- Endnote—Sojourns Across Sources: Unbraiding Sino-Cambodian Histories
There was a hiatus that could not be called silence because while they did not speak there was passing between them the vivid dialogue of the unexpressed.—nadine gordimer (2007, 101)
History is not the sort of animal you can domesticate.—antonio tabucchi (2011, 89)
Late one evening in March 1886, a court official named A Gi was stabbed to death in the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, the capital of the French protectorate of Cambodia. A Gi was the head of the Hainanese Association in Cambodia. He had recently rallied to the French protectorate, gaining the colonial government’s confidence through regular meetings and falling from the favor of Cambodian king Norodom I in the process. His murder chilled Francophile dignitaries across the capital. “The mandarins are terrified,” wrote France’s representative in Cambodia, Lieutenant-Colonel Badens: “They say that those who have taken France’s part will meet the same fate” (Badens 1886, 2).
Rumors were rife. Was this a revenge killing? A Gi had apparently refused his daughter to both King Norodom and Prince Duong Chakr. Was it the political assassination of a turncoat? A Gi was known as a collaborator with the French. Or was this an economic crime? A Gi had run fishing concessions [End Page 398] in Bapnum and Prey Veng. Three days after the murder, an anonymous tract was posted on the door of A Gi’s house. It warned:
The Chinese A Gi was killed because of serious personal enmity. The same will happen to [the mandarins] A Pok and A Hui, who are living in the palace of the Second King [Sisowath] in the North. A Pok is a bad man who is “eating” lots of money [taking lots of revenue]. He insults monks. A Hui is involving himself in the affairs of the Second King’s palace and demanding money. He cheats everyone, and never returns money entrusted to him.(Badens 1886, 2)
Or was A Gi the casualty of a feud between the two Khmer royal houses of the Norodoms and Sisowaths? Sisowath had also taken France’s part, commanding colonial troops in movements against the rebel prince Sivutha. Was A Gi, like A Pok and A Hui, in some way connected with the Second King? Or was this a Chinese affair, and A Gi the victim of intracongregational rivalry? Both the Hainan and Hokkien dialect groups had established active associations in Phnom Penh by 1884. In separate accounts, two French observers noted “frequent disagreement” between the two “rival” Chinese associations in the capital.1
A Gi’s murder remains one of Cambodia’s many unsolved mysteries. We do not know if the protectorate’s suspicions were confirmed, or whether his killers were ever brought to justice. The multiple possible motives for this crime reveal the varied roles of Chinese in Cambodia, both as economic intermediaries, as brokers of political power, and as interlocutors between colonial and indigenous authorities. The scenario offers a valuable freeze-frame of elite life and highlights tensions between competing areas of loyalty. It also speaks to the multiplicity of roles that Chinese have played and still do play in Cambodia and the multiple narratives that surround them.
In her introduction to this volume, Lorraine Paterson sets the scene for the articles featured in this special issue and provides the context from which they emerged. This endnote works to a reverse formula, seeking if not to unweave them then to point to the impossibility of coherence and the inchoate nature of any project to document the past. Rather than braiding together the common threads of our contributors’ articles to signal the thematic coherence of this volume on “mediating Chineseness,” I gesture [End Page 399] toward loose ends and unstitched seams, to the in-between spaces and the possibilities they represent for developing new approaches to the articulation, study, and mediation of “Chineseness” in Cambodia.
I take this line to encourage not a tightening of the bolts between emergent studies but a widening of the compass outside of national framings and across the grain of disciplines. My goal here is to point to the ambiguities...