a former Prime Minister and then Minister of the

Economy), Laspeyres was enthusiastically received by the Council of Ministers in

May 1955 and the Exposition was encouraged by the government of Leng Ngeth.

But things were unravelling. In the acrimonious autopsy of the Exposition the following

year, discussion repeatedly returned to how such a private enterprise could have

come to be so heavily funded by the government. As then-Prince Sihanouk said in his

preface to Angkor, the Commissioner of the Exposition had, through an ongoing "sleight

of hand", "denied the legitimacy of the government to oversee his financial

administration of the Exposition, arguing that the Exposition was a private enterprise.

However when the State addressed him as a private enterprise to request reimbursement

of sums advanced by the State, the Commissioner hastened to turn himself back into

a civil servant in charge of a governmental enterprise. "Voila", Sihanouk

said, "the history of the International Exposition of Phnom Penh". Apparently

Las-peyres, having sold the government the idea of mounting a private Exposition

which carried the name of the State, immediately borrowed 4 million riels from the

government to begin. A newly-formed company headed by the brother of the Exposition

Commissioner was awarded the day-to-day management of the Exposition in return for

20% of the profits. Laspeyres was one of the few shareholders.

Problems mounted. The management company awarded verbal contracts to private contractors

without competitive bidding. The Commissioner travelled extensively on "ambassadorial

missions", leaving matters in the hands of his brother. Borrowed funds were

spent with the work less than half finished and the contractors threatening to strike.

Because the Exposition used the name of the State, there was no option except to

go forward, since to cancel with foreign nations already having accepted their exhibiting

obligations would have been, in Sihanouk's words, to "lose face". Thus

the private organizers of the growing debacle found it easy to get another 6 million

riel "loan" from Sihanouk's new government in late October. This came with

obligations: the Commissioner had to dismantle his brother's company, the contract

for 20% of the profits was annulled and other stipulations as to the character of

the Exposition were enforced.

Laspeyres' analysis blamed everyone except himself. He said the organizers were impeded

at every step by government officials who either did not understand or ignored the

organizers' tight working schedule. "An Exposition", he said, "naturally

works to build prestige and prestige can only be conveyed through grandeur".

Instead, organizers were hemmed in by petty officials who worked to guarantee that

"his" Exposition would never become great. "Even though its goal was

to show to the entire world and to Khmers themselves..." still the preparations

for the Exposition were "without cause impeded, diminished, reduced, even deliberately


It got no better once the Exposition opened. On the third day, a government decree

banned 28 gambling stalls which, according to Laspeyres, would have added considerably

to the profits. Sihanouk said that the gambling rooms were detrimental to Khmer society.

But Laspeyres said: "Such an Exposition is not to be without attractions and

spectacles: it is not with educational displays that one causes a huge public to

come. The attractions (gambling, restaurants, the zoo) are presented in order to

bring the public to the enclosure; the work of education works better as a consequence

and as a surprise".

By all accounts, the best spectacle of the Exposition was the unplanned circus at

the gates. For it is here, Laspeyres estimates, that more than a million riel were

lost each day. Instead of doing their job overseeing security staff and ticket sellers,

police joined ranks with the ticket takers becoming "a group of useless parasites...

engaged in a scandalous traffic of ticket manipulations". Not only did they

all resell used ticket stubs at half price and pocket the money, the ticket takers

dug holes under the Exposition walls and charged arbitrary prices for their use.

The policemen in charge of checking cars for the numbers of passengers registered

on their special tickets instead waved everyone through with abandon. Laspeyres cornered

a policeman and asked the reason for such "cavalier behavior". Caught in

the spirit of internationalism, the policeman replied, "because the whole world

is doing it".

Information for this article was taken from three National Archives of Cambodia

files, Box # 84, 183 and 215 (Fonds de documentation). The National Archives is open

Monday - Friday, 8.00-11.00 and 2.00-4.30. It is located behind the National Library.

All are welcome to consult its holdings. The reestablishement of the catalog of its

holdings is in progress, a process which is being facilitated by the generous support

of the Embassies of Australia, France, and Switzerland.


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