China Beat Archive



Caroline Finlay

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July 31, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 31, 2008 Caroline Finlay. Used by permission.


Foreigners travelling to Phnom Penh in the mid 19th century didn’t find a sleepy Khmer fishing town. Instead, they happened upon thousands of bustling Cantonese traders. Their legacy in the Sino-Khmer population continues as these long settled immigrants dominate the oil and tourism industries and own countless shop fronts in Cambodia’s cities, while newly arrived mainland Chinese invest in garment production and construction.

In the 1800s, 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 1900s. 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.

The golden Sino-Khmer era came to an abrupt end when the Khmer Rouge sent urbanites to the killing fields and the ensuing economic collapse destroyed the businesses of rural Chinese-Khmers. The Vietnamese, who were invaded by China in response to their ousting of the Khmer Rouge, were deeply suspicious of the Sino-Khmer population, and although ethnic Chinese Cambodians made up a tiny fraction of the population of Cambodia, they accounted for half of Cambodian refugees fleeing to the US in the 1980s.

The tides have turned, though, in the wake of Hun Sen’s bloody 1997 coup and the subsequent severing of diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Chinese investment has soared, with Chinese nationals opening up hundreds of garment factories, construction projects and mines, and are often seen by Cambodian businessmen as preferential to Western investors who tend to push human rights issues and transparency.