Gunpowder is filtered into paper tubes to make rockets. Photo by: HENG CHIVOAN
MAKING fireworks is very much a family business in the village of Prey Sdech, about 47 kilometres from Phnom Penh in Kampong Speu province.
The province is where people head if they want to buy fireworks to celebrate a special occasion or national festivals, such as the coming Chinese New Year.
One of the largest makers in the village is Cheang Kem, his wife and three teenage children. His house is easily recognised by a large sign outside advertising his Cambodia-brand rockets, which are sold throughout the country.
His small workshop is one of dozens of family businesses producing fireworks, in this case a skill handed down from father to son.
“I learned how to make fireworks from my father, who was a fireworks producer in the 1970s,” says Cheang Kem. “He also learned a lot from Chinese fireworks, too. He used to open the rockets and follow the method they used to make them.”
Because gunpowder is one of the key compounds of a rocket, making fireworks is a dangerous business. One couple and their child were killed in a village accident about four years ago, Cheang Kem said.
But he manages to avoid accidents by always following his father’s advice. “We work with just a little gunpowder at a time when we make the rockets, and we keep the workshop well away from our house. Any fireworks which have been just made are immediately taken to a safe storeroom,” he says.
Concrete storage areas have been built about 30 metres from his home to avoid unexpected explosions.
Despite bearing the trade name of Cambodia Fireworks, most of the family’s raw materials are imported from China, Thailand and Vietnam. The ingredients include aluminium, sulphur, potassium nitrate and papers to wrap the mixtures in.
“When we load the gunpowder into the container, we normally measure each component accurately, so there should be no accidental chemical reaction,” says Cheang Kem.
“The most dangerous part is when we mix the gunpowder compound together. We have to pay careful attention, and never use too much force or too much pressure.”
The family makes several sizes of fireworks, ranging from five centimetre to 30-centimetre rockets. Cheang Kem also sells fibreglass mortar tubes, imported from China.
“But the colours of our firework are still not as good as Chinese ones,” said Cheang Kem. That’s been no barrier to sales, which are high during national festivals. They range in price from 800 riel for a small rocket up to US$2 for a six-inch banger. But larger custom-made explosions for private events can cost up to US$8,000 for a display, Cheang Kem says.
He also runs through a small safety demonstration, reminding customers to transport fireworks carefully and to light them from fire-proof launching pads. “And never, ever look into the rocket tube,” he adds.