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Chinese school vibrant at age 120

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File Photo

Picture of the faculty and students taken in front of Duanhua School in 1964. Today the school is booming with more than 15,000 students.

In a secluded schoolyard tucked deep in a downtown neighborhood a group of children

is vigorously chanting "ren zhi chu, xing ben shan" - a three-word rhyme

written by Confucius. It's a charming, wise and well-known verse that translates

into "All people are kind when they are born."

This is Duanhua School, an institution steeped in history and founded in Phnom Penh

during the Qing Dynasty (1636-1912) in the 1880s. Today, with enrollment booming

and more than 15,000 students Duanhua is the largest Chinese-language institute outside

mainland China. It recently opened an extension campus near Olympic Stadium.

"China is developing rapidly and a lot of investments here involve Chinese.

Parents want their children to have an easier time finding a job," said Duanhua

Principal Li Huiming.

Sino-Khmer relations date to the third century BC, according to the Historical Dictionary

of Cambodia. A large immigrant community was well established by the 13th century,

with most settlers coming from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong.

Perhaps because of the origin of these emigres, Duanhua taught the Chinese dialect

of Teochiu until the 1940s when the school began teaching Mandarin. Teochiu is the

native language of Guangdong, and the most widely spoken dialect in China.

Duanhua was shuttered after the Lon Nol coup on March 18, 1970. Later, the Khmer

Rouge burned all the school's records that had been kept since the 19th century.

The school reopened in September 1992, and is now owned by the Association of Chinese

Nationals in Cambodia (ACNC).

"The demand for Chinese speakers is very high right now, especially in the garment

and hospitality industries," said Gao Feng, senior secretary at the China, Hong

Kong and Macau Business Association. "There are more Chinese tourists every

year and of the 400 garment factories, about 70 percent are owned by Chinese investors.

Bosses want there employees to communicate with workers."

Feng estimates there are some 70 Chinese language schools in Cambodia and more than

35,000 students. Figures for the number of ethnic Chinese in Cambodia vary: an official

with XinHua news bureau in Phnom Penh put the number at about 70,000, but the Taiwan's

Overseas Compatriot Affairs Commission claimed as many as 343,855. A 1995 Ministry

of Interior report claimed only 47,180.

Cultural inheritance

Huang Yulan, general director of Duanhua School, said Chinese put high importance

on their roots and hold a strong sense of nationalism. Yulan, who graduated from

Duanhua in 1964, said it is important to transmit their culture to future generations.

"The Association of Chinese Nationals in Cambodia and Guangdong Jinan University

assist us in designing our textbooks. We also use textbooks from other countries,

like Chinese textbooks from Malaysia," Li said.

A well-known Confucius saying advocates teaching without discrimination. Huang said

Duanhua puts the directive into practice.

"We are willing to teach anyone who is interested in learning Chinese. You can

see there are some older kids who are in the same class with the younger ones, because

we divide classes according to their Chinese language level instead of their age.

So we allow the students to skip a grade if they perform well," she said.

All subjects, from mathematics and geography to history, are taught in Chinese. But

students also learn Khmer.

A normal school day is split into two parts, with Khmer in the morning and then Chinese

in the afternoon. Duanhua students attend 23 lessons from Monday to Saturday.

"We claim our school as a public school because we received funds and donations

from other Chinese organizations such as Association of Chinese Teochiu in Cambodia.

But we haven't been subsidized by the government and we simply rely highly on school

fees and donations," Li said.

Tuition runs from $30 to $50 per term from first grade to junior secondary. Vocational

training, a two-year course for students who have finished junior secondary school,

is $80 per term. For senior secondary school, students can transfer to another school.

"Since there isn't any university in Cambodia offering Chinese language course,

if the students want to keep on learning Chinese, they may have to go to countries

like Singapore or China to pursue their studies," Li said. One problem is finding

qualified Chinese teachers, Li said. Duanhua has more than 240 teachers who are either

Chinese -Khmer or Chinese from mainland China.

"Being a teacher in China is a very low paid job, so a lot of people come here

to find jobs. For Duanhua, the salary of a primary school teacher is $200 per month

and for the secondary ones is $260 per month, which is much higher than those who

teach in a Cambodian school with only $20 to $30 a month," Li said.

"We don't have money to hire teachers of the highest quality. Most of the good

and experienced teachers are either retired or passed away and many new teachers

that we employed have never received any professional teaching training," he

said.

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