Thank the Chinese for combining a shop with a house

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It was the Chinese who introduced to Cambodia in the late 18th century what is called the shophouse, a building with narrow frontage and a store, open living area and usually both on the ground floor.

Sometimes, the whole ground floor is devoted to sales, and the vendors live on the higher floors.  In New York City and elsewhere, of course, folks who reside in such a structure are said to be living over the store.

Here in Phnom Penh, block after block is lined with shophouses selling merchandise or services exposed to the street, in part because there are relatively few purely commercial buildings throughout the city, though those generally do have retail establishments on the lower floors.

Everything from car parts to comestibles can be found in shophouses.  Every service from pet care to printing is available.

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One of the models that evince students’ dreams of what could, and may never, be.

Although the “great room” is a relatively new phenomenon where I used to live, they perfected that concept long ago in Cambodia.  It is far from unusual to see combined in a single open space places for eating, socializing, resting and the parking of motos or full-size vehicles.

Students and others thronged the opening night of an exhibition that seeks to re-imagine the shophouse.

Students and others thronged the opening night of an exhibition that re-imagines the shophouse.

I’ve been intrigued by such living arrangements and from time to time have grabbed what photos I could of them, trying to avoid being offensive.  (Not only do I worry about being perceived to be like a visitor to a zoo who thinks nothing of invading privacy, but shophouse residents understandably fear that such interest in them could lead to theft.)

The opening night that I attended of an exhibition of new fantasy versions of the shophouse prompts this post.  The show at the French Institute highlights a competition by architecture students for the best design, and the event a couple of weeks ago was so jammed that I had to return another day to see everything.

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You’ll find below photos of a few of the houses that I snapped over the last several months.  I think you will agree that the contrasts are rather striking, though it is hard to imagine a realization of the new designs in the immediate future.

That tall white-colored building at the rear is the residential section of the shophouse in the front.

That tall white-colored building at the rear and the wooden structure to its right reveal residential sections of shophouses where car parts are sold or autos, repaired.

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Designed by a noted architect, the White House (which extends far to the right) is threatened with destruction in the name of progress.  The hundreds of impoverished families who live there are, unsurprisingly, distressed by the prospect of being displaced at best or, worse, becoming homeless.

e-mail: malcolmncarter@gmail.com

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