To Cambodia with love

by TERESA CHOW on Apr 17, 2012 in Architecture
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Frank Gehry famously said that ‘there are a great many things about architecture that are hidden from the untrained eye’ – and Hong Kong’s Project Little Dream lives up to that in its ongoing work building schools in Cambodia

Every summer, a blue wave arrives in Cambodia, in the form of a large group of blue-clad university students from Hong Kong, who go there to roll up their sleeves, ready to pour their energies into building schools for underprivileged children.

Marshalled by Project Little Dream (PLD), anything up to 60 volunteers have made the trek out to Cambodia to donate their time, skills and sweat to a good cause. So far, more than 600 children already have benefited from the three schools built by PLD in Prey Run Village, Kh’na Rong Village and Thon Mun Village in Takeo.

PLD works closely with Cambodia’s New Futures Organisation (NFO) and receives advice from universities in Hong Kong ‑ PLD is, in fact, now a registered charity, with a growing focus on schools, education and health. “PLD started with a dozen students. Like building a school, anything is achievable if each step is broken down. We recruit volunteers of different backgrounds; some are studying in Hong Kong and some overseas,” explains Denise So, vice-chairperson of PLD.

It all began in the winter of 2008. That December, 15 university freshmen received an email from their mutual friend James Charles Mak, then chairperson of PLD, saying he had a little dream of building schools in Cambodia. “Why Cambodia?” says Francis Wong, director of research and development at PLD. “Well, Mak and I studied in the same secondary school in Hong Kong and in one summer, we went to Cambodia and saw charity groups building schools there. I guess that was how we were inspired.”

The first school was a relatively primitive ventilated wooden shelter. Built in a dense village, it was new to the locals due to its scale and there are, generally speaking, only two types of houses in Cambodia: wooden stilt houses and concrete houses. PLD surveyed the site and learned how building work was done locally ‑ as most of the group’s members are not architecturally trained, they relied greatly on local experience.

Nelson Huen, research and development officer (architecture) says this was why the earliest project was so undemanding in technical terms. “But through on-site evaluation and better planning, we saw works improve day by day. We enjoyed every process and were happy to see the end result.”

By the time PLD began work on its third school project, architectural sensitivities were brought in to play. Built in a temple area facing farmland, the school also had to double as a community centre for health and welfare. “How we conceived the first school was simple: it was to be a space to accommodate as many children as possible. But as we believe smaller classes are better, this time divided the space into two,” says Wong.

PLD’s concept of a pavilion-like building for its schools comes down to not just the tropical climate, but for one significant reason, explains Wong: “In Cambodia, the culture of going to school is not strong, so by not enclosing the school, we hope others have the chance to see what teaching is like, and eventually will be interested in studying.”

Accumulated experience means PLD can apply its knowledge and research, becoming fully engaged to the problems facing Cambodians. Going in with purely altruistic intent has also earned the group enduring friendship and respect from the people there: “Each year when we go back wearing our blue shirts it was like going home,” says So. 

Also read the story, ‘A greater purpose’, in the May 2012 issue of Perspective magazine! 

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