Importing from the Heart

Silk Stories from Southeast Asia – Importing from the Heart (with revisions May 09)

go2Oh what relief! We have found a dusty junction with a grubby little roadside stand and hooray, bottled water. My daughter and I have been walking, stumbling and muttering, for over an hour under the Cambodian tropical sun in search of drinking water. We are greeted by curious children and barely noticed by really tired dogs. Almost immediately three women appear on motos (small motorcycles), the typical mode of transportation all over Cambodia for those that can afford it. Just like we pounced on the water, the women pounce on us hoping to sell us the scarves cascading in a riot of colour over their arms. Looking down at the blisters on my feet and over to the dust streaked sweat running down my 17 year old’s face it is pretty clear that I am going to have to buy some of these over priced scarves of dubious quality, in order to negotiate moto rides back to the ferry.

We came to Mekong Island, near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, looking for hand woven silk pieces for my import business. Besides the shy smiling weavers, working on lengths of garishly dyed silk destined for the commercial market, we found little else besides polyester scarves intended for tourists, and a great deal of poverty. The deal is cinched with the scarves and the motos are hired. We are three on one motorcycle and two on another and thankfully on our way back to the ferry.

By getting out to the weaving villages we didn’t find what we were looking for but we did observe a little about the lives of the people who live there. Homes are built on stilts to keep the sleeping area dry during the rainy season. Weaving looms are set up under the home, shaded from the scorching heat. This is where a lot of daily life takes place. Meals are prepared, children play, there is almost always someone in a hammock as well as pets and domestic animals lingering and lounging about.

Here, people make next to nothing from the rice growing, weaving and other work they do. Most Cambodians live rurally in abject poverty, many disabled from landmines and demoralized from the horrors of Pol Pot’s genocide. On top of it all, they graciously suffer the indignities of tourists, gawking at their meager lifestyles, hoping to buy stuff at rock bottom prices.

home3Comparatively, life in the weaving villages sounds like paradise when you hear the shocking stories associated with the large factories. Factories are one of the prime recruiting areas for the sex trade vultures. Demoralized by the conditions of their employment, too many women opt for the harsh reality of the sex trade rather than toil in the sweat shops. Cambodians are desperate for work and the opportunities are very limited. Many are essentially forced to work in the factories or the sex trade if it means feeding families.

This is a country where there is no social safety net and no health care assistance. Orphans roam, looking for garbage to sell or eat. Four year olds start solvent sniffing to fill up the hole in their hearts from being entirely alone in the world. Babies are “rented” by beggars, drugged and dragged around touristy areas to ply the tender hearted. Amputees, survivors of the still present landmines, are as much a part of Cambodia as are lotus flowers.

So here is the dilemma. How do I make an import business work and stay true to voice in my heart that screams, “Do not take advantage of the impoverished circumstances of people.” Importing with a social conscience is an adventure requiring a great deal of commitment and endless flexibility. It starts within, listening to the voice of compassion and continues by following the road less traveled wherever it leads.

It is easy to find all sorts of amazing stuff in Asia. You can go to the mother of all markets in Thailand and shop ‘til you drop. There are shippers set up on the perimeter of the market just waiting for boxes to fill up with funky clothing, textiles, cleverly constructed doodads, religious icons, jewelry, chic home décor, crafts from every nation, and a multitude of other temptations. They will have them sent to Canada, waiting on the doorstep before you can get home. Or for those who want the air conditioned malls there are plenty of those too, just brimming with cheap factory goods. Thing is, it is pretty predictable that most of the stuff comes from sweat shops or from people who were paid next to nothing for their hard work.

home-2My importing adventure got started in Bangkok in Thailand, “The Land of Smiles”. Bangkok is not for the faint of heart, spewing out so much pollution that you can taste it. This is a city of over 1 million people with unbelievable traffic. Temperatures in the inferno range combine with humidity that leaves you drenched and parched the instant you step into it. You get weird rashes, sore throats, burning eyes, headaches and more from Bangkok traffic. Crossing the road is an adventure in itself. The best way to safely navigate the road is to get close to the locals. Really close! Abandon your sacred personal space, and cling to them like sauce on a noodle while weaving through the traffic whizzing by in both directions.

Getting close to the people, in my experience, is the best part of the adventure. I started purchasing from small shops where it was easy to establish a rapport and connection with the people working there. The shops were located in what seemed like massive rabbit warrens with tiny streets and passageways choked with people, motorcycles bearing huge loads, food vendors, street hawkers, and beggars.

My first supplier had some funky bags that caught my eye. We made a deal and I waited to see if the bags would show up at my home in Canada. They did and all went well. She has been of invaluable assistance in getting me started. She patiently helped me find shippers and warned me away from people and places where I would likely fall prey to the criminal element in Bangkok. She mostly employs young people who are deaf and mute. She also looks out for the younger street children, encouraging them with small jobs for food and pocket change, in the hopes that they won’t get caught in the criminal snares. I don’t know who made her products or if they came from a large factory. But I do know that without people like her, life on the streets for the vulnerable would be a little worse off.

Getting close to the people is also the best way to determine if any of the products I want to import have any redeeming social value. How do you talk to suppliers or ask them about such things as fair trade? Mostly I don’t. Cultural difference, language and the lack of relationship all get in the way of getting answers. What they know is that most people want their stuff for the least amount of money possible. They are painfully used to North Americans, Europeans, Asians and other tourists coming in and “bargaining” them down. So they counter with strategies that make some tourists feel “ripped off” The bigger questions are, “Are we paying fair prices and what are the underlying ideas constructing our notion of ‘fair’?” In the west we can think about, talk about, hold conferences about and set standards for so called free or fair trade. In the East, for most people, survival dictates that they work as hard as they have to for whatever they can get. How fair is that? Don’t get me wrong, we have to work towards fair trade but I worry about what happens to all the people who will never be able to participate in anything that offers them anywhere close to a fair deal.

Wages are only part of the picture. The broader working conditions and associated impacts are really important too. Social capital has to be figured into the equation. For example, if a person can stay home in their village and work for a small wage doing piece work they can contribute in other ways to the family or community. Food preparation for the family, keeping company with the elders, watching the children, rearing food animals and so on are examples of these activities. While the person may be able to make more in the city, all of the other family needs have to be filled by someone else.

Family bonds are highly valued and separation from family and community is often a last resort. But many are forced to leave their homes to become one of the 40,000 taxi drivers in Bangkok or to some other urban center to work in shops, set up a food stalls, work in sweat shop factories, work in the sex trade or find some other means of survival for themselves and their families. It is not uncommon to meet people who are only able to visit their small children once or twice a year. Social capital recognizes the intangible values of family and community life.

floating village life

floating village life

In the quest for products that have socially redeemable qualities I spend a lot of time building relationships with suppliers. It happens slowly. I hang out, observe and chat. Mostly we understand each other but often context and meaning get quite confusing. I curse my inability with language and admire their multilingual talents and incredible patience. We muddle through our differences to make deals, understand shipping arrangements and agree on quality issues and timelines. When I return time and time again and keep purchasing the trust starts to develop. Questions about staff, product origins or distribution chains and so on are easier to ask. Mostly the answers are not what I want to hear but it is always an education about the reality that small businesses here are working with.

I look forward to hanging out with several of the shop keepers who have become friends over the years. They tell me about their lives and dreams, their musical interests, special holidays, their health, about the problems with their business, their fears for their teenagers, their abusive or philandering husbands, their political concerns, the tourists who offer them money for sex, and all the stuff of life that makes up their reality. We help each other. Sometimes I edit their marketing materials for English speakers or help with assignments for English language school. I offer input on the quality and colour preferences of western customers. I fundraise to help pay for medical expenses. But list of things that they do to help me is way too long for this article. Their generosity is a lesson in itself. They always insist on feeding me and offering me special things, like bird spit. Good for the health I am told.

Initially my suppliers were small family enterprises in Bangkok and in other far flung cities, towns and villages in Thailand, Laos and China. My search continued for silk products that were as fairly traded as possible. There has not been any silk produced anywhere in the world that has the official “Fair Trade” designation. While only a handful of them are close to what could be called “fair trade,” there are a growing number of silk product businesses trying to address production and employment issues.

I have visited amazing cottage industries where women are trained to work with silk. In these “factories” working conditions are good; babies swing in hammocks between the looms, smaller children play nearby, food is cooking, dye pots are steaming, orchids cascade down from latticed sunscreens and there is lots of laughter and chat. Tremendous pride is taken in showing the various processes associated with the creation of piece of hand woven silk. In some of these places women are trained to a level where they can work independently. Some choose to start their own business, others continue to work for the factory. Some weavers return to their villages and do piece work. They have choices about how to make a living and where they are going to live. But these situations are still relatively rare.

There are some non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) that are trying to assist with skill development working with silks and other textiles, as well as lots of projects that are aimed towards poverty relief. While I salute their intentions I want to work business to business. From my own experience it takes a lot of guts and determination to be a business person. My goal was to find businesses in South East Asia that have a keen interest in and awareness of the necessity for fair trade. I dearly wanted to find some businesses that actively contribute to the well being of their workers.

In one of those lovely fortuitous moments I was introduced to a French woman, by a Korean man, in China. She told me to go to Cambodia. The voice of my heart had been whispering this suggestion for years. I had been afraid of going to Cambodia on my own to witness the devastation left from Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s years of genocide without having someone to process it with. But the heart will not be denied and the next day I was on a plane headed for Phnom Penh without a travel buddy, a hotel booked or a single contact. An unwise but otherwise brilliant decision!

In Phnom Penh there are some amazing small business that offer employees dignified livelihoods, skill development and choices. I work primarily with now with two suppliers. One women, Kong, lost her leg to a landmine at the age of 12 and now trains people with a range of disabilities, including other survivors of landmines to work for her.

Another friend works for an NGO traveling all over Cambodia working with women issues, HIV AIDS, gender awareness, abuse and so on. She is a young mother and also a passionate designer and loves to work with silk. She has transformed part of her household into a showroom and works at night and on weekends to create her masterpieces. She hires and trains women to tailor for her and is supportive if they choose to set up their own businesses. She also hires other women to care for her children and to cook for the household, which includes several members of her extended family.

Increasingly we co-create original products. We share our knowledge and skill bases to produce contemporary products that are more profitable for both of our businesses. We meet in their storefronts, factories, homes and in my hotel room. We go to the silk fabric shops where we “play” with designs and colours, and share the joys of our passion for silk.

My heart aches for the conditions in which too many people in South Asia work and live. I suffer no illusions about “making a difference.” There is no clear objective in the work that I share with my Cambodian friends apart from growing our businesses in a mutually supportive way. But each trip presents a multitude of opportunities for making a connection between our worlds and that is exciting. Please join me on the Floating Stone Blog for more silk stories and tales of the adventures from our travels. Or come and see for yourself on our tour.

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