On July 19, the Chinese and Cambodian governments celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries. But for Cambodia’s ethnic Chinese population, the relationship stretches back a lot further. Jiang Zhiyi, 69, secretary general of the Association of Chinese Hokkien, has lived in Cambodia since birth and seen its upheavals first hand. The association, established in 1880 and based at Xietiangong Temple in Phnom Penh, is the main community organisation of the capital’s remaining Hokkien Chinese, who trace their roots back to China’s coastal Fujian province. He spoke to the Post’s Sebastian Strangio and Karen Ho about Cambodian identity, his community’s “blossoming” under Prince Norodom Sihanouk and surviving as an outsider under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Jiang Zhiyi, secretary general of the Association of Chinese Hokkien in Cambodia, says there are about a thousand Hokkien today compared to a nationwide population of some 30,000 in the 1960s.
How long has the Hokkien community been in Phnom Penh, and what prompted them to move from China?
Like other Chinese communities, Hokkien started coming to Cambodia several hundred years ago to escape natural disasters and wars on the Chinese mainland. However, most Hokkien ended up in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia, where there are still large communities.
What was the situation of the Hokkien community in the 1960s and 1970s, and how did it change under the Khmer Rouge?
In the 1960s, the Chinese community in Cambodia was blooming, and the economic situation and education of Chinese reached their peaks. Cambodia established relations with China in 1958, allowing Maoism and Marxism to become much more prevalent here. Some [Chinese] even joined the Vietnam War. During the Khmer Rouge, like other Cambodians, we were asked to move to villages and our property was confiscated. They told us that American planes were going to bomb Phnom Penh and that we would be back in three days. If we didn’t move out, they would shoot us. During that time, the temples of all the Chinese communities were destroyed. The Hokkien temple was the only one left standing after the Khmer Rouge fell. It stood empty during 1975-78. Life was difficult under the Khmer Rouge. They adopted an assimilation policy, and we were forced to speak Khmer. Even when we met each other, we couldn’t speak Chinese and they eavesdropped on our conversations. In the 1960s and 1970s, many Chinese didn’t learn how to speak Khmer. I only started to learn it under the Khmer Rouge, when I was in my 20s. In some villages, Chinese were killed because they were caught speaking Chinese.
What relationship does the Hokkien community have with the Cambodian community at large?
It is very good: we don’t have any conflicts. If the Cambodian government needs any help, we help them, and we follow the policies of the government. All the Chinese in Cambodia have a special characteristic: we don’t get involved in any politics here.
How have Chinese-Cambodian relations changed while you have been in Cambodia?
In the past, we were discriminated against by Cambodians verbally and we were regarded as outsiders in the country. But things have changed since the Khmer Rouge, since we all went through the Pol Pot era together. After the Khmer Rouge, there was less discrimination. The Cambodian government regards us as Cambodian citizens now. We have the right to vote and many Chinese and Cambodians intermarry.
Is there still a gulf between the different Chinese dialect groups in Cambodia?
No. We have good relationships with each other. We help each other. We all think that we should not forget our Chinese roots. Although we are now in Cambodia, our ancestors are still Chinese.
What role does the Hokkien association perform for Cambodia’s Hokkien community?
Chinese like to come together as an association to help each other. We have the same ancestors so we have built the temple for all the Hokkien. The Hokkien association has built a Chinese school here. If our members have financial difficulties they can apply for free education in our school. We also join the Hokkien association for religious purposes and we have a cemetery here for our members. If our members don’t have enough money, we help them pay for the funeral.
What are the biggest challenges that have faced the Hokkien community during your time in Cambodia?
In the 1960s, there were about 30,000 Hokkien in Cambodia. But after the Khmer Rouge, many of us fled to other countries like the United States, Britain, Japan, Australia – even Switzerland. There are now only around 1,000 Hokkien in Phnom Penh. Many Hokkien in the rural areas have forgotten their Chinese identity; some no longer even know how to speak Chinese.
Does the Cambodian Hokkien community still maintain links with its Fujian homeland?
Most Hokkien living here are now third-generation. Many have forgotten the relatives and connections they had in Fujian. As we are not very rich, only a very few of us could return to Fujian for visits. Sometimes, the Returned Overseas Chinese Federation of Fujian pays us to return for a few days to celebrate Chinese festivals. I joined the visit held during the Chinese New Year last year.
Do you consider yourself to be Chinese or Cambodian?
We are more Cambodian. As we have lived here for a few generations, we don’t have a picture of what things are now like in Fujian. I am a third-generation migrant to Cambodia. My grandfather came here from Fujian for business and got married, and my father and I both grew up here. I don’t know anything about my family history or relatives in Fujian, and I am fully integrated into the Cambodian community here.