Chinese tourists win, poor Cambodians lose with US$4 billion Hong Kong-backed casino in Phnom Penh
- Tenants turfed out of Phnom Penh’s iconic low-income housing block, the White Building, were told it would be redeveloped to house Cambodians
- Instead, NagaCorp is planning a development the size of Marina Bay Sands in Singapore that it hopes will attract high-rolling Chinese gamblers
Op-Ed: This Week in Asia of SCM
Phnom Penh’s White Building, designed by Cambodian architect Vann Volyvann, before its destruction. File photoAn iconic Phnom Penh housing site known as the White Building is being turned into a multibillion-dollar casino development, as Cambodia woos Chinese tourists by catering to their penchant for gambling.Hong Kong-listed developer NagaCorp, controlled by Malaysian billionaire Chen Lip Keong, estimates it will spend US$3.8-US$4 billion on the Naga3 project, its third casino in the country, which will have hotels, condominium facilities and a 12-floor entertainment centre and outlet mall.NagaCorp’s deputy chairman Philip Lee told local media on Tuesday: “Naga3 is the single biggest private sector investment so far in the country and may be for years to come. It is about the same size as Marina Bay Sands in Singapore … which is the most expensive entertainment complex in the world.”
But the news has surprised and upset former residents of the low-income housing block and conservation activists, who had been under the impression the site was being redeveloped to house Cambodians.
Among them is Nhek Chantha, 67, who was turfed out of the White Building in 2017 and moved in with her children as she could not afford a new place.
“[The government] told such a big lie to us. It’s a very central place, they should renovate it and allow us to keep living there so it becomes a cultural site for people to see, but they think only about profit,” she said.
A Japanese company, Arakawa Co Ltd, was supposed to rebuild the landmark site and turn it into a 21-storey condominium block. Five of the floors were to be reserved for low-income housing that would go to the previous residents of the White Building and 12 floors would be used for private flats. Land Management Minister Chea Sophara in 2016 had asked Cambodians to “be patient while waiting for the new White Building to be finished in four years”.
Arakawa did not respond to requests for comment on Monday and Land Ministry spokesman Seng Lot said he did not know how or why the land was transferred to NagaCorp.
Constructed in 1963 as part of the Bassac River Front cultural complex and overseen by legendary architect Vann Molyvann, the White Building was, along with the rest of the city, evacuated in 1975 by the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge occupation which targeted artists and intellectuals.
After the regime fell in 1979, a mixed crowd including artists and musicians moved in, turning it into a colourful and close-knit, if sometimes seedy, community until the government demolished it two years ago, saying it was not structurally sound.