In the fourth of a continuing series focusing on the multifaceted role of Cambodia's
ethnic Chinese community, Phelim Kyne finds that the Kingdom's Chinese
schools are still recovering from more than two decades of official prohibition.
Morning classes are almost over at the Dwan Hwa Chinese School in central Phnom Penh,
and the tense excitement that only impending freedom engenders in children is almost
With just minutes before the 10:40am break, the classrooms are packed with neatly
groomed Sino-Khmer struggling valiantly to maintain their composure as Dwan Hwa's
microphone-toting school principal leads a lengthy, morning monologue on the twin
virtues of cleanliness and dedicated application to study.
Some of the 2800 students at Phnom Penh's 125-year-old Dwan Hwa school.
For an outsider, Dwan Hwa School, its 2800 students and its 50-strong faculty seem
an irrefutable testament to the health and vigor of Cambodia's Chinese school system.
Seven years after the lifting of a 22-year ban on Chinese language education, the
125-year-old school is again fully employed training the minds of a young generation
of the city's ethnic Chinese.
But for Mr Yang Hao, Dwan Hwa School is a scarce source of satisfaction. "This
used to be such a good school, the best in Phnom Penh," he said. "It's
changed so much."
The spry, 70-year-old Yang knows well of what he speaks. A 30-year veteran educator
of Phnom Penh's Chinese school system, the Cantonese émigré has dedicated
his retirement to addressing what he terms "the serious problems" facing
the Kingdom's Chinese schools.
"The years of chaos took a terrible toll," Yang says in oblique reference
to the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979, which took the lives of 50% of Cambodia's
ethnic Chinese community and drove untold thousands more into foreign exile.
"We're still just starting over."
Yang and a core of fellow concerned educators crusading for a renaissance of Chinese
language education in Cambodia take heart from a legacy of Chinese schooling in the
Kingdom dating back more than a century.
Dwan Hwa School was the Kingdom's first formal Chinese school, founded in 1875 to
serve the progeny of the city's dominant Teochiu community.
Phnom Penh's other Chinese dialect groups - Hainanese, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese
- soon followed suit with schools of their own.
Between 1904 and 1938, the number of Chinese schools established across Cambodia
had reached a total of 93.
"The first Chinese schools were organized on ethnic grounds, because the Chinese
all spoke different dialects," Yang explained. "Widespread teaching of
Mandarin Chinese didn't start until after [the Chinese revolution] in 1949."
The lessons of those early schools were, Yang admits, "insular".
"The curriculum concentrated on China - Chinese history, language and literature
- and Cambodian subjects were ignored," Yang explained. "It wasn't uncommon
for students who graduated from Chinese schools to not know how to speak Khmer."
In spite of the great distances separating Cambodia and China, the political earthquake
that shook China at the end of World War II reverberated in the lives of Cambodia's
The victory of Mao's communists on the Mainland and the retreat of Chiang Kai Shek's
defeated KMT forces to "Free China" on Taiwan created distinct divisions
in the Kingdom's Chinese community.
These divisions were reflected in the sympathies demonstrated in the Chinese school
system for either the KMT or the Chinese communists.
"People [at that time] felt strongly about the changes affecting China,"
Yang said. "Schools would display the KMT or Communist Chinese flag to show
KMT and Communist Chinese responded in turn by supplying funds and educational materials
to the schools that supported their cause.
"It was chaotic," Yang recalled. "Schools had different textbooks
and learned very different ideas about China."
The Golden Age
In spite of the ideological infighting and the eruption of Red Guard-inspired Chinese
nationalism among the Kingdom's Chinese school body, Yang fondly refers to the 1950s
and 1960s as "The Golden Age" of Chinese education in Cambodia.
"There were so many schools and so many students," Yang recalled. "Chinese
schools were considered the best in Cambodia."
Yang's assertion of the 1950s and 1960s period as the "Golden Age" of Chinese
education is reflected in the number of schools and the size of the Chinese student
body during that period.
By 1970, the number of Chinese schools in the Kingdom had grown to 231, with 50 Chinese
schools in Phnom Penh alone.
1970 also marked the abrupt end of Chinese education in the Kingdom.
"Lon Nol closed all the schools," Yang explained. "Chinese were seen
as potential communists, and the Chinese schools were seen as centers of anti-government
Government sanctions were only the least of the problems of Chinese schools in the
countryside. In many rural areas, Penny Edwards noted in a Center for Advanced Studies
(CAS) Ethnographic Survey of the Kingdom, "...the closing of schools was enforced
by shrapnel, not red tape."
Edwards's observation is supported by Yang's own memories of the damage wrought by
the intense American bombardment of the Cambodian countryside in the early 1970s.
"The B-52s flew very high," Yang said. "A school could also look like
a place for soldiers from that height."
After the Deluge
When Cambodia's ethnic Chinese population filtered back to the Kingdom's urban centers
after the 1979 defeat of the Khmer Rouge, their hopes for a return to pre-Lon Nol
era freedom of education were quickly quashed.
China's support for the Khmer Rouge, coupled with China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam
- the People's Republic of Kampuchea's (PRK) main patron at the time - encouraged
the PRK to institute strict prohibitions on ethnic Chinese cultural life, including
One of the more sinister aspects of PRK legislation regarding the Kingdom's Chinese
minority was the 1983 "Party Center Circular 351".
"351" designated any ethnic Chinese as "suspect" based on such
factors as the lightness of their skin, the clarity of their Khmer pronunciation
and any display of cultural artifacts such as ancestor worship shrines.
"'351' had a very negative effect on Chinese survivors [of the KR]," Yang
said. "It made people want to hide their [Chinese] identity by not speaking
With no option but to enter the Khmer school system, ethnic Chinese students were
also subject to discrimination.
Penny Edwards of CAS notes rumors that all students in Battambang with trisyllabic,
Chinese names failed their exams between 1985 and 1990.
While Yang is unable to confirm the rumor, he concedes that a Chinese name in the
early years of post-KR Cambodia was a definite handicap.
"Students who had Chinese names found it difficult to advance [academically]."
A New Beginning
In 1992, the legal restrictions against Chinese schools were finally lifted. To date,
69 Chinese schools have reopened in Cambodia, 16 in Phnom Penh.
"The years of chaos are to blame," Yang says of the precipitous drop in
school numbers from their 1970 peak. "Many places [in Cambodia] that had large
Chinese populations before the war are practically empty [of Chinese] now."
The drastic reductions in the ethnic Chinese community's population base outside
the major cities is reflected most dramatically in the town of Kampong Trach.
In 1970, the town supported five Chinese schools. Three decades later, only one has
reopened, dependent largely on Vietnamese ethnic Chinese who cross the border each
morning to attend class.
Those schools that have reopened must cope with facilities far inferior to what they
"That used to be our music hall and library," Yang says of a building on
the Dwan Hwa School campus obscured by smoky cooking fires and hanging laundry. "Squatters
moved in after 1979 and it's been very difficult for us to remove them."
Changes can also be seen in the composition of the student body. Dwan Hwa, originally
the main school of the Teochiu community, now attracts other Chinese groups because
of the unifying use of Mandarin.
Unlike previous decades, students generally enter Dwan Hwa fluent in Khmer, but with
varying degrees of proficiency in Mandarin. "We have a policy allowing the use
of Khmer in the first year [of school]," Yang said. "After that, all instruction
is in Mandarin."
A new, unified curriculum has also been developed. Designed by a team of Mainland
Chinese and Cambodian Chinese educators, textbooks in use in the schools incorporate
themes of history and culture from both Cambodia and China.
In spite of such progress, Yang is concerned about what he perceives as the critical
erosion in the quality of Chinese teachers available in the Kingdom.
Yang points to charts he's formulated depicting the steady decline in the ages and
education level of teachers employed in Chinese schools.
To reverse the decline, in March Yang helped to inaugurate a Chinese teacher-training
program. Six days a week, ten recent graduates of Chinese Middle Schools meet on
the second floor of the Cambodian Chinese Association on St 154 in Phnom Penh for
a crash course in the Chinese curriculum and teaching skills.
"When they graduate next year, they will get jobs easily because there is such
a heavy demand," Yang explained, adding that the graduates could expect salaries
of about $150 per month.
Yang says much more remains to be done to improve and safeguard Chinese education
in Cambodia, and has written a series of articles in the Chinese-language Commercial
News about what he says are the system's "serious deficiencies".
"The Chinese school system has problems," he emphasized. "I want people
to understand the problems so we can start to try to solve them."