HISTORY OF SINO-KHMER HOUSE
at
Terak Vitei Preah Sisowath
cnr. Vithei Neary Khlahan [Street 84]
Sangkat Sras Chork, Khan Daun Penh
Phnom Penh
Kingdom of Cambodia
Darryl Collins, 1994-2007 ©

During an interview with elders at the Hokkien Sie Tien Gung temple at 39 Terak Vitei Preah Sisowath, friend Bun Thoeun and I learned the original owner of the house was Tan Bunpa (born 21 May 1871) , a member of the Hokkien community.  The house was almost certainly constructed between 1903 and 1905 by this man and continually occupied by the owner’s family until April 1975.  There has been some confusion over his family name - originally thought to be Lau.  Tan Bunpa is often confused by older Phnom Penhois with another Chinese entrepreneur, Tan Pa (born 1 July 1895).

In early 2000, Peter Arfanis discovered an important document at the National Archives relating to the taxes and duties payable on the acquisition of a parcel of land by ‘Tang Boun-Pa’ (the name is misspelt, but he is described as a Chinese involved in commerce and resident in Phnom Penh).  The parcel referred to is Lot 22 in the 1èr Quartier.  The legal process began on 30 May 1903, was approved on 8 June 1903, registered on 12 June 1903 and announced by Public Notice on 15 January 1904.  The entry appeared in ‘Domaine local du Cambodge’ vol. 1, entry no. 93.  The total tax payable was calculated to be 308 piastres 88 cents.  The Receiver of Taxes in Phnom Penh finalised this transaction on 31 May 1905, by a Notice that mentions Boun Pa paid a lesser amount - in reality, 205 piastres 92 cents.

Locals related that the family was finally driven out and died under the Khmer Rouge regime in 1975; this has been confirmed by Ung Nguon Louang (born 28 September 1946), now living in France who stated he is the sole survivor of his immediate family).  A Chinese electrician who visited the house c.1995 remarked that the owner and family left for France in about 1972 and the house had not changed since he had last visited it in the late 1960s.  He obviously mistook my Chinese furniture (some were modern copies) purchased from friends for the original furnishings of the house.  He informed me that Tan was still living in Paris; now aged eighty-five (I have since confirmed he died in 1952), Tan was supposedly still wealthy, operating a string of restaurants and reputably planning a return to Phnom Penh to buy back the properties he once owned.  This sequence of events is clearly mistaken as according to Nguon Louang, he alone, left Phnom Penh to study in France - his family remained in Phnom Penh.

It was revealed except the fact that Bunpa was a merchant-businessman, a provedore in the lucrative food import-export and according to one source, involved in the timber trade.  Tan Boun Pa is listed as no.1 in a listing of ‘Commerçants asiatiques de la ville de Phnom-Penh’ in 1904 under the shop-name of ‘Kim Seng Heng’.  I visited two adjoining shop-houses immediately opposite the main post office.  These were once drink shops owned by Tan Bunpa.  On glancing at the faded boards above the entrance of the now derelict shops, I could just discern the painted sign, ‘La Taverne’ still in place from a former restaurant.  He said that Tan was well-liked by the French as he could speak the language, and that the extremely favourable location of the shops in the main business triangle was a concession granted by the colonial administration.  The business was founded under the shopname ‘Kim Heng Seng’ in 1901.  ‘Tan Boun Pa’ was welcomed into the Chamber Consultative Mixte de Commerce et d’Agriculture du Cambodge in the meeting of 27 December 1913.

Ties to the former king, HM King Norodom (d.1904), are suggested by archive records that indicate Tan rented these commercial premises from the king.  In December 1912, an official reckoning of monies for rental properties listed Boun Pa as paying 21 Piastres a month for the two premises at 23-25 rue du Protectorate .  These shops were renovated in 1916.  From official palace records, the properties were known as, ‘Mam Momkruong’.  Early in 2001, both shops were renovated from a derelict state to be leased by ‘Mekong Libris’, a French language bookshop.  They are now the premises of Artisans d’Angkor.  

Peter Arfanis found naturalisation documentation that indicates Bunpa was born in Phnom Penh on 21 May 1871.  As he died in 1952, he lived to an age of 81 years.  His remains are reinterred in a chedi within Wat Chen Domdek.

Due to the location of the house in the once fashionable foreign quarter, or Quartier européen/Quartier français, it is evident the size of the house together with the port facilities opposite, combined to provide the Tan family with considerable income.  On a map of Phnom Penh c.1905, the entire block that encompasses the site of the future house is indicated to be the ‘Palais du Second Roi’, or ‘Upayuvarech’.  It is rumoured that Bunpa was often invited to the palace on ceremonial occasions - does this explain his acquisition of this prime piece of property?  Did the king grant him permission to acquire the land and build his house?

Further information suggests his brother was a lawyer, but that he died of starvation during the Khmer Rouge regime.  There is a suggestion of another very similar house built by Bunpa in Battambang.  He also appears to have had several other properties around Phnom Penh, although clearly this particular house was built for him - the others were presumably for other members of his family - or for income.  I have since discovered that although Bunpa perhaps did not build other residences, by July 1927 when telephone cables were being installed, he certainly held title (he is listed as ‘proprietor of immeubles’) to a number of properties - apartments and houses on quais Nordom (nos.1, 10, 21-22, 30 & 33 and 49-52), and Piquet (no.7).

Mention was also made of a connection between my house and the present UNESCO Office.  A son of Tan Bunpa once owned the present villa occupied by UNESCO - a strange coincidence given that Richard Engelhardt, a former director of UNESCO wished to live in the house.  There was a connection with the Tan family as confirmed by Nguon Louang, who mentioned in correspondence that his cousins lived in this house.

When a spoke to Etienne Clément, Head, UNESCO Office in Cambodia, he said that he had visited the house in the company of a former director, Richard Engelhardt.  While visiting the property on an inspection, he recalled a huge, ornate, Chinese gilt bed in the centre of the upstairs room.  The bed had vanished when I arrived in early 1994.  Strangely in 2008, a similar bed reappeared upstairs as a decorative feature in the then refurbished bar-resturant, The Chinese House.

A woman aged about 75 once living in Russei Keo, remembered visiting the house when she was a young girl (c.10 years-old).  She accompanied her grandfather who was a business associate of Bunpa.  The occasion was a ‘Neak Ta’ ceremony during which the medium asked a spirit to enter his body and speak to Bunpa, his family and friends.  His family consisted of about seven children.  Sometimes it seems Tan stayed with one child at the shop-houses in front of the Post Office, whilst at other times, he returned to the house.  She thought that there was one surviving married granddaughter who now lives in the United States.

Recalling the ceremony, she said it commenced at Wat Chen Domdek, left the wat and participants carried fruit and food that was placed in front of the house for the public to take and eat.  The ceremony did not end at the house, but continued to the palace (or did it go to the villa diagonally opposite the palace)?  The woman remembered a lion dance that occurred in front of the house and later went towards the palace.

She recalled Bunpa owned another house in front of the Post Office (the shop-houses on rue du Protectorate) and that he also owned a cinéma to the west of Psah Chas, named ‘Makara’ (January), or was it the Khmerak, once owned by Tan Pa?

Tan Bunpa’s family was originally very poor, she recalled.  According to her, he began to produce metalwork (axes, tools and knives), then became a ship-owner, provisioner and importer of foodstuffs.  According to her, he built Wat Chen Domdek (its origins date to the 15th century, but most extant buildings date from 1925 to 1965), so it is possible Bunpa rebuilt sections of the wat through his own donations.  After this, he became wealthy and was often invited to ceremonies at the palace.  This is probable as documentation confirms Bunpa held the position of Honorary Mandarin at the Royal Court.

Currently, the house consists of three distinct and separate buildings within a walled enclosure.  The property has a small side street to the north and is almost opposite the river port.  The main house, which is almost square, 2-storeyed, has an arched facade in French villa style, faces east and has the Tonle Sap River flowing past on the opposite side of Preah Sisowath; the kitchen, a small single-storeyed out-building to the south of the main house; and a bathroom/toilet/storeroom/guards’ quarters that is a 2-storeyed building and attached by a small link corridor on the upstairs level to the main house, to the north.  Some of the front porch tiles were replaced due to damage.  They were clearly imported from France as they are marked verso by intaglio moulding, ‘Carrelages Larmande/J. Blachere & Ce/Villeneuve de Berg/Ardeche France’.

The street on which the house and temple stand was once known as, quai Lagrandière then as, Terak Vitei Preah Bat Sisowath, and finally during the 70s and 80s, quai Karl Marx.  The side street immediately next to the house was, in 1910, named ‘rue des Écoles’, then rue Pottier then Street 12, and later Street 84, now Vitei Neary Khlahan (Brave Girl Street).  The find of naturalisation documents strongly suggests the original number was ‘45’.  I have placed this number on the front façade of the house proper.  Further documentation provided by Nguon Louang gives the house address as ‘51’ during the 1960s.

In the ‘Proposition Liste des Monuments et des Sites Historiques’ published by the Bureau des Affaires Urbaines de Phnom Penh (BAUPP) in 1996, the allotment is noted as: Cadastre 30, Lot 12, Parcel 53.  This publication dates the house to 1910-1920.  There appears to be little connection between original street numbers and those given now.  Some follow the parcel number, while others do not.

I mentioned the former owner’s name of Tan Bunpa to Pich Keo, Director of the National Museum of Cambodia.  He told me that he knew the name and recalled that Tan was probably born in Phnom Penh of Chinese parentage.  This is born out by naturalisation papers that state he was indeed born in Phnom Penh - his father’s name was Tan Kim Loc (Lok) (1840-1923) and his mother's Ong (Uong) Si (Sy) Kim (1846-1924).  Tan Bunpa was married to Ong (Uong) Keo (1872-1935); their first son, Tan Chhiou (Chhieu) Houn (Heng) was born in 1895.  The son is listed as a ship-owner and resident at 45 quai Lagrandière.  Further documentation suggests that he also licensed a number of vehicles for transportation of goods throughout the city and provinces.

The house was left deserted with the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge from April 1975 to January 1979.  With the return of the population to the city in 1979 the house was occupied by the army (I was told a number of families) to house staff of the medical store for the Preah Khet Mealea Hospital (formerly, the École Professionelle).  After speaking with Khy Kim Seng, the chief of my village, I discovered that there were in fact four families in the house from 1979.

It was recommended that 1 August 1994 would be a suitably auspicious day for my occupation of the house.  I had a cleansing, welcoming introduction ceremony performed at 12 noon.

In June 1997, the Center Culturel Français exhibited photographs of Phnom Penh to accompany the release of a publication concerning the urban development of the city and the classification of historic architecture - both public and private.  I was delighted to find confirmation of my previous research into the house confirmed and the site and house marked and listed in the book.

The ‘Date du Construction’ is given as between 1890 and 1925.  The villa noted as, ‘premier bâtiment en dur’  [solid concrete (brick) construction].  Planned for the future is a frontage that will include an, ‘avenue, esplanade et jardin’.  The maps are marked with, ‘toiture à versants’  [sloping roofline].  The house and site are noted as, ‘édifice et site remarquable’  and ‘ édifice remarquable’ with the annotation ‘A91’.  At the conclusion of the book it is included in the listing, ‘Édifices et ensembles à protéger: proposition’ under ‘Édifices privés’ as: “A91 / Maison  / 53  quai Sisowath / Intérêt [Importance]: 3”.

I repaired and repainted the house to celebrate its 100th birthday in early 2005.

In 2007, I moved to Siem Reap and took up residence later that year in a traditional wooden house at Wat Damnak.

© Darryl Collins
Siem Reap
2016

 

           

 

           


House images 1-10©, (c.2005)

           

Plans & elevations 1-5©, courtesy Phoeung Sophean, (c.1993)

 

           

 

           

The Chinese House, images 1-10©, 2008

               

Reportage: Fashion shoot at The Chinese House for ‘AsiaLIFE’ magazine, October 2010