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Chinese Cambodian

Cambodians of Chinese Origin
柬埔寨華人 or 柬埔寨华人
Total population
700,000 (est.)
4.7% of the Cambodian population (2010)[1]
Regions with significant populations
Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom, Battambang, Kampot
Khmer, Min Nan (Theochew, Hokkien and Hainanese), Hakka, Cantonese
Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Taoism
Related ethnic groups
Cambodian Hokkien
Overseas Chinese

Chinese Cambodians are Cambodian citizens of Chinese descent. "Khmer-Chen", is used for peoples of either mixed Cambodian & Chinese descent or people of whom are Cambodian born citizens with Chinese ancestry; (Khmer being the ethnic group of Cambodia and Chen meaning Chinese in the Khmer language). During the late 1960s and early 1970s, they were the largest ethnic minority in Cambodia; there were an estimated 425,000. However, by 1984, there were only 61,400 Chinese Cambodians left. This has been attributed to a combination of warfare, economic stagnation, Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese persecution, and emigration.

Chinese Cambodians play a leading role in the Cambodian business sector as well as within Cambodia's political scene. Chinese Cambodians also have a considerable presence in the Cambodian economy and estimated to own a vast share of it.[3] Many Chinese Cambodians are particularly influential in the Cambodian banking sector where money-lending and shopkeeping enterprises are prevalent. Of particular note is China's economic role in the country which encouraged Sino-Khmer businessmen to reestablish their past business which were once suppressed by the Khmer Rouge.[3][4][5]


  • Demographics 1
    • Teochew 1.1
    • Cantonese 1.2
    • Hainanese 1.3
    • Hakka 1.4
    • Hokkien 1.5
  • Trade and industry 2
  • Dialect groups 3
  • History 4
    • Medieval History 4.1
    • Under French rule 4.2
    • After independence 4.3
    • Under the Khmer Rouge 4.4
    • Under the PRK/SOC 4.5
    • Modern years 4.6
  • Notable Sino Khmers 5
  • See also 6
  • Footnotes 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9



The Teochew, who made up about 90% of the rural Chinese population, ran village stores, controlled rural credit and rice-marketing facilities, and grew vegetables. In urban areas they were often engaged in such enterprises as importing and exporting, selling pharmaceuticals, and street peddling. Most of them now living surrounding the area where their expectation of run the business to success. They mostly are the front-runner among the Chinese community in local big cities.[5]

Cambodian-Chinese children.


The Cantonese, who were once majority Chinese group before the Teochiu migrations began in the late 1930s, lived mainly in the city. Frequently, the Cantonese engaged in transportation and in construction, for the most part as mechanics or carpenters. Known in Cambodia as "Chen-Catung" in Khmer language. Other than the city, Kampong Cham is their community.[5]


The Hainanese started out as pepper growers in Kampot Province, where they continued to dominate that business. Many moved to Phnom Penh, where, in the late 1960s, they reportedly had a virtual monopoly on the hotel and restaurant businesses. They also often operated tailor shops and haberdasheries.[5]


In Phnom Penh, the newly arrived Hakka were typically folk dentists, sellers of traditional Chinese medicines, and shoemakers. Hakka deemed to be the newest Chinese and the smallest group of all which their movement just began during Second Sino-Japanese War. After the earliest settlement in Cambodia, Stung Treng is the consideration of most Hakka active community.[5]


The Hokkien community was involved in importing and exporting and in banking; many of the richest Chinese Cambodians were Hokkien. Revealed to be the earliest group to be found in Cambodia after their earliest arrival in the Khmer Empire era and the following biggest immigration in the 15th century, they once drew with the Cantonese speakers as the largest speaker group in the 1860s. Kampong Thom still stands today as the main centre for the Hokkien community, followed by Siem reap, Battambang and Kampong Chnnang.[5]

Trade and industry

In 1963, William Willmott, an expert on overseas Chinese communities, estimated that 90% of the Chinese in Cambodia were involved in commerce. Today, an estimated 60% are urban dwellers engaged mainly in commerce, with most of the rural population working as shopkeepers, processors of food products (such as rice, palm sugar, fruit, and fish), and moneylenders. Those in Kampot Province and parts of Kaoh Kong Province cultivate black pepper and fruit (especially rambutans, durians, and coconuts). Additionally, some rural Chinese Cambodians are engaged in salt water fishing. In the 19th century, French colonials allowed Chinese-run businesses to flourish. William Willmott, a mid-century expert on Chinese communities, claimed the ethnic Chinese controlled 92 percent of Cambodian commerce in the mid-20th century. They traded in urban areas and worked as shopkeepers, moneylenders and traditional healers in rural areas, while Chinese farmers controlled Cambodia’s lucrative Kampot pepper industry.[4] Most Chinese Cambodian moneylenders wield considerable economic power over the ethnic Khmer peasants through usury. Studies in the 1950s revealed that Chinese shopkeepers in Cambodia would sell to peasants on credit at interest rates of 10-20% a month. This might have been the reason why seventy-five percent of the peasants in Cambodia were in debt in 1952, according to the Australian Colonial Credit Office. There seemed to be little distinction between Chinese and Sino-Khmer (offspring of mixed Chinese and Khmer descent) in the moneylending and shopkeeping enterprises. Chinese Cambodian entrepreneurs are also estimated to control 70% of the industrial investment and are actively engaged in trading, construction, small-scale manufacturing, and food processing.[6]

Of particular note is China's economic role in the country,[3] which encouraged Sino-Khmer businessmen to reestablish their past business which were once suppressed by the Khmer Rouge. Modern Cambodian economy is highly dependent on Sino-Khmer companies who controlled a large stake in the country's economy,[7] and their support is enhanced by the large presence of lawmakers who are of at least part-Chinese ancestry themselves.[8] The position of the Chinese minority has undergone a dramatic turn for the better and the Chinese seem to have regained much of their previous economic clout. For various reasons, including the growing economic collaboration between China and Cambodia and the huge investments being made by Chinese companies, the Chinese community has seen its numbers expand dramatically in the 2000s (decade).

Dialect groups

The Chinese in Cambodia represented five major linguistic groups, the largest of which was the Teochew(accounting for about 60%), followed by the Cantonese (accounting for about 20%), the Hokkien (accounting for about 7%), and the Hakka and the Hainanese (each accounting for about 4%). The people of some of these Chinese dialects characteristically tend to gravitate towards certain occupations.[9]


Medieval History

The Chinese presence in Cambodia goes back a number of centuries; in terms of settled communities, different southern Chinese ethnic groups arrived in the country at slightly different times. It is thought that the first distinct Chinese communities were probably established after the fall of the Song dynasty in the 13th century. What is clear, however, is that among the first ethnic Chinese to settle in Cambodia were the Hokkiens, while the Cantonese and Hainanese seem to have arrived towards the end of the 17th century, followed in the 19th and 20h centuries by the Teochiu and Hakka. At the time of the French Protectorate, the largest Chinese groups were the Hokkiens and Cantonese, though by the mid-20th century they would be outnumbered by the Teochius.

Chinese presence in Cambodia dated back to the 13th century when Chinese diplomat Zhou Daguan visited Cambodia. In the 16th century, Portuguese seafarers recorded the presence of a Chinese enclave in Phnom Penh in 1620. Early Chinese immigrants were almost exclusively male, and they took local Khmer or Cham women as wives. Their descendants quickly assimilated into the local community by integrating themselves economically and socially into the agricultural commune of ancient Cambodians. Some male descendants of Chinese immigrants kept Chinese hairstyles. Descendants of Chinese immigrants from the Ming dynasty maintained the Ming practice of keeping a Chinese topknot until the 18th century.[10]

These Chinese communities had extensive autonomy during the French protectorate period. In effect, each distinct Chinese linguistic group had its own chef de congregation, and these chiefs were recognized by French authorities as having power over matters of immigration and emigration, movement between towns, schools, temples, cultural societies. In other words, they were not treated as colonial subjects; each of the Chinese minorities had the right to control its own internal affairs to a quite extensive degree. This also meant that the French did not assume any responsibility for the Chinese in matters such as health and education.

This was to be a high point in terms of the rights of the Chinese minorities. Cambodian independence in 1953 saw a regression in their treatment by state authorities and the previously existing autonomy was eliminated by the new government. However, many private associations - cultural, business-oriented and to do with education - were simply continued by the Chinese communities and clan associations themselves, as these communities still had very significant economic and political power. Anti-Chinese feeling and policies emerged, however, after the coup of 1970 which saw the establishing of a pro-West government which considered the neighbouring People's Republic of China a dangerous threat - and the Chinese minorities in Cambodia as a possible fifth column.

The year 1970 thus marks the beginning of almost two decades of severe repression of the Chinese minorities in Cambodia. It was after this point that Cambodian authorities started forcing the closure of Chinese schools and newspapers, requiring the Chinese to carry special identity papers, imposing special taxes on the Chinese and moving towards denying them Cambodian citizenship. While the Khmer Rouge regime appeared to have a more ‘tolerant' ethnic policy initially, it continued to discriminate against the Chinese once it had completed its takeover of Cambodia. The continued discrimination, however, now rested on class rather than ethnic grounds; since the majority of urban Chinese were traders, they were classified as ‘capitalists' by the revolutionary regime. While there is no evidence that the Chinese were particularly targeted in the Khmer Rouge purges, their population in Cambodia was probably reduced by half in the four years of Khmer Rouge rule; it seems that there was an increased number of anti-Chinese events just prior to the Vietnamese invasion which brought an end to the Pol Pot regime.

The establishment of the People's Republic of Kampuchea after the Vietnamese invasion in 1979 was not completely positive for the Chinese minorities. Partly because of tensions between China and Vietnam, the new Cambodian authorities adopted restrictive measures against the remaining members of the Chinese minorities, including banning them from returning to urban trades. This continued until the Vietnamese army left in 1989. As Cambodia began moving towards a democratic state, the more obvious forms of discrimination against the Chinese began to be removed or tempered. After 1990, they were allowed to celebrate Chinese festivals and religious practices, then to re-establish Chinese associations and conduct business activities. Even more recently, they have started operating their own schools, which have expanded considerably in recent years in Phnom Penh and other centres.

Under French rule

Distinction by dialect group has also been important historically in the administrative treatment of the Chinese in Cambodia. The French brought with them a system devised by the Vietnamese Emperor Gia Long (1802–20) to classify the local Chinese according to areas of origin and dialect. These groups were called bang (or congregations by the French) and had their own leaders for law, order, and tax-collecting.[11]

The French enforced similar policies in Cambodia.[11] The head of a bang, known as the ong bang, was elected by popular vote; he functioned as an intermediary between the members of his bang and the government. Individual Chinese who were not accepted for membership in a bang were deported by the French authorities.

After independence

The French system of administering the Chinese Cambodian community was terminated in 1958. During the 1960s, Chinese community affairs tended to be handled, at least in Phnom Penh, by the Chinese Hospital Committee, an organization set up to fund and to administer a hospital established earlier for the Chinese community.

This committee was the largest association of Chinese merchants in the country, and it was required by the organization's constitution to include on its fifteen-member board six people from the Teochiu dialect group, three from the Cantonese, two from the Hokkien, two from the Hakka, and two from the Hainanese. The hospital board constituted the recognized leadership of Phnom Penh's Chinese community. Local Chinese school boards in the smaller cities and towns often served a similar function.

In 1971 the government authorized the formation of a new body, the Federated Association of Chinese of Cambodia, which was the first organization to embrace all of Cambodia's resident Chinese. According to its statutes, the federation was designed to "aid Chinese nationals in the social, cultural, public health, and medical fields," to administer the property owned jointly by the Chinese community in Phnom Penh and elsewhere, and to promote friendly relations between Cambodians and Chinese.

With leadership that could be expected to include the recognized leaders of the national Chinese community, the federation was believed likely to continue the trend, evident since the early 1960s, to transcend dialect group allegiance in many aspects of its social, political, and economic programs.

Generally, relations between the Chinese and the ethnic Khmer were good. There was some intermarriage, and a sizable proportion of the population in Cambodia was part Sino-Khmer, who were assimilated easily into either the Chinese or the Khmer community. Willmott assumes that a Sino-Khmer elite dominated commerce in Cambodia from the time of independence well into the era of the Khmer Republic.

Under the Khmer Rouge

The Khmer Rouge takeover was catastrophic for the Chinese community for several reasons. When the Khmer Rouge took over a town, they immediately disrupted the local market. According to Willmott, this disruption virtually eliminated retail trade "and the traders (almost all Chinese) became indistinguishable from the unpropertied urban classes."[12]

The Chinese, in addition to having their livelihood eradicated on the whole, also suffered because of their class. They were mainly well-educated urban merchants, and thus were characteristic of the people whom the Khmer Rouge detested. Chinese refugees have reported that they shared the same brutal treatment as other urban Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge régime but they were not discriminated against as an ethnic group until after the Vietnamese invasion due to the PRC's support of the Khmer Rouge. Several of the most senior members of the Khmer Rouge were themselves of partial Chinese descent, such Nuon Chea, Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Kang Kek Iew, Son Sen, Ta Mok and even Pol Pot himself.

Under the PRK/SOC

Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the fall of Democratic Kampuchea, the new pro-Hanoi People's Republic of Kampuchea regime lifted some of the oppressive rules imposed on ethnic Chinese by the Khmer Rouge government. Chinese newspapers were allowed and the ban on speaking Chinese at home was lifted.[13] However, partial restrictions and a certain amount of suspicion remained, for the pro-Soviet PRK regime resented China's support for the Khmer Rouge guerrillas fighting against it, now renamed as the "National Army of Democratic Kampuchea" (NADK). Observers at the time believed that the lingering anti-Chinese stance of the PRK government and of its officials in Phnom Penh made it unlikely that a Chinese community of the same scale as before the Khmer Rouge could resurface in Cambodia in the near future.

The conditions for the ethnic Chinese, however, improved greatly under the SOC, the transitional avatar of the PRK after 1989. Restrictions placed on them by the former PRK gradually disappeared. The State of Cambodia allowed ethnic Chinese to observe their particular religious customs and Chinese language schools were reopened. In 1991, two years after the SOC's foundation, the Chinese New Year was officially celebrated in Cambodia for the first time since 1975.[14]

Modern years

Of particular note is China's economic role in the country,[3] which encouraged Sino-Khmer businessmen to reestablish their past business which were once suppressed by the Khmer Rouge. Modern Cambodian economy is highly dependent on Sino-Khmer companies who controlled a large stake in the country's economy,[7] and their support is enhanced by the large presence of lawmakers who are of at least part-Chinese ancestry themselves.[8]

Good or bad, the Chinese are on the rise in Cambodia, and Chinese language study is increasing in Phnom Penh, with the subject recently added to the national curriculum at the university level. As reported in the Phnom Penh Post earlier this summer, the Duan Hoa Chinese School, for primary and secondary students, has 7,000 mostly ethnic Chinese pupils. Ethnic Khmers and Vietnamese also study there “to learn Chinese so they can join the family business or find work in a private company—especially working in factories or in the tourism industry as many Chinese investors are coming to Cambodia now,” school administrator Kim Hean told the paper.[4]

The position of the Chinese minority has undergone a dramatic turn for the better and the Chinese seem to have regained much of their previous economic clout. For various reasons, including the growing economic collaboration between China and Cambodia and the huge investments being made by Chinese companies, the Chinese community has seen its numbers expand dramatically in the 2000s (decade). There has been a huge growth in Chinese-language schools, often generously supported by the government of China through subsidies, and also in the production of textbooks (in Chinese) that incorporate Cambodian history and seminars for teachers. There may be close to 100 such schools today (2007). One of these private schools claims to be the largest overseas Chinese school in the world, with some 10,000 students. A number of Chinese-language newspapers began to be published in the country after 1993, and state television broadcasting even included a news segment in Chinese after 1998. All of the main political parties in Cambodia now appear sensitive to the clout of the Chinese minority, publishing campaign material in Chinese in the last elections. While this minority faced serious discrimination until the 1980s, it appears that that period has come to an end and that they no longer appear to be victimized by state authorities and are allowed to prosper under Hun Sen.[9]

Notable Sino Khmers

See also


  1. ^ "Cambodia is under Chinese cultural influence: Hun Xen’s confession « THE SON OF THE KHMER EMPIRE កម្ពុជាត្រូវការមេដឹកនាំថ្មីតែមិនមែនក្រុមក្បត់ជាតិនេះទេ!". Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  2. ^ Brandon Toropov, Chad Hansen (2003). The Complete Idiot's Guide to Taoism.  
  3. ^ a b c d China-Cambodia: More than just friends?
  4. ^ a b c The China Beat (2008-07-31). "The China Beat · Chinese in Cambodia". Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Cambodia - The Chinese". Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  6. ^ Business Networks in Asia: Promises, Doubts, and Perspectives - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  7. ^ a b The rise and rise of a Cambodian capitalist
  8. ^ a b 华人在柬埔寨几度沉浮
  9. ^ a b "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People". Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved 2011-12-02. 
  10. ^ Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 256
  11. ^ a b Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 257
  12. ^ Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 265
  13. ^ Amy B. M. Tsui, James W. Tollefson (2006). Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts.  
  14. ^ 1989-1993 State of CambodiaCambodian Recent History and Contemporary Society;Judy Ledgerwood,


External links

  • WorldChinese: Cambodia
  • The Growing Cambodian-Chinese Alliance (with information on the Chinese community in Cambodia)
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