The Chinese in Cambodia formed the country's largest ethnic minority in the late 1960s and in the early 1970s. In the late 1960s, an estimated 425,000 ethnic Chinese lived in Cambodia, but by 1984, as a result of warfare, Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese persecution, and emigration, only about 61,400 Chinese remained in the country. Sixty percent of the Chinese were urban dwellers engaged mainly in commerce; the other 40 percent were rural residents working as shopkeepers, as buyers and processors of rice, palm sugar, fruit, and fish, and as moneylenders. In 1963 William Willmott, an expert on overseas Chinese communities, estimated that 90 percent of the Chinese in Cambodia were involved in commerce and that 92 percent of those involved in commerce in Cambodia were Chinese. The Chinese in Kampot Province and in parts of Kaoh Kong Province also cultivated black pepper and fruit (especially rambutans, durians, and coconuts), and they engaged in salt-water fishing. In rural Cambodia, the Chinese were moneylenders, and they wielded considerable economic power over the ethnic Khmer peasants through usury. Studies in the 1950s disclosed that Chinese shopkeepers would sell to peasants on credit at interest rates of from 10 to 20 percent a month. In 1952 according to Australian political analyst Ben Kiernan, the Colonial Credit Office found in a survey that 75 percent of the peasants in Cambodia were in debt. There seemed to be little distinction between Chinese and Sino-Khmer (offspring of mixed Chinese and Khmer marriages) in the moneylending and shopkeeping enterprises.
The Chinese in Cambodia represented to five major linguistic groups, the largest of which was the Teochiu (accounting for about 60 percent), followed by the Cantonese (accounting for about 20 percent), the Hokkien (accounting for about 7 percent), and the Hakka and the Hainanese (each accounting for about 4 percent). These belonging to certain Chinese linguistic groups in Cambodia tended to gravitate to certain occupations. The Teochiu, who made up about 90 percent 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 the import-export business, the sale of pharmaceuticals, and street peddling. The Cantonese, who were the majority Chinese group before the Teochiu migrations began in the late 1930s, lived mainly in the city. Typically, the Cantonese engaged in transportation and in construction, for the most part as mechanics or carpenters. The Hokkien community was involved in import-export and in banking, and it included some of the country's richest Chinese. 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 business. They also often operated tailor shops and haberdasheries. In Phnom Penh, the newly-arrived Hakka were typically folk dentists, sellers of traditional Chinese medicines, and shoemakers.
Distinction by dialect group also has 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. In Cambodia every Chinese was required to belong to a bang. 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.
The French system of administering the Chinese 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 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.
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." The Chinese, in addition to having their major livelihood eradicated, also suffered because of their class membership. They were mainly well-educated urban merchants, thus possessing three characteristics that were anathema to the Khmer Rouge. Chinese refugees have reported that they shared the same brutal treatment as other urban Cambodians under the Khmer Rouge regime and that they were not especially singled out as an ethnic group until after the Vietnamese invasion. Observers believe that the anti-Chinese stance, of the Vietnamese government and of its officials in Phnom Penh, makes it unlikely that a Chinese community on the earlier scale will reappear in Cambodia in the near future.
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