In the tight-knit quarters of her home in Kandal province’s Arey Ksat town, Von Heang’s hands move with a rhythm honed by years of tradition. 

As she weaves tirelessly, Heang is not just crafting textiles, but preserving the legacy of the Chorabab brocade, a cultural treasure dating back to Angkorian times. 

Despite the challenging conditions – her family’s sleeping doubles as storage, her kitchen has been relocated outside and her home has poor ventilation and stifling heat – her dedication never wanes. 

Heang’s commitment to her craft serves as a quiet yet powerful act of cultural preservation. 

Chhim Sothy, head of the Department of Fine Arts and Handicrafts under the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, notes that Chorabab brocade can be seen in the engravings of some of the Kingdom’s most ancient temples, along with images of women weaving them.

“Chorabab features a pattern on the fringe. It is not a plain weave like the one found in Sampot Hol,” he tells The Post, referring to another type of Khmer silk dress.

He explains that many of the Kingdom’s artisans were lost during the Khmer Rouge’s reign of terror and the decade of civil war that followed. 

“The art of Chorabab weaving is becoming more prevalent in Thailand, due to the fact that there are indigenous Khmer in almost 20 provinces there. They are continuing to preserve the art of dyeing and weaving in this unique way,” he says.

“We lost it to them, but we can trace it back through Khmer people in neighbouring countries, as well as from our ancient temples and the customs that we left behind. This will make Chorabab sustainable,” he adds.

He says that when discussing Cambodian silk, many think of Sampot Hol, but Chorabab, with its predominantly Khmer designs, embodies Khmer heritage more accurately. 

“It is historically linked to royalty, such as being worn by Suryavarman II’s queens at Angkor Wat. It now graces some Cambodian weddings,” he notes.

A connection with the crown

Cambodia Labour Resource Organisation (CLRO), which has drafted a funding proposal to save the Cambodian Chorabab, speaks highly of the brocade. 

“Even King Norodom Sihamoni donned it for his 2004 coronation. Beyond its royal connections, Chorabab continues to play a significant role in contemporary culture, used in traditional dances and attire,” it says.

CLRO is embarking on an ambitious journey to revive this fading craft, with the launch of a project that not only seeks to sustain the art form but also the lives of the artisans behind it.

In early March, CLRO reached out to the Skill Development Fund (SDF) – an initiative officially launched by the Ministry of Economy and Finance earlier this year – to secure financial support.

The move was sparked by concerns raised by private citizens in 2023, who, after conducting interviews with Chorabab artisans, identified 29 critical issues threatening the survival of this art form. 

Their findings, which were presented to the government and UNESCO, calls for the inclusion of Chorabab in the Living Human Treasures Programme, emphasising the dire situation of the dwindling number of ruhpkaa – artisans skilled in setting intricate patterns into looms for weaving.

“The challenge we face is acute; there are only about 20 ruhpkaa left, and the Covid-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the threat to their survival,” says CLRO executive director Veyara Chhieu.

The project aims to not only improve the ruhpkaa’s living conditions and income, but also their numbers, ensuring the craft’s continuity.

The total estimated budget for the implementation of the 18-month project is almost $240,000 – $184,000 for the first year and $52,900 for the final six months.

As the project awaits funding, CLRO is making headway with the help of volunteers, having enlisted a ruhpkaa as the lead trainer, helping several other women to develop new products. 

Specialist support

The initiative also seeks donor support for vaccinations and health screenings for the ruhpkaa. 

“Dr Chea Socheat of the Siem Reap Medicare Clinic has advised us on the vaccinations they will need to stay healthy,” Chhieu reveals, showcasing the project’s attention to the artisans’ well-being.

The Chorabab brocade. Photo supplied

Cornelia Bagg Srey is recognised for her extensive work in preserving Cambodian cultural heritage, particularly through her writing and research on traditional textiles.

As an author, her notable contributions include “A Pocket Guide to Cambodian Silk” and “Through the Eyes of a Queen – the Women of the Royal Court at Angkor”, which shed light on the historical and cultural significance of Khmer silk weaving traditions. 

Bagg Srey aims to sustain the legacy of Chorabab brocade, ensuring that this ancient art form remains a living, breathing part of Cambodia’s cultural tapestry.

Srey is credited with writing the 2023 Chorabab Production Fact-finding Report, which laid the groundwork for the funding proposal to save the craft.

Why saving Chorabab is crucial

Preserving Chorabab is important for several compelling reasons that span cultural, historical, social and economic dimensions.

Chorabab is a tangible expression of Khmer culture and identity, deeply rooted in the Kingdom’s history, particularly the Angkorian era. 

“The intricate patterns seen in Chorabab have been part of Khmer cultural heritage for centuries, depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat,” says CLRO’s Chhieu. 

“By preserving it, we safeguard a living history that offers insights into the artistic and societal norms of ancient Khmer civilisations, contributing to our understanding of human history more broadly,” she explains.

Chorabab weaving involves a complex set of skills passed down through generations. Preserving it ensures the survival of these traditional craftsmanship skills, preventing them from being lost to modernisation and globalisation. 

It keeps the knowledge alive, not just in practice but as an educational resource for those who wish to learn about traditional weaving techniques.

For many artisans, Chorabab weaving is a source of livelihood. Preserving this craft contributes to the economic empowerment of weavers, particularly women, who form the backbone of the traditional textile industry in Cambodia. 

“Supporting it can lead to the development of sustainable livelihoods, community development and poverty alleviation,” notes Chhieu.

He says that in contrast to mass-produced textiles, Chorabab is woven using techniques that are more ethical and sustainable. It also promotes eco-friendly practices, through the use of natural fibres and dyes, and encourages a shift away from the fast fashion industry.

Traditional crafts like Chorabab attract tourists who seek out authentic cultural experiences, contributing to the local economy and fostering a greater appreciation of Khmer culture among international visitors. 

“This not only fosters pride among Cambodians but also enriches the global tapestry of traditional arts, encouraging diversity and cross-cultural appreciation,” says Chhieu.

He adds that efforts to preserve Chorabab should include educational programmes that inform both locals and tourists about the importance of this tradition.

Modern threats to an ancient technique

One major obstacle to its sustainability is the prevalence of machine-made imitations, often imported, which undercut the market for traditional weavers. 

The project champions the cause of authentic Chorabab garments, urging consumers, particularly brides, to choose genuine silk pieces, hand-woven locally. 

In recent years, the shift in popularity towards machine-made fabrics has led to an 80 per cent drop in Chorabab production. 

“To pull Chorabab back from the brink of extinction, we need to embark on a comprehensive strategy,” says Chhieu.

The socio-economic hardships faced by these artisans are profound, with at least 15 per cent living below the poverty line. 

Among the proposed measures are offering artisans special protections, such as comprehensive healthcare benefits and enrolment in the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).

The strategy also includes combating mosquito-borne diseases affecting artisans, as well as providing them with reading glasses to extend their productive years.

“We’re also focusing on empowering our producers through business training, aiming to expand our reach through international online sales,” Chhieu adds.

In addition, the project advocates for the establishment of weaving centres in accessible locations, as the current vocational training centre poses geographical challenges.

“If Chorabab disappears, the cultural fabric of Cambodia will be irreparably damaged,” Chhieu warns.