As the sun rises, a family in Kandal province are already busy making large puppets named Ting Mong in their workshop on the ground floor of their wooden house.

Unlike the traditional Ting Mong, famous for its ugly face that reportedly makes children cry, Hak Heng’s puppets made in his workshop have been upgraded to look as beautiful as a celebrity.

Having been making Ting Mong for nearly three decades, Heng describes how unpleasant it was when he saw the traditional version of the puppet for the first time.

“When I did not know how to make a Ting Mong, I felt scared when I saw them. I would turn my head away to avoid seeing those ugly faces. I’d try to hide my feeling and dared not tell the other Ting Mong makers that their work was horrible to look at,” the 58-year-old says.

After seeing many unsightly puppets, Heng learned how to make the puppet in a more pleasant form so that his children could also play with them.

“I was curious how it was made and why it had to be ugly like that. I also wanted to make it as a toy for my children. When I started to make the big puppet, the result came out nicely and I kept doing it until today,” he says.

The word Ting Mong in Khmer is used to represent both a scarecrow on a farm, as well as a big dancing puppet that collects donations.

According to Ang Choulean, a Cambodian anthropologist and professor of historical anthropology at the Royal University of Fine Arts, the word Ting Mong refers to a fictional figure that is made according to the size and shape of a human, but with the purpose of scaring people.

Choulean, who received his PhD in anthropology in France, said Ting Mong was initially called Yeak Cheal – with yeak referring to a giant in Khmer, and cheal the word for a big woven basket.

Traditionally in Khmer culture, Ting Mong had a giant face painted on it, while its body was made of paper wrapped around a woven bamboo basket.

He continued that during the French colonial era in Cambodia, Khmer people in rural areas were fearful and superstitious when it came to the Europeans.

“Whenever the French people came to the village for some affairs, the villagers would run away. Especially, the women would quickly disappear.

“At that time, people thought of the French or barang as having pointy sharp nose like a knife. They said barang were big and had a hairy face. They couldn’t exchange any conversation with barang and they thought the barang were scary,” Choulean wrote about the history of Ting Mong.

“Villagers were fearful of the barang and that put an end to the Yeak Cheal. The giant-faced Ting Mong, with its western face and big body which resembles the barang, replaced it. They used this new Ting Mong to scare ghosts, bad spirits, and diseases in the villages,” he continued.

Every year Buddhist temples host the Bon Phka or Bon Kathen religious ceremony, gathering people to donate money to build pagodas, bridges and roads in their village.

This kind of ceremony usually has a pair of Ting Mong, one man and one woman, which are normally bigger than the average human. The Ting Mong dance when the Chhay Yam band play, with each puppet manoeuvred by a person standing inside it. They walk and dance to collect donations from villagers.

The popular art has always been passed down from generation to generation, with it yet to find a place being taught formally in schools. This leaves it vulnerable to disappearing.

“If this art form is gone, it’s gone for good. It cannot be brought back to life. We cannot fix an intangible heritage [like Ting Mong] as you can with tangible ones,” Choulean says.

Modern twist

The tradition continues in Heng’s family, and in 2010 he began to transfer his skills to his two sons, Heng Sophorn and Heng Kimpheng, who have put their own modern twist on it.

Each of the brother’s puppets has a celebrity look to it, with attractive and smiling faces and dressed in fashionable clothing.

“Since I began making the puppets it has come out like this [nice and beautiful face] as I prefer something modern, fashionable, youthful and up-to-date. If you prefer something more classic, you can seek my father’s service,” says Sophorn.

Their newly upgraded Ting Mong has an attractive V-shaped face, pointed nose, pink smiling lips, dimples, big eyes, attractive crooked teeth and well-groomed eyebrows. The two brothers have also added blue eyes and smoky make-up to their puppets.

Unlike the traditional Ting Mong, that does not have a hairstyle, the two brothers give a fashionable hair-do to their Ting Mong, finishing up the look with replica jewellery.

“Since we started making this modern Ting Mong, we’ve received a lot of support from young people and older ones alike. For grandpa and grandma, whenever they come to order a Ting Mong, they say they want a younger faced model. They said the young Ting Mong looks more beautiful than the old ones,” Sophorn says.

“When I hear them say they like it, I feel happy. Their compliments give me energy to carry on my work producing Ting Mong that makes everyone laugh rather than feel scared.”

The two brothers have made Ting Mongs featuring the faces of Cambodian, Chinese, Thai and South Korean celebrities.

One of their Ting Mong was a copy of pop singer Meas Soksophea, who was very happy to have her face on the puppet.

She recently wrote on her Facebook page, which has more than 4.9 million followers, that: “When I was a child, I used to run away whenever I saw Ting Mong. Now the 2019 edition of Ting Mong bears the face of Meas Soksophea. I really appreciate the makers. They’re the young generation with creativity. I hope this new edition of Ting Mong will not scare young children anymore.”

Painstaking process

To make a Ting Mong from scratch, the family has to follow many steps. First, they have to mould clay and leave it dry for two to three days. They then start carving out the face and leave it dry again. Later, they use special paper to wrap around the carved clay and let it dry again.

After the clay is hard enough, they start digging out the head to make it hollow before painting it. The body is made of a woven bamboo basket called cheal. After the head and body are done, dressing the puppet is next, with a tailor designing a nice costume that fits well.

“If we don’t have enough sunlight, we cannot make a good Ting Mong. The wrapping paper will not go smooth. There might be some wrinkles or holes. If we wrap the paper too thin, when we dig it out to make the hole in the head, it will break the entire figure.

If we mix the paint with too much oil, the colour won’t last long. If one step goes wrong, we have to start all over again,” Sophorn says.

To make one Ting Mong, the family spends between 10 and 15 days, assuming they have enough sunlight. If there is not enough sunlight, the process takes up to one month to complete.

“We make Ting Mong all year round, but the busiest time is the month before the Buddhist holiday Chol Vosa [held sometime between July and September] and before Kathen [held between the end of September and early Octobe]. Sometimes we can’t complete the orders on time,” Sophorn says.

Hak Heng’s workshop has three different sizes of Ting Mong. A pair of small Ting Mongs cost 600,000 riel ($147), a medium pair are 1,100,000 riel ($270), and a big pair are 1,400,000 riel ($343).

Heng’s Ting Mong workshop is located near Khpab Bridge, in Sa’ang district’s Russey Srok village, Kandal province.