A remarkable complexity of languages, people and rising and falling fortunes: from congregations to associations, from the French Protectorate through to the Khmer Rouge to the present day.
The characteristic of the Chinese population in Cambodia is a complex mixture of people who arrived from different parts of China during the last 800 years, with a big surge about 400 years ago.
Looking at those people and consider Chinese doing commerce, they have sometimes been considered a bit like the far eastern Jews, with time-honoured traditions of involvement in trading and commerce.
That was true in the case of the Teochew Chinese. Even in China, the Teochew Chinese who came from Swatow were a minority entirely devoted to commerce.
But they were peasants in the context of China and, in a number of cases, here in Cambodia as well. If we take their religion as an example, we’ll notice that all the Phnom Penh Chinese temples are Taoist temples while in Vietnam Chinese temples display a mixture of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
The origins of Tao festivals are to be searched for in agricultural activities and cycles.
Every time the Chinese could do peasant work and cultivate the land, they took the opportunity to do it, for instance in Kampot, with the Hainan people, and in Takeo the Hakka people.
In the Funan Kingdom from the first to the seventh century there were already Chinese in Cambodia. These people didn’t come with a state. They consisted of small Chinese families who settled here; sometimes Chinese took Khmer wives.
Just like in the 13th century, Zhou Daguan describes in his Memoirs of Cambodia, there were a few Chinese groups settling here, adopting this new country, but the bulk of Chinese arrived at the end of the 17th century.
In 1644 the Ming dynasty was overthrown by the barbarian Manchus and a new dynasty was born: the Qing dynasty.
The loyalist Ming generals began to struggle and to rebel against this newly established dynasty.
A few years later, in 1679, they understood that the struggle was desperate.
With soldiers and families these Chinese peoples decided to emigrate. Some of them tried to get a kind of political asylum from the Dai Viet state (nowadays the northern part of Vietnam, Tonkin). The
Vietnamese did not want to fight them, and on the other side they didn’t want bad relations with the new Chinese rulers. They allowed the Chinese to cross and to go down south in what remained of the
Kingdom of Champa and into the Khmer kingdom. Others used the junks to go up the Mekong delta and many of them settled in areas of what are today Takeo and the Kampot region and many places along the Mekong and Bassac rivers.
They were coming from everywhere in China, and in that context, during this period, the Chinese congregations were born.
A congregation is a specific ethno-linguistic group. The Sinitic (Chinese) languages are mutually non inter-comprehensible: a Hakka won’t understand a Teochew, who can’t understand a Cantonese. Hence there was a need of a common language, and this part is now played by Mandarin, the official language of The People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and the main language for teaching overseas in Chinese schools.
These Chinese families were living in Cambodia with their countrymen who spoke the same language and generally stayed together. At that time there was no general Chineseness in Cambodia and Chinese were first of all members of a given ethno linguistic group.
When the French came they found the Chinese rather well settled, for instance in Phnom Penh which was going to become the capital in 1865 when the majority of the population in this city was Chinese.
At that time, the French protectorate administration had to face a situation which was entirely new. They had on the one side Chinese who had succeeded into penetrating the Cambodian society well enough to become local administrators, and on the other side they had Chinese who owned lands. The French entered into conflict with this because of their low tax consciousness.
On the other side, the Chinese were well organised with a small army that could dominate a big stretch of Cambodian territory. They were involved in opium, gaming and other activities the French wanted to control.
The French adopted a solution and negotiated directly with the heads of the congregations; they did not want to deal with individuals. In giving extra power to the head of congregation, the French found a way to keep order, and in a way to control the activities of these organisations, thus contributing in some sense in isolating these various congregations and putting barriers between all of them.
It did not go easily.
The opium question was already something interesting. The French did everything in the 1870s to create their own opium company, which only lasted a few years. At the opium game, the Chinese could not be beaten.
The Chinese populations in Cambodia were already specialised: Teochew were business people; Hokkien people had a strong appetite for government business and the Cantonese could dominate navigation on the Mekong River and so on.
The divisions were present in the pre-existing situation which would exist through the entire period of the French Protectorate with mutual deference.
After independence, the congregations were replaced by associations. It was not a mere shift because at that time Chinese were expected to behave like normal Cambodian citizens. This didn’t always work smoothly between Cambodian power and the Chinese, especially at the time of the Sihanouk's Popular Socialist Community from 1955 to 1970 (Sangkum Reastr Niyum).
A very important event occurred in 1949 when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was proclaimed. From that time, Chinese staying abroad had to take this new event into account. Most of the time they felt as if they had to take sides. This often infuriated Prince Sihanouk, especially when at the occasion of a Chinese sports victory, Phnom Penh was covered with Chinese flags.
Sihanouk, who had excellent relationships with high ranking PRC leaders like Zhou Enlai, had to ask them to stop the Chinese associations and embassies from propagating the PRC’s views about politics and so on, which was done. Zhou Enlai was an extremely able personality who made efforts to stop it by creating a difference between the expected activities of an embassy and the Chinese associations in Cambodia and the politics of mainland China.
At the time, the weight Chinese had in business was considerable. When Lon Nol took power on March 18, 1970, the new regime’s first reaction was to ban the Chinese from what they had before. Lon Nol had the strange habit of confusing the Vietnamese and Vietcong on the one side, and Chinese and communists on the other. The first thing he did was to close down the Chinese schools. Of course such a policy couldn’t work well because commerce was still in the hands of the Chinese.
The fundamental event which was going to transform Chineseness in Cambodia was the coming to power of the Khmer Rouge. They suppressed commerce, currency, private property and the towns. In 1975, the Chinese were certainly the biggest part of the urbanized population. From one day to the other, during the Khmer Rouge period, Chineseness was reduced to an almost non existence.
With the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, the Chinese were not well regarded at all by the new masters of the country.
Before 1979 there were two axis connections: Beijing-Phnom Penh and Hanoi-Moscow. After 1979, there was a triangle: Hanoi, Phnom Penh and Moscow. Naturally, the PRC could not tolerate a situation like that. It is precisely in 1979 that strong links between the US and the PRC were created and diplomatic relationships between the two countries were soon to come. When Deng Xiaoping went to Washington and his famous photo was taken there with a Texan hat, he declared that China was going to teach Vietnam a lesson.
Soon afterwards the Chinese began shelling Lang Son in northern Vietnam, which was erased for the second time from the map. For the 110,000 Vietnamese soliders in Cambodia, Chinese Cambodians were at best potential traitors: they could not enter the party, but worse than that, they could not practice commerce and the towns were forbidden to them.
That was one of the worst purgatories experienced by the Chinese in the history of Cambodia. A number of Chinese people could still do business, secretly at first and little by little in a more and more open way.
Everything began changing in 1989 when the Peoples Republic of Cambodia transformed into the State of Cambodia (SOC) and private property was acknowledged, private commerce was allowed and it is precisely from that year that the Chinese were back.
Two facts need to be underlined about Chinese in Cambodia: In spite of their small number in Cambodia, the Chinese are very much present in all the sectors of the economy.On the other side, the coming back of PRC and their increased cooperation with Cambodia should not be overlooked. This marks the beginning of a new period of the Cambodian Chinese minority.