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Southeast Asia’s colonial heritage victim of modernisation

Source: Agence France Presse
This photo taken on Nov. 19 shows people drinking tea in front of an
uninhabited French colonial era villa in downtown Hanoi. French
colonial architecture — with its shuttered windows, grand balconies
and pitched tiled roofs — for decades defined the look of cities in
Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, even after the French pulled out of
Indochina in 1954. But now, hundreds of historic buildings across the
region are being knocked down as governments capitalize on rising land
prices and a — AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) – When Cambodia tore down a century-old school in the
capital this year, conservationists bemoaned the loss of yet another
piece of history in former French Indochina in the rush to modernise.

French colonial architecture — with its shuttered windows, grand
balconies and pitched tiled roofs — for decades defined the look of
cities in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, even after the French pulled out
of Indochina in 1954.
But now, hundreds of historic buildings across the region are being
knocked down as governments capitalise on rising land prices and
attempt to create eye-catching skylines.
“What I see in Phnom Penh is little — or at worst no — heritage
protection of significant buildings. I see the disappearance of old
French colonial buildings,” said Cambodia-based architectural historian
Darryl Collins.
“It’s a great pity because I think in time it will be regretted that so many of these buildings have gone,” the Australian said.
Built in 1908, the Ecole Professionnelle — Cambodia’s oldest training
school — was razed in February, the latest high-profile casualty in
the impoverished country’s quest for modernity.
The Cambodian capital, or the “Pearl of Asia” as it was once known,
used to be thought of as one of the loveliest cities in the region
thanks to its French-style wide avenues, carefully-manicured gardens
and stately homes.
Much of that charm, however, is disappearing at an alarming rate, say conservationists.
They estimate that as many as 30 percent of Phnom Penh’s colonial
buildings — survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and decades of
civil war — have been demolished in the past 15 years.
While many Cambodians in the capital prefer to live and work in modern
buildings, it’s not just historians who are upset by the transformation.
“We should not destroy the French buildings. We should renovate them so
that they look nice again,” said Chheng Moeun, 76, who sells soft
drinks outside a crumbling colonial villa near Phnom Penh’s Royal
Palace.
The demolitions are being driven in part by the kingdom’s economic
growth over the past decade, and developers are eager to build
apartments and office blocks in the prime locations that many of the
colonial buildings occupy.
Samraing Kamsan, a top official at Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture, said
saving French design in Phnom Penh was complicated because of limited
funding and a lack of interest from the buildings’ owners.
“We want to preserve those ancient buildings. Some people listen to us, but some do not,” the official said.
Across the border, fellow former French colonies Laos and Vietnam are
also struggling to maintain their colonial dwellings, said Collins, who
blames booming real estate prices.
“It’s a short-term pattern of thinking,” he said, the main consideration being “sheer profit”.
Hoang Dao Kinh, a specialist in the preservation of Hanoi’s cultural
and historical heritage, said out of more than one thousand French
villas in the Vietnamese capital, only a few hundred remain in the
original colonial style.
And while the country has made efforts to safeguard old buildings, Kinh
said the application of a 2001 law on the preservation of such sites
“has met with many difficulties.”
But attempts to rescue some of France’s architectural leftovers
have not been completely in vain, he added, pointing to Vietnam’s Dalat
city as a noteworthy example.
In neighbouring Laos, the picturesque northern town of Luang
Prabang with its well-kept colonial homes has proved a major tourist
draw, and the government is keen to replicate that success in the
capital.
Buildings in Vientiane have been renovated and are in “very good” condition, said government spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing.
“It’s good for tourists. When the tourists come to Vientiane, they are looking for that,” he said.
Collins believes governments in all three countries should see
the preservation of French-era structures not as a nuisance, but as a
way to attract revenue from foreign visitors.
“Decisions have to be made about how important these buildings are to the cities,” he said.
But if recent remarks by the Cambodian prime minister are
anything to go by, those in favour of conservation face an uphill
battle.
“They want to keep the old buildings… But when they collapse,
who would be responsible?” Hun Sen said in September when he announced
plans for a 555-metre tower in Phnom Penh.
“Don’t be too conservative. Skyscrapers are appearing. Let’s build high buildings,” he said.
 
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