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Writing the Postcolonial City: Phnom Penh and Modernity during Sangkum Reastr Niyum, 1955-1970

  • Author(s): Keo, Siti Galang
  • Advisor(s): Zinoman, Peter B.
  • et al.
Abstract

This dissertation examines novels, essays, films and songs of the Sangkum Reastr Niyum period, 1955-1970, to explore the layers of meanings Cambodians held of Phnom Penh. After the Geneva Accords in 1954, Phnom Penh emerged as the capital city of a newly independent nation-state, the Kingdom of Cambodia. The city under French colonial rule was secondary to Hanoi and Saigon, but once Indochina dissolved, its population exponentially increased. Phnom Penh was at the center of Cambodia’s road networks, its banking system, and was home to the best universities and schools. The many jobs and opportunities attracted rural migrants to the city. The population boom was one of the many ways Phnom Penh transformed. Norodom Sihanouk, then the head of state, made Phnom Penh the epicenter of government modernization projects. Under his watch, the capital transformed from being a marshy, provincial hub into an exciting scene of cosmopolitan innovation. Urban Cambodians combined ideas from Le Corbusier with traditional Khmer architectural details to design their “modern” buildings. Their songs were influenced by the French singer Johnny Halliday and the American Wilson Pickett. They wrote novels that built upon the ideas found in Buddhism and French Existentialism. Through their works, urban intellectuals sought to define a Cambodian identity independent of French colonialism. Phnom Penh, with its new roads, many schools, bars and publishing houses, was a space where Cambodians became modern and developed new identities, such as the neary samey tmey and the pannavoan.

These changes to the landscape and social composition of Phnom Penh engendered a new consciousness amongst Cambodian intellectuals. Their writings expressed a concern over changes in heterosexual relationships and the behavior of Cambodians in public spaces. To some, not all the changes were good. They mourned the marshes and wooden shacks that asphalt and concrete had replaced. They were aware of ruptures, loss, and fragmentation. This consciousness of the new amongst urban Cambodian intellectuals is what I term postcolonial modernity. This study contributes to the history of Sangkum Reastr Niyum by taking seriously the historical value of Cambodian writings and focuses the lives of everyday urban Cambodians. It describes the Sangkum period as a time of unprecedent change that witnessed the emergence of a new urban middle class.

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