Story by Thin Lei Win
Don’t start talking to Michel Saada about coconuts unless you have time to spare. The exuberant Frenchman is an authority on coconuts and is known to wax lyrical on the eco-friendliness of coconuts plus the huge number of things that can be derived from, a single nut.
Affectionately known as Mimi, the artist first came to Laos 15 years ago and immediately fell in love, both with the country and the fruit - one of the cheapest and most abundant natural resources in Laos.
“I came with not much money. I used to work in the restaurant business before in Paris. I didn’t know what to do but then I made a necklace out of a broken coconut ladle and I thought, wow,” Mimi grinned.
He wanted to produce products using renewable materials and started a small workshop in a coconut plantation on the edge of Vientiane. Then in 1997, Mimi, established T’Shop Lai, a charming boutique selling original handicrafts made from recycled wood or non-timbre forest products such as coconut and bamboo.
The three-storey T’Shop Lai is very much like its founder – warm, friendly and full of interesting ideas, and filled with the sweet scent of its products. Coconut-based goods are everywhere – mirrors, vases, board games, toy boxes, tiles and tables.
A coconut shell table with fish scale design takes centre stage, the beautiful pattern formed by painstakingly gluing cut up individual pieces. “It took four people around two weeks to finish it,” he said.
Everything from the fruit is used and nothing is wasted. While the shell is used for accessories, furniture, kitchen utensils and home decorations, the copra (coconut flesh) is processed into soaps, creams, lip balms, lipsticks and virgin coconut oil, in lip-smacking concoctions such as vanilla, orange and citronella.
The coconut juice provides nourishment to the staff designing the products while the leftover flesh and shell become fertilisers. Even the spine from the leaves and the tree bark are woven into pretty baskets to hold the products, and everything is handmade, including Mimi’s name card.
His next project is the Les Artisans Lao workshop and showroom, a project which began in 2004, to provide on-the-job training and employment to disadvantaged Lao people, especially women. Most of the products in T’Shop Lai are a result of their creations.
T’Shop Lai, Vat Inpeng, Vientiane, Laos
Tel: +856 2122 3178
Visit Gallery for more photos. Photos courtesy of Stay Another Day.