Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cambodia: Look to Wakanda for inspiration

Cambodia: Look to Wakanda for inspiration

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
photo by Marvel Studios

Cambodia: Look to Wakanda for inspiration

As the sounds of demolition and construction continue to ring out across Phnom Penh, we are reminded by Hollywood that cities of the future need not fully replace the small towns and communities of the past. Yet, it should not take a superhero, whether Superman, Batman or now, Black Panther, to remind us of that.

Black Panther, Marvel’s blockbuster early-2018 entry in its cinematic universe, has grossed more than $1.3 billion since its release.

That includes more than $105 million in China, and some $50 million in Southeast Asia with Indonesia accounting for more than $12 million, Malaysia for $10 million and Thailand for some $9 million. Those box office numbers make Black Panther the highest-ever grossing film based on a single superhero.

But more than setting a new standard for comic-book-inspired projects, the film, set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, has caught the attention of urbanists in its presentation of city life. Indeed, Southeast Asia’s property developers and urban planners – including those with their eyes on Cambodia – should take note of how urban life in the film is depicted.

A good part of the film takes place in Birnin Zana, the capital of Wakanda, a fictional African nation protected from outside influences by the Black Panther, whose real identity is T’Challa, the king of the technologically advanced, but isolationist, country.

What is striking about Wakandan city life is how different it is from what we have become accustomed to see in movies offering a view of modernity, as well as in our own travels through the rapidly growing urban areas of much of Southeast Asia.

Indeed, the harsh division of past and present – which has helped fuel an in-with-the-new, and out-with-the-old mentality – has not always existed in the region.

One need only to look to Cambodia’s “Golden Age” of the 1960s as an example, when Cambodian architect Vann Molyvann fused building features of the Angkor Empire with modern design elements to help launch the “New Khmer Architecture” movement. His works were hailed for its synthesis of style and tradition.

By looking back, Molyvann’s forward-looking designs remained authentically Khmer. Sadly, many of his works have succumbed to Phnom Penh’s breakneck development and to a vision of urbanisation that seemingly emphasises size over authenticity.

It is this authenticity, however, that is among the critical ingredients in what goes into designing a healthy city.

That’s according to the Philips Center for Health and Well-being, a Netherlands-based think tank focused on improving the lives of people around the world. Rather than ignore history, urban planners and developers should embrace a city’s heritage, culture and environment to create a unique sense of place and identity.

This uniqueness, of seeing something we have never seen before and that exists nowhere else, is what we also react to when we see the vibrant streets of Wakanda on screen.

The challenge of preserving the best of the past is likely to only grow, as more people move from rural to urban areas, and inequality increases across the region.

A recent United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs annual World Urbanization Prospects report projects that many of Southeast Asia’s cities will experience double-digit growth between 2015 and 2025.

Manila, in the Philippines, is projected to grow 17.4 percent, from 12.9 to 15.2 million people; Jakarta, in Indonesia, 22 percent, from 10.3 to 12.6 million; and Bangkok, Thailand, 11.2 percent, from 9.3 to 11.0 million.

This rampant urbanisation has come at the expense of the region’s architectural richness and cultural fabric. What replaces many a cityscape is a generic blandness. This “mallification”, punctuated by the existence of a generic mega mall that is transplanted from country to country, too often draws little or no design influence from a country’s legacy.

Spoiler alert! As the movie Black Panther draws to a close, Wakanda’s leader, T’Challa, informs the United Nations of his decision to reveal the true state of his country’s advancements and development. The scene concludes with a foreign official responding by asking what Wakanda has to offer the world.

Here is one clear answer. Wakanda shows there need not be a default setting for what urbanisation looks and feels like. Dynamic, resilient living cities need not simply be Hollywood make-believe. Cities everywhere will continue to grow, but they can also do so by embracing their rich pasts while building a vibrant, unique and inclusive future. That too remains Cambodia’s challenge and opportunity.

Curtis S Chin, a former US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank, is managing director of advisory firm RiverPeak Group LLC. Jose B Collazo, a Southeast Asia analyst, is an associate at RiverPeak Group LLC.
Follow them on Twitter at @curtisschin and @josebcollazo.

MOST VIEWED

  • NagaWorld casinos set to reopen, schools to follow

    NAGACORP Ltd has requested that it be allowed to reopen its NagaWorld integrated resorts in Phnom Penh after the government recently approved casinos to operate again, provided they follow Covid-19 prevention measures set by the Ministry of Health. Mey Vann, the director-general of the Ministry

  • Cambodia armed with money laundering laws

    Money laundering will now carry a penalty of up to five years in prison while those convicted of financing terrorists will be jailed for up to 20 years, according to new laws promulgated by King Norodom Sihamoni and seen by The Post on Thursday. Comprising nine

  • Schools to be reopened in ‘three stages’

    With guidance from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Ministry of Education, Youth and Sport, is in the process of reopening schools in three stages. But no timeline has been set, ministry spokesperson Ros Soveacha said on Thursday. Soveacha said the first stage will be to

  • Thai border crossings eased

    The Cambodian Embassy in Thailand said in an announcement on Wednesday that Thailand’s government has allowed certain passengers from several countries to enter its borders. The visitors must go back to their country immediately after their duties in Thailand are fulfilled, the embassy said.

  • Gov’t says tourism recovers slightly despite pandemic

    The Ministry of Tourism and the Phnom Penh municipal administration have recognised 33 tourism businesses in the capital which have consistently implemented safety measures for tourists and adhered to the code of conduct issued by the ministry. Recently, the ministry announced that tourism businesses had to

  • Mull ASEAN border opening, PM urges

    Prime Minister Hun Sen has requested that ASEAN launch a scenario for gradually reopening cross-border travel and trade between countries in the region. He said ASEAN has had more success combating Covid-19 compared to other regions. The prime minister’s request was made at the

  • Ministry reports 11 new Covid-19 cases, reiterates vigilance

    Minister of Health Mam Bun Heng has urged people to continue practising virus prevention techniques after 11 people tested positive for Covid-19 within two days after arriving in the Kingdom. Speaking on Sunday, Bun Heng stressed the importance of washing hands, wearing masks or scarves when

  • Koh Rong land ‘belongs to firm’

    Preah Sihanouk Provincial Administration spokesperson Kheang Phearum told The Post on Sunday that the 35ha being bulldozed by Royal Group Co Ltd in Koh Rong belongs to it after it was leased to it for 99 years by the government in 2008. Phearum said the land does

  • Nine on Indonesia flight Covid-19 positive

    The Ministry of Health on Saturday confirmed nine more imported cases of Covid-19. The nine ‒ eight Cambodians and one Indonesian, aged 22 to 26 ‒ arrived in Cambodia on Thursday via a direct flight from Indonesia and are receiving treatment at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hostipal in Phnom Penh.

  • Kingdom’s financial sector healthy

    Cambodia's financial sector remains on a sustainable growth path despite the Covid-19 pandemic squeezing crucial industries, National Bank of Cambodia (NBC) governor Chea Chanto said. Tourism, garments and footwear have borne the brunt of the Covid-19 impact, he said, whereas the financial and agriculture sectors