Cambodia's connections with all things Chinese

Cambodia's connections with all things Chinese

When it comes to Cambodia's past, no other country has a stronger influence than China.

Photo by:

Sovann Philong

Chinese goods for sale at Serei Pheap Market in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

There will be many people celebrating Chinese New Year next week in Phnom Penh and around the Kingdom. And with good reason, too.

Ethnic Chinese have been living in Cambodia for centuries and have been, increasingly since around the 1400s, an integral part of the Kingdom's overall population, primarily in urban areas. Also, over the years, many Chinese - through marriage with Cambodians - have assimilated into the culture to such an extent that, while they may be aware of some Chinese ancestry, they consider themselves wholly Cambodian.

Scholars generally agree that links between the various kingdoms in Cambodia - Funan, Chenla and later, Angkor - and China have existed since the beginning of recorded history.

In fact, much of that history, especially from the height of the Angkor Empire and before, was written by Chinese travellers and emissaries who had visited the region.

The most well-known account of Angkor was written by Chou Ta-kuan, a Chinese envoy from the court of Timur Khan, who visited Angkor Thom in 1296-7.  

His detailed account of life at the time does not indicate that there were substantial Chinese communities.

China was and continues to be a strong presence in Cambodia, both economically and politically

Photo by: Sovann Philong/Tracey Shelton

Men make offerings at a Chinese temple in Phnom Penh on Thursday (above). The front of the temple honouring Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future.

But he does note that there were Chinese residents in the city and a number of Chinese goods were available in markets including porcelain, wooden combs, fans and ning-po mats.

In the 15th and 16th centuries, a number of waves of migrations from China arrived in what is now Cambodia and southern Vietnam. Scholars say that when the Angkor capital was moved to Phnom Penh in 1434, the city comprised some foreign elements, of which the Chinese was the most important.  

One Portuguese traveller who visited Phnom Penh in 1609 reported that of the city's 20,000 inhabitants, around 3,000 were ethnic Chinese.

As an example of one of the larger migrations, in 1679 a Cantonese general named Yang Yen-di decided his struggle against the Manchus was hopeless, and so he sailed with his 7,000 soldiers to My Tho in what was then southern Cambodia, where they resettled.

A Hainanese man named Mo Jiu was successful in building up a trading principality in the early 1700s based in Hatien. His wealth was such that he was eventually appointed as an okhna by the Cambodian king in 1708. Over time, his family came to govern almost the entire coastline from Sihanoukville to present-day Vung Tao. It was during this time that additional Hainanese settlers established the pepper industry in Kampot, which has been controlled by ethnic Chinese families ever since.

By the time the French protectorate over Cambodia was established in 1864, Milton Osborne, in his recently published book Phnom Penh: A Cultural and Literary History, estimates that half of the city's population was Chinese, while only about 25 percent were Cambodian.

Commerce flourishes

Chinese came to dominate both internal and external trade and maintained close links with their counterparts in the predominantly Chinese city of Cholon in Vietnam. During the French period, almost all international trade to Cambodia passed through Cholon, where it was trans-

shipped to smaller vessels that then made their way up the Mekong to Phnom Penh.

After independence in 1954, academic WE Wilmotte spent a year in Cambodia studying the various Chinese communities that included Teochiu, Cantonese, Hainanese, Hakka and Hokkien elements. He says that, in 1963, there were 425,000 Chinese in the Kingdom - comprising about seven percent of the population - and that one in three residents in Phnom Penh was Chinese.

The description of the Chinese quarter in Phnom Penh in his book The Political Structure of the Chinese Community of Cambodia is telling:

"Walking through [Phnom Penh's] streets, even the most casual observer cannot but be aware that a large part of the city's population is Chinese. Rows of open-front stores display in giant Chinese characters the names that are traditional for Chinese firms: Abundant Blessing, Virtuous Profit, Precious Joy or Growing Wealth. Chinese restaurants and tea shops are at every street corner. There are Chinese lending libraries where old men sit turning over much-thumbed copies of Chinese novels. From storefront schools rise the repetitious chants of school children learning Mandarin, hidden from the pedestrian by a screen.

"Most of the newspapers sold on the streets are Chinese and during the long hot noon hour Chinese shop-owners sit in front of their stores in singlets and shorts, reading the world news, articles about China, or the latest installments of romantic novels - all in Chinese. Bookstores sell Chinese books and magazines. In the shops or on the pavement, one hears the various Chinese spoken languages almost as frequently as one hears Khmer."

Persecution under the KR

During the murderous Khmer Rouge regime, Cambodia's ethnic Chinese suffered horribly, in part because they were not attuned to the harsh realities of rural life, so that when the KR emptied the cities and forced the population onto collective farms, tens of thousands died from overwork and disease.

According to Ben Kiernan in The Pol Pot Regime: "For Cambodia's ethnic Chinese, Democratic Kampuchea was the worst disaster ever to befall any ethnic Chinese community in Southeast Asia. From a population of 430,000 in 1975, only about 215,000 Chinese survived the next four years. The Chinese succumbed in particularly large numbers to hunger and diseases like malaria. The 50 percent of them who perished is a higher proportion than that estimated for city dwellers in general (about one-third). Further, the Chinese language - like all foreign and minority languages - was banned and so was any tolerance of a culturally and ethnically distinguishable Chinese community. The Chinese community was to be destroyed "as such". This Communist Party of Kampuchea  policy, like that toward the Chams, could be construed as genocide."


Re-emerging presence

Even after the Khmer Rouge were ousted, bans on studying Chinese and observing Lunar New Year celebrations were maintained by the People's Republic of Kampuchea regime as a reaction to China's continued support for the Khmer Rouge on the Thai border.

It wasn't until the arrival of Untac in 1992 that this was changed. Since then, Chinese language schools have reopened around the country and Chinese associations have been allowed to flourish. It's estimated that the Dwan Hwa Chinese school in Phnom Penh may have the largest enrollment of any Chinese school outside of mainland China.

Today, Cambodia continues to remain a destination of choice for ethnic Chinese eager to emigrate abroad. One only has to visit the row of Chinese restaurants that have cropped up on the short lane near Psar Thmei to see the evidence of recent arrivals in the last decade from Beijing and the Chinese hinterland.  

Of the foreigners who are granted citizenship by the government each year, an overwhelmingly high percentage of these are ethnic Chinese from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and mainland China.

Xin nian kuai le! But make sure not to use firecrackers to celebrate.


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