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How making shoes saved Phnom Penh's master cobbler I.C. Chaney's life and made him the darling of fashion lovers from around the world.

By: Expat Advisory Posted: January-01-2006 in
Expat Advisory

Foreigners crowding into I.C. Chaney's Beautiful Shoes shop on Street 143 revel in the prices of his handmade shoes - who could believe a custom-made leather sandal could cost just $15?

But Chaney's story of survival since he took over the family business in 1981 is even more remarkable

"My family has had a shoe business here for many years - through the Lon Nol period, and Sangkum Reastre Niyum. We had many famous customers like Kong Sam Oeun," Chaney says, referring to the great Khmer actor and male heart throb of the 1960's and 70's.

"My father learned the trade from some Vietnamese cobblers who set up a business in the capital - they taught him everything, and afterwards he taught me."

But that all fell apart in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took power. Luckily, the regime deemed the trade to be a good working class profession and instead of killing the family, marched them to south-western Takeo province, where they dug ditches for the next four years.

"They never asked us to make shoes. I never learned to make the shoes they wore made of car tires," he says with some distaste. "In those days, there were no tires anyway. There was nothing."

Luck has always been an angel on his shoulder, says Chaney. His family, unlike hundreds of thousands of others, survived intact and when the Vietnamese-backed troops overthrew the Khmer Rouge in 1979, they began the long walk home.

"It was all we knew. We didn't think about going anywhere except back to business. It took us 10 days to walk."

What greeted them was pure horror - Chaney still shudders thinking of it.

Their home and shop had once been in a pleasant neighbourhood, just around the corner from a high school. That high school had been converted into Toul Sleng torture centre by the Khmer Rouge.

"The smell was overwhelming, miles before we reached home. There were bones and bodies everywhere. You could feel the ghosts - I was terrified of the ghosts. I couldn't sleep."

But luck once again smiled on the family. Even though the capital was a picture of chaos, they found their stocks of leather and tools remained untouched.

They did the only thing they could and began making shoes. Beautiful Shoes.

"No one had any money. Money wasn't worth anything anyway. We made shoes and traded them for rice because rice was gold in the years after the Khmer Rouge. It was enough for us to survive on, and we even managed to pick up new leather by bartering with shoes," he remembers.

Gradually money trickled back into the economy, but shoe sales were still not a priority under the communist Vietnamese-backed Heng Samrin regime, and the family struggled.

Even the United Nations Transitional Authority of Cambodia (UNTAC) did not create the boom for Chaney's family like it did other businesses.

"There was a fence between them and us and the area our business was in was out of bounds for UNTAC troops," he says.

But in 1996, three years after UNTAC pulled out, things began to change. A foreigner, probably an aid worker, visited the shop, and then another, and another. Suddenly, after nearly 20 years of just scraping by, business boomed.

"We never advertised. It was all just word of mouth - one foreigner would come in, we would make shoes, they would be happy and tell friends. Nowadays I can't count how many shoes we sell a week. We get a few Cambodians, mainly around festivals, but the bulk of the customers are foreigners from around the world."

Chaney never got the technology thing. He has no idea how these people all found his address and those of his family members, who have all started shoe shops along the one tiny strip.

"Google? What's that?" he asks, genuinely oblivious to the numerous rave reviews of his shop on the internet. He makes shoes the old fashioned way, laying out paper on the floor and drawing the outline of the customer's foot before getting out a tape measure.

"The styles really haven't changed that much over the years. People want lighter styles and brighter colours now, but the basics are the same. Sometimes they bring us a pattern to copy, or they go through our catalogues and find something they want. We can always change details like the style of heel or the type of leather.

"Women's shoes take five to 10 days and men's take around 10 days. Some people come in and order 20 pairs!" Which is why from a Mom and Pop business, Beautiful Shoes alone now has a staff of 20 cobblers, overseen by Chaney's son, and the other family shoe businesses surrounding the family patriarch's shop have similar quotas. Shoes have paid for his other son to go to study in America.

"It takes three years to train a new employee how to be a good cobbler," he says. "Now I'm 50 and getting tired so I will hand the business to my son soon."

But that day will not be tomorrow - as the morning's customers begin to trickle in, Chaney can't resist sitting them down and measuring their feet before advising them on colours and materials.

"Oh no - red with that colour wouldn't look so good," he says, brandishing a homemade swatch of different leathers. "Try this chocolate brown, and the higher heel." And then he's gone, bustling into the back of the store to supervise the making another pair of Beautiful Shoes.

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