Decades of conflict have left Cambodia with curious demographics. While there are plenty of the old and young, it is difficult to find many people aged between 30 and 50. This "lost generation" should have been the bridge over which the wisdom of the past travelled down to new generations. Without that generation, ancient skills and cultural knowledge became two of the lesser-known casualties of Cambodia’s 20th-century wars.
Now, time is creeping back towards a happier past near Angkor, whose ancient temples are the crown jewels of Cambodian culture. In Siem Reap, a few kilometres from the temples, self-confessed "silk fanatic" Kikuo Morimoto is making major progress in his project to re-establish local production of traditional textiles.
Dubbed "Wisdom from the Forest", his project aims at reviving the traditional production of silk, providing a model to Cambodia’s ravaged villages in a region that, from the 9th to 14th centuries, was the heartland of the Khmer empire, controlling Cambodia and beyond.
Late 20th-century Cambodia, however, only dimly reflected these ancient glories, moving Morimoto to lend his skilful hands. He says that he was determined to "give something back to a world from which we have taken much", and that he chose Cambodia because "people were starving and I wanted to do something about it".
A Master Plan
Kikuo Morimoto has been named a Laureate because of his dream of resurrecting silk production as a model to help revitalise rural Cambodia, and his hard-headed approach to making it a reality. His master plan involves more than training new weavers: it embraces the entire silk-making process, from reforestation of barren countryside to the construction of self-sustaining silk workshops and a village, where silk fabrics, created for wearing and for interior decoration, will be sold to the crowds of foreigners visiting Angkor.
In two buildings in the town of Siem Reap, Morimoto is already providing livelihoods, in silk weaving and of dyeing to more than 300 Cambodians, many of them young women who would otherwise be begging from rich tourists at the nearby temple ruins or following less salubrious professions. "What success we have enjoyed," he states, "has less to do with me than with the realities of poverty."
This former apprentice of the Japanese art of yuzen — silk dyeing for kimonos — in his home town, Kyoto, is trying to implement his vision of nature, worker, artefact and client in harmony together. The resulting silks are "100 per cent natural", which Morimoto insists makes them more comfortable than synthetic fabrics for the wearer. The process is better for the weavers too, since it provides ways to earn a livelihood individually while restoring a collectively viable economic base to village life.
A Practical Approach
But Morimoto is no naive tree-hugger. In his varied past, he has been a company manager, teacher at refugee camps and UNESCO consultant. The latest chapter of his journey from kimono-dyeing in Kyoto to potential saviour of Cambodia’s fast-disappearing silk industry began in the 1990s, when Morimoto found himself in Thailand supervising the local operations of a major textile concern. There his thinking took a major step forward when he saw solid management techniques being applied to the rejuvenation of local, craft-based economies.
Guided by the idea that "neither art nor hope can exist on an empty stomach", he quit his job to study the economics of cottage textile industries and start what eventually would become his own non-governmental organisation, the Institute for Khmer Traditional Textiles (IKTT), which he set up in a suburb of Phnom Penh in 1996.
Faced with the high risk of traditional skills disappearing, Morimoto has had to work quickly. In 2000, he moved his workshops from the urban jungle of the capital, Phnom Penh, to Siem Reap, a real "village laboratory" close to the countryside, to better prove and position his rural renewal idea.
Healing the Wounds of War
The next stage in what now seems an ever-lengthening journey towards a silk utopia is the development of other sites. The first step comprises establishing, on five hectares of land 23km north-east of Siem Reap, a self-sustaining forest preserve and village, in an area called Chot Sam. Here silk weavers, including several hundred of those on the thousand-strong waiting list for jobs, will work and live alongside gardeners who will raise the trees and plants necessary for silk production.
During the country’s ruinous wars, the mulberry trees that fed the silkworms were chopped down for firewood. Similarly indigo and other plant species used for dyes and even the trees where lac insects make their nests which, when crushed, provided the most representative Cambodian royal red ochre dyestuff, virtually disappeared.
But reforestation in Cambodia is a more arduous process than elsewhere, involving the added step of removing land mines. Two dozen Cambodians are already working on the reforestation project that will eventually include gardens and livestock grazing to make the textile "factory" truly self-sufficient. Morimoto also has plans to grow cotton plants, since cotton is combined with silk thread for less expensive fabrics.
An Ancient Tradition
Silk is a by-product of silkworms gorging on the leaves of mulberry trees. They spin cocoons which are then harvested and boiled. The threads for weaving are drawn from the resulting floss. But while sericulture is similar world-wide, there are major regional differences. In Cambodia, "yellow" silkworms evolved to match the tropical climate, while in the more temperate regions of China and Japan, higher-producing "white" silkworms are the insects of choice.
The earliest allusion to silkworms in Khmer dates back to the 8th century, recorded in the sculptures decorating the temples of Angkor. As in Japan, the best silk fabrics from Cambodia are made from individually dyed threads, an expensive, labour-intensive process called "ikat" that no machine can duplicate.
The decline of the craft in Cambodia in the second half of the 20th century was precipitous, not only because of war, but also because of new technology and the arrival of cheap synthetic fabrics. So far had silk weaving declined in Cambodia that in the mid–1990s Morimoto was forced to travel the country locating and then recruiting "silk grandmas" who remembered the skills and still had the stamina to pass them on, as Cambodian mothers had passed the know-how to their daughters century after century.
At one time, Morimoto claims, Cambodia’s ikat silk was actually superior to Japan’s, and silk products held pride of place in the national culture, as the kimono still does in Japan. The almost total disappearance of traditional skills and the mass selling-off of museum–quality treasures during the war, however, have meant that the younger generation knows nothing of this important part of the nation’s cultural past.
Reversing the Decline
When Morimoto came to Cambodia he found that the country had no urban middle class, only millions of rootless rural poor. The remnants of the silk industry had fallen into the hands of often rapacious middlemen, who paid desperate villagers a pittance to weave imported silk threads into inferior cloth. But even with slave-labour wages, Cambodian silk could not compete with the millions of bolts of polyester and other synthetic fabrics produced elsewhere. The craft’s decline was also reflected in the patterns, which became so rough that printed ones actually looked better.
By resurrecting this industry, Morimoto is laying the groundwork for a larger rejuvenation of his adopted country. "It is crucial," he says, "for man to learn to live in total harmony with nature. This is as much a universal economic necessity as it is a common spiritual desire."
As proof, he points out that while Cambodia was never rich, it did have a self-sustaining rural economy. "War ruined this," he states, "but too rapid and thoughtless modernisation can have the same result over time. War simply compresses the process."
His work in Cambodia is gradually getting media coverage in his native Japan. He hopes that his example will inspire the youth of Asia’s richest nation as much as it will those of Cambodia, the continent’s poorest. "I hope young Japanese can realise how important it is to become custodians of traditions. By doing so, they will naturally help preserve the environment and the delicate balance between people and nature. Everyone can do something — and something, no matter how small, is important."
The fruits of the silk weavers’ labours are already being sold at a shop above the Siem Reap workshops. They are also available at the Freer and Arthur M. Sackler galleries, the Asian galleries within the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Louise Cort, a curator at the galleries, says she is simply "awed by Morimoto’s great vision".
"Do not fear risk" is Morimoto’s credo as he develops a practical model of providing art and livelihood in a devastated region. "Without risk, neither good art nor anything else worthwhile will happen."
Published in 2004