Sok Ngim has lost most of her Chinese identity. Although her family’s narrow furniture shop close to Central Market features a sign in Chinese, the characters are smaller than those in Khmer and sit directly below, almost as an afterthought.
While her parents are noticeably Chinese in appearance they barely speak their native Teochew, a minority language used in tiny pockets of eastern Guangdong and southern Fujian provinces on the mainland.
“I only speak Khmer at home,” she said in perfect English.
She does not have a Chinese name and rarely hangs out with Chinese-Khmers. Her mother said she does not know when their family moved to Cambodia or from where they came in China. Their legacy is a forgotten one.
“It’s because of the Pol Pot regime,” said Sok Ngim.
The deaths of many of her mother’s and father’s family members and suppression of their native tongue means the Khmer Rouge were partly successful in one of their many destructive aims: to eradicate foreign culture and language in Democratic Kampuchea.
Sok Ngim’s story is endemic of the unique flux in Chinese language use that is taking place in Cambodia. Unlike on the mainland where Mandarin is the dominant language, in Cambodia minority Chinese languages such as Teochew, Hakka and Hokkein still dominate.
Linguist Jean-Michel Fillipi estimates there are some 181,000 native Teo Chew speakers in his 2008 book Minority Languages in Cambodia, many more than the 2,000 Mandarin speakers in the country.
Of the six varieties of Chinese spoken in Cambodia, most are variations on dialects from the south of China where traditionally the wealthiest lived, a location considerably more convenient than the mostly Mandarin areas of the Northeast in terms of travel to Southeast Asia.
But although Chinese minority languages still dominate in Cambodia, as on the mainland itself Mandarin is in the ascendancy in the Kingdom. This is partly due to the rise of China, said Filippi, as well as the fact that Mandarin remains the only Chinese language taught in schools in Cambodia.
“After the UNTAC (United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia) period … when Chinese weren’t subject to discrimination anymore and could learn Chinese again, the only obvious choice for the young generation was to learn Mandarin in Chinese schools,” he said.
From the start of this new era of peace in Cambodia, China and Taiwan provided schools for Chinese language learning in the country, and then after 1997 China did so alone, said Filippi.
Sok Ngim, who at 18 years old is in her last year of high school, was born at the very start of the UNTAC era and like many Teochew has only studied Mandarin formally in place of her native tongue.
“I’ve stopped [learning Mandarin] now,” she said. “I just need to know it for business.”
She has chosen English over Mandarin as her foreign language of choice but appears to be increasingly in the minority – when it comes to learning languages money talks. As Filippi notes Mandarin is firmly in the ascendancy mostly because of mainland China’s escalating business interests in Cambodia and the country’s new status as the second-largest economy on the planet. China was the biggest foreign investor in Cambodia for the past two years, pouring in some US$4.48 billion in 2008 before the global economic crisis took full effect resulting in a large slide to just $349.15 million in 2009.
And while many of the Chinese that came to Cambodia in the past were from minority-language speaking areas, nowadays the influx appears to be mostly in Mandarin.
On Street 136 close to Monivong Boulevard, an area heavily populated with ethnic Chinese, a row of Chinese restaurants represents all areas of the mainland. There is a Sichuan restaurant serving spicy fare from the Southwest, a Shandong diner from the centre of the country and a Peking restaurant serving dishes from the Northeast. But despite this huge geographic diversity almost everyone that works in these restaurants is a native Mandarin speaker.
“My Mum wanted to come,” said Lin Xue in perfect northeastern Mandarin, or Putonghua as it is most often known on the mainland, which literally means “common speech” in English.
Having lived in Cambodia for just five years, 23-year-old Lin said the culture and the weather were a shock at first, a complete contrast to her native Mudanjiang in Heilongjiang Province, an area in the very far northeast of China that lies closer to Russia than Beijing and which records temperatures that plummet towards minus 40 degrees Celsius in the depths of Winter.
She and her family came to Cambodia for business.
Like many recent arrivals from the mainland Lin only speaks “a little” Khmer, spends almost all her time with other Mandarin speakers. And there are many in the vicinity. Just a few doors down a middle-age Chinese woman who declined to give her name said also comes from Heilongjiang and only speaks Mandarin. She arrived to sell jade in her brother’s shop earlier this year, she said.
Despite the recent Mandarin invasion, Filippi notes there are still obvious pockets where minority Chinese languages still dominate in Cambodia, especially where business is at stake.
“I noticed in Kep crab market or in Kampot the frequent switch to Teochew to avoid being understood by Khmer speakers,” he said.
Similarly, Cambodian Teochew will naturally choose their native Chinese dialect when meeting Malays or Thais from the same ethnic group, he added. Many have emigrated elsewhere in the region, particularly also to Singapore.
Chinese minority tongues in Cambodia, like any language, have thrived where they are isolated and allowed to regenerate from one generation to the next. This is true of Hakka Chinese which is still spoken in pockets of Stung Treng and Rattanakiri provinces, according to Filippi’s book, areas where speakers can also converse in Mandarin.
The extent to which these languages will survive in Cambodia is difficult to determine, said Filippi, not least because there is so much we still don’t understand about how they are transmitted and even the total number of speakers.
“It’s very difficult to quantify and it is very much dependent on the place and the group considered,” he said.
Only one thing is certain. As the world slowly wakes up to China’s rising influence, a trend that has prompted more people across the world to learn Mandarin, it looks certain that China’s national language will also slowly take over here, said Filippi, despite the long heritage of the likes of Teochew and Hokkein.
“Mandarin is obviously becoming more dominant in Cambodia,” he said.