Before 1975, everyone in Pol Toch village, in the province of Kandal, was a silversmith. Their work had been highly valued and their artistic skill recognised nationwide and even regionally. However, no thanks to the civil war, genocide and later on an economic crisis, the village almost lost its uniqueness. At one point, almost all craftsmen had to give up their career because they were unable to make a living from making silverware. In recent years, the demand for their products have gradually reignited, but the villagers are still struggling. They are also worried the legacy which they have preserved for centuries would be lost because of the new generation’s ignorance. Story by Taing Rinith.
When you take your first step into Pol Toch, a small village just off Prek Kdam that crosses the Tonle Sap River in the Kandal Province at Ponhea Lueu, the first thing you will hear is the combination of ‘chings’ and hammer poundings. As you go a bit further along, you will see the source of these sounds: villagers crafting different pieces of silverware in their houses.
Many of them are making silverware and bronze ware such as dishes and containers while others are making jewellery, including rings, bracelets and necklaces. However, all of the objects they are making contain engraved kbach, a traditional Khmer decorative pattern, and even scenes from Hindu mythology.
Chhum Kosal, a 43-year-old resident of the “silversmith village”, is carving kbach sleuk, a decorative element shaped from a combination of spiral vines and Ficus religiosa leaf shapes, on the silver surface of a large spherical water container, known as ptil. A tycoon from Phnom Penh had asked him to make it about two months ago to be added to his villa’s interior décor, and Kosal has one more week before he has to deliver it.
“I will get around $2,000 for this work, but I have to pay my workers and also for the raw material,” Kosal says during his cigarette break. “The profit is about $700, but it is a long and tedious effort, and it is almost impossible to focus on other works.”
The project started with Kosal and one of his workers shaping a thick, bronze sheet into the shape they wanted with their hands and simple tools. Then he filled the inside of the container with a concentrated solution containing dirt from termite mounds, a kind of resin, and fish oil. The mixture later naturally solidifies, and it allows the silversmith to engrave on the outside surface without making cracks. It is the same technique applied by everyone in the village.
“The proportion of each substance used follows the traditional formula,” Kosal adds. “A small mistake made during the process means everything could be ruined.”
Kosal, and his three brothers and sisters, first learnt the trade from his parents. Both his parents were silversmiths in Pol Toch village. In the early 80s he was an apprentice to a silversmith, who specialised in making spherical objects, for six years. He spent another six years working for another silversmith before he was able to save enough for a workshop of his own. However, in 2000, Kosal closed his workshop due to the lack of demand and became a motorcycle taxi driver. However, he was not the only one in his village at that time to experience it.
“The economy was very bad at that time,” Kosal says. “After (the civil) war, people no longer paid much for our hand-made products. Almost everyone in the village during that period gave up making silver objects and turned to other careers in the manufacturing and construction sector.”
Fortunately, the market has improved slowly in recent years, thanks to the country’s impressive economic growth and the popularity of social media where people promote silverware made in Cambodian villages. Three years ago, Kosal, like most of the villagers in Pol Toch, resumed his career as a silversmith. So far, most of his clients know Kosal via his Facebook page.
The official history of the signature art handicraft of Pol Toch village is unknown, but Chum Bopha, 46, another villager and silversmith, says her grandparents told her it was the royal silversmith, who had brought the legacy to this small village.
“Pol Toch village is relatively close to Udong and Longvek, both former capital cities of Cambodia,” she says while carving a silver decorative item in the shape of a pumpkin, which is filled with a special solution.
“Grandfather told me hundreds of years ago, silversmiths, who had worked in the King’s palace, came to live in our village and started passing their skill to the villagers.”
Similar to Kosal, Bopha had once given up being a silversmith, an occupation her family had kept for generations and become a garment factory worker. She reopened her workshop several years ago and also opened a shop to sell the silverware crafted in her workshop, including utensils, jewellery, statues and so forth. The small pieces cost between $15 and $35 while some bigger works could cost up to thousands of dollars. Yet, Bopha says she is still struggling financially.
“Most of my customers are foreign tourists, especially those from Western countries, who want to bring our beautiful silverware back home as souvenirs,” she says.
“The Cambodians who visit my shop usually say our products are very expensive. They do not really know how expensive silver is and how hard we work to create each item.”
“Silverware which is made with machines and moulds takes less time to be made and is cheaper, but our hand-made products are way more beautiful with higher quality. They are also made with original Khmer craftsmanship.”
Sieng Touch, a 50-year-old Pol Toch native who works in Bopha’s workshop, says he earns only around $150 per month. A retired soldier, Touch does not have the money to start his own workshop.
“It is a hard life,” he says. “I can only earn extra money when someone makes an order and that is rare.”
However, Touch says his love for the trade, which was passed to him from his father, has prevented him from giving it up. He enjoys working on his masterpieces, especially the large articles displaying mythical stories such as ‘The Churning of the Ocean of Milk’ (also called Samudra manthan in Hindi or Ko Samut Teuk Dos in Khmer), one of the most well-known legends of Hindu mythology and Cambodian culture.
“I wish people would buy a lot more of our products so we are able to keep making it and passing on the skill to the next generation to carry on,” Touch adds.