In the first of a series of articles exploring the multifaceted role of the Kingdom's
ethnic Chinese community, Phelim Kyne traces the history of Cambodia's Chinese
from their earliest documented arrival through the convulsions of the late twentieth
In the Kampong Speu village of Cen Yaw Krang there is no memorial attesting to its
focal point in the history of the successive waves of Chinese immigrants that have
arrived in the Kingdom over the centuries.
But Cen Yaw Krang, or "Weeping Chinese Village", represents to Cambodia's
Chinese what New York's Ellis Island symbolizes to America's years of mass immigration
- the disembarkation point for generations of Chinese emigrants who broke down and
wept as they scanned their surroundings in vain for traces of familiar landmarks.
Like those of their brethren in the Chinese Diaspora that fanned out across SE Asia
over the centuries, the tears of Cambodia's early Chinese immigrants were made especially
bitter by the recognition that they were effectively barred from ever returning to
the land of their birth.
Until the latter half of the late 18th century, emigration from China was a crime,
and those who sought opportunity abroad were condemned by China's rulers as "pirates,
traitors and deserters".
"There's no documentary evidence as to when the first Chinese settlers came
to Cambodia," explains teacher and historian of Cambodia' s Chinese community,
"But there is a Chinese folk song with the refrain 'We've been here for 2000
The existence of a Chinese community in Cambodia was first recorded in the 13th century
by Chinese imperial emissary Chou Ta Kuan in his seminal account of Angkorian civilization,
"Customs of Cambodia".
"Chinese sailors note with pleasure that it is not necessary to wear clothes,
and, since rice is so easily had, women easily persuaded, houses easily run, furniture
easily come by, and trade easily carried on, a great many sailors desert to take
up permanent residence," Chou wrote in a section of his manuscript entitled
According to Yang, Chinese immigration patterns to Cambodia paralleled the spasms
of social upheaval that wracked China at the end of each imperial dynasty. "Chinese
came to Cambodia during the bitterest periods of China's history," Yang explains.
The composition of Cam-bodia's contemporary Chinese community consists overwhelmingly
of descendants of five distinctive southern Chinese regional ethnic groups who made
up the majority of the first waves of Chinese immigrants to the Kingdom - Hainanese,
Cantonese, Teochiu, Hokkien and Hakka.
The members of these five groups carved out specific niches in the Cambodian economy
that they've maintained into the present.
"Teochiu people were traders, the Cantonese were craftsmen and the Hainanese
dominated the restaurant and coffee shop industry," Yang says.
While the majority of Chinese immigrants eventually became concentrated in urban
Phnom Penh, Penny Edwards notes in the 1995 Ethnographic Survey of Cambodia produced
by Cambodia's Center for Advanced Study that the southern city of Kampot became known
as "the second Hainan" by the turn of the century due to the large numbers
of Hainanese immigrants in the region's pepper industry.
Unlike Malaysia and Indonesia, where relations between ethnic Chinese and the native
inhabitants were marred by violence and institutionalized prejudice, Yang describes
the traditional relations between Cambodia's Chinese community and native Khmer as
markedly harmonious in comparison.
"There was prejudice [against Chinese], but not particularly obvious,"
Yang says. "Chinese physically resembled Khmer people and in the countryside,
at least, they lived in conditions very similar to their Khmer neighbors."
Yang credits the arrival of the first groups of Chinese "coolie" laborers
imported into Cambodia by French authorities in the 1860s as instrumental in setting
an equitable tone in relations between ethnic Chinese and their Khmer neighbors.
"Those [coolies]worked so hard and built many of [Cambodia's] first roads,"
"Khmer people really admired their diligence and sacrifice."
Yang's assertions are corroborated by Edwards, who notes that over time "Chinese
were seen as an integral part of the Kingdom, (a) process. . . of cultural exchange
whereby Chinese were able to maintain a distinctive cultural identity which was not
perceived as a threat."
This state of affairs continued relatively undisturbed until Lon Nol's coup d'etat
and the establishment of the Khmer Republic in 1970.
"The [Cambodian] Chinese were suspected of supporting the communists,"
Yang says. "Lon Nol ordered the closing of all Chinese-language schools and
required us to carry special ID cards identifying us as 'Chinese'."
Following the Khmer Rouge takeover in April 1975, the Kingdom's highly urbanized
Chinese population were victimized in disproportionate numbers by the mass evacuation
of cities and the brutal regime of starvation, disease and harsh agricultural labor
Noting the deaths of 200,000 ethnic Chinese between 1975-1979, a full 50% of their
total population, historian Ben Kiernan describes the plight of Cambodia's ethnic
Chinese under the KR as "the greatest tragedy yet to befall any community of
SE Asian Chinese."
Kiernan describes a "crash resettlement" program of the majority of Cambodia'a
ethnic Chinese population to the KR's NW Zone near the Thai border as "a disaster"
in which "probably two thirds of the [ethnic Chinese] death toll occurred".
Yang, however, who experienced first-hand the brutality of the KR regime, challenges
Kiernan's assertion that Cambodian Chinese were specifically targeted by the KR on
purely ethnic grounds.
"Chinese weren't singled out [for mistreatment] the way the [ethnic] Vietnamese
were," Yang says.
"Chinese suffered the same way Khmer suffered, although it was dangerous to
be caught speaking Chinese."
While the end of the KR regime in December 1978 allowed surviving ethnic Chinese
to return to the cities, Edwards notes that conditions didn't automatically improve
under the People's Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) that followed.
"In punishment for the PRC's policy of support for the Khmer Rouge, the PRK
enforced a near-universal ban on Chinese schools and cultural associations and banned
Lunar New Year celebrations and ancestor worship."
By the early 1990s, such restrictions on Chinese cultural life had been lifted.
However, Edwards attributes the trauma suffered by the Kingdom's ethnic Chinese over
the past quarter century to a profound reappraisal of the community's collective
Edwards notes that the traditional ethnic Chinese self-description as hua qiao [overseas
Chinese] has been replaced in the post-KR era by the term jyanbuzai huaren [Cambodian
This change in self-conception symbolizes what Edwards describes as "an active
renunciation of hua qiao identity by many [ethnic] Chinese who were sorely disappointed
by China's failure to save ethnic Chinese lives during the Pol Pot period."
The toll of the past three decades of turmoil in Cambodia continues to haunt the
Kingdom's Chinese community that is only now tentatively reasserting its distinct
"So many deaths, and a whole generation of Cambodian Chinese that has grown
up without learning the Chinese language," Yang says sadly.
"The physical and cultural losses have been immense."