Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Old laundry

Digging through boxes I  found a couple of old tees that I thought had long disappeared. My 'war souvenirs' from the July 1997 factional fighting in Phnom Penh (a two day military confrontation [July 5-6] between FUNCINPEC and CPP forces.) To my memory there were a few different war tees. One played on the embassies' reluctance to label the fighting a 'coup' or the assisted exodus of expats an 'evacuation.'  On the front it had a drawing of civilians running to a C-130 at the airport, entitled "This is not an evacuation." On the back it had a picture of tanks on the streets, entitled "And this is not a coup." Anyway, here's a couple of photos on my old laundry.

From my journal:
"July 13, 1997
A good end to a bad week

Last night, Saturday night, was special. The Australian ambassador (Tony Kevin) had a ‘barbie’ at his residence near Wat Phnom. The ambassador's Saturday barbie has long been a regular weekly event open to Aussies and other expats, but this week's was the first truly normal happening since the little war.

Tents were set on the lawn of the ambassador's villa, steaks and chops on the grill and a free flow of draft Angkor. Very well attended by a strange medley of embassy/NGO types, English teachers, journos and construction guys. Rain threatened but nobody seemed to care. The DG guys were there, selling tee-shirts on the side. I bought my first war-related tee:

Coup? Hunpossible!
Democracy? Sensational!

And another with "What did you get up to this weekend?" on the back and the text of the the recorded war warning from the embassy on the front.

We drank beer, socialized with expats, some of whom were actually not leaving the country, and had a generally good time that stretched into the evening. As the sun sank there was some talk of security, but the party plugged on. It was the first truly light, relaxed and encouraging moment since the fighting, and it was the first time many have been out after dark this week.

After the ambassador's party I went to the Heart of Darkness, my standard. Around 30 people were there, mostly men. Light for a Saturday but, according to Samnang, it was the first night the Heart had had any real business since the fighting. People drank and smoked and told giddy stories of ‘where I was when...’ and what’s going to happen next. Like a bunch of school boys, we were all friends last night.

As I put on a light and listened to stories passing up and down the bar, I felt...a rush. Something male, Hemingwayish and no doubt highly politically incorrect. I know it was wrong and shallow to feel this way, but...We made it! The war is definitely over. The week of hysteria is over. Everybody in the bar is a stayer. The spirit and the talk last night filled my cup."

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Bridge Tower Building

Bridge Tower Building, 2008

Bridge Tower Building and Treasury Bridge (Naga Bridge), circa 1900

Originally constructed in the early 1890s, Phnom Penh's old Bridge Tower Building stood distinctively at the corner of Norodom Blvd and Street 108 until last year when it was razed to the ground by the property owner (1). It would have been nice to see this unique piece of Phnom Penh's architectural heritage preserved and restored, but it was in extremely poor condition and would have cost a small fortune to save, if possible at all. According to the Cambodia Daily (2), at the time it was razed the owner pledged to replace it with some sort of replica, but that has yet to come to pass. Yesterday the Cambodia Daily (2) reported a new building had been constructed on the site - a garishly colored piece of architectural lint slated to be an office supply store (see last photo). Regarding the promise of a replica the owner of the property plead lack of funds in yesterday's article, saying she simply couldn't afford to build a replica at this time, hinting it may happen at some time in the future. I won't be holding my breath.

As distinctive as the Bridge Tower was, there seems to be very little published on its history and fewer historic photos than other buildings and bridges of the time. It was a remnant of the Belle Époque and a particularly productive decade in the early colonial development of Phnom Penh. 

In the early 1890s Résident-supérieur Huyn de Verneville initiated several public works projects in Phnom Penh including draining wetlands by the construction of an enclosing canal around the European District centered on Wat Phnom. One leg of the canal ran about 1km from the Tonle Sap River along what is now Street 106/108. Three bridges were built over the canal including the Treasury Bridge (aka the 'Naga Bridge', so named for the naga ballustrades), which linked the European district with the Chinese/Khmer districts and formed the beginning of what is now Norodom Blvd. The canal and Treasury Bridge were completed in1893 (3). The Bridge Tower Building sat at the south end of the Treasury Bridge and was probably constructed at about the same time. Other surviving buildings of the same period include the Treasury Building on Street 106 (namesake of the Treasury Bridge,) the Post Office and the Central Police Station next to the Post Office.

The canals were filled and the bridges dismantled in the early 1930s. The canal with the Treasury Bridge became the boulevard park separating Streets 106 and 108. In 2006, naga balustrades were erected along the short stretch of Norodom Blvd between Streets 106 and 108, creating a faux Naga Bridge where the original sat.

The tower


Collapsed roof


Replacement building on the site of the former Bridge Tower Building. Today.

(1) 'After Demolition, Colonial Building Site to Lie Dormant', The Cambodia Daily, June 20, 2012
(2) 'Store Built in Place of Colonial Building Decried', The Cambodia Daily, May 9, 2013
(3) Phnom Penh Then and Now by Michael Igout, White Lotus Co, 1993

K440: Another Old Building Disappears
Phnom Penh Places Blog: Le Pont Des Najas or The Naga Bridge
1920 Map of Phnom Penh showing the canals around the European District