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Turning trash into treasure

Jewellery handcrafted from recyclable refuse will be auctioned tonight

in support of the Centre for Children’s Happiness, which assists

children abandoned or neglected by society

Photo Supplied

A necklace created by Christine Gauthier and featuring turquoise from Tibet, as well as copper reclaimed from car batteries.

There is a lot in your average rubbish dump that can be reused. From scrap metal to plastic bags and old soft drink bottles, most things can be given a new life of some form or another. The hidden value in things society has deemed worthless is to be highlighted by a fundraising auction tonight at Gasolina, organised by Baansoc, the fundraising arm of the Centre for Children's Happiness (CCH).

Approximately a dozen pieces of jewellery, including necklaces, bracelets and pendants, all handcrafted from donated and recycled materials by local designer Christine Gauthier of Water Lily, will be publicly auctioned to benefit CCH. Highlighted by the recent SMILE photo project, CCH was founded in 2002 by Mech Sokha, a Khmer Rouge survivor, to assist orphaned, abandoned or neglected children, most of whom previously worked as garbage pickers at the Stung Meanchey landfill in southern Phnom Penh. The landfill spans some 6 hectares and is home to about 2,000 people, almost 40 percent of them children. Residents build makeshift huts on private property at the dump's outskirts, paying exorbitant rent to the landowners for the privilege and making a living from the sale of recyclable rubbish. The average daily income of workers totals 4,000 to 6,000 riels (US$0.97 to $1.45), or about half that for children and, the combined labour of a whole family, often amounts to more than could be earned in their rural home villages.

Unfortunately, however, a large number of Stung Meanchey's child labourers do not have the luxury of family. Many have lost parents to land mines, AIDS, drugs or prostitution, or have themselves been trafficked or abused. Others have been sent to the dump to pay their way or assist the household income, which rarely allows for schooling or even basic health care. It became Mech Sokha's mission to address this personal and physical neglect by providing a safe, stable and caring home, as well as educational and vocational or university training, to enable financial independence.

Photo Supply

Burmese Jade is the centrepiece of this necklace, one of several up for auction tonight at Gasolina in Phnom Penh.

A fresh start

Across its three orphanages, CCH houses and supports 140 children between the ages of 5 and 18, whose stories are a testament to Sokha's success. "Children who three years ago were picking up rubbish in a dump," explained Baansok representative Michelle Harrisson-James, "are now studying at universities in Canada and Singapore". The organiser for the forthcoming auction, Harrison-James, has been involved with CCH for a year, in which time she says the progress she has witnessed has been "amazing". "There's one nine-year-old girl who came to the orphanage from the dump about a year ago, after having been abandoned, and we think sexually abused," she said. "Then, she wouldn't talk, didn't recognise people and had the conduct of about a two-year-old. Now she recognises me and is communicating with people - it's quite remarkable!"  

Reclaiming the discarded

Like CCH's proteges, Gauthier's auction jewellery has been fashioned from discarded materials.

Gauthier has worked extensively with scrap metal, including copper from old car batteries, a material that she describes as "versatile" and malleable. The semi-precious stones that inspired the project, meanwhile, have there own stories.

Including turquoise, jade and lapis, the collection was donated by Englishwoman Jane Redgrove, who gathered the gemstones in her world travels for a jewellery designer friend, with a brief of returning with "nothing boring".

Sadly, when she returned to the UK, Redgrove discovered her friend had passed away. Wanting to put the stones to good use in her friend's honour, Redgrove travelled to Cambodia, where she had collected some of them, and was inspired by CCH's work through Project SMILE.

The collection of large, exotic stones presented a design challenge to Gauthier when Redgrove approached her.

"These are not the sort of stones I would normally use," Gauthier said, "so it took time to come up with the ideas".

The outcome, however, was anything but boring. While the gems originate from lands as diverse as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Taiwan, South Africa and Tibet, the pieces are also uniquely Cambodian.

"I always try to reproduce Cambodian nature in my work," Gauthier said.  A necklace crafted with Myanmar Jade, for example, was inspired by the rice paddies outside Phnom Penh. "When you're far away, you see only green, like the jade," she explained, "but when you come closer, you see many other things, people and animals, and more colours, like these beads."

Other pieces imitate different forms in the Cambodian landscape - an intricate copper bracelet represents a bird's nest and a Bamboo Coral necklace the spindly branches and crested parrots of the Eritrea tree.

Appreciating the pre-loved

Although Gauthier originally worked in advertising, her family background in antiques has given her an appreciation for the pre-loved. "I love hunting about for interesting and unusual treasure," she said, "and Cambodia is great for this".

Gauthier is not the only one who has been busy crafting recyclables for the auction. Her pieces will be displayed on a mystery sculpture by Cambodian artist Khan Sophors, involving 50 kilograms of plastic bags. CCH children, meanwhile, have created their own interactive sculpture to highlight the value of 1 kilogram of waste plastic or two tin cans, which in their former work amounted to a profit of 100 riels. "We've tried to be creative with fundraising," said Harrisson-James. And between child-auctioneers, plastic-bag art and car-battery high fashion, today's auction promises to be just that.

The auction will take place tonight at Gasolina on Street 57, beginning at 6pm.

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