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Chinese schools: back from the brink

Chinese schools: back from the brink


In the fourth of a continuing series focusing on the multifaceted role of Cambodia's

ethnic Chinese community, Phelim Kyne finds that the Kingdom's Chinese

schools are still recovering from more than two decades of official prohibition.

Morning classes are almost over at the Dwan Hwa Chinese School in central Phnom Penh,

and the tense excitement that only impending freedom engenders in children is almost


With just minutes before the 10:40am break, the classrooms are packed with neatly

groomed Sino-Khmer struggling valiantly to maintain their composure as Dwan Hwa's

microphone-toting school principal leads a lengthy, morning monologue on the twin

virtues of cleanliness and dedicated application to study.

Some of the 2800 students at Phnom Penh's 125-year-old Dwan Hwa school.

For an outsider, Dwan Hwa School, its 2800 students and its 50-strong faculty seem

an irrefutable testament to the health and vigor of Cambodia's Chinese school system.

Seven years after the lifting of a 22-year ban on Chinese language education, the

125-year-old school is again fully employed training the minds of a young generation

of the city's ethnic Chinese.

But for Mr Yang Hao, Dwan Hwa School is a scarce source of satisfaction. "This

used to be such a good school, the best in Phnom Penh," he said. "It's

changed so much."

The spry, 70-year-old Yang knows well of what he speaks. A 30-year veteran educator

of Phnom Penh's Chinese school system, the Cantonese émigré has dedicated

his retirement to addressing what he terms "the serious problems" facing

the Kingdom's Chinese schools.

"The years of chaos took a terrible toll," Yang says in oblique reference

to the Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-1979, which took the lives of 50% of Cambodia's

ethnic Chinese community and drove untold thousands more into foreign exile.

"We're still just starting over."

Early Days

Yang and a core of fellow concerned educators crusading for a renaissance of Chinese

language education in Cambodia take heart from a legacy of Chinese schooling in the

Kingdom dating back more than a century.

Dwan Hwa School was the Kingdom's first formal Chinese school, founded in 1875 to

serve the progeny of the city's dominant Teochiu community.

Phnom Penh's other Chinese dialect groups - Hainanese, Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese

- soon followed suit with schools of their own.

Between 1904 and 1938, the number of Chinese schools established across Cambodia

had reached a total of 93.

"The first Chinese schools were organized on ethnic grounds, because the Chinese

all spoke different dialects," Yang explained. "Widespread teaching of

Mandarin Chinese didn't start until after [the Chinese revolution] in 1949."

The lessons of those early schools were, Yang admits, "insular".

"The curriculum concentrated on China - Chinese history, language and literature

- and Cambodian subjects were ignored," Yang explained. "It wasn't uncommon

for students who graduated from Chinese schools to not know how to speak Khmer."

In spite of the great distances separating Cambodia and China, the political earthquake

that shook China at the end of World War II reverberated in the lives of Cambodia's

Chinese community.

The victory of Mao's communists on the Mainland and the retreat of Chiang Kai Shek's

defeated KMT forces to "Free China" on Taiwan created distinct divisions

in the Kingdom's Chinese community.

These divisions were reflected in the sympathies demonstrated in the Chinese school

system for either the KMT or the Chinese communists.

"People [at that time] felt strongly about the changes affecting China,"

Yang said. "Schools would display the KMT or Communist Chinese flag to show

their allegiances."

KMT and Communist Chinese responded in turn by supplying funds and educational materials

to the schools that supported their cause.

"It was chaotic," Yang recalled. "Schools had different textbooks

and learned very different ideas about China."

The Golden Age

In spite of the ideological infighting and the eruption of Red Guard-inspired Chinese

nationalism among the Kingdom's Chinese school body, Yang fondly refers to the 1950s

and 1960s as "The Golden Age" of Chinese education in Cambodia.

"There were so many schools and so many students," Yang recalled. "Chinese

schools were considered the best in Cambodia."

Yang's assertion of the 1950s and 1960s period as the "Golden Age" of Chinese

education is reflected in the number of schools and the size of the Chinese student

body during that period.

By 1970, the number of Chinese schools in the Kingdom had grown to 231, with 50 Chinese

schools in Phnom Penh alone.

Toward Oblivion

1970 also marked the abrupt end of Chinese education in the Kingdom.

"Lon Nol closed all the schools," Yang explained. "Chinese were seen

as potential communists, and the Chinese schools were seen as centers of anti-government


Government sanctions were only the least of the problems of Chinese schools in the

countryside. In many rural areas, Penny Edwards noted in a Center for Advanced Studies

(CAS) Ethnographic Survey of the Kingdom, "...the closing of schools was enforced

by shrapnel, not red tape."

Edwards's observation is supported by Yang's own memories of the damage wrought by

the intense American bombardment of the Cambodian countryside in the early 1970s.

"The B-52s flew very high," Yang said. "A school could also look like

a place for soldiers from that height."

After the Deluge

When Cambodia's ethnic Chinese population filtered back to the Kingdom's urban centers

after the 1979 defeat of the Khmer Rouge, their hopes for a return to pre-Lon Nol

era freedom of education were quickly quashed.

China's support for the Khmer Rouge, coupled with China's 1979 invasion of Vietnam

- the People's Republic of Kampuchea's (PRK) main patron at the time - encouraged

the PRK to institute strict prohibitions on ethnic Chinese cultural life, including


One of the more sinister aspects of PRK legislation regarding the Kingdom's Chinese

minority was the 1983 "Party Center Circular 351".

"351" designated any ethnic Chinese as "suspect" based on such

factors as the lightness of their skin, the clarity of their Khmer pronunciation

and any display of cultural artifacts such as ancestor worship shrines.

"'351' had a very negative effect on Chinese survivors [of the KR]," Yang

said. "It made people want to hide their [Chinese] identity by not speaking


With no option but to enter the Khmer school system, ethnic Chinese students were

also subject to discrimination.

Penny Edwards of CAS notes rumors that all students in Battambang with trisyllabic,

Chinese names failed their exams between 1985 and 1990.

While Yang is unable to confirm the rumor, he concedes that a Chinese name in the

early years of post-KR Cambodia was a definite handicap.

"Students who had Chinese names found it difficult to advance [academically]."

A New Beginning

In 1992, the legal restrictions against Chinese schools were finally lifted. To date,

69 Chinese schools have reopened in Cambodia, 16 in Phnom Penh.

"The years of chaos are to blame," Yang says of the precipitous drop in

school numbers from their 1970 peak. "Many places [in Cambodia] that had large

Chinese populations before the war are practically empty [of Chinese] now."

The drastic reductions in the ethnic Chinese community's population base outside

the major cities is reflected most dramatically in the town of Kampong Trach.

In 1970, the town supported five Chinese schools. Three decades later, only one has

reopened, dependent largely on Vietnamese ethnic Chinese who cross the border each

morning to attend class.

Those schools that have reopened must cope with facilities far inferior to what they

once enjoyed.

"That used to be our music hall and library," Yang says of a building on

the Dwan Hwa School campus obscured by smoky cooking fires and hanging laundry. "Squatters

moved in after 1979 and it's been very difficult for us to remove them."

Changes can also be seen in the composition of the student body. Dwan Hwa, originally

the main school of the Teochiu community, now attracts other Chinese groups because

of the unifying use of Mandarin.

Unlike previous decades, students generally enter Dwan Hwa fluent in Khmer, but with

varying degrees of proficiency in Mandarin. "We have a policy allowing the use

of Khmer in the first year [of school]," Yang said. "After that, all instruction

is in Mandarin."

A new, unified curriculum has also been developed. Designed by a team of Mainland

Chinese and Cambodian Chinese educators, textbooks in use in the schools incorporate

themes of history and culture from both Cambodia and China.

In spite of such progress, Yang is concerned about what he perceives as the critical

erosion in the quality of Chinese teachers available in the Kingdom.

Yang points to charts he's formulated depicting the steady decline in the ages and

education level of teachers employed in Chinese schools.

To reverse the decline, in March Yang helped to inaugurate a Chinese teacher-training

program. Six days a week, ten recent graduates of Chinese Middle Schools meet on

the second floor of the Cambodian Chinese Association on St 154 in Phnom Penh for

a crash course in the Chinese curriculum and teaching skills.

"When they graduate next year, they will get jobs easily because there is such

a heavy demand," Yang explained, adding that the graduates could expect salaries

of about $150 per month.

Yang says much more remains to be done to improve and safeguard Chinese education

in Cambodia, and has written a series of articles in the Chinese-language Commercial

News about what he says are the system's "serious deficiencies".

"The Chinese school system has problems," he emphasized. "I want people

to understand the problems so we can start to try to solve them."


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