Cross-Currents E-Journal (No. 4)

ISSN: 
2158-9674
September 2012

This special issue is dedicated to William E. Willmott.

Editors' Note
Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley
Sungtaek Cho, Korea University

Articles

Mediating Chineseness in Cambodia

Guest co-editor Lorraine Paterson, Cornell University
with an addendum by guest co-editor Penny Edwards, University of California, Berkeley

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...

William E. Willmott, University of Canterbury (emeritus)

Address to the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Association at the Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference in Toronto, March 16, 2012

This event has given me the opportunity to return to almost the beginning of my academic career: my doctoral fieldwork in Cambodia fifty years ago. (It was preceded by fieldwork in an Inuit community in the Ungava, Northern Canada; not relevant here.) Rereading my publications from that research has allowed me to relive the excitement of my Cambodian year, living with my wife and child in Phnom Penh apart from a month in Siem Reap, where I could hire a cyclo for ten riels and visit the various ruins of Angkor every afternoon. Research on overseas Chinese was informed by different paradigms in those days. Bill Skinner was a leading thinker in the field, and Maurice Freedman, my mentor and supervisor, was another. Our issues focused on community social structure and nationalism—many of us were supporters of the national liberation movements in Southeast Asian countries. For most of us, Chinese identity was simply a methodological issue...

Michiel Verver, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

In the 1960s, William Willmott described Cambodia as a plural society in which different ethnic groups occupy different places in the economic structure. The Chinese made up the economic class, active in trade and commerce, and formed a definable ethnic community, both socioculturally and politically. Since Willmott’s seminal studies, Cambodia’s ethnic Chinese have endured the destruction and repression of both private enterprise and Chinese sociocultural life (1970–1990), followed by a revitalization of Chinese business. Through ethnographic case studies, this paper explores the relationship between “Chineseness” and business life in trajectories of Cambodian Chinese entrepreneurship in Phnom Penh. How do entrepreneurs deploy notions of Chinese business? The author argues that Chinese family businesses, trust-based networks, patronage arrangements, and cultural representations have indeed been greatly revitalized over the last few decades, but that they also remain challenged in certain contexts. Moreover, such revitalization has taken a fundamentally different form from Willmott’s description. Practices of Chinese business can no longer be ascribed to an ethnic Chinese “community” in Phnom Penh. Rather, as the latter has become increasingly multiform, Chinese business has developed into a template at the deployment (or neglect) of a broader category of Cambodian Chinese entrepreneurs. 

Ambassador Julio A. Jeldres, Monash University

I was sixteen years old when I first read about Norodom Sihanouk and Cambodia. Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia in November 1967 had been widely reported by the press in my homeland, Chile, where her assassinated husband was greatly admired. Through Jackie Kennedy’s visit to Cambodia, I became interested in Norodom Sihanouk’s fascinating life, totally unaware that, years later, our paths would cross and I would become his private secretary. My Cambodian friends often tell me that it was my destiny. In 1967, I wanted to know more about Cambodia. Since there was no information available, I wrote to the Cambodian mission at the United Nations. I found it unbelievable, but four months later I received a handwritten letter back from Sihanouk himself. That began our friendship, which was first conducted through correspondence...

 

Andrew Mertha, Cornell University

The literature on Chinese assistance to Democratic Kampuchea (1975–1979), has tended to be divided into two approaches. The first rests on the argument that the Chinese revolutionary state—particularly the more radical phases such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution—provided both a blueprint and an inspiration for the Cambodian revolution. This approach suggests that Chinese experts in Democratic Kampuchea were akin to revolutionary comrades-in-arms who shared an ideological affinity as they worked alongside their Cambodian counterparts. The second approach focuses on a state-to-state level of analysis in which the human element is ignored altogether. In this article, by contrast, the author argues that the Chinese experience in Democratic Kampuchea was structured and constrained by the contradiction of technical imperatives in a milieu of deadly political infighting, as well as by the many institutional shortcomings on both the Cambodian and the Chinese sides. The author uses the petroleum refinery project at Kampong Som (Sihanoukville) to illustrate his argument.

Sophie Richardson, Human Rights Watch

I have been asked to share some reflections on the challenge of researching Sino-Cambodian relations in China, particularly with regard to the era before the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The bulk of the research for my dissertation and book, China, Cambodia, and the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, drew on both interviews and archival sources. I will first discuss here the eighty-plus interviews conducted for this project. My initial goal was not just to find out why Chinese policy makers had pursued the choices they made; it was also to ascertain why they had not chosen other options that, in some senses, might have been more expedient or efficient...

Pál Nyíri, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam

China has become the largest source of capital in Cambodia. Managers of state enterprises that construct hydropower plants and roads—as well as private investors and managers in mining, agricultural land concessions, and garment manufacturing—wield increasing influence and are beginning to shape labor practices. In this situation, mainland Chinese migrants are no longer seen by the Sino-Khmer as the marginal and suspect outsiders that they were twenty years ago. Rather, for both the increasingly entrenched Sino-Khmer elite and the struggling Sino-Khmer middle classes, they are a source of business opportunities or jobs. The Sino-Khmer have emerged as middlemen both between Chinese capital and the neopatrimonial Cambodian state and between Chinese managers and Khmer labor. This role is predicated upon a display of Chineseness whose form and content is itself rapidly changing under the influence of an increasing number of teachers and journalists who come from the mainland to run Cambodia’s Chinese-language press and schools. This paper will attempt to makes sense of the facets of this change.

Guest co-editor Penny Edwards, University of California, Berkeley

In her introduction to this special issue of Cross-Currents, Lorraine Paterson sets the scene for the featured articles and provides the context from which they emerged. This endnote essay works to a reverse formula, seeking if not to unweave then to unsettle the notion of bounded coherence and to spotlight instead the inchoate nature of any project to document the past. Rather than braiding together threads of our contributors' articles to signal the thematic coherence of this suite of papers on “mediating Chineseness,” I work instead from key themes presented in this collection to gesture towards loose ends and unstitched seams. Mirroring the genre of Willmott’s memoir essay, I invite reflection on these in-between spaces and the possibilities they represent for developing new approaches to the articulation, study, and mediation of “Chineseness” in Cambodia. 

Review Essays, Notes & Bibliographies

Tobie Meyer-Fong, Johns Hopkins University

What do we learn when we reconsider m­odern Chinese history from the vantage point of those who lived through it? Does our understanding of the grand narrative of key events change fundamentally when we think not in terms of the revolution or the state but in terms of life experience and memory? What happens when an empathic historian literally engages his or her sources in conversation? The authors of the two books under review offer radically different answers to these questions, even as they cover some of the same temporal ground. In The Gender of Memory: Rural Women and China’s Collective Past, Gail Hershatter uses oral interviews with rural women to call into question the inevitability of “campaign time” as an organizing principle. In Ancestral Leaves: A Family Journey through Chinese History, Joseph Esherick revisits the iconic events of modern Chinese history through the life experiences of several generations of elite men from his wife’s family, shedding new light on the familiar timeline while reiterating that chronology’s organizing power. Hershatter offers a breathtaking interrogation of her sources and methods, rendering elegantly transparent the thought processes behind her book’s production. Esherick integrates sources and storytelling, providing a confident and seamless narrative in which politics and personal lives are inextricably intertwined.