Koh Chen is an island with a wide reach. The closer you get to its village, the louder the heartbeat-pounding sound emanating from it gets. The source, men hammering heated bronze, is also drawing visitors from around the globe, who – along with shops in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap – are showing renewed interest in the intricately engraved bronze items produced in the village.
Koh Chen is located in the Tonle Sap River about 35 kilometers from Phnom Penh, in Ponhea Leu district of Kandal province. Its residents have been practicing a craft handed down to them over so many generations they cannot remember its source. What is noticeable at first is that the men do the forging and the women engrave. Ask around, and all admit that without the engraving there would be no craft.
Kong Sreytom first learned how to engrave on silver. That was 24 years ago when she was 11. “We rarely make silver, bronze or cooper utensils without engraving. People never order products without engraving. They buy because of these beautiful engravings,” she explains. “Sometimes they even give us pictures and ask us to copy the designs. Engraving attracts customers and raises the price,” she added.
The engravings are meticulous and stylish. Most are decorative – flowers, animals, people or the temples of Angkor Wat – but some include snippets of epics and myths.
Kong Sreytom began engraving simple flowers on silver, and gradually moved to more intricate designs. Now, she can produce an engraving as complex as Angkor Wat, or other ancient temples.
Like other residents of the village she never attended art class. It was all around her: the tools, teachers and the know-how – she became an artist by osmosis. “When I was growing up everybody knew how to engrave crafts. One day when I was about 11, I was watching my father straighten a piece of silver into a pot or maybe it was a tray,” she recalls. “And my mother was engraving pictures. I had seen her do this everyday, and then one day I started doing the same.”
Residents of the village now primarily use bronze, and they mostly make bowls. They also use copper and silver, but the price of the latter has become prohibitive.
Everyday, Kong Sreytom and her three sisters spend about five hours engraving at her home. She spends an entire day on one small bowl. For larger water bowls she can spend two days. Five hours spent bent over a bowl strains the back, twists tendons and muscles, but the concentration on her design can sometimes make her forget, she says. She focuses her mind on a vision and the careful tracing it requires to make it match, though sometimes she strays and this – though imperfect at first glance – leads to new visions.
She earns about US$5 per day and on top of this enjoys the luxury and independence of working from home.
She expects her income will rise if her clients order silver crafts, rather than the copper and bronze items she engraves now.
Hark Kim Sou, 40, is the only resident of the village to produce silver crafts, but he cannot afford to buy silver himself. Shop owners deliver silver and ask him to forge it into pedestal bowls for them. He has many clients in Phnom Penh because he has been a craft smith for 20 years, he says.
He can also engrave, but does not. “I can engrave pictures of Angkor Wat or the Ramayana too, but men never do. Engraving is women’s work,” Hark Kim Sou says.
“Everyday my wife and my sister do engraving. I straighten the bronze or silver and shape them into small bowls, pedestal bowls, or trays. Men and women have different jobs. We have done it like this for a long time,” he explains.
Residents of the village do not know when the forging and engraving began; what they say is that they were born into it. Vorn Kemsan, 50, looks puzzled when asked how long people in the village have been making their bowls and trays. “People were doing this when I was growing up,” he says, then switches to other topics that seem more interesting to him: the silver age and the arrival of foreign tourists.
“In the 1970s, I saw people in the whole village, except children, engraving silver crafts. In the past, people produced from silver, not bronze or copper like now. Silver was not so expensive then,” he recalls. “Foreigners visited our village every day. I was interested in their skin [colour], and I remember following them from one house to another. All the children did.
“We watched them as they watched people engraving in silver,” he continues.
Product dealer Bang Chanthou, 45, says that there are about 40 families still producing crafts in the village and that most switched from silver because it became too expensive. One kilogram of silver costs about US$1,100. Bronze or copper remain affordable, and silver can be sprayed onto the products when they are finished. The demand for bronze products is, however, lower, and prices have fallen.
“The price of our bronze products has gone done since 2000, so some crafts men have changed jobs. But since last year, I have been receiving more orders from shops in Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. I hope this will bring more jobs for people here,” she sa.
Bang Chanthou noticed that her clients, mostly foreigners, do not use her bowls or trays to hold food. Instead, they display them inside their homes because of how they look.
Sometimes, they buy the bronze products that have not been spray-painted silver. They want the traditional style, she says.