It is evident from the brief historical survey presented in this paper that the French found in Cambodia well-established Chinese communities with a long tradition of indirect rule. My argument may be summarised in four propositions:
1. Contact between Cambodia and China has continued more or less uninterrupted since the first century of this era — and perhaps longer. Unlike early Indian contact, which produced distinctly Indian forms in the indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia, contact with China appears to have left them relatively unmarked. Khmer culture is definitely not sinic in language, social structure, religion, or the arts.
2. The long history of Chinese contact was not associated with extensive Chinese settlement in Cambodia until the fifteenth century, when there occurred a marked change in the nature of the Cambodian economy. Throughout the Chen-la and the Angkorean periods, the relative homogeneity of the country did not encourage internal trade, and the small amount of foreign trade evident in the capital was limited almost entirely to luxury goods for the court. After 1400, the Cambodian economy came to depend more and more upon trade, a phenomenon that was associated with the establishment of a growing Chinese population in Cambodia, primarily in Phnom-Penh.
3. The evidence of trade relations and large migrations suggests that by the middle of the nineteenth century the Chinese population of Phnom-Penh was mainly Cantonese, possibly with a smaller number of Hokkien. In Kampot, on the other hand, along the coast of the Gulf of Siam, a large number of Hainanese settled following the establishment, in the eighteenth century, of a trading centre at Hatien. We do not know the size of this population, but we do know that by 1860 it was primarily engaged in growing pepper. It is clear that by the time of the French Protectorate was established in 1864, the Chinese community in Phnom-Penh, whatever its make-up, numbered in the thousands and controlled practically all the trade of the country, foreign and domestic.
4. The concept of indirect rule over the Chinese in Cambodia dates from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century. This system was not very formal, however, and the legally denned system of congregations in neighbouring Annam, dating from 1814, became the model for the French colonial administrators when they eventually came to consider the “Chinese problem” in Cambodia.