January 27, 2017 1:30 pm JST
Tea Leaves

Paradise lost: Is Asia destroying its cultural heritage?

How skyscrapers and 'progress' are blighting some of Asia's gracious old cities -- in the eyes of some

DENIS D. GRAY

Developments on Diamond Island in Phnom Penh, the site of several high-end condo and housing developments (Photo by Sebastian Strangio)

On a recent return to Phnom Penh after several years' absence, I lapsed into moments of extreme disorientation. Where was the city I had known and loved, even amid the tragedy of the Cambodian war that I covered as a journalist in the 1970s? Where were the elegant villas, the mellow yellow facades of French colonial architecture and the shady, tree-lined boulevards?

"And that one is owned by another crony,'' remarked a Cambodian colleague, pointing to a towering block among a jumble of high-rises that are trampling on the unique heritage and atmosphere of the Cambodian capital that had enchanted generations.

Behind the soaring skyline, my friend noted, are relatives of Hun Sen and tycoons close to the autocratic prime minister who rang the death knell for old Phnom Penh when he tore up zoning laws on building heights in 2004.

"We have to competitively run up to the sky. To whoever will build taller buildings, we will give a medal,'' he declared.

The city's traffic-choked streets provided yet another object lesson for me in unbridled development, appearing destructive of a city's historic soul.

But perhaps it is unfair to single out Phnom Penh. Over the decades I have witnessed virtually every major city in Asia decimating its physical heritage and often the community ethos with which it was bound.

The Cambodian capital, along with Vientiane in Laos, Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam and Yangon in Myanmar, has merely been playing fast catch-up in the wake of wars, political isolation and poverty that kept these Southeast Asian cities largely frozen in time.

Thailand's capital, Bangkok, experienced a far more benign narrative but has fallen prey to the same restless forces that range from the possibly understandable to downright criminal: extreme population pressures, city planners to whom planning is an unknown discipline, the powerful who flout already weak regulations through corruption and sheer greed, even the Buddhist belief in the impermanence of all things.

Some say these cities are merely aping the West, equating Manhattan-esque skylines with modernity and the old with backwardness. But Asians seem also to have ignored lessons learned in Europe -- that one can erect the new on the peripheries of cities and towns while preserving their historic cores -- thus engendering local pride and an almost physical communion with those who came before, never mind the tourist income that will roll in. I doubt many will visit Phnom Penh to admire its cookie-cutter skyscrapers.

In my adopted hometown of Bangkok, the powers-that-be seem determined to wipe out the last traditional communities that have managed to survive. Evictions are proceeding in what has been described as a living museum: The wooden houses around Mahakan Fort, where people have lived for 200 years, are being leveled for new development.

Bulldozers are closing in on one of Asia's great Chinatowns, and other remnants of a once green and canal-lined city -- the "Venice of the East'' -- will succumb to a raging mall mania. By 2018, developers aim to build 600,000 sq. meters of retail malls under current plans.

"There is more than just the architecture to preserve in the community," said Tiamsoon Sirisrisak, a researcher on culture at Bangkok's Mahidol University. "If these old buildings are demolished, the people will go. So will the lifestyle and culture ... ."

In Vientiane and other cities, some of the destruction is driven by notoriously culture-blind developers from China, which, according to American heritage preservationist Jim Stent, has committed Asia's greatest "cultural atrocity'' by flattening entire historic areas in its urban centers.

But there's also the old-as-backward factor at work in Laos. As one local commentator noted, residents aspire to a city as "modern as those in other countries; they want to spend time in air-conditioned shopping malls, eat Japanese hotpot, pizza or McDonald's hamburgers.''

Like Phnom Penh, much of the city once known as Saigon is almost as unrecognizable, and as disheartening. Between 1994 and 2014 more than 200 colonial era villas in Ho Chi Minh City were demolished or significantly altered. The 136-year-old Tax Trade Center building was razed in early 2016, despite protests, to make way for a 40-storey commercial tower.

Block by block, driven by skyrocketing land prices, Dong Khoi Street, the city's Champs Elysees, is being shorn of its venerable bistros and cafes, the pho stalls and modest shopkeepers, the art deco apartments I knew as a resident of that quarter during the Vietnam War.

Perhaps "au revoir'' -- "see you again'' -- was not the right phrase to use the last time I was there. I should have said the more final, "adieu."

Denis D. Gray is a Thailand-based writer and former Bangkok bureau chief for The Associated Press.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.