Further research into the White Building has revealed that it is far more well known, both throughout Cambodia and abroad, than I had realized. It isn’t, however, the story of a community of artists working together to try and salvage the cultural remains of a decimated society for which this place has earned its reputation, but rather it seems to have attracted significant attention as home to some of Phnom Penh’s most notorious drug dealing and prostitution rings. Upon reflection, I do remember this being mentioned when Lyno and his colleagues told me about the White Building in May (I actually mentioned it in passing in the last post), but this element of the story seems to have been overshadowed by what – to me – was the more interesting and relevant aspect of the story. Indeed, there seem to be two concurrent narratives about the White Building – that of the brothel, home of drug dealing, pimps, and sex slavery, and that 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. 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, at least 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 exploitive type. Accounts of this kind in the international press run the gamut from understated citizen journalism to sensationalistic mainstream stories. Gaia Photos, a user-contributed photo journalism site describes the White Building in this story about prostitution in Cambodia, while Marie Claire published a particularly sensationalistic account, which can be found here. As for how my own experience and observations of the last five days speak to the veracity of these this description, I can’t claim to refute it – my time spent here is insufficient know enough to do so – but I do claim that at the very least the description is one-sided and incomplete. Certainly there exists within these walls a fair amount of both prostitution and drugs. The offers made to me at the front of the complex in the twilight hours attest to this, as do the warnings of both Lyno and my neighbors to avoid using the front wing of the building or its stairs when coming and going late at night. I cannot (having not accepted any of the goods or services presented ) say whether or not the situation is one of forced and/or child prostitution, but while something is certainly going on, 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 ecclectic community of disenfranchised urban poor who are threatened by uncompensated, forced eviction by a government who 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. With little legal documentation in the way of title deeds surviving KR period, squatting ran rampant throughout the city and in the 30 years which have passed since, many of the people who settled there never managed to have their ownership of their flat officially documented. While this may seem strange to a Western audience, I stress that the people we’re talking about live in a neighborhood, in a city, in a country, where such things are uncommon. 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 enforcing the system of bureaucracy, and even now, it seems, only to the advantage of investors and developers. The White Building of this narrative is home to families and couples, civil servants and local merchants, 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’ve experienced in the last five or so days. 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 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 sad 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. Yesterday afternoon 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 over their homes. She explained how characterizations of the building which focus on its dilapidated physical condition or sensationalistic accounts, like that in Marie Claire, 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. While in my own, short-term estimation of things, both narratives seem indeed to be simultaneously true, for these reasons, I lean towards honoring the latter with more attention than the former.
Interestingly, with the wealth of attention paid to the White Building and its communities, the narrative missing from the public conversation is the very narrative through which I learned of it in the first place: the building as a space for artists and artisans to rebuild a cultural legacy almost destroyed by civil war and dictatorship. While thirty years may have passed since then, with the economy booming and the country finally on the road to recovery, the need for such a space seems greater than ever. The contemporary threat, however, is not one of a dictatorship, but of a rapacious, capitalistic urbanization process, the kind of narrow minded, unplanned development more likely to turn Phnom Penh in another Bangkok than a Seoul. In the face of this, the remaining artistic community left in the White Building and the young generation moving in in their footsteps are all the more important and their work all the more difficult. Good luck to them.