The Tile Makers
Location: Siem Reap, Cambodia
Date: February 2014
Photographer: Erik Janse van Rensburg
Cambodia’s tile makers are facing the challenges of a more open economy and unless these businesses are able to find a way of establishing a competitive advantage and promote their uniqueness, the hand-made tile industry is at risk of losing further market share.
Since the liberation of Cambodia in the 1990’s the country has gradually opened up to foreign trade. The pros and cons of foreign trade are being felt: in the tile industry it has meant that local producers now compete with higher quality imports from neighbouring Vietnam and Thailand as well as imports from Indonesia, Malaysia and Taiwan. These countries mass-produce tiles using the latest technology with much less manual labour input, whereas in the hand-made tile factories in Cambodia old-fashioned manual tile presses are still being used.
The mixing of the paints and creating the design-moulds are also done manually, but this in itself is part of what makes the hand-made tiles of Cambodia true works of art. In one such local factory in the Siem Reap province 12 employees, artists in their own right, skillfully mix the cement to the optimum balance, paint is also carefully mixed and the presses are operated with grace and expertise to produce a single floor tile at a time.
In an economy that is experiencing something of a construction boom demand for tiles are high, but without effective marketing the hand-made tile factories are losing out to the mass imports. It would be a tragic loss if the art of hand-making tiles disappears and it need not be the case, because every hand-made tile is a work of art and no two tiles are exactly alike. These imperfections actually give the hand-made tiles its real value and the industry a unique selling point that, with the right marketing, should create further opportunities for these products to also reach markets abroad and ensure the survival of the industry.