"Looking for firewood, I found a dead tree."
I used this Khmer expres sion to narrate to friends last week my feeling when
I luckily came across a "king" turnedknife-grinder.
"I am a former king," the ex-monarch told me. "But just in the plays,"
he added, disappointing me greatly.
Having had his theatrical career cut short, Yin Tech (73) picked up a new career
as a knife-grinder in 1979 and has been attached to the business ever since.
Even if a knife-grinder does not need to invest much capital or pay any taxes like
the wooden mosquito net-making business, you still scarcely find people plying this
Roaming the Phnom Penh streets from morning 'til night, the knife-grinding veteran
can make 3,000 to 5,000 riels a day, barely enough to feed his blind wife and himself.
He charges 500 riels to sharpen a knife and 1,000 riels for an ax, with prices negotiable
depending on the level of bluntness.
With nearly a decade and a half experience in the business, Yin Tech makes the elaborate
claim that he is "the best knife-grinder on the planet" or, at any rate,
in this Kingdom.
He says any knife he grinds will stay sharp for at least two months before it needs
sharpening again - a skill very few possess.
Moreover, he is seldom off work through sickness or injury, despite working without
safety gloves and he has never had any accident such as cutting his hands accidentally.
A tool to be sharpened has to go through three graduated grinding stones and the
water must be carefully selected.
"If we use rain water the knife will not cut as well as when we use tap water,"
he explained, not to mention purified bottled water.
Yin Tech was born to a rich family in Phnom Penh and began an early career as a tailor
but soon switched to the theater when his poor eyesight made needle work tricky.
In his youth he studied Khmer martial arts which accounts, he says, for the occasional
uncontrolled reflex. He therefore advises children not to play near him while working.