SIHANOUKVILLE, July 13 -- An ongoing massive influx of Chinese into Cambodia's coastal city of Sihanoukville is generating mixed reactions among local residents.
The Chinese began flocking to Sihanoukville about three years ago and their population is now estimated at the same number as Cambodian residents, or around 80,000, according to Mayor Y Sokleng. But other municipal officials suggested the number of Chinese is actually two or three times higher, with the city having been transformed from a sleepy beachtown into a bustling city complete with traffic jams. Sihanoukville, the capital of Sihanoukville Province, is located at the tip of an elevated peninsula in the country's southwest on the Gulf of Thailand. It is about 230 kilometers southwest of the capital Phnom Penh. Chuon Narin, the provincial police chief, said that almost 90 percent of business operations in the city, ranging from hotels, casinos, restaurants to massage parlors, are run by Chinese. Among the 71 casinos, 48 of them are operated by Chinese, and some 90 percent of 436 restaurants in the province are managed by Chinese nationals, he added. Currently, there are nearly 200 hotels and guesthouses in the province, of which 150 are run by Chinese. They also run 41 karaoke clubs and 46 massage parlors, the police chief added. These days, many Cambodians who travel to Sihanoukville wonder whether Sihanoukville can retain its traditional charm amid the sea of Chinese signboards seen everywhere in the city.
Sim Vireak, strategic adviser of the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh, shared his view that the lack of Cambodian-ness is clearly evident in Sihanoukville. The signboards are mostly in red, with some feature misspelled Khmer characters that shop-owners seemingly took directly from Google Translate, he said. Sok Samnang, 49, a government civil servant who lives in Phnom Penh, said he could not believe his eyes when he went to Sihanoukville with his family recently. "I could see Chinese nationals everywhere. They are walking in the streets and are in restaurants as well as construction sites, making this city, the roads and beaches unclean," he said. The local authorities are not denying the fact that due to the rapid influx of foreign arrivals and investments, especially Chinese, they are facing a lot of challenges including water and electricity shortages. The collapse of a Chinese-owned building under construction in Sihanoukville last month that claimed 28 lives had led to calls for the Cambodian government to look into rumors of shoddy and illegal construction.
Following the tragedy, former Sihanoukville Provincial Gov. Yun Min resigned, with his successor, Kuoch Chamroeun, vowing to improve sanitation and keep the environment clean in Sihanoukville. There are nearly 200 projects under construction in the city, mainly built by Chinese. In relation to security and social order, traffic police are reportedly tending to stop more Chinese nationals than Cambodians who break traffic laws in the town these days. In the meantime, more than 400 Chinese nationals, so far, have been arrested in the city and deported to China, mostly for involvement in online scams. While sentiments against the Chinese are divided, Nim Sothea, a social observer, said, "I'm not advocating for communism, but I think there's so much to learn from China. So much! And there's nothing wrong about being close to China." He pointed out the benefit of doing business "with whomever allows us to put food on the table." Vann Sokheng, president of the Sihanoukville Chamber of Commerce, said that in the past, Sihanoukville was a sleepy town, having just a dozen hotels, with a seven-story hotel on the beach being the highest structure. Now many are rising up to 30 stories or higher. He acknowledged some negative impacts on the local people resulting from the Chinese presence, saying some Cambodian families had to relocate outside of the city or to other provinces because of the cost of living. The land price, for instance, at his current office has risen from $50 to $3,000 per square meter in just a few years' time while leases for office space have skyrocketed. However, he also pointed out that some Cambodians regard those living in Sihanoukville are being the luckiest in the country due to having more chance of becoming rich overnight for just selling their land or leasing it to Chinese. "Many local residents are lucky enough to have $1 million, a few million or even tens of millions," he said.
While ordinary Cambodians appear to believe that the rising luxury hotels are being built for Chinese tourists, the national government is viewing the town as a model of fast development. It plans to welcome leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations there in 2022. Sim Vireak said that the development of Sihanoukville should not become an example of failure, but to ensure the Cambodian-ness and inclusiveness of development. "To that end, the responsibility falls heavily on the Cambodian side in terms of law enforcement and concrete implementation of national development policies," he added.
Author: Pete McGee