Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Knife Makers of the LPDR

Khmu Knife Maker In the Highlands Near Luang Prabang

I enjoy witnessing and documenting handicrafts by the local peoples of Southeast Asia.  This affinity for appreciating and being fascinated by people making things for their everyday life stems back many years to when I was a child.  Our family for many years had a garden that supplied the kitchen with fresh vegetables.  In the Fall my mother would can tomatoes, and pickles.  Best of all we would scour the countryside for wild grapes that we would pick and my mother would magically turn into paraffin topped jars of exquisite grape jelly that would last until the next Fall.

In Southeast Asia there are still countless opportunities to experience people making do for themselves, their family, and their neighbors.  Depending upon the time of season there is rice planting, rice harvesting, peanut planting, peanut harvesting, cotton weaving, saht weaving, silk weaving, sugar cane planting, sugar cane harvesting, butchering of animals, weaving of fishing nets, fishing, making ethnic treats over outdoor charcoal fires, building gunpowder rockets, and many other interesting activities that help to definite the local cultures.

As a child back in Connecticut, we often went on field trips as part of a family outing or as part of a school class.  Two places that we went to often were Mystic Seaport and Old Sturbridge Village.  Mystic Seaport focuses on the New England whaling industry of the 18th and 19th century while Old Sturbridge Village deals with 18th and 19th century rural New England life.

Both the Seaport and the Village are living museums with people performing tasks and using the resources as well as the techniques available to our ancestors during the period that the museums focus upon.

Mystic Seaport Blacksmith Making Lantern Brackets

One of my favorite living exhibits at both of the museums was the blacksmiths.  The blacksmiths at Old Sturbridge Village were typically occupied making nails.  The blacksmiths at Mystic Seaport, if you were fortunate, would be making a harpoon head.  If you were not so fortunate they would be making brackets or hinges for ships.

I first encountered knife making in Southeast Asia in 2010 during our trip to Luang Namtha, Lao People's Democratic Republic (LPDR).  We ended up visiting many ethnic villages in the surrounding area.  One village that we visited was a Khmu village, Baan Sopsim, where several men were working together making knives.

That experience was a subject of a previous blog:

Knife Making In Baan Sopsim

On our second trip to the former royal capital of Laos, Luang Prabang, we went out to a village, Ban Hat Hien, renowned for the resident's metalworking skills.  We witnessed knives being made out of recycled leaf springs from the suspensions of motor vehicles.

Once again our experience there was the subject of another blog entry:

Ban Hat Hien Knife Makers
On our last trip to LPDR in December 2013, we wanted to return to Baan Hat Hien to watch the people make knives out of the recycled steel.  On the morning of our second day in Luang Prabang, we drove out to Baan Hat Hien which is located next to the Luang Prabang International Airport.

We got out of our rented tuk tuk, a very small pick up truck - perhaps 1/2 ton capacity with very small wheels, and started to walk around the village.  Many things had changed.  There were more houses in the village than during our last visit three years ago.  Some of the wood, bamboo, and thatched houses had been upgraded to cinder block and corrugated metal houses.  The location where we first encountered knife making in the village was gone - replaced by a house.  The village square area was now filled with houses.  However as we walked along the road towards the village Vat we encountered a familiar sight - a man and his wife still banging together ... banging glowing bright yellow steel on the same makeshift anvil that they were three years ago to produce knives.  Their metal working operation in the front yard of their hoe along the village dirt road had not changed a bit.

After three years, still banging away, together
The man and his wife recognized us - I suspect that they don't get many foreign visitors who spend an hour with them, talking and taking photographs.

Wife tends to heating steel in a charcoal forced draft furnace(?)
Over the past three years, the division of labor between the husband and wife team had not changed.  The wife was responsible for heating the steel.  Her duties included tending to the charcoal fire that was utilized to heat the steel to a near white temperature.  She added bits of charcoal as required to keep the fire going and she turned on and off the small electrical fan that blew air underneath the fire to keep the fire hot enough for heating the steel. She held the shaped steel in the fire with long metal tongs.  With the same tongs, she quickly transferred the heated metal to the makeshift anvil located within arm's distance to her.  She held the heated, but quickly cooling, steel over the anvil as her husband banged on it to further shape it and commence to put an edge on what was to become a large heavy knife.  In concert with her husband and without any verbal communication she would move and turn the knife blank to facilitate the shaping process.

Shaping the knife blank
The steel cooled quickly from almost white to a bright yellow, on to a dull yellow, a bright red, to a cherry red, then on to dull red followed by a grey color.  When the steel got close to the grey color, the husband took over holding the knife blank and hitting it with the hammer while his wife pivoted to place another blank in the fire to heat up.  By the time the husband had completed his fine adjustments to the cooling steel shape, another piece of steel was hot enough for forging by the team.

Completed knife blanks were cooled, water quenched, in a tub of water between the husband and wife.  This process "freezes" the metallurgical structure of the steel so that it has acceptable properties for a knife.

Periodically the team would heat the up to then, neglected ends, of the knife.  Using long metal tongs, the husband would burn the hot end of the knife into prepared pieces of bamboo that became the handles for the knives.  This generated a great deal of smoke as the hot metal burned and also created steam as it penetrated the bamboo.

Burning A Bamboo Handle On To A Knife
After about half an hour, we left and moved on along the village road.  We walked towards the sounds of metal being forged and shortly came upon another family knife making enterprise.

As steel is  heated in the background, a young man grinds an edge on to a knife
This was a fairly large enterprise with about six people, not counting the children and their mothers who were watching close by - sometimes too close, involved in the metal working process.  There were also some family members next door involved in producing the charcoal that will be used in the fires to heat steel.

Mother and daughter working to make charcoal

I don't know exactly how many people were actually working to produce the charcoal.  There was a woman and her grown up daughter who were working their butts off - hauling wood up the hill, splitting the logs in two or four depending upon their size, and loading the split wood over a fire pit as part of the process to make charcoal.  Making charcoal, to simplify the process and explanation, is essentially baking wood.  Baking wood in an oxygen deficient atmosphere drives out the volatiles from the wood leaving behind carbon (char) that burns at the higher temperatures that are required to work steel.

A wife splitting log to be used to produce charcoal
There was an older man watching over the two women who were working so hard.

I did not see him working.  Through Duang I asked him why he was not working.  He replied that he was too old to work but that his young wife and his daughter were good workers.  I then asked him what I could do to get my wife to work so hard because my young wife does not work like that and I am too old too.  We all had a very good laugh except for his young grandson who was not all that thrilled to see a "falang" (white foreigner).

Splitting logs - Khmu style
Unfortunately for the little boy, we were around for a good while.  Duang had made a deal with the next door knife makers to buy a knife - a special knife.  She agreed to buy a good knife that could cut bone.  I expressed concern about a knife that could cut my bones to everyone's amusement.  Duang assured me that she would not cut my bone with the knife.  She said that if I were to be a "naughty boy" she would use the knife to cut something else on me that has no bone in it!  Everyone roared with laughter ... including me after feigning fear.  Everywhere we go in Thailand and Lao, the people enjoy and are ready for a good laugh.  Seldom do we leave them wanting.  It makes for a good time for all, gets everyone to relax and to be happy.  It often makes for better photographs too.  Oh - the other special thing about the knife was that we got to watch the people make Duang's knife from the very start.  The price of Duang's special knife - roughly $7.00 USD cash.  The cost of watching it being made from a piece of recycled steel - a few laughs mainly at my expense.  The price of spending some quality time with the knife makers of Ban Hat Hien - priceless

Making Duang's "Special Knife"
Our adventures into knife making in Lao was not over for this trip quite yet.  The next day we spent in the highlands overlooking Luang Prabang.  It was a day of unexplored territory and people for us.  It was a great day spent at Lao, Khmu, and Hmong villages.

At the first Khmu villages that we stopped at we came upon an old man making knives in his forge attached to back of his house.

Old Khmu Blacksmith
Working by himself he was producing knives like we had seen down in the valley.  These knives are all purpose utility knives.  They are used for butchering animals, harvesting sugar cane, food preparation, cutting firewood, and collecting food stuffs from the surrounding forest.  You will frequently see people of just about all ages with both a woven basket and one of these knives strapped to their backs.

There is a legion about Icarus who flew to close to the Sun which melted his wings resulting in him plunging into the sea and drowning.  The good blacksmith of the village did not get too close to the Sun but there is evidence that he has gotten too close to the fire.  Unlike Icarus the blacksmith has not perished, in fact he has thrived to be 90 years old.  The effect of his getting too close to the fire is that a portion of the plastic frames of his glasses have melted and deformed.

Our encounters with knife makers was concluded for that trip.  It had been very informative as well as entertaining.

I returned to Thailand once again with an appreciation and admiration how the people of this region are able to make do with what they have available to them.  The ability to fashion a living from their environment for me is an inspiration.  It is also testament to their self sufficiency.

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