In 2012, Chinese national Yeemon Yan packed a camera and portable printer and traversed the length and breadth of Myanmar, learning about the people and their country.
In her pioneer CSR (Corporate social responsibility) project called “Free Photo for Love without Border”, Yeemon used photography to initiate and share the magical moments of meaningful cultural exchanges.
She visited countless communities, leaving new friends photographs of their experiences. This simple concept had a profound emotional effect on both Yeemon and the people she met in Myanmar.
“At that time, I wasn’t in a position to do much more than share our experiences through photographs. When we looked at the photos together and soaked in our ‘together smiles’ I realised the project had achieved something extraordinary,” Ms Yan says.
“It produced a momentary happiness full of hope. Not only had these people never seen a photograph before, they also had never met a foreigner such as me. The experience has been etched in our minds.
“For me I understand Myanmar in a way that can never be conveyed through the press. Seeing the photographs has an immediate uplifting effect,” she adds.
Fast forward to 2019 and Ms Yan is working at Compass to bridge cultural divides in Cambodia. Here she is helping Chinese nationals to become fully integrated into Cambodian culture, finding them residences, jobs, networking opportunities, and simply put, a new and inspiring way of life. At the same time she is working with fellow Cambodians to understand the nuances of her Chinese compatriots.
As with her CSR project, Ms Yan always looks for ways to propel international communities through the arts. In Cambodia she recently launched a fashion label called Yeemono a hybrid of her name Yeemon with the word kimono. Her fledgling company celebrates traditional kimono design while integrating embroidery techniques, local fabrics, and garment industries within Cambodia.
“When I visited the various markets and some remote areas within the city suburbs, I realised that Cambodian traditional silk-weaving skills and Cambodian fabrics are a treasure not yet appreciated by the world. I wanted to recognise the value while jump starting the local garment industry,” she says.
“Working with the Cambodian people to make high quality kimonos I felt the same mutual joy experienced in Myanmar. Through the Yeemono project, I am beginning to feel my purpose,” Ms Yan says, and adds that: “This initiative will lift women and children out of poverty and give them a sense of purpose.”
Through the project, Ms Yan will not only help promote Cambodian textiles and fabrics, but also introduce Cambodia as a place for contemporary fashion design and international collaboration.
“I always seek the rarest and most intricate of Cambodian textiles – and during this process, I build strong friendships with people with extremely different backgrounds and lifestyles,” she says.
“I learn so much from them about how to live and be happy. The Khmer language is extremely difficult, and I often must rely on sign language and mutual patience. With each interaction we are weaving an intricate bond between each other, and by extension, our people and nations,” Ms Yan adds.
By developing Yeemono, she had created a niche market which she hopes will earn increased attention to support this important venture.
She has recently opened the Bonbon Kimono shop in Phnom Penh. She plans to expand her business beyond Cambodia to other parts of the world and spread the message to others. She believes global demand alone will provide for long term financial sustainability.
Ms Yan’s kimono are sold from $30 upwards and one has to remember, profits are not the only motives as all revenue is shared and ploughed back to the community from where the various materials are obtained, thus creating a unique supply chain which Ms Yan has created, ensuring that everyone involved always wins.
Ms Yan uses both specialty materials and methods.
“I am now working with the art of Ikat, a dyeing technique which existed in Cambodia from the Angkorian era. Ikat helps me to create unique motifs on textiles and this gives exclusivity to the kimono design,” she says proudly.
Ikat (literally means tie) is a dyeing technique used to pattern textiles that employs resist dyeing on the yarns prior to dyeing and weaving the fabric.
Each kimono has intricate design motifs, features lightweight materials, is easily customised to suit individual tastes and needs, has a secret pocket, a unique part of Yeemono, and reversible sleeves.
Ms Yan stresses that it is very hard for any traditional culture to endure due to modern technologies and industries, even if the crafts evolved over millennia.
She believes that only through individual and concerted efforts to preserve and enhance them will these cultural treasures endure and grow.
“In China, there are mechanisms to preserve cultural legacies. This serves to educate and empower the younger generation. My hope is to see visitors who come to Cambodia, leaving with at least one Yeemono design, just like you buy batik from Malaysia or Indonesia or Chopsticks from China, you can also buy an Ikat, as a souvenir of Cambodia when you visit Angkor Wat,”she says.
In five years, Ms Yan hopes to see people wearing fabrics containing Ikat and talking about Ikat.
She also wants to diversify her clothing line as well as provide employment to people in need.
She says that she would like Ikat to become a national cultural calling card of Cambodia, a cultural heritage which can foster better understanding of Cambodian culture amongst tourists since tourism is a key economy pillar of Cambodia.
“I am blessed to see the Ikat technique has been kept alive and I feel proud that I am able to contribute towards this in my own small way. I hope that more Cambodians will learn the art of Ikat and preserve this cultural diamond, and practice it for generations to come,” Ms Yan adds.