Hidden Histories

When Steven Boswell retired from teaching a few years ago, he was left with two options.

“When you’re living in Cambodia as long as I have and you plan on staying after you retire, you have to do something,” he said. “You have two choices: open a bar or write a book.”

Fortunately for his readers, the former Royal University of Phnom Penh professor chose the latter, coming up with the quirky and engaging “King Norodom’s Head,” in which he explores Phnom Penh’s little-known features.

Statues of 17th-century military leader Techo Meas and his protege, Techo Yort, on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay (Steven Boswell)
Statues of 17th-century military leader Techo Meas and his protege, Techo Yort, on Phnom Penh’s Sisowath Quay (Steven Boswell)

And yet, though the writing style makes it an easy read—ideal for a weekend by the pool or a trip to the beach—the book is based on painstaking research that has spanned years.

The son of a U.S. diplomat father and a French-Norwegian mother, Mr. Boswell was a career English teacher who has worked in 11 countries or so, including Palestine, China,  Turkey, Chad, Vietnam, Laos and Tibet.

When he retired from teaching English in 2009, Mr. Boswell had a wife and child, and was in the process of building a home in Phnom Penh. In others words, he had no intention of leaving. So the American teacher decided to make a book based on what had been his hobby since moving to Cambodia in 2000: the exploration of quirky, puzzling and often forgotten features of Phnom Penh.

Released last month by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in Denmark, the book is a captivating work written by someone with a sense of humor and a flair for investigation.

Spending much of his time at the National Archives, Mr. Boswell read nearly everything that has been written about Cambodia. The list of people he contacted in the course of his research is a virtual who’s-who of historians and researchers specializing on Cambodia, ranging from French historian Henri Locard to Swiss archivist and author Greg Mueller, and French researcher and Indochina-era book collector Francois Dore.

“I was astounded, you know,” Mr. Boswell said. “All these big names like [historians] David Chandler, Milton Osborne…I wasn’t expecting them to answer: Who am I, a little English teacher nobody has heard of. But they were all so willing, almost eager to help. And I would send them versions of chapters, and they would comment and send them back.”

The house at 44 Street 242, where Pol Pot lived as a child and teenager, which is now a construction site (Steven Boswell)
The house at 44 Street 242, where Pol Pot lived as a child and teenager, which is now a construction site (Steven Boswell)

Each chapter is a stand-alone story in which the author describes, as if he was chatting with the reader, how he first came across a feature, the questions this had raised, how he investigated it, and what he discovered.

For example, on his first visit to the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, Mr. Boswell had stopped at the statue of King Norodom on horseback and been puzzled to read in his guidebook that this was a statue of French Emperor Napoleon III whose head had been replaced by that of King Norodom. French sculptor Eude had inscribed his name on the statue along with the year he had made it: 1875.

Intrigued, Mr. Boswell started researching this claim. He first found a history book stating that the statue had been gifted by France to King Norodom in 1876. As he kept digging, he realized that several researchers had, without checking, simply repeated from one decade to the next what the previous one had written.

The sole exception appeared to be French researcher Olivier de Bernon, who questioned this assertion in a 1999 article. Since Napoleon III died in exile in 1873, having been overthrown in 1870 following France’s disastrous defeat against the Germans, it was unlikely that a statue of him would have been commissioned in 1875, Mr. de Bernon noted.

Following that line of argument, Mr. Boswell found a book on 19th century French sculptors in which Adolphe Eude is listed as having cast in 1875 a “Norodom I, king of Cambodia. Equestrian statue in zinc.” So the statue had been cast as King Norodom from the start.

The former Grand Hotel on Sisowath Quay, where French writer Andre Malraux was put under house arrest in 1923 for attempting to steal antiquities at the Banteay Srei monument (Roger Spooner)
The former Grand Hotel on Sisowath Quay, where French writer Andre Malraux was put under house arrest in 1923 for attempting to steal antiquities at the Banteay Srei monument (Roger Spooner)

Mr. Boswell’s investigations uncovered a number of peculiar tales.

In his book, he recalls happening upon a large cast iron anchor marked as “1942 U.S. Navy” during a stroll in Phnom Penh the early 2000s.

Through research that included corresponding with a U.S. naval historian, he discovered the story of two young Americans with left-wing political views who opposed the U.S.-Vietnam war. In March 1970, they hijacked a U.S. ship transporting napalm meant to be dropped over Vietnam, and anchored it in Sihanoukville. They hoped that Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had opposed the U.S. role in the war in Vietnam, would welcome them.

But Prince Sihanouk was out of the country and was ousted that very month by pro-US Lon Nol. So the two Americans ended up in a prison ship, formerly owned by the U.S., at the Chroy Changva naval base. Mr. Boswell believes that the “1942 U.S. Navy” anchor, which weighs 2,270 kg, and is now housed in the Phnom Penh Port Authority container depot, may have been the anchor of that 100-meter ship-turned-prison.

The book ranges from sober topics such as tombs in Kandal province’s Ponhea Leu district, which were the last vestige of the Catholic church whose congregants could be traced back to the 16th century (the tombs have recently disappeared due to roadwork), to the pond where, according to an elderly monk who confided in Mr. Boswell, King Ang Duong may have hidden his gold fearing a Thai or Vietnamese invasion in the 19th century.

The pond of Wat Veang Chas, where King Ang Duong is said to have hidden his treasure in the 19th century (Steven Boswell)
The pond of Wat Veang Chas, where King Ang Duong is said to have hidden his treasure in the 19th century (Steven Boswell)

“The only bit of sex” in the book, as Mr. Boswell puts it, is in the chapter on popular bars and opium dens of the 1950s through the 1970s. According to one of his Cambodian contacts, Madame Chum’s establishment was the “top” brothel and opium den; a place where men were offered sex with either women or ducks. Following the killing of a French soldier at a brothel in Saigon in the 1940s, brothel owners would offer customers a “Cholon duck” option. The duck usually did not survive and ended up served on a bed of rice, Mr. Boswell writes.

His ongoing research into Phnom Penh underscores the city’s rapidly changing landscape.

In the book, he writes that Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot lived until 1943 in Phnom Penh at 44 Street 242, which was the house of his brother Saloth Suong. A photo of the house appears in the book, though it is already gone from the site.

“Pol Pot’s house was destroyed a few months ago,” he said. “The place is now a building site.”

And the statue of Thorani, the earth deity known as Neang Kong Hing in Cambodia—located at the intersection of Street 182, Charles de Gaulle Boulevard, Monireth and Czechoslovakia boulevards—used to be painted golden and brown. As a photo in the book shows, the paint on the statue has been removed since construction work was done at that intersection three years ago.

Each chapter features sites that can still be found in Phnom Penh, with maps at the start of the book indicating their exact location.

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