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Kampot’s Chinese heritage unearthed

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The butter-hued former French governor’s palace in Kampot, tipped to house the country’s first free history museum. Photograph: Julie Masis/7Days

When French missionary Jean Genoud, in July of 1682, visited Kampot province, he came across a Chinese settlement, which he and his party christened Pontomeas, or Banteay Meas.

This kingdom was ruled by a Chinese businessman for over a hundred years, and although not officially a Chinese colony, all of the characteristics of Chinese life were recreated there.

Although the Chinese shop-houses and pepper farms synonymous with the tranquil town can be traced back to this era, information about this chapter of Kampot’s history has remained scarce, many still unaware of the region’s rich Chinese heritage.

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A French Colonial map of Kampot, to go on display at the museum. Photograph supplied

This forgotten page, however, will now be brought to light in Cambodia’s first comprehensive, free history museum which is expected to open this September in the former French governor’s palace in Kampot.

The museum will have exhibitions on the Angkorian period, the French protectorate, the Sihanouk era, and the province’s ethnic minorities.

“In the other (Cambodian history) museums – there is nothing but old stones – no explanations, just objects with labels. It’s hard to understand anything unless you are already an expert in Khmer art,” says Jean-Michel Filippi, a local historian and professor at the Royal University, who conceived the idea for a museum several years ago.

The Kampot museum will also feature video lectures about the region’s history in Khmer, English, and French – as well as photos, historic maps, excerpts from travellers’ books and models of what the city looked like in the past.

“We’ll try to put a lot of artifacts in there, but in my opinion, the most interesting part of the museum will be the explanations,” Filippi says. “We’d like to diffuse the knowledge we acquired about this region.”

The oldest known photo of Kampot was taken in 1886 by Adhemar Leclere, the first French governor of the province. It shows an unpaved road with Chinese-style houses, rather than traditional  Khmer stilt houses.

The original French settlement of Kampot town was, at that time, located on the Koh Trey island, wedged in between two arms of the sleepy Kampot River, Filippi explains.

A number of lingas and yonis - religious sculptures modelled on male and female sexual organs - that have never before been seen by the public, will also go on display at the museum. The 47 ancient statues had been kept in storage at the provincial Ministry of Culture.

The museum, funded through an $88,000 grant from the International Association of Francophone Mayors (A.I.M.F), may also include a small library, a gift shop with postcards and books, a café, a temporary exhibition space, and a study area for researchers.

While researching the history of Kampot, Filippi and his colleague Luc Mogenet, who wrote a book about the province, Kampot: the Mirror of Cambodia, came across the forgotten Chinese kingdom – not far from the modern day Vietnamese city of Ha Tien.

The kingdom lasted from 1679 until around the middle of the 19th century, and was mentioned in the musings of French missionary and traveler Pierre Poivre.

According to Keat Gin Ooi’s Southeast Asia: A Historical Encyclopedia from Angkor Wat to East Timor, the region was ruled by a Chinese businessman named Mac Cu’u and his son, Mac Thien Tu, who made money from “a gambling farm” or a kind of old-style casino. In this gambling farm, Chinese businessmen bid for the right to collect taxes in Cambodia’s villages and towns.  

According to Mogenet, Pontomeas was originally located near today’s Cambodian village of Banteay Meas, but was later moved to the border town of Ha Tien – which at the time was part of Cambodia – after Banteay Meas was destroyed by the Siamese. The Chinese ruler then gave the new settlement near Ha Tien the same name – Pontomeas.

“Before, there was some confusion (about whether Potomeas was two places or one,)” Mogenet says. “Historians didn’t go deep into the issue. I, using ancient maps and texts, arrived at a certain conclusion that they were two separate places.”

He said Pontomeas has not been researched in depth until now because there are very few historians who are interested in modern Cambodia.

“Most of them are interested in Angkorian history,” Mogenet said.

No trace of the ancient Chinese kingdom remains in Banteay Meas district today, according to Mogenet, except for the fact that the area still has a large Chinese population.

Later, Chinese settlers started the pepper business, which was to bring the Kampot region world-wide fame.

During much of Cambodia’s history, Kampot eluded the control of Cambodian kings. This began to change in the mid 19th century, when a road linking the capital of Udong with the port of Kampot was built. A road between Kampot and Phnom Penh did not exist for another 50 years, according to Filippi.

“Kampot is a very particular province. Nominally, it belonged to Cambodia but it was no-man’s land,” he said. “It’s a region that had many ethnic minorities because the central power had very limited control.”

In addition to the Chinese, Kampot’s minorities included the Cham and the little-known S’aoch group, whose population has now been reduced to one village of 110 people. Filippi, who wrote a book about the S’aoch, says that their language has only ten speakers – of which he is one.

So far, work on the museum has focused on the building itself, with an effort to return it to the way it was in the 1930s.

“It’s nice because, normally, when buildings are renovated in Kampot it’s for private ventures like hotels or restaurants. But this is public,” says Olivier Duque, a civil engineer from Belgium who is so far the museum’s only paid employee.

The carpet has been removed to expose the beautiful tiled French colonial floor, the exterior was repainted and the air-conditioning is being taken out to keep electricity costs low. Water-proofing the roof is the next item on the to-do list.

Unlike other museums in Cambodia, Filippi envisions that the Kampot museum will be free and open to everyone.

In this way, he says, people will be encouraged to come and spend their money in the gift-shop rather than be discouraged from attending because of the tickets. Mogenet also hopes the museum will attract local schoolchildren, who will have an opportunity to learn about the history of their province.

“This is a not-for-profit venture,” Duque said. “The people who are involved in the project are the people who love Kampot.”

For more information, visit Filippi’s blog. To get involved with the project, email Olivier Duque.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Masis at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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