Koh Chen’s villagers have been hammering out a living for generations, and its younger artisans see no reason why their source of income should change
by Roth Meas,
As you enter the village of Koh Chen (Chinese Island) on the Tonle Sap you hear the dull thud, thud of metal being hammered into shape.
This is the sound of the villagers practising their craft. For inhabitants of Koh Chen, on the opposite side of the river to Oudong on National Highway 5, copper smithing has long been a way of life.
The Kandal province artisans make pots, bowls, plates, ornamental swords, bracelets, and other souvenir items from flattened copper. Their work not only exemplifies Cambodia’s reputation for craftsmanship, but offers generations of villagers a reliable income.
Hammer in hand, coppersmith Pin Vuthy, 24, says he and other young people in the village learned their craft from their parents and elders.
“Making artistic copper pots, bowls, plates or bracelets is our traditional job in Koh Chen village,” he says.
And Pin Vuthy says he wants to see these skills passed on, so future generations can enjoy this guaranteed livelihood.
Their traditional work is in such high demand that Koh Chen villagers rarely need to market their products directly, with Phnom Penh’s dealers beating a path to their door.
“Generally we make copper products based on orders from dealers at the market,” Pin Vuthy says.
All eight people in Vuthy’s family are skilled in fashioning copper into craft items, involved in every stage of the production process.
Pin Vuthy cuts and carves flattened copper into decorative swords, popular among Cambodians for weddings. His two sisters carve them with traditional Khmer motifs. In one day they can produce up to six wedding swords.
Pin Vuthy emphasises the fact that his is a highly skilled trade in which attention to detail is essential to a quality product. “Carving is not an easy job, and I pay a lot of attention to it,” Pin Vuthy says. “I have to use both physical and mental power to do the work carefully by hand.”
He says he is proud of the traditional skill set of his family and his community, considering his craft to be a part of his ancestral heritage.
He says his job offers him a good income, and he doesn’t have to leave his village for work – although he occasionally goes to Phnom Penh to buy copper.
Jeng Chanthou, one of the dealers who frequent Koh Chen village, has sold its products for the past 14 years.
She has some of the copper items silver-plated, selling the work at Russian Market, Central Market and small shops in the city.
“Mostly foreigners and high-class people buy the artistic pieces from us,” Jeng Chanthou says. “But we also place orders for bracelets, copper jewellery and swords for traditional Cambodian weddings.”
She says plates with carvings of Angkor Wat or Preah Vihear temple always fetch a good price.
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