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A man of the cloth

Our purpose will be achieved if we can perpetuate the traditions and experience of those people who viewed the light of the moon on Bayon"

Deep in the heart of the Cambodian forest, Morimoto Kikuo is waiting at his remote retreat. The Japanese international textiles expert is also the rejuvenator of Khmer village-based traditional silk weaving and espouses the wisdom of the forest as the answer to the revival of silk.

“But Morimoto,” I say. “Apparently Cambodia’s silk industry is dying.”

“Says who?” he says.

“Well, for one, Economics Today magazine,” I say.

In its March 1-15 issue, the magazine quotes an industry leader who claims “the industry is going to collapse”.

I begin explaining the article but peter out as I realise Morimoto is smiling with bemusement. I opt for silence, as he slowly coaxes an Ara cigarette out of a red pack, lights up, and lays out his philosophy.

Far from being on the brink of extinction, Morimoto says the creation of high-quality yellow or “golden” Khmer silk, once regarded as the supreme silk of Southeast Asia, is in rebirth mode.

Economics Today argues that Cambodia’s silk industry cannot maintain production to keep up with demand, but Morimoto argues: So what?

He cannot keep up with demand either but doesn’t see this as a bad thing. He believes artistic silk production revolves around quality, not quantity: that the future of Khmer silk relies on serving a niche market for high-end, high-quality silk that sells for top-shelf prices. The insatiable demand for it, in itself, ensures the revival.

Morimoto is not interested in mass production to compete with the many metres of cheap imported silk flooding tourist markets. Mass production is anathema to him because deep down, 62-year-old Morimoto is a radical dude. The cool Haynes-like grey t-shirt, black jeans and smooth belt that he wears today give a hint of the Japanese hipster he was in his youthful yesteryear, when he protested the Vietnam War.

In the mid-1960s his ambition was to be a painter and, as he writes in his book Bayon Moon, “I lived my days absorbed by the waves of pop, dada and surrealism. Keeping company with self-described poets and painters, I roamed the streets of Yokohama and Tokyo.”

His urge to become a painter was triggered by the western industrialisation that swept post-war Japan. He writes, “In 1964, a conveyor belt was introduced into the factory where I was working, and the pastoral mode of labour suddenly became a problem in the face of demands of speed and efficiency.”

Now Morimoto argues that a modern pastoral form of labour is the key to the renaissance of high-quality Khmer silk.

He’s spearheading a back to nature movement and, by going forward to the past, believes he is creating a silk road to a new future.

Morimoto originally carved out a career in the Japanese technique of painting and dyeing kimono fabric known as yuzen. In 1995 UNESCO commissioned him to consult on the revival of Cambodian traditional silk weaving.

In 1996 he founded the Institute for Khmer Tradition Textiles, or IKTT, in Phnom Penh. Incidentally, IKTT is wordplay on the term for the pre-dyed silk weavings known as ikat.

In 2000 he moved the organisation to Siem Reap and in 2002 bought five hectares of denuded land 10 kilometres north of Bayon in Angkor Thom district, about an hour by road from Siem Reap. Here he established the Wisdom of the Forest project, which now encompasses 23 hectares of mostly reforested land called Chot Sam and houses he and his 150 silk workers along with their families.

At Chot Sam I ask, “So Morimoto, what is the wisdom of the forest?”

He beams. Now we’re talking. The forest, Morimoto explains, is the repository of almost everything needed to achieve pastoral village self-sufficiency.

In the past, every village had a forest that was alive and supportive. The forest contains everything that’s needed for traditional silk weaving: mulberry trees to feed the silkworms; wood to make the looms that render the silk into fabric; bark, plants and insects to provide the dyes to colour the fabric; and food and water to sustain the workers.

While at times Morimoto sounds like a western hippy communard (his philosophy is “mono wo tsukuru kokoro”: the love of making fine work), he is also imbued with a pragmatism that stops him from losing the thread. Rather than re-creating a silk village of the past, he is building “a new model of a village that utilises traditional wisdom”.

Or as he writes in his book, “Our purpose will be achieved if we can receive and perpetuate the traditions and experience of those people who viewed the light of the moon on Bayon over the course of many hundreds of years, and if we can pass these down to the next generation. This is the beginning of the new phase.”

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