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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cultures cambined

Cultures cambined

Kaing Menghun and Kim Samath explore the many ways the Chinese have left their indelible mark on Cambodian society since their arrival

10 Famous Chinese-Cambodian

  • Dr Haing S Ngor: Physician, actor and author who won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in The Killing Fields
  • Lon Nol: President of the ill-fated Khmer Republic
  • Pol Pot: Khmer Rouge leader (Chinese-Khmer extract)
  • Ieng Sary: Khmer Rouge leader, currently on trial at the ECCC
  • Bun Rany: The Head of Cambodian Red Cross and the wife of Prime Minister Hun Sen
  • Sinn Sisamouth: The “King of Khmer Music”, who also had ancestors from Laos and Vietnam
  • Sokun Nisa: Popular Khmer singer, often featured on Karaoke DVDs
  • Sok Kong: the president of Sokimex
  • Kith Meng: head of the Royal Group
  • Chy Sila: cofounder of the CBM group, which owns BB World, Pizza World and Sabay

Show off your mind
In our interview with Nov Sambath, we learned that “there are dozens of Chinese words used widely in Khmer language”. It isn’t surprising, considering many words in the Khmer language w derived from Chinese dialects centuries ago. Nov Sambath’s examples were ang pav (red package), kong (grandpa) and ma (grandma). It made us curious and we think we found a couple more. Sampan (boat) and dop (ten) are both borrowed from the Chinese language. Let us know what you can come up with at...---->

Culture doesn’t just influence Cambodian culture, in many ways the two are indistinguishable. The Chinese began to enter Cambodia more than 500 years ago, and their impact on society is so deep that many traditions born in China are now as much a part of Cambodian way of life as the traditions that originated during the Angkor empire.

“We live with and breathe the Chinese influence,” said Nov Sambath, a Chinese literature professor at the Royal University of Phnom Penh. “We have adopted Chinese culture, from cuisines to lifestyle, into our traditions,” he told Lift, explaining that Cambodians have merged Chinese customs with Cambodian food, clothing, wedding styles, funerals and just about everything else.

“Chinese culture came to Cambodia long before Christianity,” said Prince Sisowath Kulachhat, a secretary of state and the director of fine arts and crafts of the Royal University of Fine Arts. “I have noticed that the Chinese never forget their identity, no matter how far apart they are from their native land.” He added that Chinese culture is beneficial to people in Cambodia who have preserved the positive aspects of it, including the priority often placedon business acumen.

If you are Cambodian, there is a pretty good chance that someone in your family tree migrated from China at some point. And the impact of centuries of Chinese immigrants on Cambodian society is unavoidable.

Although the number has dropped due to warfare and emigration, the 475,000 or so Chinese-Cambodians living in the Kingdom in the 1970s were the country’s largest ethnic minority, and the evidence of their impact is obvious, including on the school system.

Whether schools shut down during Chinese New Year, it is inevitable that their classrooms will empty out.

“Most students take days off during Chinese New Year, and even some of our teachers take time off,” said Yang Raksmey, a high school physics teacher in Banteay Meanchey province.

Srun Kea Vatey, who recently graduated from her high school in Kampong Cham, said her family celebrates every Chinese holiday there is, from Chinese New Year to the Mid-autumn Festival. “My father does it because he is thankful to his ancestors and our family has Chinese blood,” she said.

Despite that fact that generations of her family have lived in Cambodia, Srun Kea Vatey is one of many who continue to embrace Chinese traditions to maintain their cultural identity.

“I want to continue practising Chinese culture; otherwise, I will lose my Chinese identity and we will forget our traditions,” said Sok Leang, a 27 year-old graduate of banking and finance at the Royal University of Law and Economics.

Perhaps it is no surprise that Cambodians with Chinese ancestry embrace the chance to celebrate traditional holidays and festivals, but cultural superstitions have also become entrenched in Cambodian society. Feng Shui and the balance of Yin and Yang are both Chinese in origin but common practice in the Kingdom as well.

Rather than visiting the wat before a big event or family gathering, Ge Nayou, a drink seller in Phnom Penh, said she goes to a Chinese fortune teller who can help her prepare the Feng Shui in her house before her guests arrive. She says the ritual brings good luck “whenever I have a house warming party or any important changes in my family”.

While Buddhist wats are ubiquitous in Cambodia, there are also Chinese religious temples that provide shelter and intellectual nurturing to young men. Va Virak, a sophomore who came from Prey Veng to study at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, stays at the Be Yoan temple, one of a handful of Chinese temples in Phnom Penh, with about 20 other young men, mostly university students.

“Besides going to school, we engage in activities such as learning Chinese, studying Buddhist advice and Confucianism, and learning other Chinese cultural concepts,” he said.

Chinese culture has arguably had the greatest impact on Cambodian society, but the Chinese weren’t the first to migrate to Cambodia, and China is among a long list of foreign countries whose cultural influence has entered Cambodian society.

While China’s influence is now an accepted part of everyday life, it was once new to the Kingdom. Like the emerging influences today, it is an inevitable part of international relations. “Good or bad depends on how people choose to see it,” said Sisowath Kulachhat. “We cannot ban other cultures coming to our nation as it is the era of globalization.”



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