Cambodians found employment with the help of sponsors, relatives and friends. But unable to speak English, and lacking suitable qualifications and appropriate occupational backgrounds, many had to work in manual and processing jobs. Those who came from a professional background found it extremely difficult to find appropriate jobs, as their qualifications were not always recognised in New Zealand.
In 2013 most Cambodians continued to work in manual occupations, with 57% employed as tradespeople, machine operators or labourers.
Mr Lim’s supermarket
Mr Lim has left the Khmer Rouge far behind. In 1999 he opened his supermarket in Auckland’s Mt Albert. A huge banner on the wall depicts a rural idyll with the caption, ‘My home in Cambodia 1975’.
He arrived in 1981 and worked in a factory before opening his shop. How did he do it? One newspaper reports:
‘”People tell me I am clever,” he says. “I am not clever, but I work hard” – meaning he gets up at 3.30 am.’ 1
The Cambodian community has grown from just 41 in the early 1970s to 8,601 in 2013, although it is still one of the smaller ethnic groups in New Zealand. This is unlikely to change – political and social conditions in Cambodia have improved and the number of refugees selected for resettlement has dropped. A few still come under the family reunification scheme.
Many New Zealanders still do not fully understand either Cambodia’s difficult history or its cultural richness. But Cambodians have not forgotten their own heritage and traditions. Despite being small, communities have established various associations in their main cities of residence. There are groups in Auckland, Hamilton, the Manawatū, Wellington and Christchurch. Because they unite people and provide places to celebrate religion and culture, these associations have played a large part in preserving traditional identity. By the early 1990s there were enough Cambodian children at schools such as Porirua’s Brandon Intermediate to form a Cambodian group, which added a South-East Asian flavour to multicultural concerts held by the school. In Auckland the community was especially active, and often gathered for celebrations such as that in April 2003 when they observed the Year of the Ram. In 2003 the Auckland Khmer Buddhist Association acquired a two-hectare property in Takinini; there are plans to build a Khmer centre with a hall, library and temple.
Cambodian culture is becoming increasingly visible. With the help of festivals that celebrate New Zealand’s multicultural society, Cambodians are given the opportunity to showcase their traditional dance and food.
The majority of Cambodians are Theravada Buddhists, who use their temples as centres of religious and cultural practice. Suthep, a Cambodian monk, settled in the capital in 1985 and established Wellington’s Cambodian Buddhist temple in Island Bay. There are also three temples in Auckland, and one in Hamilton. Although most of the immigrants have retained their religious affiliations since moving to New Zealand, some have converted to other religions. There are small numbers of Muslim and Christian worshippers.
Integrating into New Zealand society has eroded the Cambodian language, especially among the younger generation. Young Cambodians have been assimilated more than their parents, and speak mainly English. To prevent the loss of their language and ensure it is maintained through successive generations, the community has established Khmer language classes.