The story of the White Building is a story of many stories. There is the story of its pre-history, the story of its beginning before it was known as the White Building and before the Khmer Rouge, when it was the architectural dream child of Cambodia’s most prominent architect, Vann Molyvan, an innovative experiment in urban living, one of the first multi-family residences in the entire country, designed to ease the people of a rural nation into a modern lifestyle. There is the story of the building’s artistic past, of a community of artists and artisans, genocide survivors all working together to try and salvage the cultural remains of a decimated society. There are the hundreds and thousands of stories of each of the White Building’s residents, how they became intertwined with one another and the building itself. If one turns to the press, however, one is unlikely to find any of the stories mentioned above. Rather, accounts given in newspapers, magazines and TV are far more limited and they differ drastically from each other depending on whether the source is local or international. Indeed, in the media there seem to be two concurrent (and drastically opposing) narratives about the White Building: that of a place of vice and criminality, a brothel, a home of drug dealing, pimps, and human trafficking, and the story of a struggling community of Phnom Penh’s most disenfranchised poor – the remaining artists and other citizenry – fighting against a government which wants to evict them and raze their home for other development. When one notices this disparity in narrative, the pressing question then becomes, once the threads of these stories are unraveled, which – if any – offers a truer picture?
The more pervasive of these narratives in the international press is the story of a White Building which calls itself home to child prostitution and sex slavery, heroin dealers and drug mafias, a home of not just crime and sin, but of crime and sin of the most exploitative type. Accounts of this kind in the international media run the gamut from understated citizen journalism to sensationalistic mainstream stories. Gaia Photos, a well known, user-contributed photojournalism website describes the White Building in a story about prostitution in Cambodia, while Marie Claire published a particularly sensationalistic account. My own experience and observation while living in the White Building is insufficient to properly speak to the veracity of this description. Certainly there exists a fair amount of both prostitution and drugs. The offers made at the front of the complex in the post-twilight hours attest to this, as do the warnings of my concerned neighbors, encouraging me to avoid using particular entrances or stairwells when coming and going after dark. With regards to the important question of degree, however, I cannot say whether the situation is one of voluntary prostitution or if the even more extreme situations involving human trafficking, forced prostitution or child prostitution are also present. In either case, while a strong criminal element certainly exists, it would be false to present this narrative as characterizing the building as a whole.
On the other hand, the description presented of the White Building which dominates in the local, English language press and among advocates and activists living in Phnom Penh is the story of an eclectic community of disenfranchised urban poor who are threatened with uncompensated, forced eviction by a government which would rather see a shopping mall or hotel built in place of the White Building than invest what’s necessary to repair it. The problem (for the building’s residents) stems back to 1979, when Phnom Penh was repopulated after the city-wide forced evacuation of the Khmer Rouge era. In the inevitable chaos which characterized the resettlement period, both returning Cambodians and the government were often too preoccupied with other problems of the time to keep proper records of what was happening. 30 years subsequently, many of the people who originally occupied the White Building have never managed to have their ownership or residency officially documented. While this may seem strange to a Western audience, I stress that the people we’re talking about live in a society where official documents are less common and hold less weight than they do in the industrialized West. In traditional Cambodian society (as in most pre-industrial societies), one’s rights to one’s property aren’t demonstrated on paper, but rather they are proved by one’s membership in the community; the testimony of one’s neighbors is what shows you own your land, not a stamp, a seal, or a signature. It is only recently, with Cambodia’s economic boom and the concomitant flurry of real estate development in Phnom Penh, that the authorities have taken any interest in enforcing the rules for documentation, and even now, it seems, only when it is to the advantage of investors and developers. The White Building of this narrative is home to families, civil servants and local merchants; to children and the elderly; to thousands of people crammed into a space better suited for hundreds, each with legal claims and emotional ties to the community they call home. This, truth be told, is the White Building I experienced in my stay. A White Building of children swarming the halls with play and quarrels, of grandmothers in hammocks strung from the stairs beside coffee houses and sundry shops run out of people’s living rooms, of men drinking beer on the public patio and teenage girls doing each other’s nails in the stairwells. “The crumbling chaos of human existence known as the White Building,” as filmmaker Vincent Moon describes it in the Cambodia section of his innovative video project Boomtown Babylon.
Why the necessity to set one account over the other? Why not accept that both narratives have a truth to them, and that such complexities are a part of the world we live in? While these two versions of the White Building may not be mutually exclusive in terms of their truth value, which narrative we allow to dominate both the public conversation and our private conceptions has real ramifications for people living in the building. During my residency period in the White Building, I found myself in a conversation with Nora Lindstrom, Program Development Manager at Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, a local NGO which advocates for housing rights for the urban poor. Ms. Lindstrom is heading a project seeking to give White Building residents legal ownership or documented tenancy rights to their homes. She explained how characterizations of the building which focus on its dilapidated physical condition or sensationalistic accounts, like that in Marie Claire (one she mentioned specifically), which cast the building in the role of a lawless home of exploitation and crime, actually work to undermine the cause of the building’s long term residents who are trying to prevent themselves from being evicted. Every time someone describes the White Building as a slum or a haven for pimps and drug dealers, they help legitimize the government’s claims that it would be best torn down; they make it easier for a mercenary municipal authority to forcibly remove the building’s residents and sell off the land rights to a real-estate developer. So while it does indeed seem that both versions of The White Building story are true, by focusing the public conversation on the building’s criminal element, both concerned citizens and the media may be doing more harm than good.
Interestingly, with the wealth of attention paid to the White Building and its communities, the narrative missing from public discourse is the very narrative through which its modern identity first emerged: the building as a space for artists and artisans to rebuild a cultural legacy almost destroyed by civil war and dictatorship. Although thirty years may have passed since then, with the economy booming and the country well on the road to recovery, the need for such a space seems greater now than ever. The contemporary threat, however, is not the cultural decimation of the Khmer Rouge, but of a predatory, capitalistic urbanization process, the kind of myopic, unplanned development more likely to turn Phnom Penh into another Bangkok than a Seoul or Tokyo. In the face of this, the artistic community remaining in the White Building and the young generation following in their footsteps are all the more important and their work all the more difficult.