Templates of "Chineseness" and Trajectories of Cambodian Chinese Entrepreneurship in Phnom Penh

Michiel Verver, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam
Chinese altar in a Phnom Penh shopping mall. Photo taken by M. Verver.
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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.