Caught between two Kingdoms

Caught between two Kingdoms

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Have we ever asked why we celebrate Chinese New Year in Cambodia? The Khmer-Chen, Cambodians with Chinese blood, make up fewer than nine per cent of the population. Unarguably, Cambodia, the Kingdom, and China, the Middle Kingdom, share different cultures – as well as the Khmer-Chen and the Chinese.

So why has Chinese New Year become the ubiquitous New Year’s celebration in the Kingdom?

During a time of tremendous Chinese investment in Cambodia, the Middle Kingdom’s cultural influence is growing across Southeast Asia. In the past few years, Cambodians – even without any Chinese blood – have been celebrating Moon Festival and also Chinese New Year.

Pich Sok Nov, a mobile phone vendor, said that this year, he plans to celebrate Chinese New Year. He added that although his family is Cambodian, they still want to celebrate because they believe it will promote his business.

“I already went to a fortune teller who asked me to celebrate this New Year, even though I am not Chinese,” Pich Sok Nov said.

Khun Neardey, an electronic saleswoman, said that she’s been celebrating Chinese New Year at her own home for over 10 years.

“I am Khmer, but my relatives have Chinese blood,” she said.

“I celebrate both Chinese New Year and Khmer New Year because it’s a custom and it’s also what I believe in. The spirits of my ancestors will help me reach my wishes.”

Cultural confluence is inevitable. Cambodia’s become open to the West and adapted to the rest of the East, and we’ve accepted change as we grow into a developed country.

But we can’t deny that China has an especially strong influence on our culture. People are so easily absorbing new practises and rites without considering the consequences, or the reasons behind it.

According to historians, Sino-Cambodian relations were born from a drive for business and trade, dating back to the 13th century. Noted Chinese diplomat Zhou Da Guan published his well-documented trips to the Kingdom and back.  

“China has a strong cultural base which has not been easily changed or influenced by other countries,” said Vong Sotheara, Deputy Head of the History Department at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.

“Therefore, they have strong traditions.”

Vong Sotheara added that many Cambodians who believe that they have Chinese ancestry are more likely to adhere to Chinese traditions and rites.

He also said that although many of these Cambodians believe they have Chinese blood, they are actually 100 percent Khmer.

“Practising Chinese traditions can negatively impact the Cambodian identity, and cause confusion as to who is Khmer and who is Chinese,” Vong Sotheara said.

“We have to hold our language, religion, culture and tradition dear so that we don’t lose it.”

Po Samnang, the director of the National Culture and Moral Centre, said that it is within our human rights to celebrate Chinese New Year or whichever holidays we choose to.

He pointed to the Cambodian Constitution, saying that there is no law that prohibits the freedom of religion.  

“Nevertheless,” he said, “Cambodian people should understand and know their own culture before picking up a new one.”

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