Chasing Chinatown

The east side to the Cantonese temple sits among modern squalor, hidden from the street. Depictions of Taoist divinities are still visible on the centre of the roof. Most of the temple was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and it has since been out of service.
The east side to the Cantonese temple sits among modern squalor, hidden from the street. Depictions of Taoist divinities are still visible on the centre of the roof. Most of the temple was destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, and it has since been out of service. NICK STREET

Chasing Chinatown

In June, Thon Kong, the minister of tourism, announced Phnom Penh is considering the construction of a ‘Chinatown’. Such a district, he said, would feature hotels, restaurants and retail outlets that would appeal to Chinese visitors. With a 24 per cent jump in the number of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia for the first eight months of this year compared to the same period last year, the desire to appeal to Chinese tastes is bound to shape the city.

This gate on Street 144 is all that remains of the Kim Son Chinese opera house, which was located down this maze-like passageway. Today, this network of alleys hosts a bustling row of shops.
This gate on Street 144 is all that remains of the Kim Son Chinese opera house, which was located down this maze-like passageway. Today, this network of alleys hosts a bustling row of shops. NICK STREET

Phnom Penh, however, already has a Chinatown, albeit one that has lost much of its former culture. In the days of the French protectorate, Phnom Penh’s main Chinese district was placed between the Royal Palace and Street 108, the site of the old De Verneville Canal. This area was home to three Chinese congregations, which were divided by their mutually unintelligible dialects: Teochew, Hainan and Hakka. To the north along the riverfront was the headquarters of the Cantonese and Hokkien congregations.

Along with the rest of Phnom Penh, Chinatown was abandoned when the Khmer Rouge forcibly evicted the city’s residents in 1975. When people were allowed to return in 1979, the old Chinese neighborhoods were taken over by whoever arrived first.

Yeay Neang, a 60-year-old resident of the old Cantonese school, is afraid the building is so poorly kept that a wall may collapse. A 10-year resident of the building, Neang said that living there is otherwise safe and quiet.
Yeay Neang, a 60-year-old resident of the old Cantonese school, is afraid the building is so poorly kept that a wall may collapse. A 10-year resident of the building, Neang said that living there is otherwise safe and quiet. NICK STREET

Although a few old Chinese families have returned, most of the old buildings now serve as flats for Khmer and Vietnamese residents.

7Days visited the Hotel International, an old Cantonese luxury hotel built in the French style during the 1920s, as well as the former headquarters of the Cantonese congregation along Sisowath Quay. Both sites are now occupied by newcomers. Although Khmer has replaced Chinese as the lingua franca in these parts, the old heritage is still present in the woodwork.​

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