TITLE: Denim Gold: How the Kam people of China preserved indigo dyeing

DIRECTOR: Marie Anna Lee
GENRE: Short Documentary
LENGTH: 29:23 minutes

LOGLINE: Women in remote Dimen Village reveal an ancient unwritten indigo-dyeing tradition.

SYNOPSIS: An art professor and her students apprentice with Chinese Kam minority artisans to learn early indigo dyeing technology. The Kam, who have lived in seclusion deep in the mountains of southwest China, have valued the black-glue iridescent cloth as much as gold and have carefully

guarded the secret of making the cloth. When the young generation lost interested in their traditions, the elderly artisans decided to reveal their knowledge. The technique is lengthy but the vat has does not use the harsh chemicals many other indigo-dyeing vats use and it is long-lasting.

The trick is that the artisans reuse liquid from a spent dye vat to start a new one. As the team learns the hard way when replicating the process at home, the technique does not work without it and so the mystery of the Kam vat persists.


Handwoven on unique floor looms, dyed in indigo and then overdyed in red dye, starched and stiffened with ox skin liquid, the cloth is black-blue in color and tends to change color under different light sources. It is also highly durable.

WHY IT IS UNIQUE: Kam artisans have preserved the process for centuries but finally decided to share the technique. Their indigo vat does not use many of the harsh chemical used in other indigo vats and is long lasting.   

WHY IT MATTERS: The women have kept passing this sacred knowledge from generation to generation for thousands of years preserving evidence of the earliest indigo-dyeing processes that cannot be learned from archaeological evidence or written documents. Yet, the young generation has not learned the process and the knowledge will be lost once the elderly artisans pass away.

WHY IT WILL SUCCEED: The film takes the audience into a secluded pre-industrial community and shows them a lifestyle and artisanal practices that have been lost elsewhere. The researchers bridge cultural differences persuading the artisans to share their millennia-old heritage with the outside world. At the end, the audience becomes part of the solution as they are entrusted with the knowledge to continue the tradition. 


Marie Anna Lee is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of the Pacific in California, USA. She has worked on the cultural preservation of Kam indigenous heritage since 2007, and received the 2013 and 2014 SEED (Social Environmental Economic Design) Award honorable mention for excellence in public interest design for her work in Dimen.  

As part of the Kam delegation from Dimen, Lee presented at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, in 2014. She taught at the Public Interest Design Institute in Denver in 2013 and presented her research at numerous national and international conferences, and has co-authored multiple articles in global monetary history. 

She has also exhibited her art in the USA, China, and the Czech Republic. Lee holds a BFA and an MFA in Graphic Design from Colorado State University, USA, and a BA in Advertising from Michigan State University, USA.