As Cambodia modernizes with WiFi cafes and electric tuk tuks, simple pleasures like candy makers are slowly disappearing from the streets of Phnom Penh. Here is the article I wrote about the last of the candy makers, I call the Sugar Man.
The Art of Sugar Diamonds
A crowd of young children gather around a small vendor in the midday sun, each holding a 1,000 riel note in a tiny fist. They cluster to see a skinny man working meticulously on molding colored, melted sugar into figurine works of art.
Kim Han is one of the last candy artists in the Kingdom.
“There is only one other person I know who does this and he is in Siem Reap,” the 58-year-old man said. He pursed his lips as he concentrated on making a tiger by mixing three different types of sugar and twisting it to form stripes.
Aging and tired, he does not often sell candy on the street, but caters parties and does custom orders. He circulates the Wat Botum area, transporting his wares from the village of Baek Chan (Broken Dish), 20 kilometers out of town on his kart motorcycle.
Pieces of candy art cost between 1,000 riels ($0.25) to $3, depending on how detailed they are. A batch of sugar can suffice for 100 or 150 pieces. But he often tires after a few hours on the street.
His fingertips are numb and burnt from working with hot glass and kilns as a young man. He learned how to fashion tiny people and animals from a teacher he still affectionately calls “Grandmaster Teurn.” The idea for Candy Diamonds or “Skaw Pich” developed when he travelled to Thailand as a young man to do construction work on a Chinese temple. There, he saw many candy makers and knew he could do the same.
Years later, Mr. Kan’s kart is always surrounded by customers. “I always have many customers and even have special orders to make candy for events,” he said. His next customer, a young woman from a school across the street, quickly orders a pig loudly against her friends’ giggles. As the pig head forms with a snip of his small scissors, the crowd watches as his nimble fingers gave birth to an animal from sugar. Holding up a caramel piglet, he asked the young girl if it met her standards. Her answer: “I don’t know, as long as it’s pretty.”
The man looked around him, smiling at the wide eyes watching as he pulled more red sugar into a clump. Money has always been scarce in his life. “I am hardly happy,” Mr. Han said. The quick minds of students inspire him to keep working. “I am selling to Khmer like me, I will not sell for a high price,” he stated firmly. “Kids have no money, so I keep my prices low.”
“Many foreigners appreciate my work and are willing to pay more for bigger pieces, but not many Khmer people understand my art,” said the man who plies his trade in the center of the city.
Despite his willingness to lower prices, he lamented the fact that many Cambodians will pay up to $23 for a big novelty lollipop at Sorya Mall, and haggle with him over the price of his homespun sugar confections. Working tirelessly to save money since he started working in sugar art in 1981, he now is just $2,000 short of fulfilling his dream to open his own sugar-art school for 50 students a semester.
He wants to open this small school on the outskirts of the city, east of Chroy Chavar. Ready to retire from the trade soon, he hopes he can make enough money to open his school – and teach the next generation.