My mother and all of her sisters told stories about this old neighborhood where they used to live, on the corner of St. 112 and Jawaharlal Nehru. The kids in the building played together. The parents entertained each other. Big-eyed curiosity and raucous commotion was made on the street when one family acquired and installed a toilet. Much living was to be shared on a day to day basis.
Daly (one of my mother’s sisters who came with me from the states), Yutha (a childhood friend from the Nehru neighborhood and now a woman in her 40s who owns one of the ubiquitous pharmacies in Phnom Penh), and I (the new kid on the block) visited the old place. Their homes were still there, side by side, walls hugging walls. The occupants are now other families and their little shops and restaurants. The scenery is now a strip of government buildings, like a mini version of Washington D.C.’s National Mall – except replace the pink cherry blossoms with white plumeria, and the Washington Monument with a pair of towering golden-colored deer necking and/or in affectionate embrace. (I haven’t figured out the symbolism of this yet.)
Daly whipped out the camera and began filming. She and Yutha commenced the chit chatting:
We all went up there on the rooftop and slept when it was too hot. There’s the big garage behind our building. That’s where Papa stored the diesel for his taxi and truck business, and next to it the fancy French villa. Behind that used to be nothing. Just dirt. And when it when it rained, just mud. Over there was the house of the Khmer family that sold pork. On the other side, the building of the Japanese man who sold cars.
After school we rode our bikes around and around and around in front of the DN right there – that’s like the Pentagon, government intelligence, secret. On the other side of that is another park, with four lion statues. That’s where all the single people went. That’s where all the couples left. And there, on that side where we rode our bikes were homes only for railroad workers and their families. Now they’re garages, selling cars. The plumeria trees were smaller back then. And the air, it was quiet. Not as many things on the road, moving, all the time.
One of the families in the building left for France in the early 1970s. My mother’s family moved to another neighborhood near Olympic Stadium later. Other families had children leave to here and there, for work or school or just to get out of the city in fear of the war. The Khmer Rouge came into the city April 17, 1975. Then everyone left. And the neighborhood was a different kind of quiet.