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'I am sunlight, not moonlight'

Chanta Nguon shops for raw silk in Phnom Penh

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Kai Ryssdal: Break down the global economy and what do you have left? Get past enormous multinational corporations and smaller domestic companies, and you've got people getting up and going to work every day. Our monthly series, Working, takes us into the lives of individuals in the global economy.

In the international silk trade, the Big Three are India, China and Thailand. Today, we meet a woman who's trying to get Cambodia a piece of that action. The silk empire that she's stitched together is the biggest employer in her province. Rachel Louise Snyder brings us the story of Chanta Nguon.


Rachel Louise Snyder: Chanta Nguon is a small woman, about 5 feet tall. But she's the economic epicenter of the remote Stung Treng province. So when there's talk about her, the effect can be whopping.

Over breakfast at a sidewalk café one morning, she tells me about a merchant whose disturbing dream about her shook up the locals.

Chanta Nguon: The coffee seller just run to me, "Oh, you still alive! The ghost sleep last night said you die!" I said, "What?"

She doesn't put much stock in ghost gossip. But she's got dreams of her own. Like starting a global business in a nearly illiterate region, where trappings of modernity — like electricity — are scarce.

At 45, Chanta is the picture of elegance, in flowing skirts and dark shades, driving down a red, dusty road on her motorbike to work.

Inside this creaky fence is the four-building silk compound called SWDC, for Stung Treng Women's Development Center. She started this with her husband, Chan.

The spinners use old bicycle rims to spool the thread.

This morning, Chanta rushes past two bright wooden workshops for spinners and weavers, past a kindergarten she built for weavers' children to a corner of the compound, where three young women use bamboo paddles to stir raw silk in boiling dye.

Nguon: So beautiful. This is my latest color.

She calls it:

Nguon: Chili. Yeah? Ripe chili.

Dramatic color is Chanta's genius. Each scarf has layers of subtle hues that change with the light.

Chanta's brand of colorful scarves and pillows are called Mekong Blue. She sells them for $16 to $20, and they end up in fancy boutiques in Germany, France, Poland, Japan and the U.S., where they go for $90 to $100 apiece.

In Mekong Blue's first year, they made $2,500 with five looms. This year, on 33 looms, they'll make $60,000.

While most businesses move toward mechanization, Chanta finds her operation works better with more hands and fewer machines. She once calculated that weavers walk over nine miles, in 11-foot intervals, just separating individual threads to prepare the looms.

Other things are harder to calculate.

Synder: How long does it take to make one average-sized scarf?

Nguon: So first, we spend one hour to wash the silk and one or two days to set up the warp. It just half of it, they need another seven days to finish. For that process, they spend another five days.

Snyder: So how . . . I've lost track, how many days are we up to?

Nguon: Eleven to 12 days.

Snyder: For a scarf.

Nguon: No! To start to weave the scarf.

The grand total? Fifteen days. Unless:

Nguon: You see the pattern, the flower pattern? That's another nine days. But if they make a mistake, then they spend another week to remove everything.

This is obsessive-compulsive work. Sixty full-time women earn $50 to $100 a month, where the country average is $25.

But for the women who work here, it's not just about money. It's about status and education.

Nguon: If we can help woman to have her own income, just automatically she, her value will improve — in the family, in the society.

Her life and her business evolved out of tragedy. During the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge forced the population into farm labor in the countryside. They abolished money and personal freedom. Families were torn apart.

Nguon: One of my brothers, he was taken away. And we don't know if he still alive or he die. We just lost him.

This disastrous social experiment killed an estimated million and a half people.

Chanta and her mother fled to Vietnam, where they spent 10 years. She spent nine more years in a refugee camp on the Thai border. There, she got an education — first in English, then in women's empowerment while working for Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders. She met her husband, Chan, in the camp. And in 1993, they returned to Cambodia.

At home, she meets her friends and family to cook a simple dinner. Here is where she transforms herself from CEO to friend, mother, wife. She washes dishes in a metal bowl and enlists help from her son.

Nguon: Oh, we need banana leaf, Johan. Can you help mama cut it?

Chanta is trained to be something else — not quite Western, not quite Khmer. She's comfortable in charge, at work or at home.

But such confidence means she doesn't fit with village women. So foreigners on temporary contracts for various charities fill her friendship void. But the faces always change. The first time, she says:

Nguon: We become very close friend, and then they left, and I feel sad again. But it just happened again and again. So every year, I have a new friend, and I lose some friends.

Today's menu is Vietnamese crepes. In the background, a radio plays Khmer music. Chanta tries to teach her two friends to fry paper-thin crepes.

Nguon: Is it hot enough, Ali?

The first crepe crumples.

Nguon: That's not Khmer at all.

As Chanta tries to teach her foreign friends Khmer customs, she sometimes struggles with them herself. It's made it tougher for her husband.

For the first 10 years of their marriage, Chan made the decisions. And she stayed quietly at home. But after a while, Chanta felt like she couldn't breathe.

At first, he fought her change.

Nguon: We compare Asian woman with moonlight in the family. Mean soft, cool, quiet. So I live 10 years, my first 10 years of marriage like that. I couldn't speak loudly, and I couldn't laugh loudly. But after 10 years, I feel it's not me at all. So I start to fight with my husband. I want to be myself. Why I can't laugh, why I can't speak loudly? So I told him, I am sunlight, not moonlight.

Ryssdal: Rachel Louise Snyder lives and works in Cambodia. Her report was a co-production with Homelands Productions.

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