Speculative Phnom Penh: Inter-Asian Connections and the Transformation of a Postconflict City

Sylvia Nam
UC Irvine

Speculative Phnom Penh focuses on the unruly formations of property markets that, in turn, produce an uneven and scattered cityscape. Mid-century and colonial-era structures that survived the conflict and violence of the 1970s and reconstruction of the 1980s and 1990s are being swept away to make room for wholly new urban forms like the condominium tower or satellite city. I foreground the concept of speculation as linked to materialities of urbanism germane to the study of a transitioning city, and the transregional circuits of money and experts that constitute them. Rather than treat this shift as the product of a coherent vision, I argue that the city is produced through ad hoc experiments in the built environment encouraged by the state, which leverages the openness of its economy to attract investment. At the center of cycles of boom and bust are economic ambitions among a diverse cadre of builders, investors, and power brokers. I explore the ways that the city’s order is governed through elastic market and legal strategies, and struggles over economic value. In this sense, the book argues that unbridled real estate speculation is a generative and polarizing force of change in the city.