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Cambodia: The Silk Grandmothers
Weaving a new life from a lost art
 

 

Emily Taguchi

Emily Taguchi is a journalist and filmmaker from Tokyo. She is currently working as a field producer and videographer for KQED public television in San Francisco. This is Taguchi's second story for FRONTLINE/World's Rough Cut series; her previous film, The Unforgotten War, about antagonism between Chinese and Japanese youth over the memories of World War II was completed in 2006. She is a graduate of the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism.

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Length: 12:44

Growing up in Tokyo, Cambodia was never far from my conscience. At train stations, volunteers would ask commuters to empty their change to help one of the poorest countries in Asia. Public-service announcements on television encouraged donations and showed the wide eyes and gaunt faces of Cambodian children. Whenever I left food on my plate at the table, my mother would say, "Think about all of the hungry children in the world!"

Still, I was surprised when I read about Kikuo Morimoto, a well-known textile craftsman from Kyoto, Japan, who had moved to Cambodia to help revive the country's ancient practice of silk-making. Many Japanese people are well intentioned but feel more comfortable staying on the entrenched road before them than taking a different, sometimes extraordinary, path. There is even an old saying in Japan that says, "A nail that sticks out will be hammered down."

Morimoto used to hand paint kimonos, and ran his own successful studio with apprentices in tow. But he began to question what that success meant to his life. In the early 1980s, it drew him to the Thai-Cambodian border, where he volunteered at refugee camps. It was there he discovered the beauty of Cambodian silk. "The red of the fabric burned a fierce impression on my eyes," he told me.

Cambodian silk-making is a traditional art that has been passed down through generations from mother to daughter. But Morimoto found the craft in danger of disappearing after decades of violence. When a United Nations mission in the 1990s led Morimoto to Cambodia, he met a few of the weavers. Many of the women were in their 70s and 80s and living in remote villages across the country -- they were the only ones left who knew the secrets of the craft.

During his initial research in Cambodia, Morimoto also found that those who still practiced the silk-making were paid just pennies for their painstaking work. As a fellow craftsman, Morimoto found that infuriating. "These grandmothers were so highly skilled, they should be given the chance to do work that matched their skills and be paid for it," he said.

When I arrived in Cambodia to report this story, I felt some of those same frustrations. Tourists swarm Angkor Wat before dawn -- nearly one million people visit the ancient temples every year, each paying at least $20 to enter and some as much as $60. But minutes away, people live alongside dirt roads, tending to their children and living in poverty. Many of the main streets are dotted with signs that clearly target tourists with warnings in multiple languages. The message? Paying minors for sex is a crime.

In 1996, starting with seven "silk grandmothers," as the women came to be known, Morimoto set up a silk production studio in the town of Siem Reap, which lies on the main tourist route to Angkor Wat. Today, more than 400 people work there, earning anywhere from $80 to $200 a month. It's a modest sum, but far more than the average Cambodian wage of $300 a year.

For the elderly women I met, silk weaving also offered a way of life that didn't violate their beliefs. Chan Sot, who joined Morimoto more than 10 years ago, has lived through great turmoil -- from the French colonial occupation, to U.S. bombardment, to the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror (a time when one in four Cambodians were killed). "Be a merchant, and cheat the customer by cheating the scales" -- as a Buddhist, that was not a value she wanted to live by. "With silk, there is no sacrilege," Chan Sot explained. "I always warned my children not to work where they have to commit sacrilege to make profit."

Today, with the help of Morimoto, a man with an appreciation of beauty and a sense of justice, Chan Sot says she has rediscovered the honorable work she wanted for herself and her daughter.

-- Emily Taguchi

REACTIONS

(anonymous)
Thank you so much for this excellent film! I visited IKTT and still enjoy all the wonderful silk scarfs and fabrics I bought there. Mr Morimoto does a great job and he is such a nice person! It was really inspiring to talk to him and his weavers.

Nathan Son - King of Prussia, Pennsylvania
Thank you so much for producing such an inspiring video. May the Lord of Buddha blessed everyone in the world to live in harmony and peace.
Thank you Sir and Madam for helping to revive Khmer Culture from extinction.

Ratana Daungkaew - Bangkok, Thailand
It's such touching and inspring work. I'd love to have more Morimoto in Thailand, too.

(anonymous)
Wonderful work by Morimoto. I was fortunate enough to work in Cambodia in 1996 and bought some silk then. I am now longing to return to visit his shops. Inspiring work, so thank you.

(anonymous)
I have visited the workshop in Siem Reap, he makes a wonderful job for Cambodian ladies. I visited also Samatoa which made silk clothes in the same ethic. Highly recommended! www.samatoa.com

Houston, Texas
Very touching. Being Cambodian, there is no word to express for what Mr. Morimoto's action. He is a living example of humanity and love. Mrs. Taguchi, thank you for a warm felt story.

Lena W - Singapore, Singapore
By all accounts, this priceless undertaking by Marimoto will help revive the silk-weaving industry. "Teach a man to fish" so goes the saying. There are heaps of other skills that the Cambodians will need to acquire, simply to attain a normal standard of living. I would urge anyone out there with such skills and knowledge - if you are in a position to avail your knowledge/talent to help deliver the Cambodians from excruciating poverty - please do not hesitate. You will be giving, one of life's greatest joy. Bless you all!

Jona Ricci - Belleair/Clearwater, FL
When my brother was in Viet Nam, he sent me Cambodian silk to sew with. It was lovely, a true art form, and I still have the garments I made.
Seeing one man help bring this traditional industry back from the brink is wonderful, and then Cambodians wouldn't have to rely on sweat shop income. My thanks to him.And thank you for the great coverage!

Denver, Co
Well, I am Cambodian and I think that my people try to survive with very many variables but the real problem is that companies such as Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Aeropostal, Polo and many others are using Cambodians in either sweat shops or paying them that minimal amount, and then saying that their clothing is a higher quality. They are using them so they can make the larger profit. Also, Cambodians are living in poverty because the war 32 years ago ruined the country.

(anonymous)
That is a great story. Seeing one man make a difference in a country so used to war and poverty is a great thing. Maintaining and upholding the traditions of such an interesting place as Cambodia is so cool. And just the traditions themselves are amazing. Watching and coming to understand the process of something that I know very little about was pretty cool. Thanks for showing us a view of traditional Cambodia.

- Rochester, Minnesota
Amazing..totally amazing! It brings warmth to my heart to see a wonderful man do such great things for a country and its people.

Michael - Montral, Qubec
Here's to Marimoto-san and his boundless faith in rediscovering this almost lost art and to the realization of his dream. To give Cambodians the respect they are due and to have a functioning school and studio. Stories like these warm my heart and show the compassion we humans are possible of.Thank you Emily Taguchi for the insight into this wonderful man and these fascinating people.

(anonymous)
Thank you for doing such an inspiring story. So often when Cambodia is written about it's of things that are so disheartening. May your writings lead you to inspirations that lead you back to Cambodia to do more great stories. Thank you.

Maria Pastuso - San Diego, CA
Very inspiring story! It is always gratifying to see what a difference in people's lives one person can make.

(anonymous)
I am deeply moved... I am a volunteer myself and I believe that I don't really have to go very far to help people who are in need. But I always enjoy reading and hearing stories like Morimoto's. It keeps my faith in people burning.

LAXMINARAYAN PADHI - BHUBANESWAR, INDIA
Great effort by Marimoto! War trodden countries should be helped by people like Emily Taguchi and Marimotto. Long live Marimotto!

Lilah monahan - Salem, ma
My daughter Lilah and I watched this film together. We have beautiful Cambodian silk hanging on our walls which have been there since I adopted her in Phnom Penh six years ago. We are happy to see this lovely rough cut of what promises to be a wonderful film. Thank you for the brief insight into the country and this ancient tradition.

Joyce Wasend - Outlook, Saskatchewan
Inspiring story. I am an internet missionary of 9 churches in Kenya and we are looking for ways to make these 600 people self-supporting by teaching them a trade. I am always looking for ideas.

Nancy Prerk - Long Beach, CA
I thank God for sending special people like you to help my people. My country needs lots of help and it's a great pleasure to see that there are people out there who care for my people as much as me. My country has a rich arts and tradition but was destroyed during the war. Thank you very much for bringing it back. I am also trying to help my people by building an orphanage in Phnom Penh. If you have or know someone who wants to help please contact me.
Nancy

Shrivardhan Ghanekar - Raleigh, NC
One more real world example of Sustainability. Morimoto is absolutely right, there is a market out there to break down the barriers and to support the ancient traditions and nature. Please continue the good work !

Rob Klingensmith - San Francisco, CA
Beautiful in every way.

Pallavi Shrivastava - Tempe, AZ
Marimoto's efforts are praiseworthy towards the "silk grandmothers" and a revival of the fading traditional craft of Cambodian silk-making. Thank you.

sothy him - las vegas, nevada
It takes a very, very special person to do what you did for a small, but special group of Cambodians. You have inspired me, as a Cambodian, to do more to help the less fortunate ones. With my sincere respect, Sothy

Ken Wan - Lafayette, CA
Beautiful and inspiring piece. It really shows that sustainable farming and business are not mutually exclusive.

sunti snguon - washingtion, dc
Great story! Please keep up the great work you are doing in helping the poor and saving a tradition. Further success!

Najlae B - Casablanca, Morocco
Very interesting, beautifully shot. Chan Sot's soundbites were words of wisdom. Thanks for opening a window on their world.