Cheang Pich, 52, is something of a local celebrity. Not too many people in Pursat have appeared on CNN.
Trained at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh, the female stonemason moved to Pursat with her husband in the late ’80s. Here she learned to sculpt the local marble, which she sold at the market before opening her own shop some 21 years ago.
“I think I am the first woman to open a big shop like this,” she says. “A lot of TV channels came to interview me, even CNN, around 10 years ago.”
The decision to become a stonemason was one which was born out of necessity rather than a craving for TV celebrity status. Stemming from a wealthy background, Cheang Pich’s family lost everything during the Khmer Rouge regime.
After moving to Pursat, she turned to stonemasonry as a supplement to her husband’s meagre income so they could feed their young children.
At first her husband was none too enamoured with the prospect of having a stonemason for a wife.
“He was totally against my decision to be a stonemason, because it was not a suitable job for a woman,” she says. “But now I am famous everywhere.”
In addition to making and selling statues from her shop just across the river from the town of Pursat, Cheang Pich has taught many stonemasons the tricks of her trade.
“Before at any one time I would teach 40 to 50 students,” she says. “Then we had a lot of work for them to do, but gradually it became less and less and I became older, so I stopped.”
Now she has nine stonemasons working for her, this declining workforce a reflection of increased competition.
“There are more than 100 places that sell [marble sculptures] in Pursat,” she says. “The problem is we do not have a market. For a good stonemason like me it is no problem, we can survive, but around half of the new stonemasons that don’t have experience, they quit.”
The marble comes from quarries in the district of Kravanh to the south of the province. “The stone here is special because it’s marble,” she says. “If they ask me to carve stone from Preah Vihear or Kampong Thom, I cannot do it.”
In the village of Bra Ngil in Kravanh, Moeng Mean, 18, is carving a statue of the Buddha at the workshop of his brother-in-law, Hieng Chanra, 30. The workshop is one of four such places in the small village.
The work looks hard.
“At first when you start learning it is difficult,” says Moeng Mean. “But once you know what to do, it’s easy.” If he works hard, he can make more than US$100 a month.
The village has a long history of stone masonry due to the quality of the marble. Hieng Chanra comes from three generations of stonemasons. Before he established his workshop three years ago, he
worked as a stonemason for his uncle.
“I lacked money so my parents told me to do this job because they thought it was easy to make money,” he says. “I worked for him [his uncle] for six years, then I opened this workshop.”
According to Hieng Chanra, the main problem is an increase in the price of marble, which has recently risen from 1,000 riel to 1,400 riel a kilogramme.
All the masons buy the marble from Float Asia, a company that has exclusive rights to extract marble from a quarry 65km from the village.
Despite the mounting costs, Hieng Chanra says trade is good.
“I think that business is better now because more people are ordering from Phnom Penh,” he says. “I hope that in the future, my workshop will become bigger. That’s why I try my best every day.”
INTERPRETER: RANN REUY