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Expat lives: from Canberra to Phnom Penh


On occasion, Australian interior designer Bronwyn Blue likes to get up early and watch the sun rise over the Mekong river. On these mornings, she leaves her apartment in Phnom Penh before the streets become a sea of slow-moving scooters, cars and SUVs, and takes an early morning stroll, perhaps buying coffee or fruit on the way back, or stopping to watch old men and women practise tai chi under a tree.

Blue, 36, who studied textiles and anthropology at the Australian National University in Canberra, first came to Cambodia in 2004, after she discovered the work of the Cambodia House Project, an organisation devoted to Khmer design, at a Sydney craft fair. After a phone call with the founder, Mary Read, Blue was on a plane bound for Phnom Penh.

What delighted the young Australian about the Cambodian capital wasn’t just the city’s beautiful French-colonial architecture, nor the abundance of fresh, spicy food, but all the talented people she met, employing traditional craft skills such as silk-weaving and woodcarving.

Many artists were still battered by the legacy of the Khmer Rouge, the brutal regime that killed nearly a quarter of the population from 1975 to 1979, and which laid waste especially to the country’s craftspeople and intellectuals.

Without mentors or a functioning cultural marketplace, it was nearly impossible for surviving artisans in Cambodia to understand the vast potential of their products. Blue thought she could help.

“Why would a woman in Cambodia who is a silk weaver know that a woman in Australia would want to have more than one handbag?” she asks. “It just wouldn’t even make sense [to them].”

In 2008, Blue founded Beyond Interiors, a design workshop just two minutes’ walk from her apartment. With the help of a local engineering and construction company, she turned a 1960s villa into a kind of jewellery box, with walls of plate glass to show off work from what would become a team of four staff designers and a production team of 30. ”We just threw down the gauntlet and said ‘Let’s do this thing’.” Her idea was not only to help local designers understand and tap into the home and overseas markets but also to help them deliver products on schedule and with quality control.

Though Blue has plans to expand her export business, for now the work is mostly for the local market. She works regularly with the design teams behind the city’s many serviced apartments, whom she says almost always prefer kitting out their properties with Cambodian products, rather than imports from Thailand, Vietnam or China. With her help, ­clients can decorate an entire house with traditional Cambodian touches, such as silk upholstery or beds carved with traditional Khmer iconography and patterns.

Blue remains on the hunt for new talent and, in pursuit of this, her travels have taken her far afield. “You really want to get on a canoe and float down these watery canals, where people are living on islands in the Mekong Delta,” she says. “Everybody has these wooden, stilted houses, and the weaving looms are under the houses. It’s very Indiana Jones.”

Blue admits being frustrated with certain elements of Phnom Penh, especially the slow pace of improvement in infrastructure and public services. As an expat, she says she could ignore some of the social problems she sees – many do – but as a business owner, the widening gap between rich and poor is hard to overlook. “We really still cannot find good quality healthcare [for our workers]”, she says – those who can afford it fly to Bangkok or Singapore for even routine procedures. “We also don’t really have the opportunity to have high quality education here . . . These things will keep the country back.”

Her family has been fascinated with Cambodia for generations. In 1965, Blue’s grandfather, a professor of Asian history based in Singapore, came to the country to see the sprawling 12th-century Angkor Wat temple. He hit the road, family in tow, in an old Volkswagen. On Blue’s desk today sits a photograph from the trip: her mother, Kay Blue, in a 1960s dress, is standing on the grand promenade to one of the most remarkable temples in the world.

Blue’s late business partner, Cambodian entrepreneur Sothea Chhin, died two years ago. Today Chhin’s 18-year-old daughter works with Blue and might one day take on a much larger role in the business.

Until then, the owner of Beyond Interiors works long hours, choosing to relax at nightly meetings of a local choir – a kind of “hippy” gathering, she says – where Cambodians and expats sing together, evidence of a genuine mixing of locals and foreigners that makes Phnom Penh feel small and hospitable. She also readily admits that she cannot cook, which is not much of a problem in a city stocked with excellent restaurants like the sophisticated French bistro Armand’s, and Blue’s long-time favourite, Khmer Surin.

When she is not out on the town, Blue treasures long weekends in her sprawling first-floor flat, which has a large patio and plenty of room for guests, meaning she can play host to a constant stream of visitors. They help remind her how lucky she is to live in such an exciting and exotic city. “This is one of those places where you’ll get an email like: ‘My cousin is coming, they don’t know where to go . . . ’ she says. “I like living like that.”


This piece was published by The Financial Times. Read the original here