Posted on March 14, 2017
The first time I saw the White Building in Phnom Penh I was intrigued with it. It is a building that can’t hide in any city. Boldly towering in an area that changes more every time I visit, the sight of it will stop you in your tracks. It doesn’t seem to belong here. It doesn’t seem to belong anywhere.
Some call it ugly while others call it scary. Many people call it home. It has been an icon here for over since 1963. It’s 468 apartments were part of an attempt to house the quickly increasing low to middle income Cambodians. At one time its beauty stood out much in the opposite way the crudeness and filth stands out today.
Every time I travel to Phnom Penh I make a point to enter its hallways where the unknown lurks in the darkness. The stairwells have no railings. The hallways lack any form of lighting. Only the light from an occasional open apartment door lights the way. Outside sunlight shining from the ends of the building create a tunnel of darkness with a hope of light drawing me deeper into this unreal reality.
While the hallways appear to be void of life I pass open doors and I see an unexpected oases. Many of the apartments almost seem to be from another time and place. I carefully take one step at a time trying to miss the trash strewn about as well as the seemingly random piles of barbed wire. Light filters in from the open air stairways but rather than light the way it almost blinds me in contrast to the extreme darkness.
The White Building is not for the faint of heart. In some corners real dangers lurk. Drugs and prostitution are realities that share space with the more mainstream occupants. Adults visit, children play, meals are cooked and clothes are washed. Not unlike living in any other place. It is mostly a place where very normal people live their very normal lives in a not so normal place.
One such lady is Moeun Thary. I first heard about her in a news article in late 2015 after the government whitewashed a mural of her on the White Building. The mural was painted by American artist Miles “El Mac” MacGregor.
City Hall spokesperson Long Dimanche said “We would not have allowed those people to paint this picture because the painting’s subject is not deserving of being on public view. This picture was not in the Khmer tradition.”
I guess for the government that was reason enough to come in the dead of night and paint over the mural.
It seems that there was a difference in the information regarding the permits to create the image. The artist had engaged the services of a fixer to obtain the proper permits. Money changes hands and words were exchanged, but ink never hit the paper. The work was started and finished in a week but the concealment took only hours.
People were outraged. Here was an image showing the power of a Khmer seamstress holding the tool of her trade. In a country littered with beer billboards and signs people wondered why this piece of art was chosen to be eliminated in such a swift and forceful way.
With the help of my Khmer friend Long I headed to the White Building to find Moeun Thary. She lives on the top floor but a lady tending a store just outside the stairwell told us the access is locked. We entered the narrow entrance and headed up the dark concrete staircase as far as we could go. A locked gate that spans the entire end of the building stood between me and the lady in the mural.
Long shouted to see if anyone would answer. A woman came to the gate and opened the lock with a smile. After climbing the final steps I turned to the right and I could see the silhouette of a woman backlit by the evening sun streaming in at the end of the hall. Long said “That’s her.”
He told her that I was sad when I heard about the whitewashing of the mural and I was here to meet her. A smile instantly came over her face and she led us into her small apartment.
The apartment is small and cluttered. In the main room on the floor is a large cloth being readied by Moeun Thary for her next project. The evening light filters in from the west side of the building. A man, I assume her husband, is crouched on the floor slowly washing clothes by hand in a large metal basin. He would add some input to the conversation once in a while but diligently kept to his duties.
Some other people come and go while I am there. I am not sure if they live in the small apartment or not. There is also a young boy only a few months old as well as a school-aged girl. They act like this is their home.
A framed picture of the image on the building was hung on the wall surrounded by old calendars, posters and family pictures. When I asked if I could make some images of her she took her picture off the wall cleaning off the layers of dust as she prepared for a picture. She is proud of that image and it shows in her face.
Moeun Thary is a friendly woman. Strangers show up and with the ubiquitous Cambodian smile she takes time to talk about the mural, her life, and her future. She is a proud woman. Proud of her work, her family, and her home. And she is proud to know people cared and still care about the woman in the mural on the side of the White Building.
I wish I could have seen the mural but it was only there for a number of days. A reminder to do what we want when we can because nothing lasts forever.
The White Building is set for demolition sometime in the near future. Residents have been given the choice of cash for the homes or the promise of a new home when the new building is built. Trust is not widespread leaving many residents with an unknown future.
Moeun Thary has her future set in her mind. She will return to the White Building once it is rebuilt. It is the place that she has called home for over thirty years.