On a production line at a small factory inside the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, Cambodian workers delicately restore and repackage second-hand comic books from Japan.
When finished, the thick paperbacks look brand-new again, ready for shipment back the other way, to stores in Tokyo and cities across the country.
“Manga is the style,” says Sho Hara, referring to the wide assortment of Japanese comic books sitting stack after stack and awaiting export inside the Haru Phnom Penh Comic Center (HPC) factory.
The manga market, according to Hara, head of communications for the parent company in Japan that owns the factory, is “enormous”. Haru Phnom Penh Comic refurbishes the books in Cambodia and sells them back to the same shops from which they came.
HPC is one of the more unique stories emerging from Cambodia’s manufacturing industry and the economic zone on the outskirts of the city. As the industrial area expands, more room is available for manufacturing that strays from the traditional path of garments and footwear, which account for 80 per cent of Cambodia’s exports.
A short drive from Haru Phnom Penh Comic Center, one company is making high-grade steel casings to hold machine parts. Not far away, a bioenergy firm will fashion coal briquettes for export. Tiffany’s is setting up a diamond polishing factory in the zone, and in the most niche of all operations, a wig company is planning on using hair from India to create custom-made doos for Japan’s ageing population.
“We don’t just target the big company. We also try to target the small to medium-sized company,” said Hiroshi Uematsu, CEO of the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone.
It doesn’t get much smaller than the manga operation at HPC. As little as a dozen or so workers converse as damaged and worn books are attended to, the workers attempting to restore the them to their once pristine condition.
Haru’s customers include some 1,200 internet cafes, more than 1,200 comic book rental shops and over 2,500 hair salons, all of which buy and sell from HPC.
At least one, sometimes two container loads of 100,000 books arrive at Haru each month. Plastic seals and security tags are removed, and the shop stamp is finely machine – shaved from the fore edge of the book.
Books are delicately cleaned using cleaning spirits whilst an industrial vacuum makes a slight hissing sound as it forces any dust and dirt out of the old pages to restore the book.
Afterwards, a bar code scanner provides a Khmer reference number advising where the book belongs in the warehouse. As the comics are typically part of a series, the process ends when a set is complete and shipped back to Japan at a cost of 5 cents a book. Flicking through one of the 400,000 comics stacked in six-foot high shelves on the warehouse floor, Hara is aware of the detail-driven method that the factory demands.
“It is tedious work, and you need to be good at it,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING HOR KIMSAY