Michael Liu arrived by boat to the floating village of Prek Toal in Battambang province in October 2011. He spoke no Khmer, and the residents of Prek Toal didn’t speak Chinese. It took him an hour to find a shop to buy drinking water.
“When I walked out of the shop a middle-aged fisherman walked straight to me and used…fluent mandarin and asked, ‘Are you from China?’”
There were Chinese in Cambodia—this Mr. Liu knew. He knew they had lived and worked in the country for generations but despite the diversity within the Cambodian-Chinese community, he realized the different subcultures had been clumsily lumped into one homogenous culture.
“I heard everyone use the word ‘Chinese’ like it’s the same group of people. But when you look closer, it’s a vastly different group of people,” Mr. Liu said.
As a result of his realization, dozens of photographs of smiling Chinese-Cambodians now hang on the walls of Bophana Audiovisual Resource Center in Phnom Penh. Mr. Liu’s photographic exhibit, “Chinese and Cambodia,” highlights the vastness of the Chinese-Cambodian experience with mini biographies next to each photograph.
One of photo is of third-generation Chinese-Cambodian Wa Soknga, an elderly shop owner in Chhouk district, Kampot province. She remembers losing her parents under the Khmer Rouge regime, she’s never been to China and doesn’t speak, read or write Mandarin. Another photograph shows Cambodia Royal University of Art professor Rem Sokly, whose Chinese grandfather was adopted by a Khmer family.
He is fluent in Mandarin and studied in a Chinese school but his parents speak only Khmer. “I am extremely interested in the culture of Cambodian-Chinese. I often go to Chinese cemeteries, temples, community halls, restaurants and streets to dig out details that others could not find and understand,” Mr. Sokly says in his biography.
“First they [Chinese] come with their bare hands, they have nothing,” Mr. Liu said. “They don’t have an education, they don’t have any money, they have no roots here and they’re trying hard to establish themselves and then the Khmer Rouge came and the Vietnamese came and everyone suffered…then they re-establish themselves quite rapidly.”
I feel like that’s the power in these people, not because they are rich by birth, or because they carry money, they always carry their values and because of that they are always respected in Cambodia.”
The exhibition will be on display until Monday.
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