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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Introduction to "Mediating Chineseness in Cambodia"


In 1981, social anthropologist William Willmott declared, “Today, no-one identifies themselves as Chinese in Kampuchea [Cambodia]” (1981:45). He certainly had the authority to publish such a statement. Having conducted sustained fieldwork on Chinese community formation in Cambodia from 1962 to 1963, Willmott offered an unprecedented examination of social structures, political organization, and patterns of identification among urban Chinese in his monographs, The Chinese in Cambodia (1967) and The Political Structure of the Chinese Community in Cambodia (1970). However, subsequent to his research, Chinese communities suffered terribly during the repression of the Lon Nol government between 1970 and 1975 and the atrocities of the Democratic Kampuchea regime. Willmott thus declared Chinese communities—and a willingness to identify as Chinese—destroyed. This understandably pessimistic vision turned out to be unfounded; the next extensive research done on Chinese in Cambodia by Penny Edwards and Chan Sambath in 1995 showed Chinese communities rebuilding. However, the descriptions of these communities showed a complexity of identity formation—from recent immigrants, “the raw Chinese,” to the five “traditional” Chinese dialect groups—that differed markedly from the indexes of identity applied by Willmott in his initial analysis. Academic ideas of how Chineseness should be configured had shifted and complicated; ascribing identity had become increasingly problematic...

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