In the third of a series of articles focusing on the architectural legacy of Cambodia's
French Protectorate era,Phelim Kyne looks at the old Cercle Sportif, and its
glory days as the hub of the French colonial social whirl.
The turn of the century might be time for a face-wash.
hnom Penh's annual "masked fancy dress ball" of Dec 1934 marked the pinnacle
of the Cambodian French Protectorate's social season, and its hosts, Madame and Monsieur
Sylvestre, were determined to do it right.
Presentation of costumes occurred on the balcony at 10:00pm followed by a midnight
banquet in the main hall. The venue, of course, was the Cercle Sportif.
Sixty-four years later, the building where the Sylvestres held court for an evening
with the leading lights of Phnom Penh's French colonial society still stands within
the gates of what is now the International Youth Club.
Masked balls and midnight banquets are just memories in the now-deserted main hall
and terrace areas, and the southeast corner of the building has been relegated to
serving as a video rental outlet.
It's a far cry from what its planners foresaw for the structure that from its inauguration
on November 13, 1929 served as the heart of leisure-time activity for Cambodia's
French colonial elite.
"In this atmosphere of youth, of grace overcoming adversity, nothing can be
more successful than this small marvel of good taste," remarked the French Protectorate's
Resident Superieur in a speech marking the official inauguration of the Cercle Sportif.
"This place is essential to the colonial existence, where people can agreeably
pursue sports, where after a tiring journey or the monotony of menial work people
can enjoy a milieu of sociability ... with congenial companions."
Although National Archives records indicate the existence in Cambodia of sports clubs
that engaged in pursuits as varied as football, tennis, basketball, ping pong, boating,
dance, lawn bowling and other "athletic games" as early as 1922, the Cercle
Sportif was the first to provide a variety of modern sports facilities at one location.
Archival records document regular visits to the Cercle by rival sports teams from
Saigon to compete with Phnom Penh-based teams.
Activity at the Cercle got a royal seal of approval in January 1931 when the first
annual Monivong-Sisowath Tennis Cup was held on the Cercle's courts.
On February 13, 1932 the Cercle's facilities expanded to include Phnom Penh's first
swimming pool, prompting an expression of obvious relief and pride from Cambodia's
"Phnom Penh finally has a pool," the Resident Superieur proudly announced
during a speech at the pool's official inauguration. "This will most assuredly
be the site of major sporting events that will not fail to attract world interest."
But the sweat and exertion expended around the Cercle Sportif during daylight hours
paled in comparison to the intense activity that unfolded there after the sun went
Archival records of noteworthy athletic prowess demonstrated at the Cercle are outweighed
by invitations and official responses to invitations to various balls and parties
held there, including annual events such as the Cercle Ball and the Masked Fancy
Dress Ball, as well as welcoming receptions for visiting sports delegations from
other parts of then-French Indochina and beyond.
Organizers of parties at the Cercle seemed to have rarely been at a loss for grounds
to throw a party. In March, 1934 the Sylvestres were again hard at work sending out
invitations for a celebration "to mark the second anniversary of the pool's
While both sport and social activities of Phnom Penh's French community at the Cercle
were enthusiastically sponsored and participated in by Protectorate authorities,
attempts to form sport associations outside the Cercle were greeted with considerable
An application by a Father Thieux for permission to form the "Russey-Club"
sport society prompted an investigation by the Sûreté, the French colonial
secret service, into the background of its organizers.
The Chief of the Sûreté reported to the Resident Superieur that three
of the "Russey-Club's" organizers were "local inhabitants with francophobe
The Sûreté recommended that the application for permission to form the
club be denied on the grounds that "It is feared that the Russey-Club, if established,
would come under the influence of these three individuals hostile to our cause."
The same fate met the application for the establishment of the "Femina Club"
Femina Club leader Mademoiselle Nguyen Thi Mau described the need for a "women
only" sport club as essential "as in a tropical climate in which we live,
it is absolutely indispensable that men and women practice sports to maintain good
physical and moral health."
The Chief of the Sûreté, however, was considerably more skeptical about
the motives of Mademoiselle Nguyen and her fellow aspiring Feminas.
"Given the evolution of Annamite feminism, I'd advise that this request be rejected
rather than in the future face a group unconcerned with sport but instead committed
to political activities."
The Cercle Sportif remained a focal point of Phnom Penh social life into the early
1970s, when its membership was prized by foreign correspondents who could then claim
"visiting member" privileges at the far pricier and exclusive Cercle Sportif
The Cercle's half-century of athletic and frivolous pursuits came to a decisive end
in April 1975 after the Khmer Rouge takeover of Phnom Penh.
A large number of Cambodian government officials, marched out of the presumed sanctuary
of the French Embassy by Khmer Rouge forces, were reportedly driven the half-kilometer
up St. 47 to the Cercle to be executed, their bodies thrown into the filthy, half-empty
Much of the information for this article was obtained from the National Archives
of Cambodia, which is supported by the Toyota Foundation, the French Embassy, and
the Centre Culturelle Français.