Cafe Cultivates a Playful, Thoughtful Space for Young Artists

Four years after hatching an idea to nurture and preserve Cambodian culture through a coffee shop, Sakada Sam opened K.E Cafe and Lounge in Phnom Penh with the tagline “Coffee with memory.”

In designing the space, he asked himself, “How can I attract young people? How can I preserve and modernize my culture?”

Customers at K.E Cafe and Lounge last week (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Customers at K.E Cafe and Lounge last week (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

“And that’s when I connected all the pieces and created this place,” the 32-year-old said last week. “It’s a combination of my passion for food, liberation, culture and history.”

In New Zealand, while studying for his master’s in entrepreneurship, Mr. Sam was inspired by the way museums helped to preserve culture by allowing viewers to visualize their history. After returning home to Phnom Penh in November, he found a former residential space to rent in a busy neighborhood in the city’s Tuol Kouk district and started working on a business plan and designs.

“I intended to keep everything here as old as it is. It is an old house built in the ’40s or ’50s,” he said. “At the beginning, people recommended I make it new. But I wanted people to see the inside of the building itself.”

One corner of the cafe, which opened in April, is still reminiscent of an old bathroom with divots for piping carved through the middle. Two vintage bikes, made in a Cambodian factory that produced them in the prewar years, hang on the walls. A glass case full of centuries-old bronze antiques purchased from the provinces sits in the middle of the second floor.

“I just hope one day they will stop and ask questions like, ‘Why did we used to have all of this and now we don’t?’” he said. “Why no one told them it existed before they were born?”

A project started in late July to showcase different up-and-coming artists’ work each weekend, “Young Artists @ K.E Cafe,” provides a platform to answer these existential questions through art.

Local filmmaker Lomorpich Rithy, collaborating with Mr. Sam, invites local artists creating works in similar mediums to exhibit their art and to answer questions during a discussion with attendees on Saturday nights.

“Normally, in our culture, we don’t really dare to ask. We just go and watch, and we leave without saying anything,” Ms. Rithy said.

That’s just one thing that’s different at the K.E Cafe, whose initials stand for Khmer Enterprise. It’s also a space for live music and a community of young, local Cambodians to grow as artists, even—or especially—when art is their hobby and passion, not a profession.

On Saturday, Pros Nix and Chum Sothea, two graphic designers, will exhibit their work from 6 to 9 p.m.

If the budding artistic community and refreshments are not enough to draw visitors to K.E Cafe, there is a steep, silver indoor slide that lets patrons and staff shoot down from the third floor to the second.

“My favorite part of the cafe is the slide,” Mr. Sam said. “It represents creativity and laziness.”

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