Chinese Cambodian

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Chinese Cambodians
Chinese Cambodians at a wedding celebration in Kampong Thom
Total population
(15,000 (est.)
0,1% of the Cambodian population (2013)[1])
Regions with significant populations
Phnom Penh, Kampong Thom, Battambang, Kampot, soung
Khmer, Min Nan (Teochew, Hokkien and Hainanese), Hakka, Cantonese
Chinese folk religion (Taoism and Confucianism), Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada Buddhism[2]
Related ethnic groups
Overseas Chinese

Chinese Cambodians are Cambodian people of Chinese or partial Chinese descent. The Khmer term Khmer kat Chen (ខ្មែរកាត់ចិន) is used for people of mixed Cambodian & Chinese descent while Khmer Chen (ខ្មែរចិន) can mean Cambodian born citizens of Chinese ancestry (Khmer is the majority ethnic group of Cambodia and Chen means "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 Cambodians of Chinese ancestry left. This has been attributed to a combination of warfare, economic stagnation, Khmer Rouge, and emigration. There are, however, tens of thousands of mixed Chinese and Khmer ancestry.

Despite their relatively small population, Chinese Cambodians are over represented in some of the most visible aspects of Cambodian society, often leading to feelings ranging from resentment to outright discrimination by "pure" Khmers. Chinese Cambodians play leading roles 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 are 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 businesses which were once suppressed by the Khmer Rouge.[3][4][5]


Early History (13th-18th century)[edit]

The earliest records of Chinese settlement dates back to the late 13th century. When the Yuan emissary Zhou Daguan visited Cambodia in 1296, he noted the presence of Chinese residents at Angkor.[6] Much later in the early 1600s, Portuguese seafarers noted the presence of a Chinese settlement in Phnom Penh.[7] Around the same period a Chinese privateer, Lim To Khieng also made the same observation when he came to Cambodia to conduct trade and sea raids.[8] Shortly after the fall of the Ming dynasty in 1644, Chinese generals under the tutelage of Mac Cuu and Duong Ngan Dich brought many refugees from Fujian and Guangdong provinces to settle in modern-day Cochinchina, which was then under Cambodian rule.[9] Some of these refugees also established settlements in Takeo and Kampot provinces.[10] These Chinese immigrants were almost exclusively male, and they took Khmer women and wives. Their descendants quickly assimilated into the local community by integrating themselves economically and socially into the agricultural commune of ancient Cambodians. Some of them kept up the Ming practice of keeping a Chinese topknot until the 18th century.[11]

French rule (1867–1950)[edit]

The French first introduced a legislation in 1873 which classified Chinese immigrants as 'Alien Asians' and subjects were subjected to resident taxes. King Norodom introduced a legislative reform in 1884 which required the Chinese immigrants to pay higher resident taxes but there were no legal restrictions imposed for immigrants to take up Cambodian citizenship.[12] In 1891, the French introduced a legislation first introduced by Gia Long in Cochinchina, called "bang" in Chinese. Five associations were established in Cambodia, each identified by their specific region of ancestral origin in China; Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainanese, Teochew and Hakka. Chinese immigrants were required to register with their association to settle in Cambodia. Each of these associations were led by an elected headman, who would be responsible for maintaining law, order and tax collection duties from their countrymen.[13][14]

After independence[edit]

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 Teochew 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.

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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] While there is no evidence that the Chinese were particularly targeted in the Khmer Rouge purges,[citation needed] their population in Cambodia was probably reduced by half in the four years of Khmer Rouge rule;[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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.[citation needed]

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[edit]

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."[15]

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[edit]

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.[16] 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.[17]

Modern years[edit]

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,[18] and their support is enhanced by the large presence of lawmakers who are of at least part-Chinese ancestry themselves.[19]

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.[20]


According to statistics from the Ministry of Planning by the Cambodian government, approximately 15,000 individuals, or 0.1% out of the country's total population of 15 million were identified as ethnic Chinese in 2013.[1] A year later, Chinese associations in Phnom Penh estimates that around 700,000 Cambodians have at least some Chinese ancestry.[21] A government census done in 1962 showed that 163,000 individuals Cambodian nationals were registered as Chinese, which amounted to as much as 3% of the country's population. The ECCC had noted that then-Prince Sihanouk had estimated the Chinese population in Cambodia made up of 300,000 to 435,000 individuals in 1965, while CIA had estimated that there were about 444,000 Chinese in 1975.[22] A University field study conducted by William Willmott in 1961 found that there were 425,000 Chinese in Cambodia, which made up to approximately 7.4% of the total population at that time.[23] Willmott noted that there is a tendency for some Chinese who have taken up Cambodian citizenship, or Chinese descendants who have assimilated into Khmer society through intermarriages to be identified as Khmer in government censuses.[24]

Official censuses between 2004 and 2008 recorded that Chinese consisted of 0.3% of the country's total urban population and are concentrated mostly in Phnom Penh, while Chinese fluctuated between 0.0% and 0.1% of the country's total rural population between 2004 and 2013.[1] Willmott's study of Chinese in Cambodia's urban and rural areas in 1963 recorded that 59% of the Chinese lived in cities and towns while 41% lived in the countryside. Phnom Penh had a Chinese population of 135,000, or about one-third (33.5%) the city's total population.[23]


Cambodian-Chinese children in Phnom Penh


The Teochew people make up the largest Chinese sub-group in Cambodia and make up about 77% of the Chinese population. About 85% of the Teochews in Cambodia came from the prefectures of Jieyang, Chaoyang and Puning in China. The earliest records of Teochew immigrants dates back to the 16th century when some mutineers under the leadership of the Chinese pirate, Lim To Khieng settled in Cambodia.[8] No significant of Chinese immigration from the Chaoshan region occurred until the 1860s, and the Teochews came to Cambodia in modest numbers in the later part of the 19th century.[25] Large-scale immigration occurred in the 1920s and 1930s, and the Teochews established themselves as the dominant Chinese sub-group thereafter. Approximately 48% of the Teochews live in rural area, and they made up about 90% of the rural Chinese population.[26] The Teochews is also the largest sub-group in Cambodia, where some 100,000 out of 135,000 Chinese in 1962 are from this sub-group.[27] Teochews in rural region of the country generally make their living as village shopkeepers, controlled rural credit, rice merchants or as vegetable farmers. In Phnom Penh and smaller towns the Teochews are generally Entrepot traders, pharmacists or street pedlars.[28]


The Cantonese are also known as "Chen-Catung" in Khmer language. They made up the largest Chinese sub-group in Cambodia between the 17th century until the early 20th century.[29] lived mainly in the city. About 40% of the Cantonese are concentrated in Phnom Penh,[28] while most of the remainder are found in Battambang, Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang and Kratie where they make up at least 30% of the Chinese populace.[27] About 55% of the Cantonese came from the prefectures Dongguan, Sanshui. Nanhai and Huaxian.[30] In the 1880s and 1890s, Chinese businessmen of Cantonese origin secured building contracts from the French colonial government, to build brick-and-concrete shophouses in a programme of urban renewal of Phnom Penh.[31]


More than 80% of the Hainanese people traced their origins from Wenchang county. People from Hainan settled in Cambodia from the early 18th century under Mạc Cửu, who established a trading settlement that spanned modern-day Ha Tien, Kampot province and Sihanoukville.[9] Early Hainanese settlers started off as entrepot traders but turned to pepper trading at the end of the 18th century. They established pepper plantations in Kampot, and became the dominant Chinese sub-group in that province. Smaller Hainanese communities are also found at Sisophon and Sre Ambel. In the 1950s, many Hainanese moved to Phnom Penh to establish Chinese restaurants and hotels.[32]


The Hokkien sub-group were believed to be the earliest Chinese sub-group to settle in Cambodia. Most of the Hokkiens trace their ancestry back to Quanzhou and Tong'an in Southern Fujian province. The Hokkiens settle mainly in Phnom Penh and Battambang, and many Khmer families in Battambang claimed to have some distant Hokkien Chinese ancestry. The Hokkiens make their living through entrepot trade or in the banking industry.[33]


About 65% of the Hakka trace their roots back to Meizhou and Heyuan prefectures in Guangdong province. About 70% of the Hakkas are found in Phnom Penh where they are dominant professions in the field of Traditional Chinese Medicine, and shoemaking. Hakkas are also found in Takeo province, Stung Treng and Rattanakiri who consist of vegetable growers and rubber plantation workers. Hakka communities in the provinces migrated to Cambodia through Tonkin and Cochinchina in the 18th and 19th centuries.[34]


Chinese Cambodians are generally practitioners of Chinese folk religion, which incorporates rituals associated with Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Most Chinese families maintain a small shrine dedicated to at least one or more legendary or historical figure, and popular choices include Kitchen God, Guan Yu, Guan Yin, Matsu and Wang Ye.[21][35] During festive occasions such as Chinese New Year, Chinese Cambodians would pray at communal temples either individually or as a group. Joss sticks and paper as well as food offerings are used for prayers. On certain occasions such as funerals or fortune-telling, Chinese Cambodians would approach spirit mediums and geomancers.[2]

A small minority of Chinese Cambodians follow mainstream Mahayana Buddhism of the Chan denomination.[36] Chinese Cambodian families generally do not practice Theravada Buddhism and send their children to Khmer monasteries, except for those descendants who have assimilated into mainstream Khmer society.[2] In the 1990s and 2000s, there exist a trend among assimilated Sino-Khmer silk merchants who maintain commercial links with Chinese businessmen to re-adopt Chinese cultural and religious practices. They maintain Chinese shrines in their homes and shops, and explained that the adoption of such practices are necessary to forge closer ties with the Chinese.[37]

Trade and industry[edit]

Willmot had estimated that 90% of the Chinese in Cambodia were involved in commerce in 1963. 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.[38]

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,[18] and their support is enhanced by the large presence of lawmakers who are of at least part-Chinese ancestry themselves.[19] 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).

Notable Sino Khmers[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Cambodia Socio-Economic Survey 2013" (PDF). National Institute of Statistics, Ministry of Planning, Government of Cambodia. July 2014. p. 12. Retrieved 2015-01-16. 
  2. ^ a b c Willmott (1967), p. 38-9
  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. ^ "Cambodia - The Chinese". Retrieved 2012-05-16. 
  6. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 4
  7. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 5
  8. ^ a b Xu and Shen (2005), p. 10
  9. ^ a b Willmott (1967), p. 6
  10. ^ Jean-Michel Filippi (8 February 2013). "A history of the Chinese in Cambodia". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  11. ^ Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 256
  12. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 69-70
  13. ^ Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 257
  14. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 71
  15. ^ Nyíri, Savelʹev (2002), p. 265
  16. ^ Amy B. M. Tsui; James W. Tollefson (2006). Language Policy, Culture, and Identity in Asian Contexts. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 110–5. ISBN 0-8058-5693-5. 
  17. ^ Judy Ledgerwood, Cambodian Recent History and Contemporary Society; 1989-1993 State of Cambodia
  18. ^ a b The rise and rise of a Cambodian capitalist
  19. ^ a b 华人在柬埔寨几度沉浮
  20. ^ "World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous People". Minority Rights Group International. Retrieved 2011-12-02. 
  21. ^ a b Moeun Nhean (28 January 2014). "Chinese New Year: family, food and prosperity for the year ahead". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  22. ^ "Khmer Rouge Victims in Cambodia, 197501979 – A critical assessment of major estimates" (PDF). Extraordinary courts in the Chambers of Cambodia. 10 August 2009. pp. 47–49. 00385243. Retrieved 2015-01-16. 
  23. ^ a b Willmott (1967), p. 16
  24. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 110
  25. ^ Xu and Shen (2005), p. 13
  26. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 17
  27. ^ a b Willmott (1967), p. 104 – Table A: Chinese Urban Population in Cambodia by province and language group
  28. ^ a b Willmott (1967), p. 18
  29. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 7
  30. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 20
  31. ^ Muller (2006), p. 65
  32. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 21-23
  33. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 25-6
  34. ^ Willmott (1967), p. 23-4
  35. ^ Chheng Sambo; Ngo Menghak (5 April 2010). "Ching Ming holiday draws crowds to family gravesites". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  36. ^ Leng Len (18 January 2012). "A day in the life of a Chinese temple senior". Phnom Penh Post. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  37. ^ Heidi Dahles; John ter Horst. "INSTITUTIONALISING CHINESENESS: LEGACIES OF CHINESE COMMERCIAL HEGEMONY IN THE CAMBODIAN SILK INDUSTRY" (PDF). Griffith Research Online - Griffith University. Retrieved 18 January 2015. 
  38. ^ Business Networks in Asia: Promises, Doubts, and Perspectives - Google Books. Retrieved 2012-05-16. 


External links[edit]