A fearless life in the White Building (Bo ding)
on Phnom Penh Pal (Cambodia), 15/Sep/2014 14:31, 34 days ago
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I originally wrote this piece on 25th February 2012 before I had been back to the White Building after that first time. I had forgotten about it until recently and it seems a symbol of how Claire and I built a life as part of Phnom Penh. TheWhite Buildingis the longest building in Cambodia. The claustrophobic flats cram hundreds of families into a series of concrete blocks connected by unlit walkways and stairwells. The White Building is notorious rather than desirable.Anna in the blue shorts was the fearless adventurer who took us here. Ellen in the pink was equally at ease. I am sitting at the edge, unsure of how to join in I think.On our first weekend in Phnom Penh, a fellow VSO volunteer took a few of us to an arts exhibition being held there. We struggled to find it as in Khmer it's called Bo Ding (which doesn't translate as White Building) and were a little nervous as we tried to find the safety of the exhibition amidst the dark clamour of normal White Building life.The exhibition was calledThe White Nightand showed the work of local residents who had received eight weeks of teaching in photography, visual and audio art and other"mixed media". The first art piece that caught my eye was a sculpture made up of random household objects like clocks, a lamp and a turtle.I ended up speaking to the artists - 8 teenagers - who lived in wealthier areas but had created this art by asking inhabitants of the White Building for stuff. They used to be afraid of the White Building but could not believe how generous its inhabitants were in giving them stuff for their sculpture. They now viewed the people and the building differently.This was one of Claire's favourite pieces and it really is amazing the skills and patience this woman must have.Below is the description of the piece. The exhibition was spread out in disused flats, corridors and back alleys. And it was whilst winding our way through this warren that we passed a flat, which like many, had its doors wide open so you could see the main living area.Staring at me from over the dinner table was a blackboard with the present perfect tense at the top and various English phrases written underneath. Scrawled in chalk on the outside of the house's concrete wall were a list of English words and grammatical rules.I could not help but stare. I never saw any of the family but I began to imagine what kind of people give their whole house over to helping their kids learn. Were these the type of people who would live in a building that deserved notoriety?I then began to feel slightly fraudulent. The exhibition seemed to give a sense of pride to some of the White Building's inhabitants. They were no longer pariahs, heck even wealthy white foreigners were coming to their homes. Despite only meeting friendliness and character, I still felt uncomfortable there, uncertain if I was enjoying this forced experience or just surviving it. I wasn't sure that I would ever go back and knew how shameful it was to be this kind of voyeur.Claire and Boramy, who works for Amrita and dances for Khmer Ensemble ArtsIt took a while, but we did go back. Claire worked for Amrita right beside it and made friends with many dancers who live there. There's been further arts exhibitions and dance performances that we've attend, and I've enjoyed the odd meal there recently. $1 for pork, rice and a fried egg is pretty hard value to beat.Me getting food before going to see Boramy dance. Taken by Isabelle who read about the White Night Exhibition just before coming to Cambodia and now lives close to the White Building. Whilst I am now a lover of the White Building, others love the prime city centre location it sits on. There were rumours that a company were secretly buying flats one by one and then the Government recently announced that the building is unsafe and everybody will have to leave. A similar building nearby wasviolently evicted five years ago and the owner of the food stall above wasn't happy at that prospect or the low price being offered. Maybe the more we go, the safer it will be.Gordon