Khun Gechsoun, aka Soon, is a rising female entrepreneur who hails from an impoverished background in Kampot. Growing up, she supported her family by washing fishing boats and spending eight years working as a maid in Malaysia. Fast forward to the present, Soon is now a familiar name in woodcarving and also helps run KAMA Café in Kampot. And an addition to her life’s progress – she will also be flying to Hong Kong where she will head the kitchen of Hong Kong’s hip hotspot restaurant, Black Sheep. Before flying out, Soon left a mark in the wood carving scene after she staged her first ever exhibition of woodcut prints at Space Four Zero Gallery, 240 ½ Lane, just off Street 240 in Phnom Penh on September 1. She shares the story of her passions with Eileen McCormick.
Good Times2: Do you come from a family of woodcarvers?
Soon: No, I am the first person in the family to be in such craft. This is a self-taught skill as no one in family supported me. I first got into woodcarving from a well-known expatriate in the music scene, Julian Poulson, who has grown curious in art even though his focus is really into music. He started to encourage me to paint and experiment with art. But I wasn’t too confident back then. I liked painting, but I never went to an art school so I had no idea how to really draw. With this, I told Julian that I am interested in the art of woodcarving. He told me to come to Phnom Penh because a Malaysian guy was hosting a woodcarving class. This Malaysian teacher was Rico Leong.
Good Times2: What happened in your first woodcarving class?
Soon: Well, it’s pretty much different from painting or drawing because you have to push slowly but firmly to get the design into the wood. It’s the style that comes out of woodcarving that I really like, because it somehow looks surreal. In my class, all my classmates already had previous experiences in the craft. The teacher gave me a piece of wood and three carving knives, and a pencil with an eraser. The teacher just said “okay, do whatever you want to design”. I didn’t know what to draw or how to draw, but I decided to make a girl on a lotus leaf.
After that class, I decided that I want to keep developing my new-found skill. I searched around for materials that I can use for woodcarving. However, I found none. I asked Rico Leong, the teacher, if he could bring some materials for me from the US. We arranged for him to come down to Kampot for another class and he was able to bring me and other people some supplies, especially the roller which can be found nowhere in Cambodia.
Good Times2: What has woodcarving taught you?
Soon: It made me learn to relax and focus on what I am working on. I think woodcarving made me realise my movements more because you have to be very gentle when carving out a picture. If you make a mistake, you can’t really fix it so you would have to start over again.
Good Times2: What inspires your art work?
Soon: My art depicts scenes of Kampot life – women workers in fishing and farming communities, as well as curious and often comical views of daily life in and around Cambodia’s tranquil but fast-developing coastal province.
Good Times2: Now that you have learned woodcarving, have you extended this knowledge to other people?
Soon: I hold free classes in Kampot. I have some students and people just passing through to learn some basic skills in woodcarving. But right now, I am working closely with my three staff at the Kama café. Their works had been on display in the recently concluded exhibition.
My café staff are impoverished women with limited to no experience not only in art but also in running a café. I get their service and let them have something to earn from. They all participated in the woodcarving exhibition. This event, I believe, had created a unique women’s perspective on the work and life of women in Kampot.
Good Times2: Has any student been forced to stop because her family didn’t allow her to study with you?
Soon: Yes, it happens sometimes. There were situations wherein parents refuse to let their girls come with me because the projects I do are too masculine for them. I know a girl who wanted to join the rock band and her mother said she will kick her out of the house and disown her. I also have one staff whose mother locked her away. She ran away from her home. It has been months since then, and now she can show her family what she has learned without their help and support. That’s what I like to see among women in Cambodia – going against the oppression by their own families because of money. I want to see them grow and be able to take care of themselves while following the path they have carved for themselves.
Good Times2: Why do you focus on training women?
Soon: Some men have approached me for trainings. But my focus is really on women because they need more support in order to overcome cultural norms. Even for this event, I closed the café and invited the women to join me in woodcarving. I often hear a lot from my staff’s families telling them to go to work in factories because there’s more money there. But in the long term, this may stop them from moving up. That’s the benefit they get working with me. Over time, they learn the skills, they move and eventually leave the café to get work somewhere else that will give them better pay.
Good Times2: Historically, have women been trained in carving?
Soon: Not really, because women have always been expected to become housewives. The notion is that when you get married, men have to right to expect women to stay at home, in the kitchen. Even my mom, who sees me doing these sort of works, asks why I am doing these things. She said that these are a man’s job. In Cambodia, society sees women as a piece of cloth and men like gold. They focus on sending men to school because they are responsible to create better lives for their families. Why invest on women when are just supposed to stay in the kitchen? I, myself, know my role in the family and I don’t want women to have limitations because they lack education or because of cultural pressure. I want them to have a chance at life.
Good Times2: Is your passion for cooking and woodcarving interconnected?
Soon: I do both to make people happy. I love to see people smile because of something I have made. For cooking, when I see an empty plate, I know that the combination of flavours I have created was well-received. I think the key for me in both woodcarving and cooking is that I use both mediums to help share a story. I offer cooking tours that involve me talking about the story of the dishes I make, the background of these food, the story of the sellers or the markets where we bought the ingredients. Many of the woodcarvings I made were images I took from my food tours.
Good Times2: How did the opportunity to be a chef in Hong Kong come about?
Soon: I was part of the Kampot Writers’ Festival before. There was this guy named Jamie who wanted to write a story on some of the participants. He ended up interviewing me for a Chinese publication. At that time, I didn’t know that the article was published in a magazine and was part of the in-flight reads of Hong Kong Airlines. A guy named Chris saw the story and ripped the page out to have his assistant find me. There was no available contact information about me so it took them two weeks to find me.
Black Sheep contacted me and invited me to come to Hong Kong to become a cook. At first, it wasn’t something I thought I could do. But I went to the meeting anyway and a lot has changed since then. This October, I will be moving with my two children to become a fulltime chef there. I think it’s a good experience to not just live abroad, but to share the Cambodian cuisine to everyone around the world. Everyone knows Thai and Vietnamese food, but only a few know Khmer food. I want to showcase our very own cuisine.