In recognition of his cornerstone work on Chinese communities in Cambodia, we dedicate this special issue of Cross-Currents to William E. Willmott.— Lorraine Paterson and Penny Edwards, Ithaca and Berkeley, November 2012
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. [End Page 267]
For Willmott, in his groundbreaking research in the early 1960s, there had been no shifting categories and no interrogation of conflicting concepts of Chineseness. As he succinctly states in his reflections in this special issue, “For most of us [doing research on overseas Chinese], Chinese identity was simply a methodological issue.” In other words, designation of ethnic identity was simply a matter of getting the process right. In Willmott’s case, he defined as Chinese “all those who participated in the Chinese associations available to them.” He juxtaposed this designation of identity with that of the Cambodian census of 1961, which registered anyone who spoke Chinese language or possessed Chinese nationality as ethnic Chinese. This census was recorded on punch cards that Willmott lugged back from Cambodia in his suitcase to feed into a large mechanical sorter at the London School of Economics. In this issue, Willmott shares the wonderful memory of sorting through boxes of these cards as “how demographic research was done then.”
This special issue spans an era from when scholars considered Chineseness a merely methodological proposition and punch cards recorded definitive ethnicity to a contemporary context in which the nuances of Chinese identity formation are contested, interrogated, and constantly reconfigured. As Penny Edwards remarks in her piece, “Endnote—Sojourns Across Sources: Unbraiding Sino-Cambodian Histories,” these changes in research reflect both shifts in sociopolitical environments affecting expressions of Chineseness and attendant changes in research access, as much as new directions in a field of study.
In the past decade, new studies have emerged that both build on and challenge Willmott’s pioneering work of the 1960s at a time when configurations of Chinese-Cambodianness and the Sino-Cambodian relationship itself have come under fresh scrutiny and renewed interest. On the fiftieth anniversary of Willmott’s return from fieldwork, it seemed appropriate to revisit his fieldwork in the context of two linked panels at the annual meeting of the Association of Asian Studies (AAS) in Toronto in March 2012. With the assistance of Penny Edwards and Erik Davis, under the auspices of the Thailand, Laos, Cambodia Studies Group (TLC), William Willmott was able to attend the panels and reflect on his research in Cambodia from the vantage point of decades later and to engage with younger scholars in the field and comment on their work.
Willmott’s seminal scholarship acts as the framework to the articles in [End Page 268] this special issue, emerging as they do from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, including history, political science, anthropology, and sociology. This range of disciplines allows for a multiplicity of scholarly approaches that reflects the expansion of interest in this area from the period of Willmott’s pioneering study...