Chineseness in Cambodia – Beginning a Bibliographic Collection of Online resources

A nice short conversation developed on twitter yesterday, relating to ethnicity in Cambodia, and specifically to Chinese ethnicity. Chinese ethnicity in Cambodia has always vacillated between being a positive and a negative, at least from the perspective of the dominant Khmer ethnic group.  The Chinese have been seen as tricky con-men, out to deceive and rob Khmer with their superior knowledge of numeracy (late 19th century), or as Fifth Columnists under the Vietnamese-sponsored PRK regime (1979-1989), during which period ethnic Chinese display was positively forbidden.

During the period in which I stayed in Cambodia the longest (2003-2006), Chinese ethnicity was much more positively valued: not only were Chinese people able to publicly declare their ethnic heritage, use their various languages, display colors and Chinese regalia/accouterment, many called themselves Kūn Kat Chin (កូន​កាត់​ចិន; Half-Chinese Child), and being associated with Chineseness was even a positive for upwardly mobile Khmer who, when asked, admitted to not having any actual Chinese genetic inheritance. As a funerary scholar, my favorite example of this were the rise in numbers of such Khmer who adopted Chinese funeral practices, going so far as to bury, instead of burn. I promised my informants total anonymity – they remembered Circular 351 (the PRK circular forbidding Chinese language or cultural expression) far too well, but many of the Chinese coffin makers and suppliers of Chinese funeral regalia (Chinese funerals typically are much more elaborate in terms of dress, and different outfits identify the specific relationship to the deceased) confirmed that the adoption of Chinese practices by non-Chinese Khmer was a very real, and substantial, trend.

Before proceeding to the links, I want to make it clear that there is no such thing as “Chinese” in Cambodia. Instead, as has been recognized by scholars of Cambodia, and Chinese-Cambodians themselves, though far less often by Khmer or others, there are many different types of Chinese, who speak different dialects/languages (remember, ‘A language is just a dialect with an army and a navy’), and have differing cultural expressions. Some, such as the Hakka, have integrated so thoroughly into Khmer society that it can be difficult even for some of their descendants, to recall that they are ‘Chinese.’ Others, most especially the Cantonese, have a reputation for separatism, ‘snootiness,’ and an insistence on marrying other Cantonese. The only point made in the above is that there is a great deal of diversity in the ‘Chinese communities’ of Cambodia. For many, ethnicity is also fluid and occupationally-related. I interviewed several older women (I identify their age to indicate that this may have changed in the interim) who married Khmer men, but insisted to me that they “Became” or “Did” Chinese, once the were no longer farmers but engaged in the marketplace.

I promised a few links, and would be grateful for more in comments, should they be locatable.  Here you go:

William A. Willmott’s early text “The Chinese in Cambodia,” is usually referred to as the first scholarly study of the Chinese in Cambodia. I cannot find a PDF of this book online, but here’s the google book link. His influential 1969 article, “Congregations and Associations: the Political Structure of the Chinese Community in Phnom-Penh, Cambodia”, is stuck behind a paywall, which I deplore, but is certainly not his fault. 

Under the regime of Democratic Kampuchea, ethnic cleansing and genocide were directed against the Cham, Chinese, and especially the Vietnamese, though it must be emphasized that the violence levels and charges of genocide appear to be more relevantly applied to the Khmer Rouge after their loss of power (1979) than during their years in power. Regardless, it was less safe to be an ethnic minority during the DK years even than a Khmer, and it was safe for no one. Gregory Stanton’s 1992 report on this can be found here

When I was chair of the Thailand/Laos/Cambodia (TLC) Studies Group at the Association of Asian Studies, we were very fortunate to have Dr. Willmott deliver a lecture on his work over the decades. The text of that address is here, and well worth reading. That text was published in an issue of “Cross-Currents: East Asian History and Culture Review.” An introductory abstract is here, but some of the full articles are also available for free access online. The introduction to the issue, which was dedicated entirely to ‘Mediating Chineseness,’ and dedicated specifically to Dr. Willmott, is available in full, written by Dr. Lorraine Patterson and Dr. Penny Edwards, here.

Sambath Chan (full disclosure, an early language instructor of mine) wrote his Master’s thesis on “The Chinese Minority in Cambodia: Identity Construction and Contestation,” in 2005. In 1996, Chan worked with Dr. Edwards on a report for which I cannot find an online version, but which is titled: “Ethnic Chinese in Cambodia. Phnom Penh: The Preah Sihanouk Raj Academy. (mimeo)”

Dr. Edwards also has an individual article in that issue, titled “Sojourns Across Sources: Unbraiding Sino-Cambodian Histories.” (She has a particular talent for titles, in my opinion, which complements her skill at analysis)

Dr. Satoru Kobayashi wrote a working paper on the topic, titled “The Reconfiguration of Cambodian Rural Social Structure, with Special Focus on the People Called Chen and Khmae,” which is entirely available, and in my opinion, important.

In searching for online sources, I discovered Adam Jelnek’s 2008 article in Acta Asiatica, titled, “The Chinese in Cambodia.” I have not read it yet, but the entire issue is online. His article starts on page 36.

And since I have written one 2012 article on the Laerng Neak Ta ( ឡើងអ្នកតា ) rituals performed by Chinese associations in and around Phnom Penh, for alternately Chinese spirits (BenTouGong) and for Khmer spirits, I’d be remiss not to link to the bibliographic information here. It is, unfortunately, not online at the moment. It’s titled “Khmer spirits, Chinese bodies: Chinese spirit mediums and spirit possession rituals in contemporary Cambodia,” and is collected in “Faith in the Future: Understanding the Revitalization of Religions and Cultural Traditions in Asia.” 

Much other work on the construction and contestation of ethnicity in Cambodia is available, and though I have limited myself here to Chinese, I cannot help but add also Dr. Ian Baird’s 2011 work on the “Construction of Indigenous Peoples in Cambodia,” or the magnificent Ph.D. thesis by Alberto Pérez-Pereiro, titled “Historical Imagination, Diasporic Identity and Islamicity among the Cham Muslims of Cambodia.” It needs to be put online somewhere, because it reads like a novel and is one of the finest minority-studies in Cambodia pieces of writing I have read. Emiko Stock has a blog on Cham ethnicity as well, which must be checked out, called Cham Attic.

Thanks to those folks on twitter who encouraged me to write up a few notes. This is little more than a bibliographic beginning, and I hope perhaps will stir to pot further, to see what rises to the surface.


“Enacting Buddhism: Perspectives on Cambodian Buddhist Painting”


There are a million things I want to write about Cambodia right now. But there are a lot of other things taking up my time and energy right now as well, so those writings must wait for the time being.

Instead, please allow me to promote this event, which will be taking place on January 31st at the Institute for East Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. I’m particularly excited about the other panelists, who include many friends and good colleagues, such as Art Historian Boreth Ly, Art Historian Pattaratorn Chirapravati, Asian Studies Scholar Terri Yamada, Joel Montague, whose paintings compose the exhibit (and who shares my passion for hand-painted Cambodian signs, and just published a book on the subject), and Caverlee Cary, the chair.  Recently added to the lineup is the estimable young scholar Trent Walker, whose work on Smot (ស្មូត្រ) – Cambodian Funerary Songs – remains an astonishing accomplishment that combines art and scholarship.

I myself will be talking about Buddhist paintings as a capacious imaginal space (I draw the word imaginal here from Henri Corbin) for the imagination and creation of evolving identities, national, political, and of course, religious.

If you’re in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll consider attending, and perhaps even introducing yourself to me. 


Excisions, #1

As I go through the process of pruning my book manuscript in order to deliver to the publisher, I will occasionally post a few sections that I had to cut, but which for reasons obvious, obscure, or inane I have decided to somehow preserve.

Today’s excision is a note about the ways in which scholars of Theravada Buddhism have talked about ‘syncretism’ in Buddhism in Southeast Asia:

Kitiarsa offers an excellent review of the literature on the ‘problem’ of Southeast Asian Buddhism (Kitiarsa 2012). Instead of syncretism, Kitiarsa describes Thai Buddhism as a ‘vigorous hybrid,’ a genetic metaphor, and adds in the notion that it is the widespread commodification of everyday life, and the transformation of perceived needs, that drives modernizing religious difference (Kitiarsa 2012, 2, 31-33, 19). Peter Skilling has also adopted the word hybrid, though in a linguistic mode, specifically to avoid the notion of ‘syncretic,’ emphasizing the creative agency involved in the creation of such hybrids (Skilling 2007, 208 n.2). While I prefer the linguistic metaphor to the genetic one, both appear to suffer from the assumption that we might somehow access an originally pure and non-hybridized tradition.

Kitiarsa, Pattana. 2012. Mediums, monks, and amulets: Thai Popular Buddhism. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Skilling, Peter, Jason A. Carbine, Claudio Cicuzza, and Santi Pakdeekham, eds. 2012. How Theravada is Theravada?: Exploring Buddhist identities. Bangkok: Silkworm Books.


Episcope: “Begininning a Sketch of Accumulation by Dispossession in Contemporary Cambodia”

A new short piece of my writing has been published over at Episcope. It’s called “Beginning a Sketch of Accumulation by Dispossession in Contemporary Cambodia,” and I hope you go check it out. I’ve written about Accumulation by Dispossession, or ‘Primitive Accumulation,’ on this blog frequently in the past. Click here to see those posts. There are pictures by photographer John Vink as well, to induce you to click this link.

Episcope is a relatively new online blog from Cultural Anthropology, and is attempting to promote different types of ethnographic writing, as indicated in this partial description:

This is an experiment. The insights of anthropologists are usually sequestered in academic circles, networks, and classrooms. Our work is also often constrained within a slow, arduous publishing process such that our writings frequently fail to address in an immediate way the pressing realities we often grapple with in our fieldwork. For these among other reasons, anthropologists rarely affect how current issues are enacted in mainstream narratives.

Thanks, Episcope!


Kristof’s White Savior Pose Critiqued Again

I’ve gotten a lot of sudden traffic on this small site recently, and much of it is a result of Anne Elizabeth Moore’s recent takedown of Nicholas Kristof, which you can read in the always-excellent The Baffler, here. Welcome, new folks, and please check out my ‘about this blog‘ post, or heck – just poke around a bit. 

Anne’s critique of Kristof is beter and more thorough than my own early and abortive attempts.  Moore has done work in Cambodia and maintains a very active web presence, which you can check out by starting here.  She wrote an earlier takedown of Kristof with author and activist Melissa Gira Grant, which compiles some other people’s critiques as well, including mine, here.

I’m grateful that folks like Anne Elizabeth Moore and others are taking Kristof to task. Brava!


comment, read

Read: Bruce Lincoln’s “Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars”

I received my copy of Bruce Lincoln‘s latest book, titled Gods and Demons, Priests and Scholars: Critical Explorations in the History of Religionsand finished it last night (See here for a short review of a previous book of his). It is an excellent book, full of the sort of provocative, clearly-argued, and most-often compelling arguments about the field of religious studies, its methods, and, to a slightly lesser extent, application. These subjects have been at the heart of Lincoln’s academic project for quite awhile, and it is not an accident that this volume, which is a collection of essays and articles, many of which have been published in journals previously, begins with a piece of writing that is one of Lincoln’s most famous and provocative: his “Theses on Method.” These theses have provoked much response and discussion by those who challenge Lincoln as overly reductive, or hostile, to religion, though I have never seen his approach in that way. You can read Timothy Fitzgerald’s criticism of this piece, and Lincoln’s response, here and here.

I studied under and worked with Lincoln for a few years as a doctoral student at the University of Chicago Divinity school. Having taken several classes with him, met with him as an advisee, and attended many public talks, I never found him hostile to religion as such. He might have been occasionally reductive, but only in the sense that he was willing to examine phenomena very closely, which I take as a characteristic of scholarship, and indeed, language.

Two pieces (Chapters Two and Twelve) offer straightforward advice on how to accomplish particular tasks within Religious Studies (“How to Read a Religious Text” and “Theses on Comparison”). Others deal with cosmogonic (universe-creation) myths, modern and ancient science and how they dealt with phenomena that don’t confirm their cosmologies, differently-characterized types of mythic discourse, World Religions as a discourse of its own, as well as the traditional themes of sanctified violence. His final essay, “On the (Un)discipline of Religious Studies,” begins with an anecdote – and an essay unpacking that anecdote’s relevance – of an argument between Mircea Eliade and Jonathan Z. Smith on whether chaos or order should be prioritized in time (i.e., ‘which comes first, order or chaos?’). Each essay is worth careful study.

I will be using parts of this book for my first version of my “Introduction to Theory and Method” course, which I’ll be teaching this fall. At a minimum, I intend to have us

  1. Work through “Theses on Method” and its responses
  2. Read “How to read a religious text,” and apply those rules to both (a) a religious text, and (b) the essay itself
  3. The (Un)discipline of Religious Studies, with a discussion on the importance of institutions that study Religion, such as the American Academy of Religion (AAR), which Lincoln discusses in this chapter.

I recommend this book to all those who study Religion, especially those for whom the primary goal of Religious Studies is something other than the celebration of religion as sacred and beyond interrogation. As Lincoln phrases it, “As it happens, with the possible exception of Economics, ours [Religious Studies] is the only academic field that is effectively organized to protect its (putative) object of study against critical examination.” (in his response to Fitzgerald, p. 167).