Author: Panis Phosriwungchai
A European tourist take his giant backpack off a taxi. The sun at noon defies visitors as if to say, here, in Southeast Asia, heat is the high-power.
I’m not sure what he expected to see in Sihanoukville, but from the squinting and frowning expressions, this is definitely not what he anticipated.
Working excavators, clanking steels, and hammering nails — all noises resound the space. Dust from the dirt road and construction sites disperse everywhere, turning the whole city orange.
“It’s a pity. When you mentioned Sihanoukville in Cambodia, it used to be a place where everybody wants to come and see it once in their lifetime.” a man in his early 30s who has lived here since his childhood recalls what it was like years ago.
The word ‘pity’ in the conversation refers to nothing else but how Sihanoukville has changed after influx of Chinese investments began a few years back.
“It used to be a quiet city. Both sides of the roads were pleasantly shaded by big trees. Now, a lot has changed. I couldn’t have imagined it like this.” he said.
The words ‘quiet’ and ‘big trees’ have nothing resembling what I am looking at right now. High-rise buildings are popping up virtually non-stop. Some completed ones were built for the impressions of enormity and grandeur. All of them will become casinos and hotels. The old roads are torn-up now for repair works; however, the dirt road will become new paved roads in the future. I looked around to see if there are any visible Khmer alphabets. They appear only on license plates of vehicles running around the city. Other than that, Chinese alphabets in massive sizes dominate the scene.
In the past, Sihanoukville has been highly ranked for its beautiful beaches by many travel websites. At the famous Ochheuteal Beach, a sculpture of seahorses in a roundabout displays a sign written ‘The most Beautiful Bays in the WORLD’. Nothing can testify to the historic beauty and serenity of this place better than the vacation house of Prime Minister Hun Sen which fronts the beach.
Not only famous for its beautiful beaches, Sihanoukville is also the most significant port city of Cambodia with the biggest and most modern deep-water port in the country, located on the Gulf of Thailand. Even the city’s name was given in honor of the former king Norodom Sihanouk. Its most prominent landmark, the Golden Lions Roundabout, located in the middle of the city, is now surrounded by new buildings owned by Chinese companies.
“China, so many China”, a tuk-tuk driver talks to me in Thai. He can speak Thai a little bit because he used to work in Thailand for many years. This is his impression on how the city has changed, “Only Chinese, no speak English, no speak Khmer”, he grumbles about communication problem with Chinese people who don’t speak other language. Now Chinese people has practically become main population of Sihanoukville after tens of thousands of local Cambodians in the area were evicted from the city.
In the past few years, more than 120,000 Chinese tourists had visited the Sihanoukville. Over 70,000 more Chinese people are living here as workers or owners of casinos, restaurants, and hotels. Last year, it was reported that 150 permissions were granted for new casinos in Sihanoukville. Although many reports said there are currently around 60-70 places still up and running. Observed by the eyes, added buildings still under construction and the total number of casinos here can easily reach hundreds.
Following 20 years of trying to lift its status to lower middle-income country by 2005, Cambodia had announced its goal to become a higher middle-income country by the year 2030. Between 1998-2018, main income of the country came from garment exports and tourism. With average 8% economic growth, it was one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Among its key economic-boosting strategies is to open the country for foreign direct investments; Especially investments from China whom Cambodia had incentivized to use land and open business freely in many cities. Particularly in Sihanoukville, over 1,113 hectares of land was dedicated to the tax-free Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone (SSEZ). Developed in 2008, now it has over a hundred companies operating there; at least 90 of which are Chinese. The SSEZ had created jobs for over 16,000 people. It aims to further expand into a new “Shenzhen” of Cambodia.
“Sihanoukville Special Economic Zone supports Chinese companies to expand their business locally and effectively in response to Cambodia’s demand for economic growth. Consequently both countries can enjoy benefits from our relationship under the ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy”, said Cao Jianjiang, general manager of SSEZ, in an interview with The Phnom Penh Post in 2017.
But lavish fantasy of the governing elites and businessmen doesn’t seem consistent with reality and what laypeople in Cambodia are experiencing.
“Since the Chinese arrived, first, everything has become more expensive, second, land conflicts increased, and third, the rich get even richer.” This is an observation by a local who is working as security guard in a casino; at the same time he is coordinating a labour organization and also fighting for land rights in Sihanoukville. “Before the Chinese arrived, the land were not expensive, just around US$ 60-70 per square meter. Now it has surged to US$ 5-6 thousands per square meter.” He continues to explain.
Originally, local people in Sihanoukville had land in the city or at the seasides. They worked mainly in fishery, and some people drove tuk-tuk for foreign tourists. When Chinese investors moved in, Cambodian government paved the way by evicting tens of thousands of local people who lived in the city and relocating them in urban slums and other areas scattered outside the city. Land on the seasides were developed completely into new towns where nothing looks the same. The problem is, villagers usually don’t have land title deed. Most only have written papers passed on from their elders stating that the family had bought the land from village chiefs. Of course this kind of document is not valid in the eye of the national government. A large amount of land were then confiscated from villagers and later granted to Chinese businessmen who now have the rights on those lands for over a lifetime.”
Nonetheless there are some people who could manage to make some money from their land by leasing it to Chinese people with decades-long contract. They then moved out to live somewhere else. Brokers are working with the locals and the Chinese, taking care of lease agreements or sale contracts. On the other hand, many people turned to work in factories in the special economic zone, but their quality of life hasn’t improved so much as expected.
“A friend of mine was fighting until he got arrested and put in jail. He hasn’t been out. His land was confiscated. At least he should get some compensation, but he got nothing. When taking on a fight like this, you either end up dead or in jail. You have to figure how to survive.” He became silent for awhile. “Wherever the Chinese go, it’s like this.”
He also questions the government who has been in power for over 26 years; that when a strong opposition party appears to gain share of the vote close to that of the party in power, numerous allegations are conjured up to dissolve the competing party. Under the vicious power cycle like this, people’s rights hardly matter.
“If the government genuinely concerns about its people, why do they allow Chinese businessmen to open companies for taxi and tuk-tuk? Why not keep this [business] for Cambodians and employ Cambodian people so that at least we aren’t jobless. Instead, they are hiring only Chinese workers. The government doesn’t really care for laypeople in the lower class, they only concern about their elite cronies and how to make benefits for themselves.” The man gives his opinions with determined eyes.
Before our conversation ends, cool wind from the sea arrives. Fortunately, power can’t deprive people of sea breeze. Even though beaches have lost much of their beauty.
During day time, Sihanoukville as a ginormous construction site feels almost empty with no people except for construction workers who are doing their jobs. Chinese tourists are still sleeping in their luxurious hotel rooms in one of the high-rise buildings. European tourists are sipping beer on the beach. They are waiting for the sun to set so that they can enjoy night life in the city filled with risk-taking.
“Beer here is cheaper than drinking water” someone says. A Thai song ‘Sai Wa Si Bo Tim Gun (You said you won’t ditch me)’ plays in the background from Ochheuteal Beach. After the hot afternoon, sea breeze continues to blow until sunset.
A one-dollar bill, not more, not less, can get us a can of beer — in Sihanoukville, where it’s already more expensive than other places in Cambodia. But still an affordable price.
Shops and restaurants come to life after 6 PM. Casinos are opened 24-hours although some looks like they just woke up after flashing lights are turned on around the buildings. At some construction sites, workers just finish their shift after laying two rows of bricks in only a few hours.
“Patrons of the casinos are all Chinese.” said a woman who works as a card dealer in one of the casinos. She’s been working there for just 5-6 months after her grocery shop in the village couldn’t earn enough for a living anymore. At least at the casino, she will get US$ 300 at the end of the month. When business was peaking, she could get tips from patrons as much as US$ 200 in a night. She works 12 hours a day “from 7 AM to 7PM”, she said.
In August last year, Cambodian government announced a ban on online gambling in casinos around the country stating reasons that the activity has been exploited by foreign criminals engaging in frauds and extortion. As a result, more than half of the casinos in Sihanoukville have been closed. Consequently, thousands of workers have become jobless as most tourists disappear.
“Before, there were hundreds of customers rotating each night. At the moment I mainly sit around and wait. In a 12-hour shift, just two or three patrons might sit down and play.” Certainly the situation has affected her tips which has now drastically decreased to the range of tens dollars per night, or none in some days. “Can’t put much hope on the tips. At least I still got a job.”
“At my casino there is a fixed 18-days annual bonus. Meals are free. If you get sick, it’s also free — feel free to pay your own medical bills.” She smiles while telling her story and jokes at her own circumstance.
Not only this woman who had to change her livelihood, people of Sihanoukville have had to change their ways of life. From being fishermen and owning local shops, they are now working in factories in the special economic zone or working in casinos as doormen, card dealers, or cleaners.
From the perspective of local people here, working in casinos can earn reasonable incomes. But you can actually earn better money if you rent a space on the beach and open a food shop. But the rent is definitely very high, thousands of dollars a month — so obviously it’s not anyone’s choice.
Walking around the city, you will see that many restaurants are decorated entirely in Chinese style. They sell Chinese food, speak Chinese language, and cater mainly to Chinese tourists. Cambodians are assistants, working in the kitchen or serving the dishes. Their land is not theirs anymore.
With massive investments in Sihanoukville, many Cambodians from other provinces of the country are attracted to come here. They had heard in th news or from their neighbors that jobs and money are waiting for them at Sihanoukville. Once arrived, many have realized the same thing: they could only be low-wage labors. Because for higher levels jobs like foreman, investor, engineer, or skilled worker — all are imported from China.
An ironworker who honed his skills from Phnom Penh, came to apply for a job at a construction site in Sihanoukville, now facing similar situation. When I asked “Is there a chance to get promoted?”. He chuckled “How is it possible. They let us be in just the lowest levels.”
“At first when I got in, I applied for an ironworker position. But when I actually started, I do whatever the Chinese boss order. One day I do ironwork, the next day I carry garbage. Just another unskilled labour.” the 34 years old ironworker tells his story.
Usually when people from outside come looking for jobs, they would walk around and ask at the construction sites. Jobs are assigned in cycles, 10 to 15 days per cycle depending on the company system. When the economy was booming, Chinese companies would pay an ironworker around US$ 23 per day. But when the policy on online gambling changed, many Chinese investors started to pull out and the ironworker’s daily wage reduced to only US$ 12. Sometimes you don’t get paid at all because the investors just shamelessly fled the country without paying. For the unskilled-labors/common workers, their wage could drop to merely US$ 10 per day, in a city where the cost of living has becoming increasingly high.
Investments, mega buildings, cigarette smoke, beer, piles of money, rows of chips, crime, trickery, lights and sounds, languages, Chinese food — all these have become the breath of Sihanoukville as it gains the status of a new casino capital of Cambodia.
In a similar way, hope that the city will become clean and orderly again once construction of the new city is completed, as well as hope for nonexploitative and decent works, are the things that have extended the breath of people in Sihanoukville.
When we step back and take a wider perspective, Sihanoukville is not the only place that is affected by aggressive influx of Chinese investments, countries in Southeast Asian are facing the same dilemma. Particularly in the Golden Triangle area where the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone was opened 10 years ago in Ton Pheung District of Bokeo Province in Laos PDR, just opposite of Chiang Saen District of Chiang Rai Province in Thailand. Last year, it was reported to generate US$ 150 million of income. The Laos government has leased the area to China for 99 years in order to build a new city with complete entertainment complexes. While main visitors are Chinese tourists, casinos are undoubtedly the highlighted attraction of the complex.
Mandalay in Myanmar is another city that built special economic zone to attract investors from China. Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, is now inundated with high-rise buildings which follow massive influx of Chinese investments.
If anyone says colonialism is over, these examples could give a clearer picture on how ‘economic colonialism through foreign investment’ is progressing intensively in this low-income region — with China as the main colonialist power. It is interesting to follow how the breath of this region can be freed when all seems to have fallen in the hands of certain absolute power from the outside.
It’s almost 8 PM when a big group of Chinese tourists walk into the restaurant I am sitting. Loud chats continue as they order food swiftly and effectively in Chinese language as though they are sitting at home. They don’t have to adapt to nearly anything because everything here has been adjusted into the environment that Chinese people are familiar with.
On the opposite side of the restaurant is a big casino where sandals are forbidden, except, of course, if you wear them to match your expensive luxurious bag. In an alley next to the restaurant are sheds for construction workers. Newly constructed buildings are mixed with old ones along the entire road. You can hardly find any restaurant with a Cambodian owner, except some small joints selling beers and cigarettes under dim orange lights.
Nights in Sihanoukville go by like this. And music from the land of dragon continues to echo over this city of lion.
- Assessing the Impacts of Chinese Investments in Cambodia: The Case of Preah Sihanoukville Province
This article is produced as part of a field trip project organized by the Thai Society of Environmental Journalists, Thai Journalist Association.
You can read the original article in Thai here: อาณาจักรคาสิโน เบียร์หนึ่งดอลลาร์ และราคาชีวิตของสีหนุวิลล์