Friday, 21 September 2007

Whither Country Crafts?

Sometime in the late seventies in Phuket in the South of Thailand I bought a bamboo fishtrap. It was made of tiny strips of bamboo superbly crafted and shaped a bit like an air ship. I thought this fine handicraft skill would not last long in a modern world, so I took great pains to carry it home to Hong Kong and later to Singapore and England as a possible rare survivor of a traditional type of artefact.

Now decades later I am thrilled that this craft has not yet in fact died out. In Sangkha, our small town in Surin in the North East, there is still an old-fashioned shop displaying fish traps and all sorts of fine basketware on the pavement. All of my neighbours have these fish traps and they're used daily to catch small fish in the flooded rice fields.

In Cambodia around Ankor Wat, precisely the same baskets and fish traps are still used that you can see carved in stone on the low reliefs that run round the great temple. This fishing technique and the skills to make the baskets are thus a thousand years old and more and their loss would be sad indeed. I'm sure my neighbours have no sense of how they are participating in an extraordinary example of cultural continuity as they lay their fish traps. They just need to catch the fish, though they'll stop this hot and dirty work as soon as they have the means to open the freezer cabinet in a new supermarket. Life has to be lived and nobody can afford to be sentimental except me.

There's a nice collection of traps and basket ware at the Cambodian border market at Chong Jom and while I'd like to buy them all and take them home, this time I have to be satisfied with photographs. Nonetheless in a fast changing world in which country crafts are withering and dying so very fast, it's encouraging that this one's alive and well and looks like lasting for some time yet.

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