The Spirit of China in Cambodia

The way people in Cambodia relate to the rich and varied spirit realm tells us much about their hopes and fears but also their values and sense of identity. Chinese ritual practices accompanied the arrival of Chinese migrants, who began arriving in Phnom Penh as early as the 15th century. Chinese arrivals then increased during the French Protectorate (1863-1953) but in the last few years, their numbers have grown exponentially and China’s impact is felt throughout Cambodian society. As Chinese influence intensifies, Cambodians are trying position themselves in relation to this new tide of values.

A Cambodian man in his forties whom I have known for more than twenty years recently told me that, “Before 2017, Khmer people who had Chinese ancestors were proud to make offerings to them because their livelihoods improved each year. But around 2018-2019, Khmer-Chinese people began feeling ashamed to celebrate this ceremony because of all the problems created by those Chinese …. Khmer people also see that some rich Chinese can buy a position working with government even though they can’t speak Khmer. They own lots of businesses here, even small businesses such as barbers’ shops, selling fruit, fixing motorbikes and driving tuk-tuks”.

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