Hakka In The Cultural Landscape Of The Sesan River
Updated: Dec 27, 2020
Driving on the main road parallel to the Sesan River in the Veun Sai district will bring you past an unchanging landscape of stilt houses built with unlacquered wood and metal roofs, often gateless and doorless. Until suddenly, stilt houses give way to two-storey dwellings - the lower storey is now walled up - with their territories neatly demarcated by short, wooden fences. More peculiarly, each house is decorated with bright red-and-gold Chinese ornaments. These are the sights that tell you that you have arrived at the Hakka Village, also called the New Village of the Overseas-Chinese (华桥新村).
Red-and-gold Chinese door banners decorating one of the bigger houses in the Chinese Village.
Unlike Khmer or Lao homes, this is a two-storey house and its exterior has been tiled.
The people here identify as Hakka Chinese, and have been in Cambodia since over 200 years ago. Details of their arrival from China has disappeared from the collective memory of the community, but circumstances have moved the community at least twice in the last hundred years. First they were evicted from Veun Sai (east of the New Village) to Pa Kalan during the Khmer Rouge, and later relocated to where they now reside.
PASSING DOWN THE "CHINESE IDENTITY" THROUGH EDUCATION
Their current place of residence, along the multicultural Sesan River, make them natural multilinguists. At home, they speak to one another in the Hakka dialect. To communicate with neighbouring villagers who are mostly ethnic Laos, they speak Lao and Khmer. In school, they learn both Khmer and Mandarin Chinese. The former is the country’s national language, while the latter bridges the Hakkas with other persons of Chinese descent who live in other parts of Cambodia and the world.
The Chinese Village Guang Hua Public School (华人村光华公校) is the only school in the village. Although its students are predominantly Hakka, anyone regardless of background, is welcome to enrol here.
The school entrance resembles that of a Paifang — a traditional archway found in Chinese communities throughout the world. The name of the school is inscribed with Chinese characters; its Khmer name is found on the pediment.
Khmer classes are conducted by local teachers, while Chinese classes are often taught by overseas volunteer teachers from China, Taiwan and Malaysia, revealing the international ties this seemingly remote village forges through its ethnic background. It is not easy to find Chinese teachers in the village, as most of the older generation did not receive Chinese education. The younger generation know Mandarin much better than their elders.
In one of the classrooms, a list of donors and their contributions is framed on the wall, dating back to as early as 1996.
One exception, however, is 70-year old Lan Ming Yi. She was the first Chinese teacher in the village, and her first classes were taught in her living room. “There were no chairs, or tables. We only had one blackboard!” Lan recounts. Now, thanks to donors from overseas and local Chinese organisations, the school has a basketball court, separate buildings for Chinese and Khmer classes and even a dormitory to host volunteer teachers.
When Lan first started teaching, she desired to educate the next generation of Hakkas about their unique heritage and culture. “Without culture, one cannot accomplish in anything one does.” She said. To her, to be a Hakka means to know one’s heritage and mother tongue — in their case, both Hakka and Mandarin Chinese.
RETAINING AND ADAPTING TRADITIONS
Beyond language, the most visible signs of the Hakka culture manifest in the Chinese festivals that they commemorate alongside other Chinese communities around the world. During Chinese New Year, shops close and families gather for a reunion meal. They also observe the tradition of spring cleaning their homes and the temple on New Year’s Eve. On Qing Ming (Tombstone-Sweeping Day), they pray and present offerings to their ancestors at the Chinese cemetery.
Painted with red and yellow, the temple is an important place of worship for the Hakkas even outside of festivities.
For example, when someone falls ill, their family members will give prayers at the temple without fail.
At the heart of these festivities is the temple, which embodies Chinese architecture in its red-tiled roofs, dragon carvings and red lanterns. The Hakka village’s religion is somewhat synergistic, combining Buddhism, folk religion and Taoism. Ben Tou Gong (a Southeast Asian folk deity) presides over the temple; while small shrines of Caishen (the God of Wealth from Taoist folk religions) and Guanyin (a Bodhisattva, particularly esteemed in Chinese Buddhism) are commonly found in Hakka households. Some doors also feature icons of Caishen, who is believed to invite good fortune and wealth to the household. The Hakka also created a cultural impact in the area; some Lao and Khmer families adopt Chinese customs. “My mother recommended me to put a shrine in my house, because she thought it can bring me good fortune. Rich, wealthy houses all have them,” explained Kum, a Laotian villager. While non-Hakkas may be unfamiliar with the exact meanings behind Chinese shrines and ornaments, the intentions behind this practice are the same — a prayer for better lives.
A shrine for Di Zhu Shen, an East Asian folk deity, found in a Khmer household.
Conversely, Hakkas sometimes join in Khmer and Lao celebrations and rites, even though they are not well-acquainted with the specifics of the festivities. During the Cambodian religious festival Pchum Ben (Ancestor’s Day), some of the younger Hakkas visit the Lao pagoda and join in the nights of song and dance. “When they have celebrations, some Laos will send us gifts like rice and fruits, and we do the same when we have our festivals,” said Lan.
BECOMING "BUSINESS PEOPLE" IN SESAN
Why mimic the Hakkas? Their neighbours consider them to be the wealthiest community in the region. And the Hakkas also look wealthier from the outside. Their houses are concretised and tiled, their shops are larger, and some of them even own cars — rare, for people living on this side of the Sesan River. Their apparent wealth can be linked to their trade. Non-Hakkas call them the “business people” as they loan money to non-Hakkas, own provision shops and cash crop plantations. “They work hard, and they are good at identifying and producing what the market needs.” Kum explains her respect for the Hakka work ethic.
Using online suppliers, Hakka-owned provision shops can sell a wide variety of goods that are not sold in neighbouring villages, including clothing, toys and electronics. On their plantations, they usually outsource plantation work to Laos and indigenous people from neighbouring villages.
Some Hakkas have also moved to the opposite side of the Sesan river to expand their merchant businesses.
Their provision shops tend to be even larger and many of them sell mobile phones and accessories.
This position of privilege in the marketplace has allowed the multilingual Hakkas to build rapport with the Lao, Khmer and the occasional indigenous buyers and sellers.
A COMFORTABLE COEXISTENCE
In the short time we spent there, we found little ethnic animosity during the short time we spent in the Hakka and neighbouring Lao villages. Even inter-ethnic marriages, though uncommon, are generally accepted. Or, as a Lao resident told us, “the heart wants what the heart wants”. “I don’t think much about them - same, same [sic]. They are Hakka and I am Lao,” our homestay host told us over dinner.
And it’s true. The Hakka heritage has not only withstood changes through time and place, but by blending together their unique Chinese heritage with some cultural elements of their Laotian and Khmer neighbours, the Hakka have etched out their own special place in the diverse multi-ethnic Sesan landscape.
The Hakka dialect is mutually unintelligible from Mandarin Chinese. Randy J. LaPolla, G. T. (Ed.). (n.d.). The Sino-Tibetan Languages. Taylor & Francis Group. Pp. 146.