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 (កូនកាត់ចិន; 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.