On a hot afternoon this week, more than 20 men sit in a nameless café in the Boeung Keng Kang III neighbourhood of the capital. Crowding around five boards, the men play ouk chaktrang, the Cambodian version of chess, rotating out to make room for another player every time the king falls.
All throughout the capital and countryside, the game is played in cafés, but the majority of the boards come from one reliable source: Songvor village in Kandal province, about 35 kilometres north of Phnom Penh.
Sitting in front of a lathe at her in Songvor, Hang Yan, 68, shapes a piece of hardwood into an ouk piece. She uses chisels and a knife to mould the grooves. There are other woodworkers in the village but Yan is the undisputed master of her craft and was born into a family that had already been making chess pieces for generations.
“I first learned to make them from my mother when I was 14 years old, and started selling them myself after I got married in the 1970s,” Yan says. “Except during the nearly four years the Khmer Rouge took away, I have always been making ouk pieces.”
She has competitors in the village but buyers and, not surprisingly, Yan herself contend the quality is not the same among the younger generation.
Yan spends half of a normal work day making chess pieces with the lathe, and another half on carving kbach – the decorative flourishes in much Khmer design – into them.
Much of the process involves scrutinising every piece for flaws, and making sure each corresponding piece is identical. She can tell when a piece is right by the distinct thwack it makes when it is slammed on the board.
While the younger craftsmen in the community can make up to five or six sets per day, she says, she only makes two. Hers are double the price, however.
“The younger chess makers today focus mainly on the quantity, instead of quality,” Yan says. “Someone orders them to make chess pieces, and they only make them to be played with, ignoring the details and originality.”
She claims her products are so popular that she can’t keep up with the demand, much of which comes from wealthy or high-ranking officials. El Eun, Yan’s husband, even contends that he has seen Prime Minister Hun Sen, an avid player, using pieces made by his wife.
Hang Yan at work:
Back in Phnom Penh, most of the chess pieces for sale in Russian Market are from Yan’s workshop. The prices range from $20 for a set to hundreds, depending on the type of wood.
Souk Bouy, 76, the owner of a souvenir shop in the west of the market and Yan’s regular buyer, says hers are the only ones “fit to sell”.
“Her products are popular among high-class players, and many foreigners are buying them as souvenirs, mainly because they are beautiful and easy to grab,” Bouy says. “But sometimes, I am angry with her because she could not make it fast enough for me.”
Pen Perun, a veteran ouk master and the founder of the chess club “Kru Barang Ouk Club” contends that part of the pleasure of the game is in the use of high-quality pieces.
“Ouk is not only a part of Cambodian culture but also an artistic identity. Everything about it is art: the pieces, the sound they make, and the teasing and mocking,” he says, referring to players’ back-and-forth exchanges. For Perun, however, the traditional form of the ouk pieces is not essential. Instead, he encourages creativity and improvements.
“The original form left by our ancestors is great, but it is also very important to be creative, and make them better,” he says.
But Yan worries that the original forms will be lost when she dies or retires, especially as none of her children will carry on her legacy.
“This career did not make me rich but I love it and I love my products,” she says. “All I can do is hope that the younger generation will learn from my work, and continue making them after I die.”