Southeast Asia’s biggest Chinese language school, with more than 7,000 students aged from seven to 18, is right in the heart of Phnom Penh, near the Kandal market.
When the bell at Phnom Penh’s Toun Hua School rings at 7am, an average of 40 students per classroom sits down calmly and starts learning geography, mathematics, biology and all the other subjects according to the Cambodian curriculum.
However, there’s one major difference to other schools in Cambodia: The language of education is Chinese, while the Khmer language is only taught in additional classes.
According to Ly Meng, the school’s 73-year old principal, most of the students don’t speak Chinese at home.
“Up to 70 percent of our students are of Chinese origin, but most of them never spoke Chinese at home. When they come to Toun Hua, they start to learn Chinese for the very first time,” Meng said.
As the influence of China in Cambodia is increasing and the enrollments for Toun Hua continue to grow, Chinese language skills can ensure a well-paid job.
“The friendship between China and Cambodia is very important for our school. Many Chinese companies invest their money here, and they want their staff to speak Chinese,” Meng says.
These days, the future looks bright for Toun Hua, but times have not always been so good. The school’s history is closely interwoven with the history of the Chinese in Cambodia. Established more than 120 years ago by the Association of Chinese Teo Chew in Cambodia, Toun Hua was shut down in 1970 when Lon Nol came to power.
says Meng, who was a teacher at Toun Hua at that time, adding that he was driven to the countryside to do compulsory labour. During the chaos of the Khmer Rouge period, all the school’s documents and historical records were lost.
But when the war ended and the resurrected Chinese Associations tried to re-establish Toun Hua School, they were facing one major problem: One part of the former school house near Kandal market belonged to the Cambodian government and another part belonged to Cambodians who now lived in the building.
“A man named Liang Srin, a Chinese Khmer, got the government’s support, so the government allowed him to use the one part of the building. Then he gathered enough money, mostly donated from members of the Association of Chinese Teo Chew in Cambodia, and recovered the other part of the building from the Cambodians.”
Eventually, Toun Hua was reopened in Sept. 1992. It now spreads over three different school buildings in Phnom Penh and two additional schools are being built to cope with the increasing admission of new students.
To Meng, speaking Chinese is the key to the identity of Chinese expats in
Cambodia: “Many of the Chinese students grew up in Cambodia and are used to speaking Khmer, even at home. Here they learn how to speak and write Mandarin. That’s important for their Chinese identity, and the kids should at least learn Chinese in school if they don’t learn it at home.”
Besides having to learn to speak and write the Chinese language, students at Toun Hua are required to wear uniforms. The parents don’t mind paying the $40 tuition per semester because Toun Hua has a good reputation for discipline and high academic standards.
The curriculum follows the demands of the Cambodian Ministry of Education. All subjects are taught in Mandarin Chinese and even slight differences have to be approved by the government.
In the afternoons, the students take additional Khmer lessons – at least five hours a week are required by the Ministry of Education.
“Most of the Chinese Khmer kids speak more Khmer than Chinese, but if we teach them Chinese, that’s important for their future. And they still learn about Khmer literature,” Meng said.
Meng added that from his point of view the Chinese language is becoming more important in Cambodia than English.
“That’s our hope for the future. I think the Chinese influence is important for progress and it will certainly have a positive effect on our school,” Meng said.