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Master silk weaver and head of weaving group,
Vientiane Province , Age 31
Story by Shui-Meng Ng
Like the textiles that she weaves, the life of master-weaver Kong of Thaphosay Village is colorful, intriguing, and complex. Like so many rural Tai Deang women of her generation, Kong has experienced great upheavals and hardships in her short-span of 31 years. Only her knowledge, skills and passion in weaving has provided her some sort of constancy and link to her culture and heritage.
It has also been her main source of economic survival. Like so many of her generation, Kong’s family no longer lives in their ancestral province of Houa Phan in northern Laos. Her grandparents were the first to make the move, abandoning their home and fields in the 1960s to escape the bombing by American B-52s during the Vietnam War which also engulfed Laos. The family first settled in Muong Mek in northern Vientiane Province. Thirty years later in 1993, Kong’s father again found it untenable to stay put. He had to pack up his family and move again; this time to escape the fighting between Lao government soldiers and insurgent groups operating near his home town. The family found refuge further south in Thaphosay Village.
Only 16 at that time, young Kong had to set aside her dreams of finishing school. Instead, she stoically took up the burden to help her parents raise and feed the family of ten by farming and weaving. “I have always loved to weave and I don’t mind sitting for hours at my loom weaving the intricate motifs for the sinh and scarves,” she said. But it was difficult for Kong to earn money from weaving as the village is far from the main silk markets.
So in 1999, Kong together with four other girls in the village decided to leave Thaphosay and come to Vientiane City to look for work. With help from a relative, Kong and her friends found work at a large weaving workshop in Vientiane which produces high-end silk scarves and textiles for sale domestically and for export. Here Kong expanded her repertoire of designs and quickly learned the need to produce products to meet the ever-changing taste of consumers.
A year later, after repeated pleas from her mother to return home, Kong once more found herself back in Thaphosay. By then, her father had upped and left, and her mother who was getting on in years needed Kong to help with the farm and raise the family. Taking on the role of the main bread earner of the family, Kong once more relied on her experience and skills in weaving to make a living. She kept her link with her previous employer and also drew upon her weaving networks in Vientiane City to get small weaving contracts.
However many of the contracts were for weaving of low quality and low-priced scarves which did not give her much satisfaction or much income. Kong’s ambition is to set up her own weaving business in Thaphosay and produce higher-quality and higher-priced silk products. She also wanted to help other women weavers like herself in the village to be able to make a better living using their weaving skills. But such an ambition is not easy to fulfil for a young village woman without much capital or business expertise.
In 2006, Kong learned about Saoban, which promotes socially and environmentally viable small-and-medium rural enterprises. Kong approached Saoban to help her establish a small weaving enterprise in her village. From Saoban, Kong and her weaver group were trained in basic business planning, product design, quality control, and natural dyeing. Saoban also provided to the group two high-quality looms and micro-loans to start the business.
After two years of hard work, Kong is now an acknowledged master weaver of Thaphosay Village and currently heads up a group of 14 weavers. With an eye for details and color, Kong’s group now produces high quality scarves. With support from Saoban, the group is now linked to buyers in the USA who markets high-end scarves and wraps to fashion houses and retail outlets. In addition her group also markets their products to other boutiques in Vientiane. As a result most of the weavers have seen their income increase.
Kong’s own economic situation has improved progressively. She now earns about 2 million kip (about US$250.00) each month and for the first time she and her family could enjoy a degree of economic stability. In fact, she has used part of her earnings to buy more rice land and cows to augment her family farm and renovated her house.
While Kong is now quite happy with her progress, she is not one to rest on her laurels. She is continuously thinking of ways to expand and improve her weaving business. “I want to set up a proper retail shop in the village to exhibit and sell our weaving. I also want to promote Thaphosay as a weaving village with facilities to provide home-stay for people interested to learn about our silk culture. For a small fee, they can stay and experience life in the village, and try their hands at silk reeling, silk dyeing and silk weaving”, Kong said smiling. As Laos gains an increasing reputation as a choice tourist destination, Kong’s plans for Thaphosay to become an eco-friendly weaving village for visitors could well be realized sooner than she thinks.
A social enterpriseSaoban is a member of PADETC, a Lao NGO that integrates socially sustainable programs in education, agriculture, micro-finance, handcrafts and community leadership.
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