Credit by Palace Tiles in Phnom Penh © Suemtravels
How Cambodian Tile Makers Have Put A Local Touch on A Colonial Craft
SOCIO-CULTURE Cambodia

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.

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.

he 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.

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

 

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.

A worker pours pigments into a mould. Image: Eli Lillis
A worker pours pigments into a mould. Image: Eli 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.”

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 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.

Heng Srun goes through old designs at his home in Kandal. Image: Eli Lillis
Heng Srun goes through old designs at his home in Kandal. Image: Eli Lillis

 

“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.

Sim Lang holds up a finished tile made in her workshop. Image: Eli Lillis
Sim Lang holds up a finished tile made in her workshop. Image: Eli Lillis

 

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


Source : The Phnom Penh Post

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