battambang town – At first glance, the school office looks like any other office in Cambodia. Photos of King Norodom Sihanouk and Queen Monineath adorn the walls with the familiar inscription “Nation, Religion, King.”
But underneath the photos are Chinese characters. And outside, the children running and laughing in the schoolyard chatter in both Khmer and Mandarin.
It’s a blend of cultures typical of ethnic Chinese here, as businessman Choi Bun Roeng can testify. “I am both Cambodian and Chinese,” said Choi Bun Roeng, a founding member of the Battambang Cambodia-Chinese Association.
Even his name illustrates the point. The family name, Choi, is Chinese, while his given name, Bun Roeng, is Khmer.
After being repressed in the 1970s, Battambang’s several thousand ethnic Chinese have been reclaiming their dual identities. And although they represent only 3 or 4 percent of Cambodia’s total population, their culture is once again flourishing in Cambodia’s second-largest city.
Since 1992, when the association was formed, the community has opened a temple for ethnic Chinese in which to practice Mahayana Buddhism and a school where about 1,200 children study the Mandarin Chinese language.
“In a very short time, we have grown a lot,” Choi Bun Roeng said. “Many people want their children to study Chinese to preserve their culture…and to improve their economics because our country is very poor but many investors who come here speak Chinese.”
The latest evidence of the resurgence of Cambodian-Chinese identity is a large plot of land off of Highway 10 west of Battambang town. Last week, workmen were putting the finishing touches on the Chinese characters adorning the gate to Battambang’s first public cemetery.
It’s significant because Chinese culture calls for burial of the dead, while Khmers generally choose cremation. “We wanted to have a public cemetery so the poor and rich Chinese can be the same,” explained association member Chen Sioe Hoe. “Before, only the rich could buy land for burial.”
As principal of the Chinese school, Chen Sioe Hoe, 45, has come full circle. She studied at the first Battambang Chinese school as a young girl.
Chinese and Khmer cultures have had contact through trade and politics for centuries, going back to the 1200s when Chinese envoy Chou Takuan wrote a detailed account of everyday life in the Angkorian empire. But it was then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s ties with Beijing in the 1950s and 1960s that coincided with a flourishing of the ethnic Chinese community.
All that came to an end, Chen Sioe Hoe said, when General Lon Nol toppled Prince Sihanouk from power in 1970. “Lon Nol was supported by the Americans and Sihanouk was close to China, so when Lon Nol took over, the school was ordered closed,” she said.
But if Lon Nol seemed repressive, the Khmer Rouge’s xenophobic 1975-78 regime was a living nightmare. Trying to recreate a “pure Khmer” agrarian paradise, the Khmer Rouge herded ethnic Chinese into segregated camps.
“We suffered very badly,” Chen Sioe Hoe said. The Chinese were forbidden to speak their own language under penalty of death and many died in the camps, she said.
But there was one benefit for Chen Sioe Hoe. “It forced me to learn Khmer,” she said. Before then, the family spoke only Mandarin, which isolated them from their Khmer neighbors.
The expulsion of the Khmer Rouge by the Vietnamese army and the subsequent government put an end to direct persecution, according to Choi Bun Roeng. But they still were not allowed to establish an ethnic association or reopen the Chinese school.
“They said we were all Kampucheans, so there was no need,” Choi Bun Roeng said.
However, in 1992, the Battambang provincial government agreed to the formation of the Cambodia-Chinese Association.
The school reopened the same year, with children attending government-run classes in the mornings and the Chinese school in the afternoons. Chen Sioe Hoe soon found the situation had reversed itself from when she was growing up. In 1992, most ethnic Chinese children could speak only Khmer. “It was difficult because the children could not speak or read Chinese at all.”
Now, Battambang’s Chinese-Cambodians proudly show their heritage. Many businesses show signs in both Khmer and Chinese script. And each year, a parade for Chinese New Year draws about 300 participants and hundreds of spectators.
And yet, Choi Bun Roeng, like most in the Chinese association, has never been to the ancestral homeland he feels so close to. Almost all the students in the Chinese school were born in Cambodia, as were their parents.
Perhaps that is why, despite their distinct identity, most ethnic Chinese say they have no problems getting along with Khmers.
“We have close relations because no one here was born in China,” Chen Sioe Hoe said. “We don’t care about race….We are all Cambodian.”