Every few days for the past month, 35-year-old Eric Hav has woken up early and driven his moto nearly an hour out of Phnom Penh and down a dirt road to reach the home of ageing tile-maker Heng Srun.
For years, the craft of making encaustic cement tiles – a relic of the French colonial era – has been in decline. Only 77-year-old Ta (Grandpa) Srun holds the keys to making and designing the moulds required for the tile-presses. But with past apprentices having flaked out, and his own children lacking the interest and patience necessary to continue the craft, he has feared that the tradition would die with him. That is, until the last month, when Hav began showing up at Srun’s home to learn from the master.
Born in France but of Cambodian heritage, Hav moved to the Kingdom nearly three years ago with entrepreneurship in mind. With tile-making he believes he’s found his mission. Hav was already interested in getting into the tile business, but it wasn’t until reading a Post article last February that featured Srun, in which the elderly master lamented that he did not have a successor, that he realised he had discovered a way in.
“When I came to Cambodia I was looking for my purpose for my business . . . and then I saw the tiles and I started to dig and from the digging I thought there’s something to do here: there’s some history, there’s some people that know how to do [it],” he said.
Old idea, new designs
This week, Hav prepared to weld his first mould design. So far under Srun’s tutelage both at home and at the metal workshop, he’s been learning the ins and outs of setting up a tile business, cutting the steel to make a mould, and creating designs.
In the shade of Srun’s home in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district, Hav leafs through a notebook of tile designs he’s drawn for his teacher to review.
“I want to do some new designs, so when I convene with him I prepare [those designs] to cut the metal myself,” he explained.
Hav is well aware of some of the business challenges. Locally, cheap ceramic tiles have all but replaced the traditional cement tiles.
“These are more than just beautiful, they are long-lasting and quality ... but people don’t like it, because it’s old, but perhaps if I introduce new designs people will like it, and be proud of it,” he says.
Srun, meanwhile, is happy to have a dedicated apprentice. As for Hav’s design sensibility, Srun is practically minded. “It’s good, so long as you can fill orders,” he said with a chuckle.
Hav’s end goal is to set up his own tile-making business to supply a local and eventually international market. In order to position himself differently from the handful of remaining tile producers, Hav is aiming to improve on the quality of manufacturing and expand the range of tile shapes to include hexagonal, rhomboid, and fan-shaped tiles.
“These are kinds of shapes that can replicate [geometric patterns] when they’re assembled, instead of just squares . . . It’s a way for me to differentiate myself,” he says.
Having grown up in France where the craft of en caustic tile making originated, but has all but died out, Hav has an appreciation for both the aesthetic and the demands of a European market, where he says he’s begun to develop contacts for his eventual business.
But Hav also recognises the legacy he is attempting to carry. “There must be someone, and I want to be that someone,” he says.
It’s a gamble, but serendipity suggests Hav may be the right person for the job. “It’s a coincidence, but when I told my mother I was interested in the tiles, she told me that my great-grandfather had a production in Phnom Penh before the war.”