The electric looms came to life mornings at 7:30 at Russey Keo textile factory. Their operators, mostly women, keep the 200 old machines clattering until 11:30, then in the afternoon start them up for another four-hour shift. If things go well, Russey Keo will turn out about 2,000 yards of cotton cloth during the day.
But things often go wrong. Power failures silence the entire factory. Wheels and levers in looms installed in the 1950s and 1960s give out. Repairmen spend hours trying to improvise replacement parts that will get the ancient machines operating again.
Despite it all, Russey Keo functions. The newly woven cloth goes on to be steamed, dyed and printed with bright batik patterns. Sold in state-owned stores, it reduces by a fraction the black market trade with Thailand, the largest source of clothing for Cambodia.
Sixteen months after it took control of Phnom Penh, the Heng Samrin government claims to have reopened 63 of the city's more than 100 factories. Production is still tiny, but it could play an important role in reconstruction. Already Cambodian plants are producing fishnets, watering cans for farmers and bicycles, for instance.
Sources familiar with Phnom Penh's industrial policy say that covering production shortfalls in Vietnam is another reason for the race to restart factories. Already Cambodian-made batteries and water pumps have been quietly exported to Vietnam, they say.
At some factories the focus is on luxury goods. Government planners apparently thought Cambodians deserved a taste of the old life and would be reassured that normal times lie ahead. Thus soft drink and cigarette plants were among the first to reopen.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, private investors built a series of small but often very modern factories in Phnom Penh.
Production stopped when the Khmer Rouge captured and emptied the city in 1975. Soldiers sealed the factories' doors and made amateur attempts to cover machinery to prevent rusting. During the next four years, about 65 of the city's more than 100 factories were restarted, one-by-one, by the Khmer Rouge.
In January 1979, with Vietnamese forces closing in on the city, the Khmer Rouge turned on the machines they had repaired, destroying as many as possible before fleeing. Russey Keo was among the few textile plants to escape major damage.
Heng Samrin officials inspecting it early in 1979 found it had produced plain black cloth, the traditional garb of the Cambodian peasant, turned into a national uniform by the Khmer Rouge. A large supply of Chinese cotton yarn, the factory's raw material had been left behind.
The factory had another stroke of good fortune. Its prewar technical director, Tiv Chhiv Ky, 46, had survived the Khmer Rouge years and now returned to claim his old job. So did many machine operators -- about half of its 550 workers were employed there before 1975.
Working virtually without spare parts, tools or technical manuals, Ky began reconditioning the old machines.
Western diplomatic attempts to isolate the regime in Phnom Penh further complicated the task. Most of Russey Keo's equipment was produced in Japan but because the two governments do not maintain ties, the factory cannot contact the manufacturers for parts and technical advice.
Nonetheless, production resumed April 19. Ky eventually got 200 of the factory's 325 looms operating.
Last fall Russey Keo faced another crisis. The Chinese yarn inherited from the Khmer Rouge was running out. But in November agreement was reached with Oxfam, the private relief agency headquartered in England, to buy more overseas.
In the marketplaces the Heng Samrim government has allowed private enterprise to flourish. Not so in industry. There, principles of socialism are strictly applied. Russey Keo, like other plants, is operated by the Ministry of Industry and markets its products through stores run by the Ministry of Commerce.
Nine of its workers have completed two-month political education courses run by state labor unions. Back on the job, they are charged with raising their coworkers' political consciousness. Every Saturday and entire staff, both management and workers, gathers in the factory's parking lot to discuss ways production can be improved.
Technical manager Ky attacks this question every day. Even when presenting samples of the factory's cloth to visitors, he is critical of his own work. "The quality is not so good," he says, running his fingers across a batik. "we can't yet compare with the Thai cloth."