When Kang Qiang looks out the window of his 20th floor office on the Cambodian coast, he sees heavy equipment used to create high-rise buildings. But there is no sign of anyone operating the construction equipment.
Kang Qiang is the owner of a casino in the Cambodian city of Sihanoukville. For years, Chinese visitors and their money have supported his and other gaming businesses in the city. But now, Sihanoukville is facing problems. Travel restrictions designed to slow the coronavirus pandemic have worsened the effects of a ban last year on online gambling.
But Kang believes there is a great future after the pandemic. He is waiting for the return of Chinese money to support the city’s expansion. He is so sure he has added gold toilets to his casino’s restrooms.
“This city is just starting,” says Kang, 60. “I love it. Sihanoukville gives you a feeling of freedom and no control.”
For Kang and others, the city is like the China of 20 or 30 years ago. It shows lots of promise and has none of the competition. Kang believes the economic problems resulting from the virus are not important.
“China is huge; there will always be people interested in Sihanoukville,” says 30-year-old Yin Hongsi from Chengdu. He finds people to work at one of the casinos. “You don’t need to worry if the Chinese will come back,” he said.
Sihanoukville has a deep water port. It is part of the Chinese government’s Belt and Road building initiative, which invests money in projects all around the world. In the next three years, Sihanoukville will hold the Southeast Asian Games and a meeting of Southeast Asian leaders.
Chinese money is important to the economies of Southeast Asia. Cambodia has received a large amount of money for investment. Prime Minister Hun Sen is doing all he can to strengthen ties to China.
An expanding city
In Sihanoukville, most of the money has been from private investors. Most of it has gone into about 70 casinos. All those businesses were ordered to close from April 1 to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The gambling industry has reshaped the city so much that some locals struggle to recognize it.
Inside the casinos, there are lots of United States hundred-dollar notes. Outside, streets are dirty from the construction work, and people cross streets on pieces of wood.
It is a situation known to anyone who has watched China’s years of growth.
“China speed,” says Gavin Gao, a happy, young businessman from Chengdu. He believes he has a great future in town.
“Sihanoukville is going at China speed ... Here is China 2.0!” he said.
Cambodians have mixed feelings about the Chinese. They have brought money and jobs. But many have gone home because of the coronavirus.
“People used to say ‘Sihanoukville is the best’. There are Chinese and lots of money,’” said Siv Tia, who sells drinks in the market. “Now they say everyone in Sihanoukville has a big bank loan, he added.
More than 20 people were killed in the collapse of a half-built Chinese-owned building last year. The collapse angered many Cambodians. So did the noise from the many building projects and the dirt in the streets.
“The growth was just…too fast!” says Transport Minister Sun Chanthol. “Now things are slowing down.”
Those who have invested in Sihanoukville believe things will get better because China has, they believe, defeated the virus.
“They got it under control,” says 28-year old Bob Zhao from Shandong. He came to Sihanoukville looking for a job and became a salesman for a Chinese businessman.
“In China, there are so many competitors,” he said. “The opportunity here is better.”
Zhao explains his reasons for staying in Cambodia: it is a U.S. dollar-based economy, Hun Sen is close to China, and Cambodia’s government is strong.
“Our money is safe,” he said.
Yin works as a supervisor at a casino. He has been earning at least two times what he would in China by working in Sihanoukville. He says, however, that the Chinese money and investments have led to rising prices and other problems.
Still, he noted, the Chinese money has helped the economy in what he sees as a forgotten country.
“It seems like other countries are not interested in Cambodia, like America and Europe,” he said. “China is interested.”
I’m Jill Robbins
The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
casino – n. a place where people go to gamble legally
pandemic – n. a worldwide outbreak of disease
gamble – v. to bet money on cards, horses or sports winners
toilet – n. a device used to expel body fluids and solids
initiative – n. a large action taken to change something