"The Chinese are everywhere”. “The Chinese are going to take over.” For Michael Liu’s first three months in Phnom Penh after moving from Chengdu in China’s Sichuan province, he regularly heard these aphorisms repeated among the expat community.
But absorbing himself in his work as a lawyer and a teacher, he wasn’t fully aware of the extent of Cambodia’s ethnic Chinese population, or the “Khmer-Chen”. It took a spontaneous trip to the remote Prey Toak fishing village outside Battambang, where villagers scrutinised him curiously and he had to call a friend to translate from Khmer to English, for him to make a discovery that would shape the next two years of his life.
“There was a middle-aged man who walked straight up to me and asked me in fluent Mandarin: “Are you from China?” Immediately, I realised he was Cambodian-Chinese. This was literally the middle of nowhere, a floating village on the Tonle Sap lake. I never thought there would be Chinese people living on that lake, but there are, and I happened to meet him when I went to visit, living on the water,” Liu says.
Liu was vaguely aware of Chinese companies investing in Cambodia and the high-flying Chinese entrepreneurs in the capital. But his encounter on the Tonle Sap made him wonder whether the Chinese really were everywhere in Cambodia: living all over the country, and working in a range of professions.
He made it his project for the next two years to travel around Cambodia and document the Chinese Cambodians he met through photography. The exhibition, titled Chinese and Cambodia, opens tomorrow at the Bophana centre.
At a Phnom Penh cafe on his 29th birthday, Liu tells me how, during his upbringing in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of China, he didn’t know much about Cambodia.
But after working here on and off for more than two years now, he has fallen in love with the country and its people. “I feel like this is my home. I don’t feel the same when I go to Beijing or my home town”, he says.
What draws Liu to Cambodia? He is attracted, he says, to what he perceives to be a spontaneity and happiness within Cambodians that he doesn’t see in his native China. He attributes these qualities to Theravada Buddhism – hugely different, he believes, to the Mahayana Buddhism more widely practiced in his country of birth.
Some of his observations seem like generalisations, even stereotypes: “Chinese culture is very much about structure, discipline, rules, while Cambodia is more spontaneous, very simple.
“Us Chinese are very hardworking, very smart and maybe richer, but we’re not as happy as the Khmer are.”
But having lived in and studied both countries and cultures, perhaps he should know. Having become used to drawing comparisons between the two peoples, discovering Chinese-Cambodians has shown Liu a mixture of the best of both worlds.
He aims to use his exhibition to present the diversity of the Chinese-Cambodian community and convey their varying stories to the world.
For Liu, the most important thing was to reflect the Chinese-Cambodian presence in all walks of life, from their locality to their professions to the dialects they speak. “You get lawyers, you get doctors, you get fishermen, you get restaurant owners, you get barbers,” he says.
What is it about these people that really caught Liu’s attention? What are the most interesting stories he’s documented? His original muse, the Tonle Sap dweller, was second generation Chinese.
His grandfather, wanting him to have a Chinese education, sent him to school in Battambang, only to see his education destroyed by the onset of the Khmer Rouge and the Vietnamese occupation.
Another fascinating story for Liu, and one which encompasses the key question of identity, is that of a businessman from Guangzhou in Guangdong province, China.
He says: “There’s a Chinese saying that when you’re getting old you want to go back to your roots, and for him the roots are in Cambodia, not in China, even though he always goes to Guangdong where his family was originally from.
“For me, the interesting part is how he described this little difference between China and here. Here, you always drink iced tea, but in China you never do that – you always drink hot tea.
“So in China, he was always trying to find ice to go with the tea.
“So it’s the small things, the subtleties that make people realise which group of people you belong to. Something like that always interests me – how you define yourself.”
Liu says he has learned a great deal about himself and the Chinese people through documenting these stories.
Coming from a nation that is undergoing rapid transformation, fast-forwarding from a state of mass starvation to global economic superpower status in a matter of decades, Liu has observed traditional values in the Chinese-Cambodians that he fears are often overlooked in modern-day, consumerist China.
“People are all so crazy about property and cars – they forget about integrity and honesty. Whenever I talk to the Chinese-Cambodians I’m always amazed by how humble they are, how much integrity they have. They identify as Chinese, not through their money, not through their language, but through their values.”
While one room of the exhibition focuses on Chinese-Cambodians, the other will observe the influence of Chinese people all over the world. Liu said: “Something I really don’t like is when people say “the Chinese” and they’re actually referring to many different groups of people.
“They should be more accurate in who they’re referring to. There are different subgroups living in every country, and there are some similarities between us, but we’re also very different.
“I also want to tell people that every Chinese person is actually trying very hard just to establish themselves and they don’t have a big political agenda – they’re just ordinary people trying to get by in the world.”
He continues: “Through this exhibition I wanted to convey the message that the Chinese are like ordinary people. We have a wide range of professions and everyone is just like you – they want to have a decent life.”
Chinese and Cambodia is at the Bophana Centre from September 28 to October 8