Chasing childhood memories filled with sweets, writer Steve Noble sets off in search of the elusive Cambodian candy man. Photography by Anna clare Spelman.
Sticky toffee apples at the fun fair, crepes smothered in chocolate, wisps of candy floss matted in a friend’s hair. For many, childhood memories are littered with references to treats of the mouth-wateringly tasty kind. So when some Cambodian friends started reminiscing about buying sculpted sweets outside school from a skilled candy carver who crafts animals and caricatures out of the sticky substance on request, my interest was piqued and a quest for my own sugar man began.
After rumours of the candy man’s sporadic appearances around Phsar Kandal and the National Museum in Phnom Penh, the saliva was flowing and I launched into several week,s of endless tracking – even setting tuk-tuk drivers on his trail. Just as I was starting to think the candy man was a myth, I hit gold with a call from a friend to say he had been found.
Armed with a wide grin, aged and scarred hands and no more than a moto with a makeshift coal-stoked furnace, four pots of gooey, colourful molten candy and a small set of scissors, there he stood. And he definitely wasn’t an illusion, entertaining a small crowd as he skillfully caressed and molded sugar-rich, coloured candy, transforming the goo into miniature rabbits, horses, dragons, tigers and roses using just his hands and the scissors.
Paying careful attention to every candy creation brought to life, I watched as a miniature molten mess of yellow, purple and red was transformed into a rabbit for the excited five-year-old schoolgirl watching on, eagerly clutching a1,000 riel note.
Kim Han, or Diamond Hand as he is affectionately known, and his wife, Asros, patrol the streets of central Phnom Penh, targeting areas surrounding schools and tourist hotspots to increase their daily revenue. As Kampong Cham natives, the couple lives with family in Toul Kork, and travel into central Phnom Penh to ply their trade.
A lifelong creative, Diamond Hand studied sculpting at the Royal University of Fine Arts in Phnom Penh in the mid-1980s and went on to work in the art form, honing his skills with glass, clay and stone.
However, he found the raw materials expensive and struggled to make ends meet. In 2000, the now 50-year-old had a light bulb moment and decided to transfer his intricate carving skills to working with a new medium – candy.
“I was struggling to earn money to support my family, and it was tough,” he says. “I had orders coming from customers and didn’t have the money to buy the materials so I couldn’t accept them. That’s when I decided to change to something cheaper that I could work with, which was still creative and could earn an income.” Almost instantly, his ingenious idea took off, with kids clamouring for a taste of his work.
Despite his early day struggles, he now generates up to $75 a day. A poor day sees him net $25. Considering each of the sweet sculptures sell for 1,000 riel, that equates to a lot of daily molding. Diamond Hand is also renowned for carefully carving candy into uncanny caricatures of customer’s faces, charging up to $3 a child and $5 an adult.
The candy he uses is lollipop candy, which is bought as raw-coloured ingredients in 12kg bags. Water is added to a small quantity and brought to the boil, before being steamed in four molten pots encased in a wooden box on top of a small iron clad, coal-fuelled furnace that sit on the back of his motorbike,
Citing his most popular creations, Diamond Hand momentarily pauses before nodding towards his rugged hands that hold the detailed rabbit that is quickly taking shape before my eyes. “That and the chicken,” he says with a cheeky smile before continuing with his work. He looks up at the crowd of children and curious tourists flocking around him and adds, “Why do I enjoy this so much? To see the expression on their faces; that and being able to provide for my family.”
Impressed, I thank him and leave him to his trade, contently clutching my five candy creations perched on wooden sticks.
Diamond Hand sets up shop around Street 13, Phsar Kandal and the National Museum. Tel. 088 875 4438 (Khmer speaking only)