Jean-Michel Filippi’s new book “Strolling Around Phnom Penh” was born of just that: his enjoyment of walking throughout the city.
“I walk kilometers every day,” he says.
The only linguist to ever publish a comprehensive overview on minority languages in Cambodia, which was published in 2008 by Unesco, Mr. Filippi’s fascination is telling stories as they unfold through history.
His latest 150-page book is filled with maps and photos, and could only have come from many years of walking in Phnom Penh and getting to know its people.
With the exception of Hanoi, Mr. Filippi says, Phnom Penh is probably the only city in the region where the developments and crisis of the last 150 years can be traced through the city’s existing streets and buildings.
“History can be pieced together from at least 1865, the year it became Cambodia’s capital, up to today,” Mr. Filippi says.
“I conducted a tremendous number of interviews with people who have lived in the city during the various periods up to today.”
Divided into seven “strolls” with maps of streets whose cityscapes illustrate a specific period, Stroll I brings the reader – or walker – through the French Protectorate of the late 19th century and Phnom Penh Post Office square with its former police station and land registry buildings. Some of those buildings in this stroll, such as the former Grand Hotel, were built in 18th century French architectural styles, Mr. Filippi said.
Huyn de Verneville, Cambodia’s French administrator in the late 1880s, was in a hurry to get his administrative buildings erected. So given no time to properly design them, head architect Daniel Fabré resorted to replicate 18th century French models, he said.
In “Stroll III,” one enters Phnom Penh’s old Chinese neighborhood whose oldest buildings date from the early 19th century.
“Until 1975, there were three neighborhoods in the center of Phnom Penh,” Mr. Filippi said.
The French neighborhood with its private residences and administrative buildings roughly spread from the Post Office Square to the bridge now known as the Japanese bridge. The Chinese neighborhood spanned the area from Phsar Chas, or Old Market, to the National Museum while the Khmer neighborhood surrounded the Royal Palace.
This city stratification remained virtually unchanged until the arrival of the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Mr. Filippi said.
When the Pol Pot regime ordered the population out of Phnom Penh in April 1975, there were 2.5 million people in the city, most of them refugees from the provinces who had fled war zones, Mr. Filippi explained.
During the regime, there was only an estimated 20,000 people — Khmer Rouge officials, soldiers and technical or other staff — resident in the city.
Besides a few buildings such as the National Bank and Catholic churches, which were razed by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge did not have a policy of demolishing or building in the capital, and left the city virtually unscathed when they fled in 1979, Mr. Filippi said.
The center of Phnom Penh, however, shows the scars of the 1980s during which several buildings suffered what he describes as “vampirization.”
When the Vietnamese forces defeated the Khmer Rouge who took refuge in Thailand, thousands of displaced Cambodians converged on Phnom Penh. Many of them were rural farmers who had never lived in an urban environment and, moving in a city whose infrastructure had been destroyed, ended up settling down in any space they could find.
Buildings such as the medical clinic on Norodom Boulevard or the Sisters of Providence Church near the Japanese bridge were turned into a series of makeshift shelters with plywood partitions, Mr. Filippi said.
“This is something that has greatly affected Phnom Penh since many buildings lost their initial function,” he said. With no property rights in force in the 1980s, it was a case of “first resident, first owner” with people settling down anywhere, partitioning lobbies of large buildings or turning stairwells into dwellings when need be, he said.
Although this destroyed the original function and aesthetic of the buildings, Mr. Filippi said, it also saved them.
“It’s actually an innovative way to keep buildings alive. A temple’s roof still is in place, a church’s walls and votive plates are still intact…. So in fact, it’s not that bad,” he said.
Phnom Penh’s designed spaces and population are also at variance, Mr. Filippi notes.
“This is a city designed during Norodom Sihanouk’s era for 600,000 people, which was Phnom Penh’s population at the time…. This means that in an identical space, we have today between 1.5 to 2 million people living in the city,” he said.
Published in French and English versions, another section in the book is titled “the prince and the architect,” referring to Norodom Sihanouk and the legendary Vann Molyvann, which invites the reader to visit the campus of the Royal University of Phnom Penh (RUPP) and the Institute of Foreign Languages’ buildings, both of which Mr. Molyvann designed in the 1960s.
Another stroll through the Chinese neighborhood west of Monivong Boulevard includes the O’Russei Market where one can get the so-called 100-year-old eggs.
There is also a passageway near the market with a restaurant which is, Mr. Filippi writes, “the place where Phnom Penh kuyteav was reborn…a soup eaten at breakfast [that] is the Phnom Penh specialty par excellence.”
Originally from Corsica, Mr. Filippi, who teaches Khmer linguistics and language philosophy and phonetics to Master’s Degree students at the Royal University’s Department of Linguistics, has been living in Cambodia since the mid-1990s with a few interruptions during which he completed his Chinese language studies in China and Taiwan.
With a university degree in anthropology, a Master’s degree in mathematics, a doctorate in linguistics and several other degrees in Eastern-European languages and Chinese, he came to Cambodia on a French-government project for the teaching of French.
“But I couldn’t wait to start studying Khmer,” he said.
In addition to becoming a Khmer-language scholar, he has specialized in studying the country’s minority languages.
“Strolling around Phnom Penh,” reflects Mr. Filippi’s specialized knowledge as he briefly explains the history and neighborhoods of the Chinese from various ethno-linguistic roots such as Hokkien, Hainan and Cantonese.
Despite Mr. Filippi’s academic heft, this work remains the kind of book one may casually get through on a quiet afternoon with a bottomless cup of coffee.
The urban facts and anecdotes mentioned are often intriguing, the style easy to grasp, creating an intimacy with the reader-such as when Mr. Filippi mentions that a particular building is simply plain ugly, one feels like rushing to the site to judge the building by oneself.
“I really did not want to write a book for experts,” Mr. Filippi explains.
“At first, it was three times the size. But I wanted to write something condensed, practical that anyone could enjoy, no matter their knowledge of Cambodia or Phnom Penh.”
At the end of the book, Mr. Filippi talks of the historical buildings that, in more recent times, have been destroyed in the city amid unchecked property speculation.
“Since 2004, Phnom Penh and the whole country have been a place of speculative madness,” he writes.
“The results can be very clearly seen: destruction of an appreciable part of the patrimony and an anarchic building policy.”
An “anarchic building policy” is still in place amid rapid urbanization, and a style that he describes as “Chinese-Thai baroque” is developing with its combination of “very loud colors with pudgy cherubs, columns preferable Corinthian, and indispensable gold decoration…in a city which has been a place of avant-garde architecture, it sets off alarm bells.”
“For the future,” Mr. Filippi writes, “let us express the hope that the authorities will realize the exceptional interest and attraction of Phnom Penh.”