It rose when foreign journalists wanted a place to meet and drink, and now more than 22 years later the FCC is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Phnom Penh – an iconic landmark
LEO DOBBS A founding member of the FCC
When I first arrived in Phnom Penh as an Agence France-Presse (AFP) correspondent in April 1990, the country was at war and the capital was under the control of a communist regime. Western journalists passed through regularly, but nobody was based here.
That all changed after the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements of October 1991, triggering an inflow of foreign journalists, including Mark Dodd of Reuters and AFP photographer Stefan Ellis. Wallowing in some down-at-heel watering hole after the return to Cambodia of Norodom Sihanouk in November that year, Mark; Stefan, who now files for DPA and The Daily Telegraph; and myself mused about how nice it would be to drink in our own club.
Less than two years later, the dream became reality.
I got the ball rolling by writing to Hor Namhong, then as now foreign minister, on February 7, 1992, to ask permission “on behalf of the growing community of expatriate journalists now based in Phnom Penh” to set up the first ever FCC, or Foreign Correspondents’ Club. I wrote that due to a lack of capital, we envisaged setting up an informal body without permanent premises to start with.
He gave me verbal backing, but referred me to ministry staff to take the project further. His son, Hor Sothoun, even showed me possible sites for a club, but whenever I was shown an ideal location it seemed to have been snapped up hours before.
So we started looking at other possibilities, including an offer from a Thai aviation entrepreneur for space near the Post Office. But all these avenues led to dead ends until Stefan established contact with a group of businessmen in Hong Kong who wanted to invest in property in Phnom Penh.
Their point person was a young English engineer called Mark Blake, who ran the Gecko Bar near the Central Market with his girlfriend Ali. Through a Khmer proxy, the Hong Kong-based Indochina Assets bought parts of the current building on what was then called Quai Marx-Lenin.
These premises consisted of a ground-floor entrance and offices, narrow first floor area with office and the glorious second floor, with a balustrade overlooking the river and a view at the back of the National Museum. This was carved out of crowded apartments and sweatshops, including one that made cigarettes. The ceiling was ripped out to reveal the wooden ribs of the roof. The pillars holding it up were old sewage pipes filled with concrete. But before we could open I had to make one undertaking to then deputy foreign minister, Long Visalo, who insisted I sign a document pledging that the club premises “will not in any way be involved with prostitution, gambling or any other such unlawful activities”. We also agreed to abide by the 11-page constitution that I drafted.
In late June 1993, the club doors finally opened with a packed launch party. The festivities were enlivened by a sudden rainstorm, while the noise confused the colony of rare bats that lived under the roof. Many flew into the ceiling fans and an early death. I stood on one of the heavy, wooden, art deco-like chairs and told the revellers that the FCC “is a place where we can offer friendship between Cambodians and the rest of the world”.
The first board meeting had been held a week or two earlier in the nearby Café No Problem because the club was not yet ready. With Mark Dodd, Stefan, Mark Blake and Ed Fitzgerald also present, I was elected president. Mark Dodd and Stefan became vice-presidents. In her absence, Kathleen Hayes was named to the board as journalist member.
We agreed to an annual fee of $300 for correspondents and journalists and $500 for associates, but we soon cut these unrealistic prices. By the end of the first year we had 30 paid-up members, including French military officer Hervé Gourmelon, who became a news story in the Balkans, and charismatic Australian caterer Dave Morris, who was later killed in Somalia.
It took a bit of time for the hacks to take to the club, but once people discovered its attractions, there was no going back. The small board was energetic, creative and keen, including valuable associate members such as Barry Rogers, Joan Anderson and Urs Boegli. Looking back, I am amazed at how much we achieved in that first year.
At the start, there was an American general manager and a French bar manager, and profits from drinks, food and hire of the club went to Indochina Assets. They provided an equipped club, including the Reuters news service. We got to offer members 20 per cent discounts on food and drink and kept money from photo sales, documentaries and panel discussions.
It was a marriage of convenience, but one that worked – at least for a few years. We gave them the name, or so we thought, and cachet. They gave us a space which soon became a cultural and intellectual centre in Phnom Penh open to all.
In that first year, we organised about 40 Wednesday night activities, starting with a panel discussion on human rights, featuring top UN official Dennis McNamara and leading humanitarian Thun Saray. We never had an empty meeting, but there was often a mad Wednesday scramble to make sure speakers were coming.
Other panellists included Michael Hayes, the founder of the Phnom Penh Post; Sochua Leiper, now a politician; Mok Mareth, also a politician; Kek Galabru, a key player in the peace accords; royal biographer Julio Jeldres; famous monk Maha Ghosananda; opposition leader Sam Rainsy, UNTAC spokesman Eric Falt (basically bashing his hosts for the night); author William Shawcross; journalist Nate Thayer; and dancer Em Theay. Topics included journalism ethics, TB, AIDS and Buddhism.
We held press conferences for Oscar winner Haing Ngor from The Killing Fields movie; former Prime Minister Pen Sovann; Michael Kirby, the special UN representatives on human rights; and Thailand’s “Condom King” Meechai Veravaidya. Photo exhibitions were also an important part of our activities.
At some stage, we decided we needed a logo, and so I organised a competition among students at the School of Fine Arts. The winning design, which is still in use, was by a student called Som Sokhom. We gave him a $100 prize – a bargain - and club membership for a year.
The design shows the monkey king, Hanuman, with a pen, strip of film containing our initials, and notebooks. The logo represents fair and fearless reporting. We also established reciprocal ties with press clubs in Hong Kong, Thailand, the US, Canada, South Korea and Britain. But perhaps the best thing we did was to allow a group of Cambodian journalists to use our premises to set up the Khmer Journalists Association, possibly the first organisation of its kind and a sign of the times.
Alas, I don’t think it exists any more. Another casualty of the past 21 years has been the link between the club and the correspondents. I was always very pragmatic about the relationship, but I was saddened to find out after a few years that the investors had registered the club name with the Commerce Ministry without telling us.
Today, there are plenty of places that can compete with the FCC for customers, but for a time we played a vital role for journalism and were also the only show in town.
Leo Dobbs now works for the UNHCR in Geneva, Switzerland