An ongoing massive influx of Chinese into the 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 to be the same as that of Cambodian residents, or around 80,000, according to Mayor Y Sokleng.
But other municipal officials suggest the number of Chinese is actually two or three times higher, with the city having been transformed from a sleepy beach town into a bustling city complete with traffic jams.
The capital of Sihanoukville province is located at the tip of an elevated peninsula in the country’s southwest on the Gulf of Thailand, about 230 kilometres southwest of Phnom Penh.
Chuon Narin, the provincial police chief, said that almost 90% of business operations in the city, ranging from hotels, casinos and restaurants to massage parlours, are run by Chinese.
Among the 71 casinos, 48 are operated by Chinese, and 90% of the 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 parlours, 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.
Sim Vireak, strategic adviser to the Asian Vision Institute based in Phnom Penh, said the lack of Cambodian-ness is clearly evident in Sihanoukville.
The signboards are mostly in red, with some featuring misspelled Khmer characters that shop-owners seemingly took directly from Google Translate, he said.
Sok Samnang, 49, a 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.
Local authorities do not deny that the rapid influx of foreign arrivals and investment, especially from Chinese, has created 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 led to calls for the Cambodian government to look into rumours of shoddy and illegal construction.
Following the tragedy, former Sihanoukville governor Yun Min resigned. His successor, Kuoch Chamroeun, has vowed to improve sanitation and keep the environment clean.
There are nearly 200 projects under construction in the city, mainly built by Chinese.
When it comes to basic public order, traffic police reportedly are stopping more Chinese nationals than Cambodians who break traffic laws 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 sentiment toward the Chinese is divided, Nim Sothea, a social observer, said: “I’m not advocating for communism, but I think there’s so much to learn from China. 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-storey hotel on the beach being the highest structure. Now many are rising up to 30 stories or higher.
He acknowledged some negative impacts on 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 high cost of living.
The land price in the area where his current office is situated has soared from US$50 to $3,000 per square metre in just a few years, while leases for office space have skyrocketed.
However, he also pointed out that some Cambodians regard those living in Sihanoukville as the luckiest people in the country because they have a chance to become rich overnight, just by selling or leasing their land 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 Asean leaders there in 2022.
Sim Vireak said the development of Sihanoukville should not become an example of failure, but should be inclusive and ensure that Cambodian character is preserved.
“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.