Abby Seiff: "The water failing them, they take to the land"
Dispatch from Cambodia + Q&A: A journalist tells the story of the stateless Vietnamese forced to leave their floating homes on the Tonle Sap.
Hello, I’m Emily, and this is a newsletter about how we seek and tell stories to make sense of a rapidly changing world & our personal and collective place in it.
Hello again, everyone,
And welcome to the influx of new readers here. Many thanks to Far & Near for sending you all my way! (It’s a newsletter I’ve linked to here before that rounds up visual storytelling by Chinese journalists, and you should subscribe if you haven’t.)
Diving in: This month’s guest letter is from Abby Seiff, an American journalist and editor who was based for much of the past decade in Cambodia. I first read her work in the Mekong Review and we became acquainted when she edited one of my pieces at Foreign Policy. She recently published a book of narrative reportage, Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia, on the continuing degradation of the Tonle Sap Lake caused by unrestricted human development and exacerbated by climate change, and how it’s affecting the fishing communities that have lived on and off it for generations. She captures both the poetry of the place and the urgency of what’s happening so well, and I reached out to ask if she would be happy to share an excerpt—particularly this chapter on the ethnic Vietnamese communities who have been made convenient scapegoats for the lake’s dwindling bounty. And here it is.
It’s also followed by a Q&A with Abby on her process writing the book—her more pragmatic approach offers some valuable insights—and her experience reporting in Cambodia. I hope you enjoy reading it!
And if you’d like to write a guest essay for Movable Worlds, please get in touch. I pay USD150 for original essays and USD50 for reprints. More details here.
A letter from Cambodia by Abby Seiff
Photographs also by the writer
On the banks of the Kampong Luong inlet, there’s an unsettling new ritual. Each evening, it seems, a family from one of the nearby floating villages draws up in a boat piled high with their worldly belongings. The fan. The blankets. The empty jerry can and plastic flowers and money box and shrine. All of it is pulled off the boat and hauled onto a waiting flatbed truck. When the boat is finally empty, that goes in too—maneuvered up the shore and heaved along the length of the truck by half-a-dozen men, coming to rest on top of the other possessions. By the time the workers finish lashing it to the bed, they’ve created some mythical beast: half-truck, half-boat, the prow extending past the cab, pointing up at the now-darkened sky.
Tonight, a woman and her children are getting ready to depart. They clutch pillows and twist at bag handles as they watch the men slowly turn their watercraft into a land one. When everything has been loaded up, the family will crowd into the cab and drive twelve hours to Vietnam. At forty-five, Mai hasn’t been back in twenty years. Her children, all born and raised in Cambodia, have never set foot in their mother’s country.
“We can’t get by here because there’s no fish,” Mai explains, keeping one eye on the truck. Her purse is strapped crosswise to her chest, a backpack and small cooler rest at her feet. A daughter hugs a zipped square of hammock, her younger brother hovering by her side. They stand, silently, with the rest of the onlookers who have gathered for the spectacle.
“I have six kids and there’s nothing to eat here so we have to go back to Vietnam. No one has any money, so we have to go back.”
The family has decided that Mai’s mother and one daughter will stay. They’ll remain on the lake, looking after their home, in the hopes that the situation will improve and the others can return. Some neighbors have just been wholly moving out. The ethnic Vietnamese villages are emptying: one abandoned home after another left bobbing on the water.
“In five days, five families have left,” a bystander tells me. “It’s getting hard to make a living here. Fisheries officials are really cracking down and arresting everyone. You have to pay one million or two million riel to get out. I got arrested and had to pay 1.2 million riel to get out. They’re always arresting people.”
Some watching, though, are likely to be muttering under their breath: “Good riddance.”
Ask any Khmer fisher about what’s happened to the Tonle Sap and the word yuon will almost certainly float into the many explanations. Yuon is slang for Vietnamese; it is the most commonplace of words but can also be deeply derogatory. Whether they’re using it as a cruel slur or as a casual descriptor stripped of rancor, the fishers are adamant the Vietnamese are the problem. There are too many Vietnamese on the lake; there are too many fishing with illegal methods; there are too many bribing officials and working in cahoots, speeding out to the center of the lake to take the big fish.
“Over there is the Vietnamese village,” my boat driver once pointed out as we sped past. “And there is the Cambodian. They’re separate. We’re going to have a war soon,” he said, laughing.
The reality is far more complex. If some of the biggest illegal trawlers are operated by Vietnamese, plenty are operated by Khmer—and all are doing so with some Cambodian authority’s collusion. Meanwhile, the ethnic Vietnamese population is the poorest and most vulnerable among Cambodia’s fishing communities.
This group is the handiest of scapegoats; the hatred a flashpoint that even today occasionally sparks into violence. Significant territory lost to Vietnam since the 1600s, French preference for importing Vietnamese workers and civil servants during its administration, badly drawn colonial maps, and a decade of Vietnamese occupation following the fall of the Khmer Rouge have all contributed to deep animosity. When it peaks, hostility transforms into terrorism. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Vietnamese were driven from Cambodia during the Lon Nol regime in the 1970s in pogroms that killed thousands. Once the Khmer Rouge took over, the targeted attacks continued, sending ethnic Vietnamese fleeing into neighboring Vietnam. Those who stayed faced genocide—marked as a foreign enemy. Still, after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, most returned to the only home they had ever known: Cambodia’s waterways.
For many, however, documentation that might have proven their Cambodian residency or citizenship was lost in the chaos of war. Without papers, the water is where most of Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese have remained—a floating, stateless community numbering perhaps 700,000 of the country’s roughly 16.5 million population. Even among those whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and ancestors further back were born in Cambodia, most have found it impossible to obtain identification documents. Without those, there can be no school, no government healthcare, no chance of obtaining a land title. And so most of them stay on the water, eking out the exact same living in the exact same place as their ancestors have for centuries, be it a weak echo of what it once was.
“During the fall of the water level we see boats of all sizes sent from Cochinchina to the Great Lake of miraculous fishing,” the French lieutenant Jules Marcel Brossard de Corbigny recounted. The river reversal “is the life of the fishermen that Spring brings there each year, and the most extensive source of trade among the races of Indochina.”
The Annamites from Cochinchina, as the colonial French termed the South Vietnamese and their country, didn’t just enter the Tonle Sap with the yearly floods—they lived there. Henri Mouhot, the explorer, wrote of “a floating population of Annamites,” and a young member of a colonial expedition named Louis de Carné detailed their life on the lake: “The Annamites give themselves almost wholly to their fisheries. Some thousands of their boats are employed on the lake itself, and in the arm which connects it with the Mekong, and loaded very deep with the fish taken,” he wrote.
“Villages are scattered thinly along the banks, others come out over the water, the frail posts which support the huts bending under the force of the waves without its seeming to trouble the inmates. They are Annamites, and, like the buffalo, their faithful servant, if the land fails them, they take to the water.”
Ice comes to the lake in the early morning, from a truck packed with sky blue rectangles taller than a child. The blocks have their own atmosphere, swirling clouds across their handlers. One man swings a pick at a block, catches at its center, and slides it onto a waiting platform. With five quick moves, another man saws the ice in half and pushes it toward a waiting boat. Along its route, the ice will be divided and divided yet again: planks for coolers, chunks for beer, slivers for coffee. Split ever smaller as the day wears on and all the while melting back into the Tonle Sap.
Boats crowd in here, at the edge of the inlet leading to Kampong Luong and the smaller floating villages. They are parked two deep at the mucked bank where land meets water—the vendors beginning their brisk trade with the middlemen. Loads are divvied up and transferred from motorbikes and trucks to boats. A pig head tilts at the sky, sniffing air through bloodless nostrils. Green mangoes—firm and sour—are humped up in a bow. Bitter melon stretches the skin of a plastic bag. Fish, fat snakeheads straight from the farm, are coiled into a wicker basket.
A vendor in a Barbie-pink sweater and matching sandals drags an enormous basket of lettuce onto her wooden rowboat. A trio of sellers sit in their boats, the metal bowls of their scales collecting the rising sun. One kneels in front of a mound of thin eggplants, arranging them on a tarp; a neighbor settles herself before her cutting boards; a third readies to push off with her herbs.
This group rents their boats, $10 for each day, and then there’s the outlay for the food. Selling to people who have no other way to get vegetables, eggs, or snacks should be easy enough, but the economics of the lake just aren’t working anymore. More and more frequently the vendors are falling into debt themselves, spending more than they earn. “I don’t know what to do or how to make a living, I just go day by day. I’ve done this for twenty years and this is the worst year,” one of the vendors tells me in 2016. A wild, flower-patterned hat screens her face and her plaid shirtsleeves are rolled down to the wrist against the sun. She sells chicken and palm sugar, things a family might be willing to forego. If they’re even there to sell to anymore.
“Business is very difficult compared with before. Most of the Vietnamese went home to their country. They can’t make a living from fishing. The government arrests them, and they just go back to their country,” the vendor continues. “Generally, everyone has it so difficult. In the village they can’t find anything to eat. When you drive the boat you’ll see some houses with no people—the Vietnamese went back to Vietnam. And the Cambodians, some have gone to Thailand.”
She begs off and pushes out. A few minutes later, we follow, carving up the gray-green inlet toward the floating homes. By the time we get to the lake’s edge, morning has fully broken, and the sky is streaked hot blue and white, spilling silver atop the brown orbit of the Tonle Sap. As he slices forward, Seng Sokum, our skipper, looks toward villages in the distance, squinting out from under his cap. He’s dressed for business in his polo shirt and khakis, a gleaming new phone bulging his pocket, edging out toward the small tear in his seam. A steering pole extends from the outboard engine, and Sokum keeps his hand curled around it, a gentle push directing the propeller. He’s kicked off his sandals and leans, perched against the small stool at the stern, one bare foot keeping balance on the hull.
The villages here are numbered. Sokum points them out for us: villages 1, 2, 3, and 5 are ethnic Vietnamese, maybe twelve hundred families in total. They’ve been moving out, he says, leaving behind their sparse floating homes. The Cambodians, too, are moving off the lake that can no longer support them.
Before he got this rental boat, Sokum worked as a fisherman, like his father before him. He hopes his three-month-old son can grow up to have a good job, something far off the lake.
“In the future, poor people will become slaves for rich people because they can’t support themselves,” he says with a wry laugh. “If the government created opportunities for people, created investment, Cambodians would not have to leave.”
Upending history, it now goes like this: the water failing them, they take to the land.
It’s early morning at a port near the bottom of the lake and the cockle boats are being emptied at a clip. A teen digs at the shrinking mound of shells—thumbnail-sized mollusks heaped up in the hull like gravel. He’s using a plastic jerry can with the top corner sawed off for easy scooping; each pour into the waiting hamper sounds like a hailstorm. The boy fills the basket to its brim with cockles and a skinny kid in a Hollister hoodie and acid-washed jeans grabs at it like it’s nothing, like it’s not thirty pounds or more, and empties it into a waiting polypropylene sack. The team moves fast, crunch and scoop and pour while their boss, a woman wearing hot pink pants rolled to the knees and a fat clutch of bracelets round her wrist, holds the bags steady. When a bag is full, upwards of one hundred pounds, she swiftly sews the top closed with a length of red plastic string. One, two, three, four, five. The bags are piling up faster than the laborers can move them, sweat trailing down their necks as they heave each sack one by one onto a waiting flatbed truck. All around the workers, a fine dusting of shells lies lightly on the red dirt like prehistoric snow.
Just off National Road 63, partway between Siem Reap city and the lake’s northern rim, a little-visited ninth-century Angkorian temple called Prasat Phnom Krom sits on a small hill. A few hundred yards on toward the lake, dirt roads meander west from the graveled two-lane highway, spilling into grasslands and golden paddy fields. The houses at the edge of this land sit in the shadow of Phnom Krom and cut an odd sight: they stand in two rows, identical blonde wood boxes topped with sky-blue roofs. They’re large and cookie-cutter, so out of place next to the modest, varied neighboring homes that come in all shades and heights and are patched with every conceivable material. Some unknown nonprofit bought the land and built these uncanny houses, selling them at a low cost to a lucky few before vanishing into the ether, leaving residents to buy and sell as they pleased.
Sles El, Aiy Sash, and their four children ranging in age from two to fourteen are among the newest residents—eight months, now, on land. The family purchased the home from a neighbor and moved off their houseboat, one less thing to worry about as the fishing worsened.
Up close, the houses lose their grace. The new wood is warping, bloating until windows and doors become trapped in their frames—there’s a reason most homes here have metal walls and shutters that drop down on a hinge. But land is land, and the family is relieved to have left the water.
“I was a fisherman since I was young, and I lived on the water since I was young. I just moved to land now for the first time,” says El, who is thirty-six. “I think living on the mainland is much easier.”
School is close by, and there’s no worry of his youngest children falling into the lake. The fishing has become untenable. And, posing danger for a small boat, the winds have been worsening each year due, in part, to the mass deforestation birthing new land like his.
“Now you can see, there is a bit of forest but in front there is rice,” he says, gesturing at the paddy abutting a hill all but stripped of its trees. “In rainy season, you can’t even find a tree to tie your boat to.”
As El speaks, his two small sons play on a motorbike behind him, while their older sister looks on. He glances at his children and gathers his thoughts.
“I don’t want my kids to follow me to become fishermen. It’s hard work, you don’t sleep well. I just hope they can get a different job.”
Prince Puthisen was born and raised into horror: his mother and eleven aunts had been blinded by the evil Santema, sent to a cave, and forced to eat their newborns. Only Puthisen survived, growing to manhood and promising vengeance for his destroyed family. Through trickery, he came to marry Kong Rei—daughter of his mortal enemy. And she, madly in love, divulged her mother’s terrible deeds and told Puthisen how to access magic. The marriage ended in heartbreak. Puthisen set out to recover the stolen eyeballs of his family and enact his revenge. Kong Rei chased him, begging the prince to return to her. Instead, he flooded the land. A lake spread, separating the couple. Kong Rei threw her body upon the ground and cried herself to death. She became a mountain, her back and head nestled into the ground, an arm thrown despairingly forward.
Phnom Kong Rei lies at the southern lip of the Tonle Sap, where it spills into its river. If you sit on the bank and stare at the mountain from the right angle, that is what you will see: the hopeless princess prone on the ground, sprawled before the water that tore away her love.
On a drizzly April afternoon, Ly Oeu sips an iced coffee and considers how his life has changed since he left the water two years earlier. In 2015 he moved with his family and neighbors from a nearby floating village to this dusty, new community on a steep bank near the bottom of the lake. Here, just a few miles outside of Kampong Chhnang city, plots were cheap enough that the fifteen families could just about manage to afford them. The river is only a few hundred yards away, but the ground is so high we can’t see it from here. Instead, there’s a view of Phnom Kong Rei—the poignant slopes a hazy blue-green in the distance.
Oeu crosses his arms against his crisp, white T-shirt and screws his mouth into a knot while he mulls his two lives.
“Living on a boat is different than living on land. At that time, we had six kids. Sometimes when we slept, my feet would hit my kids’ heads. Sometimes, they’d kick mine.” Eventually, the family moved to a roomier floating house. The children grew up and left home. But life on the water hardly got easier. “Our living depends on fishing. If we can’t fish, it affects our lives.”
On the land, Oeu and his wife, Saros, built their house and were done—no need to buy new floats every few years or replace rotting walls. Half of the house serves as a cafe, the only one in the village so far and a growing side business. Folding tables are ranged the dirt floor, topped with porcelain teapots featuring cartoon deer and small sugar bowls. A jumble of electric cords snake from an extension. A large tv, perched on a neatly hewn wood ledge, peers down at customers. The coffee is thick with sugar and a silky dollop of condensed milk.
The group chose this spot because of its proximity to the water; their boats stay moored there and they still fish most days. But land has offered other options too. Or, more accurately, without enough fish to get by on, life has demanded them.
Over the past few years, the children have moved to Phnom Penh to work in garment factories. The money they send home now supports their parents.
“If we just depended on fishing, we wouldn’t have enough money,” says Oeu.
And so this land, too, is being transformed. By early 2017, the forest that was once here has been completely cut down. A road came in a year earlier. There are dump trucks and bulldozers the day I visit, leveling out a sweeping plain of cleared, dry dirt. It’s being readied into parcels—part of a government plan to move hundreds more families off the river.
Saros is skeptical that this alone will save the fish. “It’s difficult to say that moving people will make a difference. Unless illegal equipment declines, the fishing won’t improve.”
And so the newcomers, too, will find they need much more. They’ll need money for their electricity and water; money for gas to get to markets; money to make payments on the loans they’ll likely have to take on their land and homes. They’ll need to find second jobs, a new way of living. Their kids will need to leave for the factories, the construction sites. Even now, despite all the trappings of a step up, “it’s very difficult,” admits Oeu. “We live hand to mouth.”
This is an excerpt from Abby’s recently published book, Troubling the Water.
ABBY SEIFF is a journalist and editor who was based in Southeast Asia for nearly a decade, writing for publications like Time, Al Jazeera, Mekong Review, and Pacific Standard, among others. Her reporting has garnered several awards as well as fellowships from Yaddo and the Logan Nonfiction Program. She is the author of Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia. She is studying for an MFA in fiction at Brooklyn College.
Catching up with Abby
Emily Ding: You arrived in Cambodia to work at the Cambodia Daily and Phnom Penh Post, before going on to freelance there. How did that happen and what first drew you to the country? Why Cambodia?
Abby Seiff: I always wish I had a better, more meaningful answer to this question but it was pure happenstance. When I was in my early twenties, I had wanted to live abroad and spent a lot of time trying to find interesting jobs overseas—I didn’t give much thought as to where.
One day, I was looking at a journalism jobs site and there was a posting for the Cambodia Daily. I was shamefully ignorant about the country, but it sounded like a fascinating job. At the time, the Daily operated as sort of a training paper, meaning: ignorant as I was, my writing and editing background (and I suppose eager youthful demeanor and willingness to be paid a pittance) made me qualified to join the copy desk. Of course, there was barely a website back then—so it was hard to tell if this was even a real newspaper and a real job—but the editor put me in touch with an intern who had just returned and couldn’t stop raving about the experience. At the time, it just seemed like a neat adventure and I thought I would do it for a year or so, tops.
In hindsight, I was so very lucky to stumble on this job which changed the course of my life.
ED: What has it been like reporting on and living in Cambodia? And how would you describe your relationship to it? You mentioned moving around a lot, but always boomeranging back to the country.
AS: I came back to New York in January 2019 and this is the longest I’ve been away from Cambodia since I first moved there in 2009.
Even though I came back intending (perhaps) to stay, it’s a very strange feeling not having gone back to Cambodia even to visit. Though I have many dear friends there, I do not think of Cambodia as my home. That said, I spent my most formative professional and personal years there; nearly all of my closest friends are people I met there. So, even being away, it feels like I’m still part of this community in and around Cambodia. It’s hard to explain how a place can get into your bones; everyone has their own experience on that front.
Part of it was the way the Daily was set up—half Cambodian staff and half foreigners (with housing for us, no less!)—which made for a very easy entry into the country. I don’t want to be overly rosy or nostalgic about the job or place, but working there meant I could learn a lot, on the job, in a pretty short amount of time and that I got to report on pretty serious stuff fairly quickly (though it felt like forever at the time). And the other part was that there was an incredibly, maybe unusually supportive larger journalist community—Khmer and foreigner; staff and freelance—which I’ve always felt very grateful for.
I would add that from a very pragmatic, reportorial standpoint, Cambodia had always been sort of a joy to report from because people tend to be quite open and willing to talk to reporters, even about sensitive or political issues. That said, in my own field reporting I am almost always working with translators, which is like a screen of sorts with pluses and minuses. It’s something I think a lot about, but to avoid going off on a long tangent I’ll stop there!
ED: I’m curious about how this book first started to coalesce into one. You were already writing and reporting on the Tonle Sap Lake before you ever thought about writing it. How much had you done before you thought, This is a book? And what was your process in reporting the rest of it?
AS: I sometimes call this book the book of necessity rather than the book of my dreams, because I didn’t do it the way I wanted to.
If I’m totally honest, I think the book started as a bit of a whim. I found a fellowship I really wanted to go to and thought, well maybe I can sketch out that book that’s been bouncing around in the back of my head. The fellowship was wonderful and gave me some confidence in the idea, that it wasn’t too bad, and I started writing sample chapters and a proposal in late 2019, with the idea of finding a publisher and getting an advance and then going back and doing more reporting.
And then Covid hit, and I was sort of in a rush to finish the book and wasn’t able to go back. (I should say, this rush was my own doing because I am not a patient person; I almost certainly could have taken more time but I somehow just really wanted to write the book and get it out, however I could. Maybe I was scared to sit with it too long?) So instead, I turned back to all the field reporting I had done—mostly in 2017 and 2016—and really scraped the marrow.
I always knew that I wanted to weave together the scientific and historical and experiential, but I wanted to make it a lot more narrative—following a few families, ideally going back to re-visit those people I had interviewed in 2016 and 2017—and that just wasn’t possible with what I had. I focused a lot on making those small interviews and vignettes as vivid as possible; recreating the scene as much as I could with photographs. And I focused a lot on creating rich depictions of the lake (again, with the help of the photos and videos). Local media and friends in Cambodia and the photos my colleague Nicolas Axelrod had taken on our lake trips were all supremely critical in helping me flesh out what I feared was a bony skeleton.
ED: In your book, you also mentioned the advice you got on needing to be sure that this was the story you wanted to commit to, because you would have to live for years with it. Did you arrive at this certainty? Did the book always feel like a “guiding light”, so to speak—or were there serious moments of doubt? What was it like writing it during the pandemic?
AS: If I’m being honest, I’d say I’m not the most passionate of journalists. I generally pursue stories because I’m somewhat interested in them or assigned them, but I’m not—like some of my friends—just blazing to cover X topic. And so I did worry about that aspect quite a bit, that I wouldn’t feel that I cared about it enough to be able to stick with it for years.
But, with a book, it turns out there’s plenty to do apart from the writing of it. You find an agent, you find a publisher, you apply for grants, you write it and have friends read it and edit it and throw it against the wall and do some more research because you’ve found a huge hole and write some more. What I mean is, it doesn’t feel like you’re just sitting with this story for years. (You are, of course, in hindsight, but it doesn’t feel like it at the time.) To me, it just became part of my life, a job like any other.
I certainly had moments of frustration, but I also tried hard to accept the limitations of this book, which helped. Once I knew it was not going to be that perfect, incredible narrative book, the going got easier. I am not a perfectionist, which gets me into some trouble but maybe served as a good mental shield in this instance. My only real source of doubt wasn’t at all about the writing but were about the translators, fixers and local journalists I had worked with years ago. Even though this isn’t a particularly sensitive book, even though I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been widely reported and even talked about by government officials, I became very nervous that I’d inadvertently say or do something that would get them in trouble—them, or sources who had talked to me years ago and whom I had no way of finding. I was sending my colleagues drafts and checking with them repeatedly that they were okay being credited, and so on and so forth.
I think because I was writing this so far away from Cambodia, in the middle of the pandemic with no clear return in sight, it was easy to get a little overly worried. As a journalist and editor who is often working off my home turf, my absolute nightmare scenario is to somehow cause problems for the local journalist or translator or source who was generous enough to help me understand their country and situation, or to trust me to edit their story.
ED: I feel like many writers and journalists, driven by a curiosity about the world, share a certain restlessness. Has that generally been complementary to aspects of your life, or is it something you’ve struggled with or had to negotiate? Has the pandemic made you think about it differently?
AS: Restlessness is a very good word. I’m antsy about everything (hence the nine apartments in four countries in ten years I mention in the prologue), and it’s definitely something I’ve struggled with because I don’t think of myself as that person. I like the idea of settling somewhere (or at least having a base) and getting a staff job and staying in the same place and so on. I have some friends who move every two years and that seems unimaginable to me—and yet I’m envious of them. So I think that clash between what I perhaps am and what I would like to be is the difficult aspect. I have been among the luckiest in the pandemic: keeping healthy, being able to find work. I applied for an MFA program during the pandemic, in fiction—something I’d always wanted to do but hadn’t because I thought I couldn’t stay somewhere for two years. It’s at Brooklyn College and I started in the Fall and I adore it. Of course, when it ends maybe I’ll feel as restless as before, only in a new genre.
ED: For those of us who want to learn more about Cambodia, can you give us a couple of recommendations? What’s a good book—fiction or nonfiction—you’d recommend on Cambodia, either written in English or translated into English?
AS: Oh no! Just one? There are so many excellent books but since I can only name one I’ll go with something likely to be little known, which is a beautiful tiny photobook called National Road Number 5 by Lim Sokchanlina. Lina is one of the best Cambodian photographers around and has spent years shooting houses that have been split in half to make way for a major highway redevelopment. I saw one of these photos years ago in a museum and it blew me away. A number of people I spoke with for my book asked: “Development for who?” And while it’s taken me something like 45,000 words to explore that question, Lina answers it silently with these photos.
ED: A Cambodian film or documentary?
AS: I haven’t seen it yet because it’s not been released here, but I am absolutely dying to watch White Building by Kavich Neang. It’s about an iconic New Khmer Architecture apartment block in central Phnom Penh that was demolished to make way for an $80 million tower in 2017 (“development”). By then, the building was fairly dilapidated, but it remained home to about 2,500 residents, many of whom had lived there for decades. It was often classified as a slum, but it included a vibrant community of artists and artisans. As with many of these projects, the development plan entailed mass evictions and poor compensation—certainly far too little to allow residents to move into similarly central apartments.
The evictions of poor communities was basically all I covered when I first moved to Phnom Penh because it was such an omnipresent issue. Sometimes they were very violent, often they were protracted, arrests were not uncommon and at the end of the day it was the same thing: a few thousand more of the city’s poorest residents made poorer and more vulnerable to make way for a sleek new mall or high rise. Kavich grew up in the building, so while the film is fictional I expect it has a really unique insight. The trailer had me tearing up so I can’t wait to see the full film.
Views and experiences related in this essay and Q&A are the writer’s own. Guest appearances in this newsletter hope to reflect the variety of life in this world.
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