"Melody Kemp is a long time and passionate Webdiarist who has been a contributor for several years. She has a global perspective on Australia's human rights record based on her work and residence in Asia. Her bio is here. Her archive is here. Her previous piece for Webdiary was Human rights are for all of us."
Margo and David R.
by Melody Kemp
There is no doubt that she had aged … and not well. The tin roof is rusty and festooned with debris. The colonnades are cracked, and the rendering fallen in places to reveal the low fired red brick beneath. But it is still as elegant a building as you can find. One of Vientiane’s hidden gems. And due for demolition.
If Laos were able to demonstrate, they would be out there is force. There would be banners, and shouting people barring the way of the bulldozers. It is one of Vientiane’s most loved buildings, named after one of Lao's most revered kings. Those who I have talked to are almost moved to tears by the thought that this building will disappear. Despite this, no one seems to be able to stop the razing of this school which one senior educationalist described to me as “the landmark of our country”.
The Japanese we are told are offering grant aid to rebuild the school with a gymnasium and already two giant trees have been felled. No matter that the building to be demolished is, along with Vientiane High school, the oldest school complex in Vientiane, and that the old colonnaded dual storied building, a jewel of French colonial architecture. It is not Heritage-rated I was told.
The building is on Rue Chao Anou, named after a famous Lao king, Anuvong, who after his arrest was kept in a public cage by the Siamese, tortured and executed, his boy hung from chains on the river bank. He had tried to organise the Lao Royal armies to repel the 115 year old Siamese colonial occupation, domination that was characterised by cruelty and violence. He had greatly underestimated the military strength of the Thais and having fled twice from the old city of Viang Chan, returned. He was, some say, betrayed by the prince of Xiang Khuang.
Lao is in many ways like an Asian Sicily. It has been invaded colonized, sequestered and segmented and it is littered with the remnants of those who came before. The Khmers, Burmese, and Thais. Its borders have been redrawn repeatedly, but the real borders are clearly etched in peoples memories.
Chao Anou, I was told frequently, was the one who brought democracy to Lao. While this is questionable it perhaps describes a deeper yearning. Maybe the building is all that is left of the people’s dream of democracy. The Government now brooks no protest, making unilateral decisions that cause low grade simmering frustration. His name is also a navigational point in the frisson that characterises Thai Lao politics. Anuvong dreamed of reuniting what was known as the mandala of the Lane Xang kingdom and retrieve Lao territory annexed and still held by the Thais.
Anuvong had the candour to admit that Lao then, as it is now, was a vassal state of Vietnam and is known to modern travelers as the king who built Wat Sisaket, the most wondrous of Vientiane’s temples and the only one to really escape the later punitive trashing given the city by the Siamese. It is perhaps a heady mixture of all these factors glued together with consternation that Vientiane is losing its elderly charm that leads Laos to resent the redevelopment of the Anou school.
After years of warriors and spears, caparisoned elephants and internecine battles, the new invaders come with laptops and spreadsheets, taking over Lao land with new development schemes. But who benefits?
Photo © Sean Foley: The colonnaded French colonial school slated for demolition. Built around 1945-7.
SET BACK from the road, and previously partly hidden by two ancient trees, lies the Chao Anou school, where around 520 kids with help from 30 teachers, move from kindergarten to high school. That the school has taken the name of the much loved king, accords it great pride in the eyes of the Lao people. It is thought that many present day Ministers in the Lao government gained their education there.
Despite its important alumni, the grounds are run down, as are all the buildings. While Vientiane roads are being upgraded so that the well to do can travel smoothly to work, the public schools are generally dilapidated, and the ‘Hi So’ new rich send their children to the mushrooming privately run academies.
One of the teachers hovered in the doorway in the lower story. His little boy looked curiously at me. The next door neighbour’s dog, a spiky droop eared mutt, came out and gave a few desultory barks before retreating back into the cool gloom.
“Come and sit in the shade. Hon (hot)”. Indeed it was. The stucco of the old building bleached out in the midday sun.
He, his wife and two children along with 10 other families live in the decrepit but still proud building. The moss grows in the cracks where damp sits stubbornly despite the heat. Inside is dark, and I doubt from the coil of wire gathered in the roofing joists if the electricity is all that reliable.
I asked him what was happening. “The team of Japanese came last week to do more surveys. They say it is the only suitable place to build a stadium.”
“But there is one next door” I replied pointing my thumb over my shoulder to the adjacent National Stadium. The Chinese are building another huge stadium complex on the outskirts of town for which they clear cut one of the last areas of pristine forest accessible from Vientiane. It seems like everyone wants to cut and build.
“They say it's for Japanese sports.” he replied. Since then I have learned that a gymnasium will be part of the complex but it is interesting how poorly informed the teachers of the school are about its future.
We talked about his family’s fate. He did not want to move. He has a bond with the school that is more than that only related to the job. It is like the pride has permeated into his being.
“ I don’t know where I will go if they destroy this building. But I can always find somewhere to live. But I do not want to teach anywhere else. I only want to teach here.”
I looked at the shabby buildings, the broken windows, the overgrown garden and the fallen stately trees and thought that this is not a matter of a job. It is hard to imagine any teachers from my own county wanting to work, much less live in such privation; but it is not about conditions. It’s as though his work is his veneration, and that he is living in a vibrantly important part of history.
Later another educationalist showed great distress when talking about the huge trees that have been felled. “There were spirits in those trees. No ceremonies were done. It is very bad.. very bad.” He went on to say that there had been many attempts to take the land and to demolish the school but the District head had resisted. “Why now has he changed his mind. Maybe someone in Government owns the lands and wants to profit”.
The teacher told me that his boss in the Vientiane Provincial Department of Education had accompanied the Japanese on a site visit the previous week, and in a fit of uncommon Lao anger asked them. “Do you hear our protest. Do you have any respect? Do you care?” and was greeted with stolid silence. It appears to be like one of those John Woo Face-Off situations.
The Japanese education project will develop many schools in the poorest parts of Lao. But when I asked about the Anou school, I was told that I would have to contact the Embassy directly as it was not part of that program, but direct grant aid. I was promised the name of a staff member but was not contacted back. The Embassy was as closed as a clam when I called.
This in all ways is an unusual project. It is unusual for Japanese to take precipitate steps such as cutting down trees without considering the effects. Usually embassies are happy to talk but this project evinces silence.
Later I heard that the school is to be bulldozed and rebuilt as part of Ministry of Sport project. A senior staffer became vaguely beligerant when I asked him about the school. “Why do you want to know? It’s old and past restoration." "Yes but ten families live inside. It supports them." “Yes but it is too expensive to rebuild. And besides it is not a heritage building.” A teacher answered this by asking “ Why not?”
“The teachers do not care for it", the official insisted, "The school is broken down and dirty.” I saw his face cloud over and become blank. All discussion was over.
I understand the tight walk between modernization and romance. Maybe in this case romance should be allowed to win. I think Laos are tired of the pragmatic from which they do not benefit. The loss of dreams is the loss of identity.