He’d been the cornerstone of encaustic cement tile-making in Cambodia for decades, but 78-year-old Heng Srun passed away suddenly in September 2018, casting uncertainty on the future of the craft.
Originally introduced to the Kingdom by the French protectorate, encaustic cement tile-making involves the manual pressing and colouring of tiles using mineral pigments poured into hand-welded stencils.
The tiles are known for their geometric patterns and durability, and are touted for becoming more attractive with age as they develop a smooth patina from wear. Nowadays production of such tiles is limited to a handful of workshops in Europe and a select few former colonies such as Vietnam, Morocco and Cambodia.
Tile patterns, which typically involve two to five colours and tones, were first introduced by the French over a century ago. But their use was adopted in the floor plans of pagodas, pre-Khmer Rouge civic buildings, and even the residence of Queen Kossamak. More recently, such tiles can be found in the trendy boutique cafés, restaurants and hotels of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap. Over time, Khmer tile makers have come to consider them as a part of the local culture and artistic tradition.
One tile at a time
“Only the true masters can make them,” says Sim Lang, a 75-year-old grandmother who owns a tile making workshop behind a gas station off a thoroughfare south of Phnom Penh.
The tile-making process is labour-intensive. Mineral pigments need to be mixed with sand, marble, calcium carbonate and white cement, then poured into a stencil placed into a mold. Two layers of cement and sand are added on top of this to bind the colours and create the base of the tile. The stencil is then removed and cleaned for the next pour, while the tile is pressed with a hand-operated vice or hydraulic press. This process—which can take over a minute even for a seasoned worker—is repeated for each individual tile. The tiles are not fired, but must be left to dry for days or weeks on end. Consistency of the mixtures, pouring process and pressing—all of which is done by hand—is key to ensuring a quality product that, once laid out onto a floor, can produce a pattern that repeats beyond a single tile. Achieving seamlessness in pattern alignment and colour consistency requires the crafter’s care and attention at each step, from stencil to the final press.
“I love all the designs, but what I really love is the quality… Even the slightest misalignment and the customer will reject it,” the late Srun told me in an interview for The Phnom Penh Post over a year ago.
Lang, herself a veteran of the craft, mourns Ta “Grandpa” Srun’s passing, not only as a friend, but because he was the last Cambodian maker of the metal stencils upon which the handful of workshops in Cambodia are reliant.
“I am sad that Ta Srun, an old friend of my family passed away, but I am even sadder for the skill that went to the grave with him,” she says.
The survival of a trade
Lang and her late husband learned the craft alongside Srun during the post-colonial Sangkum period of the 1950s and ‘60s. Despite the upheaval of the Pol Pot regime — which saw many skilled craftsmen and artists slaughtered as a part of the ultra-Maoist government’s “utopian” plan — they’d managed to reconnect and resurrect the tile-making workshops in the 1980s. The industry then saw a second heyday of sorts that lasted until the ‘90s when imports of cheaper, industrially produced ceramic tiles put all but a few workshops out of business.
Lang and Srun survived the drop in demand, but the issue of succession then arose. Unlike Lang, who had one son out of nine willing to inherit the family craft, none of Srun’s children were particularly interested in an apprenticeship. He’d trained dozens, if not hundreds, of workers to operate the workshops, but had never had a student who mastered the painstaking skill of welding the stencils.
“I know how to mix the pigments that go into them, and I passed the skill to my son, but we do not know how to make the stencils, which are the very base of the craft,” Lang says.
Srun’s passing doesn’t signify the immediate end of the availability of such tiles in Cambodia. As 50-year-old Cheng Muychou, who owns a tile and brick shop in the capital, points out, neighbouring Vietnam still has workshops producing tiles with their own stencils.
“I think the stencils can be replicated easily. The Vietnamese craftsmen… are very good at that,” she says.
But for Lang and Srun — who spoke to New Naratif before his passing — Cambodian ownership of the craft matters. After all, the stencil-makers control which patterns go into production, and Srun made custom designs on demand. Writing for The Phnom Penh Post in February 2017, we put out Srun’s call for an apprentice. 36-year-old Eric Hav responded in April that year. Born in France to Cambodian parents, he’d moved to the country a few years prior in order to reconnect with his roots and explore opportunities for entrepreneurship in the developing economy.
“He knew everything,” Hav tells New Naratif, “from the process of producing, creating the designs, to applying and training the people.”
Although Hav modestly insists he had been “too ashamed” to show Srun his concepts for new designs, he says he’s at least reached the point where he can practice and self-teach for the remainder of his training.
“This finesse is only something that you develop from experience. This was exactly the part [of my apprenticeship] where I began to see him less as I had to practice. Even a simple round shape, if you do it by hand, it requires a lot of practice,” he explains.
New patterns, new plans
Srun’s death came as a shock to Hav. “He could ride a motorbike for two hours, at his age!”
Recalling his time at the master’s wooden home in the countryside — with bamboo, not tile, floors — Hav remembers a man with magnetic charm.
“It was a kind of family training. I was at his house, and having lunch with his wife and his sons and all the people around from the village — he would make the whole village alive in a way”.
Their conversations covered not just the history of the trade, but also the future, as the pair debated ways to modernise the industry. “It was tradition and modernity talking to each other,” Hav says with a chuckle that turns to sorrow as he recalls that Srun’s archaic welding techniques, while technically solid, exposed the craftsman to dangerous fumes that likely contributed to his death, following three days of respiratory distress.
For Hav, becoming Srun’s apprentice has turned out to be an interesting twist of fate; after he began training with the master artisan, his mother informed him that his great-grandfather used to run a tile production workshop before the war.
“These tiles could last 200 to 300 years. We will die before our tiles”
Hav’s ambition now is to set up a full workshop to bring his own ideas and patterns to life. In addition to modernising parts of the production, Hav believes there is untapped market potential for a workshop that invests in quality and can convince Western buyers to purchase from Cambodian artisans. Currently, local workshops essentially cater to a local market, selling tiles at around USD7–USD15 per square metre, depending on the pattern. But it’s a fraction of the costs found in Europe, and Hav believes he can break into that market by offering the same quality at a significant markdown.
It may seem a poetic twist of history, but Hav could be selling the very tiles the French first implanted in Cambodia back to them a century later and supporting Cambodian tile-making along the way. He also recognises the unspoken responsibility that Srun has left him.
“It’s not just my purpose in life, it’s my duty to transmit [the knowledge of the craft] someday to somebody else, because this is something that was willingly offered to me, or else it would be a shame,” he says.
But even if the craft does fade away, one could perhaps find some solace in the way Srun viewed his own work. As he once told me: “These tiles could last 200 to 300 years. We will die before our tiles.”