Tuesday, September 9, 2014

ROOM SERVICE - The Real Exhibition


As my new exhibition at the InterContinental Hotel Phnom Penh's Insider Gallery from Sept 11 - October 11 was unfortunately censored by the management,apparently due to political issues, I took the liberty of posting up the real deal of what the exhibition is about which I didn't think was political at all. This does not directly attack the hotels or the institutions but more so a historical and personal presentation of the role of hotels in shaping Cambodia...

offers a glimpse of the inner facets of hotels in Cambodia, a country whose histories - both ancient and recent, brought in the need and the opportunity for hotels to find its home here or, as a cliche goes: provide a home away from home. Hotels however, have become more of a home. They have, for better or worse, become a voluntary canvas for which history painted its rich hues. It has become a framework for the past to unfold that led to the reality where we now stand.

Using old hotel linen, bed sheets, doors, room service and restaurant menus as canvas, the artist gets deeper into the intimate history of each hotel which in turn become the underlying tone of the abstract artworks. Before even the work progresses, questions are thrown: “Which famous or infamous guest sleep here? With who? How are they beneath their persona and beneath the sheets? What are their secrets? Who flipped these pages? What did they eat? How much did they spend? What kind of people were they? Did they leave a tip?” As humans, we are all bewildered by politics and celebrities and the lives of others together with the status they carry around. Hotels perhaps, are our easiest or only link to the lives of others that mesmerize ours.

Because for every president, secretary of state or prime minister who came to change the fate of this nation through pacts, agreements and international by-laws, a hotel is there to provide a secure setting for its realization. For every poet, historian, musician, author or artist who wandered and found truth through the kingdom’s breadth and breath, there is always a hotel that gave them a place to rest their weary souls. For every single traveller that has yet to rediscover Cambodia’s rich cultural fabric of interwoven histories, there is a hotel of every budget, every taste, every deed, and every colour which await for a new layer of history to happen.


A graphic design of the Dead Kennedys song “Holiday in Cambodia” released in 1980 featured a sign of the Holiday Inn Hotel overlapped into the song title - simply denoting how an American hotel chain’s existence in then war-ravaged Cambodia can simply be pure irony.

That was why the opening of the InterContinental (a higher brand segment from the Holiday Inn hotel family) on March 27, 1997 in Phnom Penh seemed like a joke.  But it came.

The first international hotel brand to open in the kingdom, it was also the tallest building in Cambodia at that time, and its arrival heralded the dawn of a new age for the opening of the country’s doors wider for the world to enter. With it also came something that rocked the nation with awe for the first time - HBO, electronic key cards, an indoor car park and yes, hotel uniforms without the bowtie (according to their original press kits)!

It was said that if an InterContinental can thrive in Cambodia, anything can.

Still skeptical about moving to Siem Reap 10 years ago, I got the go-signal to come when my wife, who was working for the global reservations of the InterContinental Hotels Group then, found out that there was an InterContinental Hotel in Phnom Penh - a sign that it’s not all that bad here as what guidebooks say. We made the big move and six months later, our son was born in Cambodia - swaddled in an InterContinental Hotel bath towel in the middle of Kantha Bopha Hospital. I have found my perfect metaphor.

 “The Birth of a Global Child”
100 cm x 150 cm
InterContinental fitted sheet
and bath towel on stretched
denim with acrylic spray finish
 “The Meecha Index”
97 cm x 175 cm
InterContinental fitted sheet
and sheet ends with a pair of
chopsticks on acrylic spray finish

“The New Landscapes”
97 cm x 175 cm
InterContinental fitted sheet
and sheet ends with acrylic
spray finish

In 2004, 292 employees of the Grand Hotel d’Angkor as well as the Raffles Hotel Le Royal organized a union strike after demands were not met.  The big issue? The 10% service charge and tips were allegedly not given to employees of the hotel. After a series of controversial sacking of union members who protested, and with growing public support through boycotts of the diplomatic community as well as enraged customers, the management finally gave in. This was the first time the local staff found their voice and unveiled a reality hidden from the grand halls of an establishment of hospitality. It paved way for a standardization in bigger hotels of awarding the service charge and tips back to the very people that were the glue who held the day-to-day operations of the hotel together.

During the wedding of two former Grand Hotel employees who are also starting their own wedding and event management company, we had a mini-reunion of other former employees who have now made it big on their own. One owned a jazz bar, the other one owned a boutique hotel. A former bellboy and waiter also now owns an empire of restaurants and bars in Siem Reap. This for me represented a new generation of brave and innovative Cambodian entrepreneurs reshaping the country - trained in the confines of Cambodia’s many hotels.

So be careful - that waitress who served you might be the future owner of a Four Seasons opening in the corner.
“Secrets Hidden”
63 cm x 111 cm
Raffles fitted sheet and old chandelier
components with acrylic spray finish
  “Secrets Revealed”
63 cm x 111 cm
Raffles fitted sheet, menu and old
chandelier components with acrylic
spray finish

Nothing can fully symbolize the delicate relationship between the kingdoms of Cambodia and Thailand more than the Sofitel Phokeetra Hotels, two hotels in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap that have, for their histories, become part of the two nations’ embedded drama.  Although Thai-owned, these hotels have become ingrained in the Cambodian psyche and culture. It started when the Sofitel Phokeetra  Angkor hosted the filming of Angelina Jolie’s Tomb Raider film in 2000 (the first film to be shot in Cambodia since Lord Jim in 1964) - catapulting the kingdom into a global pop travel icon.

Khmer and Thai diplomacy was in an all time high until 2003 when a rumour erupted about a Thai actress’ statement on Angkor Wat.  The Royal Thai Embassy was burned by an angry mob of protesters in the capital and $47 million worth of property owned by Thais went into flames - including the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel, owned by the same group as Sofitel Angkor. Several years later, the site of the razed Royal Phnom Penh Hotel gave way to a shiny new $50 million development christened as the Sofitel Phnom Penh Phokeetra.

The rise and fall of the relationship between Thailand and Cambodia clearly defines the inseparable truth that both not only share borders but also blood, history and heritage - more than they would both care to admit.

When I was hired as the official photographer at Sofitel Phokeetra  Angkor for the visit of  Prin­cess Maha Chakri Srindhorn, thoughts of the anti-Thai protests in 2003 came rushing to my mind. There were hundreds of guards stationed in every block of town, helicopters hovered endlessly and security was even tighter than Bill Clinton’s visit. But as she arrived in the lobby and all heads bowed, both Thais and Khmer in equal respect, the borders were once again blurred. She took her camera out and took pictures of us taking pictures of her.

 “Blood Brothers”
81 cm x 160 cm
Sofitel fitted sheet and hanuman mask
with acrylic paint finish
“Blood Neighbours”
83 cm x 155 cm
Sofitel fitted sheet and Aor Tronum
lace with acrylic paint finish

As the capital’s oldest existing hotel, Raffles Hotel Le Royal is in itself entrenched as a major thread in Cambodia’s historical fabric. Not only it has hosted high profile visitors in the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy, Charlie Chaplin and recently, US President Barack Obama (the first incumbent US President to ever set foot in Cambodian soil) but the hotel itself also has become a refuge to the last remaining foreign journalists covering the fall of Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, as featured on Sydney Schanberg’s film memoir - The Killing Fields.

Importantly, Hotel Le Royal became an artistic catapult which nurtured and inspired artists like Svay Ken - the father of modern Cambodian art. Working as a waiter for the Hotel Le Royal all his life, Svay Ken, upon retirement, spent the remaining years of his life painting his memories and life stories in thousands of canvasses until he passed away in 2008. In one interview, he recalled being inspired by the paintings of the Elephant Bar when he was a waiter, attributing his interest in art to his workplace.

Artistically, Raffles Hotel Le Royal also became my personal refuge when they invited me to exhibit my work for the first time in Phnom Penh in 2010. This is only my 2nd exhibition in the capital which coincidentally is in another hotel.

 “Svay Ken’s Unraveling”
111 cm x 140 cm
Raffles fitted sheet on stretched denim
with acrylic paint and spray finish

 “Obama’s Awakening”
111 cm x 140 cm
Raffles fitted sheet on stretched denim
with acrylic paint and spray finish

The story of the original owners of Hotel de la Paix is one that is yet to reach its final chapter. Opened in 1957, the art deco style hotel was owned by Dap Chhoun and his wife Chan Oudumsak. Dap Chhoun, since the 1940's has been an influential military ally and governor of Siem Reap to then Prince Sihanouk. But caught in the middle of the growing conflict in Vietnam and all over Indochina, Dap Chhoun met his tragic end in 1959 when a growing rumour of him establishing Siem Reap as a separate US-backed country from Cambodia became more apparent. As he was taken from his wife on that fateful night, he promised her that they would meet again in another world.

Chan Oudumsak, his widow who was once one of the wealthiest people in the country, now lives in squalor, awaiting the day the husband promised her.

Sadly, the hotel itself also met its end in 2013, when the Hyatt Group took over the property, changed the identity and renamed the once illustrious Hotel de la Paix into the Park Hyatt Siem Reap.

After moving to Cambodia and still working for Angkor Century Hotel, Hotel de la Paix was one of the first hotels who expressed interest in my work. After doing a couple of design work for them, the stage was set and I eventually quit my job and opened my own design studio which I run until now. I was also invited to exhibit my show in Hotel de la Paix’s Arts Lounge in February 2009 and several years later, I came onboard as a creative consultant for the hotel.

 "Screw the Stars"
40 cm x 210 cm each
Assorted screws and round
flushers on the old Hotel de
la Paix bedroom doors

Built in 1962 by the French architect Mondet for Prince Norodom Sihanouk as his residence in Siem Reap, Amansara was a paragon of the high style and elegance which was a benchmark for a new, modern Cambodia. Known then as the Villa Princierie before reincarnating as Villa Sokha and Villa Apsara, it was the playground for the royal family and their high profile guests - from President Charles de Gaulle to  Peter O'Toole. When Jacqueline Kennedy quipped that her biggest dream is to see Angkor Wat, she used this place as her base.

Adrian Zecha, founder of Aman Resorts, stayed here as a journalist for Time Magazine in the sixties, ingraining on him the sense of cultural value the villa had when he got it in and reopened it as Amansara in 2002. Now, the 24-room private resort still retains its spot as the preferred base for Angkor for those who can afford it - from hollywood celebrities, presidents, kings, billionaires, dictators and everyone you see daily in the headlines.

I was lucky enough to land several projects with Amansara in its early days which eventually led to work with other Aman Resorts globally. But every once in a while, I still get surprised for getting unique opportunities like designing a wine label for a certain billionaire guest or creating a specialized colouring book for Zahara and Maddox Jolie-Pitt.

“He Who Owns the Forest Rules the Trees”
45.5 cm x 118 cm each
Amansara dining room table linen
on wood boards with toothpick and
chopstick installation

My own venture in the world of hotel business was in a whirr of remarkable ups and downs.

1961 first opened up as a contemporary art gallery in Siem Reap in a sixties style villa we originally rented out as a home. Having been encouraged by artists we housed during exhibitions, we slowly opened a couple of rooms and opened up to the public which was initially a success until we maxed out our space and opened 13 rooms which was fun for the first 2 years but exhausted us beyond that. 

More than waking up at 4 am to prepare breakfast for guests catching sunrise in the temples or waiting for late night guest arrivals from midnight flights, the most rewarding part of the deal was playing host to Cambodia’s finest local and international artists and even those who simply are in the beginning of their careers - in the cusp of change, in the sprouts of greatness.  The gallery and hotel was our stage, our dynamic intersections. Not even a trip advisor review calling me ‘weird, wacko and a hoax’ could dampen my spirit.

Providing a little home for the kingdom’s new generation of artists, musicians, poets, performers and cultural bearers is in itself an opportunity to be part for a new history to thrive, more than the joy of a glowing Trip Advisor rating could ever bring.

Now, the art gallery still stands but the hotel is no longer there. The rooms have been converted into a coworking lab and atelier spaces for designers, artists and a new generation of like-minded spirits, this time with a new business partner who happened to be one of our first guests at the hotel.

My personal professional advice for those planning to open their own boutique hotel business? DON’T open a boutique hotel business!

133 cm x 152.5 cm
Acrylic spray on stretched
1961 Hotel flannel blanket

 “Dancers at Dawn”
122 cm x 151 cm
Acrylic spray on stretched
1961 Hotel bed linen

"Trip Advisor Ties"
122 cm x 151 cm
Acrylic spray on stretched
1961 Hotel bed linen

One of Cambodia’s largest and wealthiest corporations started out as a small rubber tire business in Prey Veng province from a young Khmer man of Vietnamese descent who began his venture with a measly $100 budget.  But empires are built by opportunities... 

After selling petroleum to the new Cambodian government and later on the UNTAC, his business grew into an empire that oiled the nation into a dizzying pace. Oil turned into garment factories and garment factories turned into mega builders of roads, dams and bridges as well as Cambodia’s biggest hotel chain - Sokha Hotels, which coincidentally is now the gatekeeper of all of the kingdom’s world heritage temples. Cambodia is perhaps the only country in the world whose millennium-year old heritage sites are run and managed by a hotel chain. 

A new empire now holds the key to the old empire.

So next time you head to Angkor Wat and pay for a $20 day pass, remember that this multi-million venture (imagine 2.5 million tourists each year paying $20 each!) all started out with rubber tires in a dusty street in Prey Veng.

I seriously want to quit my job as an artist and start my own rubber tire company. 

“The New Empire”
67 cm x 150 cm
Acrylic paint and spray on banner
material with 25 pcs of Sokha Hotel’s
Angkor Wat one-day temple passes

*Historical details in the literature were either personally experienced by me or from online resources and comparative reporting of The Cambodia Daily, The Phnom Penh Post, Time Magazine and Wikipedia

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

1961 - a metamorphosis

She has come of age... soon she will reveal her new wings and take in the skies to soar higher and further. Excited for this to reopen soon...

Monday, March 10, 2014

ArtDeli 2

Finally after almost 2 years since we boarded up the ArtDeli after property prices at the Alley West (an alley we named!) soared to an all time high, we found a new home to the pop-up shop which has always held a unique spot in our hearts... We opened the new ArtDeli with my own solo exhibition (the day after my birthday) at a smaller but still quirky corner at a small hidden alley which we christened the Alley of Ghosts!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Meru - our new baby

A vanilla farm, artist's retreat and a villa resort, Meru is a perfect quiet getaway located just within the shadows of Angkor Wat.

This new property is the sister property of 1961 and is our new baby which we are slated to open in mid January 2014.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

dog days

Our new year was not greeted by fireworks but by a new addition to our family in the form of 5 cute pug puppies. Chanel, who was heavily pregnant went into labor around 9pm, right after we had dinner at Sokha Hotel's Takezono restaurant. We were making our way into Pub Street for the new year festivities when we got the call from Grannie who decided to stay at home. Chanel gave birth to her first puppy!

We immediately made our way home and helped out Chanel. Having no experience in pet pregnancy, I had a baptism by fire when I assisted her bring out 4 more puppies which was difficult for her as she was only doting on the firstborn. Several amiotic sacs and umbilical cords later, the delivery was complete. 3 females and 2 males.

By midnight, the fireworks erupted as we welcomed the 5 pug puppies... Gucci, Pucci, Hermes, Dolce and Gabbana!