Thursday, March 11, 2010

From Movies to Housing in the Wake of War: a peak inside two Phnom Penh movie theaters - by Yap Kioe Sheng

At long last, a glimpse into the world of Cambodia's ailing movie theaters. The following submission comes from Yap Kioe Sheng and comprises two visits he made to Phnom Penh movie theaters-turned-living quarters in 1991 and 2008 respectively. This eye-opening feature brings to light both the prewar prosperity of Cambodia's cities, which gave rise to these movie theaters in the first place, and the lingering effects that war and famine have had ever since.
When the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia in April 1975, they almost immediately began to evacuate the population of the cities and towns and relocate them to the countryside. Phnom Penh remained a virtually empty city until January 1979, when the Khmer Rouge were pushed out of the capital to the jungles in the northwest of the country.

After the fall of the Khmer Rouge, people started to return home and look for lost relatives. Many tried to move to nearby towns or to Phnom Penh in search of safety and rice distribution. In principle, entering Phnom Penh was prohibited, but surveillance was not tight. By the end of 1980 Phnom Penh was home to more than 300,000 people. Public utilities, however, did not function. There was no electricity, no water supply, no solid waste collection, etc. People occupied whatever was available: villas, apartment buildings, temples and cinema.
In front of a movie theater-turned-tenement in Phnom Penh c. 1991
When I visited Phnom Penh in 1991, I was taken to a cinema which was being occupied as a living space. It was located in the old part of the city, but I have no address. People were living on the stage, under the balcony and in the projection room. They used the auditorium as a shared space to cook and hang laundry. It was not difficult to take pictures due to a huge, gaping hole in the ceiling, caused, I was told, by a bomb. During subsequent visits to Phnom Penh, I was told that people continued to live in the cinema.
Everyday life in a defunct movie house; balcony and projection window up above (1991).

In post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, migrants flooded the cities in search of food, shelter and their former lives. As a result, some movie theaters were converted to housing.

Interior of cinema circa 1991
On a return visit to Phnom Penh in 2008, I asked a friend if I could visit that same cinema again. We went to Street 130 in the old part of town, but to my surprise, it was not the same cinema that I visited in 1991. This one was called Hemakcheat and was likewise occupied by families who had built their huts in the auditorium. Inside was pitch dark, therefore difficult to see the conditions and take photos.
Facade of the Hemakcheat Cinema c. 2008

Makeshift huts erected in the auditorium

The occupants had not organized any solid waste collection in the cinema, but rather threw the lot of it down stairs to the ground floor. As a result, the entire staircase leading up to the auditorium was filled with garbage.

A mountain of waste festers inside the Hemakcheat Cinema

The original design of the cinema is still not very clear to me. There were many families living in rooms on different levels on the side of the cinema. Additional rooms have also been built on the roof.
Life in Hemakcheat
I asked my friend about the cinema I visited back in 1991, but he did not know that there was (or ever had been) another cinema used as living quarters. It is possible that it has since been demolished. I imagine, however, that there are many people in Phnom Penh who visited these two cinemas and hence know more about them. Maybe, then, somebody could correct and/or supplement the above information.


  1. this is fascinating. thanks for this post! - Stefan

  2. The cinema that you captured in 1991 is the former Khemara Cinema located on St.17 near Phsar Chas (Old Market). Now it becomes an English private school.