Sep 19, 2008

Greetings from Battambang

Former Pepsi Bottling Plant, 1960's, with its last employee

Battambang is Cambodia’s second largest city and is in many ways a smaller scale doppelganger for Phnom Penh. It also has an Art Deco central market, just smaller. It has wide avenues on axis with monuments and the beautiful French Colonial Governor’s Mansion; those streets are just less crowded. The main avenue even features a grouping of school complexes, as does the capital, only instead of housing the country’s top universities the well designed buildings are a local high school, a primary school and a teacher training center.

I am not clear on the political relationship between the two cities, located a solid 5 hour drive apart. I do know that Battambang was the origin of Lon Nol’s coup d’état in 1970, which sent King Norodom Sihanouk into exile and effectively marked the end of the New Khmer Architecture movement. The city is considered by Phnom Penh folk as part of the backwards “provinces” mostly because of its relative somnolence. Its examples of New Khmer architecture are few and far between, although it does sport a clever design for a jute mill by Vann Molyvann and Battambang University, a design by Ung Krapum Phka which draws from the university complexes in Phnom Penh. However, the city has many fine examples of French Colonial architecture and some examples of Art Deco buildings which seem to be early bridges between the two styles; mixtures of Art Deco and the roof forms and covered porticos common of the French Colonial style.

On my way to Vann Molyvann’s factory I came upon this old Pepsi Bottling Plant which also seemed to be a bridge between movements, only the two later ones. It featured some of the details common of the New Khmer, while its expressive elements were Art Deco. I don’t know anything about the story of the building. However, there was an old man sweeping the grounds, and when I asked him if I could go inside he politely said no, but gave me some of his story instead. He had been working there for 45 years since it was first built as an ice factory. Now, the plant is closed down and he is the last one left on the payroll. He sleeps in a shed alone and tends the gardens and grounds while the building itself has not been occupied for almost 10 years. I didn't follow what happened to the factory during the Khmer Rouge years, but not all of the factories were shut down then and it’s possible that he had just worked through it.

Now the building will likely meet the fate of many of the factories in this city, which were torn down by land speculators. Again, you wonder what will be put up in their place, but it likely won’t be the manufacturing that provided jobs for the residents here. This is just one more example of the government chasing foreign cash while its people are left to suffer.

No comments: