There has been a Chinese presence in Cambodia since the very earliest times – indeed, accounts written by Chinese traders and envoys from the third century onwards have played a major part in chronicling the country’s history – but it was only after the fifteenth century that the Chinese began to settle in significant numbers. Marrying into rich Khmer families and assuming positions as tax collectors, bankers, gold dealers and restaurateurs, ethnic Chinese soon established themselves as arguably the most influential minority in the country.
A flood of new immigrants arrived as a result of China’s economic crisis in the 1930s. In the main, the Chinese community continued to prosper until the 1970s, when they were persecuted first by the Lon Nol government – which resented their success – and then by the Khmer Rouge, who wanted them eliminated. Things became more complicated in 1979 when the Vietnamese liberation of Cambodia was followed by a short-lived Chinese invasion of Vietnam. This resulted in many Cambodian Chinese fleeing to Thailand; those Chinese who remained were subsequently permitted to resume limited business activities, but it wasn’t until after the 1993 elections that they were properly able to reassert their influence on business – which they did wholeheartedly, capitalizing on their access to investment capital through their extensive overseas networks. Nowadays, the number of Chinese-owned businesses is clear to see from the Chinese signage on streets in any Cambodian town.
Cambodia’s Chinese have managed to retain their own culture and language (most are bilingual) while at the same time integrating very well into Cambodian society. In towns such as Voen Sai and Kampot they are more visible by virtue of maintaining their own Chinese-language schools. And in Phnom Penh, although Chinese New Year is not an official holiday, it assumes a festive importance akin to the Khmer New Year, with energetic dragon dances performed in the streets.