'People here mostly don't like the Chinese': Hong Konger in Cambodia

A Phnom Penh resident describes an ominous-looking complex with no sign and high fences near her home.
By Cheryl Tung for RFA Cantonese
2022.08.23
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Traffic passes through Golden Lions roundabout in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, May 19, 2019. Reuters
Traffic passes through Golden Lions roundabout in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, May 19, 2019. Reuters

Cambodians are unhappy with the influx of Chinese developers to their country and resent the widespread use of mainland-style simplified Chinese on the streets of the capital Phnom Penh and elsewhere, a Hong Konger who has lived in the country for several years told RFA.

"It's a pain for local people, and they don't like it," the woman, who chose to be identified under the pseudonym Ka Tung, told RFA’s Cantonese Service. "People here mostly don't like the Chinese.”

"But they have no say in which nationalities come to Cambodia and they mostly care about whether or not they get any business," she said.

Authorities in China, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and Vietnam have launched crackdowns on human traffickers and fraud gangs who lure people to Cambodia with promises of well-paid expat jobs for Chinese speakers, but then trap them in servitude and take their passports.

Many victims have been rescued from Chinese-invested casinos in Sihanoukville, a key project in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)'s Belt and Road global infrastructure and supply chain strategy that was intended as a classy seaside resort, but which is now being described variously as a "hell on earth," and as a "fraudster's paradise."

Ka said she had only recently heard of the human traffickers operating out of Sihanoukville, but has suspected for some time that similar operations may also be happening in the capital.

Ka frequently passes a gated complex a few kilometers from where she lives, which she thinks could be a Chinese-owned complex.

"I'm not sure how big it is," she said. "There is barbed wire all around the perimeter, but it's not regular barbed wire. The fence is much higher, and more heavily guarded than most."

"This campus has big iron gates, and you need permission to go in or out," Ka said. "We watched a while and noticed a lot of people, mostly men, arriving on tuk-tuks, or tricycles, with suitcases."

RFA was unable to confirm the identity of the facility independently. An acquaintance of Ka's supplies the campus with meatballs, she said.

"There is no factory sign or company name. The whole thing looks like a bird cage from the outside," she said. "The courtyard is surrounded by steel fencing, and people inside aren't allowed out."

"The building is about eight or nine stories high, and people inside can get whatever they need without leaving the campus."

Ka added: "Once, when we were passing, the gate was opened with cars entering and leaving, and [we could see] foreign exchange kiosks, supermarkets and eateries."

"Basically, they wouldn't need to leave; everything they needed from day to day was inside," she said. 

"It's very common for them to call in deliveries, and they all use Alipay, WeChat Pay or Payme to make payments," she said, citing her meatball delivering friend.

Alipay and WeChat Pay are ubiquitous payment methods used by mainland Chinese.

2020-03-30T230312Z_840617685_RC2NUF958MI6_RTRMADP_3_HEALTH-CORONAVIRUS-SIHANOUKVILLE.JPG
Newly built buildings stand in Chinatown, Sihanoukville, Cambodia, February 27, 2020. Photo: Reuters

The arrival of Chinese capital in Cambodia is directly linked to CCP leader Xi Jinping's Belt and Road infrastructure and supply chain strategy, which saw hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals pour into Sihanoukville between 2013 and 2019.

By July 2019, 90 percent of enterprises in the city were owned by Chinese nationals, with the highway connecting the resort to Phnom Penh also built with Chinese funding.

Ka has been living in the country since 2017, and remembers being on planes packed with smartly dressed, big-talking Chinese people dripping with expensive jewellery flying in and out of Phnom Penh.

"Sihanoukville is basically like a really huge Chinatown ... there are a lot of casinos there," she said. "There is simplified Chinese on all the shopping malls, toilets, on the signs."

Despite the ill-feeling sparked by the influx of people and capital from China, Ka said Cambodians were generally very welcoming of tourists regardless of ethnicity or origin.

"Why are they particularly disgusted by the Chinese? There is the language barrier, because most Chinese people don't understand Khmer," she said. "They feel they are very rude, because it's rude to speak loudly here."

Nonetheless, job ads still place a premium on Chinese, offering up to U.S.$1,200 a month for Chinese-speaking workers, compared with just U.S.$400-500 for those who only speak Khmer.

Ka hasn't noticed much sign that fraudulent employment ads are on the wane, however, despite the current furor over trafficked workers.

She said the scandal appears to have made little impact on the locals in Phnom Penh, but Sihanoukville is regarded as quite dangerous, and not a good place to travel to alone.

"I heard that there have been many shootings and cases of Chinese getting revenge on other Chinese," she said.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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