The premises finally include a main house made of one living room, one kitchen/dining room, a study, a media room, three bedrooms, a large balcony of breath-taking view during all seasons, two bathrooms, and a stone-build library, a wine cellar and a vineyard of around 100 plants of aged grape trees.
For all expatriates who live in Cambodia, 2020 has not been a pleasant year. Stories about people not getting paid and selling items from their already minimalistic households to stick on, or about them going to films at The Flicks without taking a beer or popcorns as the $4 ticket fare accounted for half the amount left with their ABA saving account, have made me shed tears. However, as a member of the Chinese society I have seen worse. To have nothing is far from worrying as I remember how my mathematics teacher put it at the ecole secondaire, as the French would call it, when he introduced to the class the concept of Negative Numbers:
Teacher: imagine your sister has two apples, let’s put the number 2 here.
Teacher: imagine your brother has no apples at all.
Class: poor him.
Teacher: let’s put a zero here, as for you, imagine not only do you have no apples but you owe 2 apples to your sister.
Ever since then, we the Chinese have discovered the great art of owing. Investing using borrowed money had been the favourite activity in the business circles and, most prominent of them all, those in Sihanoukville. When the Chinese Interpol chartered airplanes in late 2019 to ship lots of them back home, the Cambodia bubble nearly bursted for China. The survivors refrained for a few days from visiting their decadent KTVs and casinos, asked their loansharks to make allowances for delayed payments, were determined to make Sihanoukville great again, of course that was until the COVID came. It came, all went quiet, except for the news you and I read on the papers of kidnapping and ransoms. I suppose, the loansharks were pressing quite hard.
Meanwhile in Phnom Penh, we, the respectable Chinese business society, are rather undisconcerted. Speaking of respectability, you will allow me to break in to put forward a few lines in case you are to do business with members of the great ancient civilisation of the orient. The Chinese have one notion called 安土重迁 in our blood, literally it means “stick to your soil, relocate not”. That explains why in the olden days the most severe crime sentence, only next to death, was exile (流放). Some stout practitioners such as my parents would go so far as to not even travel for tourism’s sake, hence they have never seen the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, nor do they care. Nowhere compares to their remote cosy country house. My father nearly disowned me when I told him I was to stay in Cambodia.
That being well understood, it shall be believable if I told you one fact that the best of Chinese stayed within China, the next best moved to “popular” lands such as Australia, the USA and Canada, the 3rd tier relocated to not-so-popular venues amongst which are Cambodia, Philipines, Malaysia and the whole African continent. And out of the portion arrived in Cambodia, the unwanted ones went to Sihanoukville. That should be the context when I said “in Phnom Penh, we, the respectable Chinese business society”, by which I should really mean the comparatively respectable Chinese society of Phnom Penh, in the sense of relativity rather than absolute.
We, the comparatively respectable Chinese business society in Phnom Penh are not disconcerted. Life went on, while people looked more distressed everyday. One day on TV I heard a man saying something rather sensibly against COVID and President Trump, he said “look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” or some line along such bearing. I thought, right, I shall share some of my neighbours’ distress and make them happy, to realise which I found the direct way was to buy some items from their already minimalistic households. In my case, someone’s household was too minimalistic that she wanted to sell me her house all together.
The old Cambodian lady showed me the premises: give me your money, take it away. I loved Khmer wooden houses, in fact I went to interview specialists not long before. So I gave her my money, but found a problem that I couldn’t take it away as I realised a fact that the old lady had a house because she had a piece of land to host the house whereas I did not have a piece of land on which the house must perch. I spoke with friends about my distress and they got me a piece of land on an island in the middle of the Mekong about the suburbs of Phnom Penh.
Everybody seemed happy. I invited some Cambodian friends to dismantle the house and relocate it to my island site.
Before long I found another problem that in the grand and gracious backdrop of my land site, the little Khmer house looked quite sorry and suspiciously wretched, like a malnourished monkey wearing a pair of finely polished human shoes. I thought I might buy one more and assemble the two into a grand wooden house to live up to the standards of my land. Once this idea popped up, things went quite out of control. I suppose you have had the experience of going to the shopping mall. You meant to visit the mall to buy two small batteries for your TV remote so that you could watch how President Trump and Vice President Biden were to fight like school boys. Then you tarried too long in the mall and by the time you came out, before you could tell which was which you went home with a hi-tech giant robot lawn mower, and worse further, you forgot the batteries. This being the situation I found myself in when I bought another Khmer house, thereafter, I started receiving phone calls from friendly unknown numbers through which people told me they would like to sell their houses to me too. How could I refuse? In the end I had four.
Men are pompous in nature. I found that, when you had four houses on hand, you grew over confident in viewing a matter in all perspectives. The strictly traditional Khmer house seemed not entirely competent to me now as I noticed that the style was developed in the age of no-bathroom, water and sink were not compatible to the wooden upper floor where most living activities took place. As a man who loves the shower, I went to my island village to observe how my neighbour villagers coped with it. It was revealed that the ladies and gentlemen came down to the ground with themselves wrapped in a giant piece of scarf under the veil of which they simply showered in open daylight. The art was to make sure every part of the body was showered while the scarf kept dry. Seeing the operation required high levels of delicate handling, I decided I must not venture that way. Accompanying the wood structure there must be a concrete bathroom. And since the concrete bathroom would have appeared too slim and lonely I thought the lower half of the house structure should be concrete too. Finally there came the design.
Then construction started. My village fellows all showed up to witness the most exciting event of the season. Everyone made it their obligation to offer me advices on how the house should be like. Some suggested, as my land shape was narrow and long (over 100 metres long), I should move the house close to the road as any sensible Cambodian fellow would to open opportunities to business instead of hiding in the depth of the jungle; some assured that it would be a good idea if, therefore, I opened a shop selling popsicles; another objected that popsicles required a freezer which consumed much electricity, better a shop selling chicken and rice, only to be vetoed by yet another fellow that chicken and rice was too complicated, given that my water pressure was vigorous the perfect business was car wash.
And then someone pointed out that there were not more than 20 cars on the island, suppose each one came to wash once a month, I would have 0.7 car per day, bad business. In the end, I failed to take their kindly advices and kept my house in the middle of the jungle.
Before launching the foundation work, Uncle Construction performed the poorly equipped ritual of incense sticks, I suppose, praying to whichever relevant gods that helped.
He also amazingly within half a day established temporary houses as the team’s dormant shelter at night and meeting room during day time.
Since old lady sold me the first house in June, it’s been four months, and for four months this has been the only interesting thing for me and for many others in the bleak days of COVID.
Each day, going on the ferry against the morning sun,
And coming back in sunset, now and then I ran into fellow passengers and they would say hello to me: so, you are the Chinese guy who builds a house in the jungle? Really no chick and rice shop?
Asking around about the topic of the Khmer wooden house, one sooner or later arrives at two unusually prominent figures. One is a Mr. Collins, an Australian art historian, and the other is Mr. Hok Sokol. Mr. Collins, as well know to the Khmer culture community, wrote splendidly on the subject of Khmer architecture and had made quite a name of himself by the Odyssean act of moving ancient Khmer houses from their previous surroundings of neglect and decay to his much cared for gardens of preservation in Siem Reap town. And Mr. Hok is the man at frontline who assisted him on both research and moving.
Two ancient houses in the gardens:
The writer paid a visit to Mr. Hok and had a small chat on wooden houses.
A shorthand noting the chat:
1. Reason of the Khmer wooden house traditionally built hanging in the middle of the air.
Majorly to avoid flooding as the Cambodian population has historically been located along the great rivers and lakes over 5 months out of a year flooding was nature’s chief challenge posed to the people. (Writer’s note: insects and undesired appearance of raptors were another reason; also, a lifted house enjoyed better ventilation and breeze.)
2. Lifespan of a wooden house.
Quite durable. With carefully selected wood and correct maintenance it easily stands in good shape for 100+ years.
3. Building fully with timber sustainable in face of rapid deforestation?
Commercial scale planting and farming of timber wood started years ago, hopeful to harvest in ten to twenty years from now, meanwhile a shortage of qualified timber is indeed increasingly becoming the problem as hardwood typically grows thirty to forty years before usable. (Writer’s note: traditionally royal and buddhist buildings made of fine Hopea odorata timber, which is in high demand but little supply today; civilian housing used Sindora siamensis, Dipterocarpus obtusifolius and Xylia dolabriformis which are in less stressed supply at cheaper cost today but still facing uncertain future.)
Mr. Hok’s living room doors and flooring of precious timber:
4. How does a Khmer wooden house compare to the modern concrete brick villa?
Not quite favoured by the young, but certainly favoured by the older generation who hold a nostalgically loving view to the wooden house. Wooden houses must make way for modern development of high-rises in town, yet at proper location with properly selected wood a traditional house can be loved and enjoyed living by many. Mr. Hok has buit over 20 traditional houses in last 20 years for the people of a quaint taste who to this day still live in and love their traditional home dearly.
5. Functionally does a Khmer wooden house beat a modern one? How about coping with heat?
A Khmer house is certainly comfortable to live in provided in “natural circumstances” (writer’s note: no air-cons involved?) being better ventilated, better insulated if timber properly treated, hence being the choice of the Khmer’s thousand-year old wisdom.
6. Structurally, how is it constructed and jointed?
By the ancient art of mortise and tenon, in recent a hundred years aided by the hand-forged steel nails when necessary. This method of structure makes the house strong when standing and easily dismembered and reassembled when required to be relocated. Mr. Hok over the years has moved houses through different terrains, sometimes across provinces by hundreds of kilo meters, which has been a wonder to a foreign eye.
7. How to move a traditional house?
Sometimes on the shoulders of a dozen stout men, sometimes on the wheels of a tractor, other times when required to go far or cross water dismembered and reassembled.
April is the cruelest month, as T.S.Eliot so famously put it, living in Cambodia, one could never truly understand how until one received his electricity bill at the end of the month. With an urban cottage in the style shown below, even electricity did not undo the heat.
Modern designed, large windows, clean-cut lines, all suggest hints of an ideal urban dwelling for the city bourgeoisie. However, as a matter of fact, city bourgeoisie fled as temperature indoors surpassed outdoors by a season, day and night. When spring dawns on the gardens, it’s summer indoors; and when it’s summer in the gardens, the interiors of the cottage advance into the status of Sahara mid-day, as a result in April daytime not only the human dwellers but also their canine companions opted outdoors for a chill out. The trick is the large windows.
Mies Van Der Rohe made the glass curtain wall fancy in the north hemisphere whereas architects of the tropics in recent years took it to themselves to incorporating the idea back at home, neglecting the fact that Mr. Van Der Rohe came from a rather cold climate. The consequence is fatal.
Mid-day Sahara from 7am through 8pm. Tenant of above apartment, which consists of glass curtain walls on two sides, might propose to reduce rent by half as she found it barely, if not at all, habitable during night and not habitable during the day. One cannot help but question the very purpose of human dwelling in its very originality. Why did the first caveman, in the long history of our species, take to moving himself to the cave in events of rain, heat and snowfalls rather than remaining on the surface of the grassland or, like the birds, perching himself on the tree top? He sought alleviation from nature’s cruelty.
Alleviation was the answer, not enhancement. The cave was the very embodiment of such alleviation, that being the purpose of human dwelling in its most primitive definition. And today, the ingenuity of our tropics’ architects afforded themselves no further than inviting us into nature’s enhanced cruelty, instead of its alleviation, by offering the kindly placement of a glass box over our heads, against the sun scorch, literally shown below:
In a similar fashion of the following device as if we were vegetables who strived for budding.
The caveman would have been badly saddened had he had the misfortune to live on and seen our glassed apartments in the tropics.
In the old-fashioned days of King Sihanouk and Mr. Vann Molyvann, tropical architecture was all about sensibility and elegance. One fine example would be The Shop cafe in Toul Kork district.
A faint influence of Palladio on the plan, judging from its cross design.
Palladio’s La Rotonda, cross planned with pediments and access stairs on all four directions, and apartments hidden adjacent to the core of the cross.
Apart from planning, little else was Palladian, much was pure tropical invention to cope with tropics’ harshnesses.
To the south side, where tropical cruelty strikes the hardest, the answer was a curved arcade in line with the walls. Unlike classical arcades in Palladio’s buildings which often sit on columns of Greek orders, its support in our case is fin-shaped arches, providing further sheltering of the sunlight before it arrives at the large windows which are again abundant, allowing merely benign light through to light the interior.
Beyond the arcades are lushing trees and tropical bushes in the backyard to further shelter direct sunlight.
The old-fashionedly built house was apparently meant to be someone’s home. The idea was not so much about not implementing glass, but all about not implementing it so boldly and nakedly in the Van Der Rohe style. That should well have been a point appreciated by the tropical caveman.
The Manchu Empire was a short-lived (1932-1945) Japanese protectorate in Northeast China before and during the 2nd World War, having its capital in Changchun, then renamed as Xinjing, and Puyi as its emperor. Changchun is now the provincial capital city in Jilin and home to the enormously large national Jilin University. Japan in the first half of the 20th century had great ambitions for Northeast Asia, having annexed Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria (roughly what includes now Heilongjiang, Jilin and Liaoning), determined to forge a prosperous and firm puppet empire out of Northeast China. Urban planning and development was elaborate and meant to serve the long life of a perpetuate empire, under such context the Manchu Style, which is an architectural trend of mixed Japanese contemporary and Chinese traditional traits, was born and therefore to dominate the landscape of Changchun for about 10 years. The Manchu Style was as short-lived as the empire that bore the same name, as a result, it exists only largely in Changchun and sporadically in a few major cities in the region.
Japan was painfully defeated in 1945, hence had lost its grip on Manchuria the same year, however, remains of the olden days have contributed to some of the most recognisable features of Changchun, in which a great deal of its architecture has been in the care of Jilin University, one of the most prominent national universities in China.
The State Council, built in 1930s, now part of the Bethune Medical School of Jilin University
The Manchu Style appears grim, stout and cold, often has a symmetrical plan with a central tower set on the axis next to which are corps de logis, in most cases only in large prominent buildings are there side wings attached of right angle to the corps de logis.
Entrance view of Medical School
Formerly Ministry of Justice, now one of the Medical School buildings
The Ministry of Justice building design was first brought up by its architect to compete for the State Council project, failing to win the bid, it was built in compromised scale and complexity to serve as Ministry of Justice. That is why we see great formality and intended grandeur in it.
Formerly Shinbuden for the local Japanese military and civil communities, now theatre of the university. The Shinbuden was a temple where the Japanese military and nationalist groups were to practice martial arts and worshiping of the Shinbu Teno.
The Shinbuden looked from afar is all roofs, only when walking close to it one sees the gates and eaves under the roof. Light is extremely scarce, so that its mystery and grimness are guarded.
Formerly Central Police School, now storage house, built in 1930s
The central facade of this building has quite some borrowings from the rococo style of Europe, whereas the corps de logis still go back to stick with the Manchu Style.
One of the teaching buildings of the university, supposedly built in 1930s, obviously of Manchu Style
Facade decoration patterns detailed
Intended Imperial Palace for Puyi, now university museum
The building was ambitiously intended to be the grand Imperial Palace with a large square in the front and imperial gardens in the back. However by the time Japan surrendered it was only done in the basement. Communist China resumed the work in the 1950s, finishing it largely in the traditional Chinese style, therefore making it the sole more or less pure Chinese building from that era.
Country house, Koh Dach island, outskirts Phnom Penh.
It’s evident that the island could have been a fashionable location for a country home for some fashionable French family of Phnom Penh. However, the house is beyond repair today and its surroundings in utter desertion, its grounds rich in grass and only to be grazed by cows.
Days are numbered and it remains a matter of time before the fall of the house.