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How Cambodian tile makers have put a local touch on a colonial craft

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Sim Lang holds up a finished tile made in her workshop. Eliah Lillis

How Cambodian tile makers have put a local touch on a colonial craft

Brought over by the French, painted cement tile making has been incorporated into Cambodian design for more than a century, even as the industry has died out in Europe. But with local masters ageing, who will take over?

In a dark and dusty workshop along the river in Siem Reap, Cheat Ty places a blank tile into a steel frame, lays down by hand a mixture of sand and cement powder, and then fits an intricate metal mould above it. He pours four different pigments – white, scarlet, green and orange – into the mould, adds more powder, then places it under a manual press.

He spins what looks like a giant dumbbell with two basketball-sized cement balls on each end, lowering the press onto the metal frame like a giant corkscrew. Ty then opens the frame he’s just pressed, brushing off the excess material, and reveals his handicraft: a cement tile with the signature floral motifs of the French colonial era. Then, he begins again.

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Workers in Chan Seng Koung’s workshop use the manual press, which swings above their heads, to make a tile. Eliah Lillis

The 25-year-old Ty has been doing this since he was 16. Out of this Siem Reap workshop, he can churn out about 10 tiles per hour if they have four colours – double that if there are only two.

This workshop, Khmer Floor Handicraft, along with Taing Heng Sreng in Phnom Penh, are the only operations in the Kingdom that still make what are known as encaustic cement tiles on a continuous, daily basis.

The craft dates back to mid-19th century France, where the semi-automated technique was first developed as a cheaper alternative to marble mosaics or wood parquet for decorative flooring. The tiles are known for their longevity, their mosaic patterns, and for becoming smoother and more beautiful with time. Yet it’s a manufacturing tradition that died out more than 40 years ago in the European nation that birthed it, but lives on – for now – in a few of its former colonies, such as Morocco, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Chan Seng Koung, the 26-year-old owner of Khmer Floor Handicraft, learned the craft as a child from his father Chan Na Ream, from whom he inherited the business when he died nearly a decade ago.

“My father learned in Phnom Penh in 1992, and now this is the only shop left in Siem Reap,” Seng Koung says. “We make 50 different styles, old and new,” he adds.

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A collection of finished tiles in Chan Seng Koung’s studio. Eliah Lillis

But while Seng Koung carries on the tradition, he was hazy about the history. “I just learned it from the older generation who taught the Cambodian and French design,” he says, adding that “some of these styles have been used in pagodas since a long time ago.”

Today, they are found in some restaurants, boutiques and hotels, which he says are the businesses that make up his clientele, along with a few homeowners. But business has been decreasing for years.

“People don’t support this local product,” he says, adding that while he’s managed to keep his tile presses running, employing some 30 workers, the others have had to close shop.

That’s a familiar narrative for 74-year-old Sim Lang, who owns Taing Heng Sreng, a smaller workshop that sits behind a Tela gas station just south of the Monivong Bridge. With only two presses, she employs four workers to make tiles, only two of whom are “real craftsmen”.

According to Lang, the tile making craft managed to survive the Khmer Rouge, reaching a second heyday in the early 1990s, only to undergo a steep downturn after 1995 as the tiles, which require time to dry and a certain skill to produce, were outcompeted by cheaper mass-produced ceramic and cement tile imports from Thailand and Vietnam.

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A worker pours pigments into a mould. Eliah Lillis

“In the 1990s, there were maybe 20 to 30 workshops in Phnom Penh,” she says.

“In the Sangkum period [under former King Norodom Sihanouk], these tiles were commonly used in houses. The quality is good and they last for many years,” she says, adding that some designs can be found in pagodas that are more than a century old in Kampong Thom and Battambang provinces.

Lang’s specialty is mixing the mineral pigments that go into the tiles. She is a veteran of the trade, having learned in the post-independence era when she was 23. Lang comes from a family of tile makers. Her father was an apprentice for a French craftsman, and now Lang has passed the knowledge to her son, 41-year-old Seang Hour, who has taken over supervising the day-to-day operations of her workshop.

“He’s the only one of my nine children that continued the family legacy,” she explains. Without more apprentices, and more local demand, tile making is likely a tradition that will soon die out in the Kingdom.

“Most of the veteran tile craftsmen died already,” she says. There is one notable exception, however, who perhaps more than anyone else in Cambodia, holds the keys to the knowledge of cement tile manufacturing: Heng Srun.

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Heng Srun goes through old designs at his home in Kandal. Eliah Lillis

The moulding master
As far as he and Lang know, 77-year-old Ta (“Grandpa”) Srun is the only person left in Cambodia who knows how to make the metal moulds required for each design.

“Some of our customers submit designs themselves, but it is Ta Srun who makes the mould,” Lang’s son, Hour, says, adding that even the workshop’s presses were made in the 1980s by the master. Srun, Lang and her husband had been friends since the Sangkum period, when he worked with her husband, who passed away six months ago, in the French workshop.

“Losing my husband was already a sad loss for the Cambodian tile craft, but losing Ta Srun will be an even graver loss,” she says. “I have a son who continues the tradition, but none of Ta Srun’s children carry on the legacy.”

Post Weekend visited Srun in his Kandal province home this week, and, while certainly elderly, he could still effortlessly lift the steel tile casts, which each weigh easily 15 kilograms.

Srun has been making moulds for 65 years, since before independence.

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A selection of pigments at Chan Seng Koung’s workshop. Eliah Lillis

“There were a lot of craftsmen in that time, but they’re all dead now,” he explains. “The work was completely handmade at that time, and we used lathes to make the moulds,” he says. Now, he uses more modern tools in a metal workshop a few kilometres from his home.

“Mao Tse Tung Boulevard and Monivong Boulevard were lined with workshops all the way to Russian Boulevard,” he recalls wistfully, speaking of when the craft was at its peak in the 1950s. But the Khmer Rouge period put an end to such frivolous decoration. Lang survived by saying she was a simple labourer, but Srun says he told the Khmer Rouge the truth about his past and remarkably was spared.

“The Khmer Rouge wanted to kill us craftsmen, but we mould-makers and tile craftsmen kept in touch during that time and many survived,” he says, which allowed the industry to rebuild itself into the 1990s.

For Srun, it wasn’t just competition from cheaper, lower quality ceramics that hurt the craft, but also “low quality craftsmanship”, as tile workshops would try to use faster-drying cement mixtures to remain competitive, but in the process sacrifice the longevity and quality of the tiles.

“Only Lang in Phnom Penh and Koung in Siem Reap use the old technique,” he says. Although a relic of French colonialism, the craft now has a place in the country.

“Even though the tiles came from the French, it’s now integrated in our culture; it is a part of the Khmer tradition,” Lang says.

But Srun is fatalistic about the tradition’s endurance. He says there isn’t much interest in keeping it alive. “Learning to make the moulds takes patience, and my children don’t have that,” he says, adding that many of the old masters never had the chance to teach their children. “When they died, their knowledge died, too.”

At his home in Kandal, Srun lays out dozens of printouts of tile designs that he keeps haphazardly in a bag. He says he can’t choose a favourite but places each on the ground next to the other.

“I love all the designs, but what I really love is the quality… Even the slightest misalignment and the customer will reject it,” he says. For Srun, the durability of the tiles is part of their beauty, along with the fact that they grow smoother with age.

“These tiles could last 200 to 300 years. We will die before our tiles,” he says. “A lot of craftsmen would die before their work would fade away.”

Though Srun knows that he’s the last of his kind, and that the tradition may well succumb with him, he is open to passing on the knowledge to a suitable successor.

“Of course I would accept an apprentice,” he says, laughing. “But they must pay me. I studied for three years to learn this craft.”

See the tile makers in action:

The workshop in Phnom Penh is No. 1693 on National Road No. 2, in Prek Talong Village, Chak Ongre Krom Commune, Phnom Penh. H/P: 016 848 575.

The workshop in Siem Reap is located on Street 453, in Vihear Chin Village of Svang Dong Commune, Siem Reap. H/P: 017 313 405/ 097 598 6666.

See their Facebook page here.

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