“This city has been lost to China:” Urbanism in Coastal Cambodia

Above: One of Sihanoukville’s new casinos funded by Chinese investments
Source: The Guardian

In recent years, the once-dreamy beach town of Sihanoukville on the southern coast of Cambodia has become a casino-ridden hub for Chinese investment. In a country where the GDP per capita is less than USD 1,385 [1], urbanism comes with much financial difficulty and Cambodia has turned to China for assistance in funding the process. In return, Cambodia provides China access to the South China Sea to expand its maritime capabilities and to add to the Belt and Road Initiative trade route. [2] As the number of casinos and flashy hotels has quickly climbed, so have crime rates, local unemployment, and a feeling of resentment towards the “Chinese mafia” [3] who have come to town. Looking at the facts, it is understandable why locals feel their paradise “has been lost to China.” [4]

   In the process of urbanising the town, which is reported to now have over 80 new casinos [5], the rise in rent prices has meant locals have been pushed out of their homes. Speaking to an Australian journalist, one tuk-tuk driver said rent increased from USD 50 in 2017 to USD 150 in 2018 and that soon he expects to not be able to afford to live in Sihanoukville at all. [6] Another man’s restaurant received an eviction notice after an unnamed Chinese investor “purchased the land for ‘renovations.’” [7] Many villagers allege that they have been victims of “unlawful ‘land grabs.’” [8] And the list goes on. The process of urbanism in Sihanoukville appears to be very much imposed and not a movement from the resident population, which has become problematic and potentially illegal if the land-grabbing allegations are true.

   Not only are the local population being displaced, their employment rates are falling as the new jobs created by the incoming casinos, hotels, and businesses are filled by staff flown in from China. [9] The Phnom Penh Post, a popular newspaper among expats in Cambodia, reported that the foreign investment has created an economically “closed loop” that prevents local Cambodians from receiving new opportunities or financial gain. [10] Even on the rare occasion that an employment position does arise, it is not always as accessible to the Cambodians as it may initially appear. For example, according to one bartender, one casino-owner asked interviewees if they smoked; those who did not were not accepted for the job. [11] The director of Sihanoukville’s Tourism Department, Taing Socheat Kroesna, said that the Chinese now account for 5 percent of the hospitality jobs in the province. [12] This is the figure prior to the development of so-called ‘Wisney World,’ a 65-hectare complex of “water-parks, hotels, casinos, malls, gardens, and churches.” [13] It seems that Cambodia’s land has been assumed by Chinese investors as land of their own, for their businesses and their employees. 

   Not only have the Chinese brought hotels, staff, and smoking habits to the beach town but has also coincided with an increase in levels of crime, often linked to unhappy gamblers. The deputy commissioner for Sihanoukville police stated that “money laundering, illegal casino operations and human trafficking have become acute concerns.” [14] In July 2018 there was a drive-by shooting that left four men hospitalized: the suspected gunman was a Chinese national, and this was not an unusual event to occur. Kidnappings have risen in frequency; both that of wealthy investors for ransoms and that of local massage parlour workers. [15] Illegal sex work has also increased, with the workers also being Chinese nationals ‘imported’ to provide for the gamblers’ demand. [16] It is said that locals have grown afraid of the Chinese tourists. Which is unsurprising given that “if the Chinese guy has a problem with the police, he just pays them money and the problem goes away,” [17]meaning many criminals are left at large in the province. The urbanisation of Sihanoukville therefore has come at the cost of the safety of both locals and tourists in the region, making the value of such transformation questionable since it puts human lives at risk.

   Despite all this negative change, further Chinese investment is being permitted in the province. A key reason why this is the case is that the Provincial Tourism Department reports that in 2017, Sihanoukville saw “a dramatic surge in Chinese visitors primarily drawn to Chinese-run casinos” [18] and these are perceived to bring in income for the country. Further reports say that in the first nine months of 2017, Chinese arrivals increased by 170% in the Sihanoukville province alone. [19] Though – as pointed out earlier – not many locals benefit from the recent changes, those who do benefit do so massively. One land-lady now is able to charge USD 4,500 rent per month in an accommodation that used to cost USD 500 per month for locals. [20] Additionally, Cambodians on construction sites earn three times what they used to on local projects. [21] A German national who, for thirteen years, has run Sun Tours in Sihanoukville stated “The Cambodian business model down here has never been sustainable, and finally some real cash is just starting to come in.” [22] He supports the argument that there is a minority of people sees the Chinese investment in urbanising Sihanoukville as positive change.

   Over the recent years of commercial development and change in Sihanoukville, the town has been dubbed ‘Little China’ and ‘New Macau’ [23] and ‘Macau Number Two’ [24] and it’s expected that if things continue at this rapid pace, Sihanoukville will soon be ‘on the map.’ Between 2016-18, direct flights connecting Cambodia and China have increased from 110 to 404 flights per week [25]. Even Sihanoukville International Airport, a humble infrastructure, is connected to eight provinces in China supplying regular commercial and charter flights. [26] Between 2013-17 China invested more money into Cambodia than even the Cambodian government, and China’s presence in the nation has only grown since the anti-authoritarianism aftermath of the 2018 general election (during which the US suspended several assistance programs in Cambodia and the EU threatened to do the same). China has further plans for pushing Sihanoukville’s accessibility for visitors, including a four-lane highway connecting Sihanoukville to Phnom Penh – the nation’s capital – which was approved in mid-July last year. [27] 

   The question must be posed: why Sihanoukville? It appears the tropical gem, once-comparable to the popular coasts of Thailand, sits in Cambodia’s only deep-water port and therefore is a vital aspect of President Xi Jinping’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative,’ an initiative designed to enhance regional cooperation on a trans-continental scale. [28] Therefore, as of July 2018, the southern coast of Cambodia holds “USD 4.2 billion worth of power plants and off shore oil operations” [29] that belong to Chinese companies. Other developments have also included the practice of military exercises, which the Cambodian government “has not been very transparent about,” [30] as China has expanded its military presence in the region. It seems that only in urbanising Sihanoukville can the Chinese use this port for military and energy operations. 

   It could be said that the commercial and political motivations behind investing in the town explains why the land and people have been so mistreated in the last few years; the increase in pollution and local angst being tangible. Vanarith Chheang, co-founder of Cambodia Institute for Strategic Studies, speaks of anti-Chinese rhetoric that is growing in Cambodia, warning that “if China fails in Cambodia, it will fail in the region.” [31] With the construction of Wisney World just beginning, alongside a very similar project in the neighbouring province of Koh Kong, Chinese investors have only just begun manifesting their ambitions for The Kingdom. For the sake of Cambodia-Chinese relations, and for that of good manners, it may benefit the incoming investors to consider the local population before they next tear down a home to build an exclusive casino. Alternatively, Sihanoukville will continue to be a world in which two peoples are divided as a direct effect of urbanism. 


Holly Penfold

Holly is a 1st year International Relations student at King’s College London. She is interested in gender politics and the expression of culture in global interactions.

End Notes

[1] ‘GDP per Capita (current US$)’ 2019. World Bank Group. [Online] Available from:https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD?locations=KH-MM-SG

[2] Parameswaran, P. 2019. ‘China-Cambodia Military Fears in the Headlines with New US Intelligence Report.’ The Diplomat. [Online] Available from: https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/china-cambodia-military-base-fears-in-the-headlines-with-new-us-intelligence-report/. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[3] Neubaur, I. 2018. ‘Chinese Mafia Taking Over Idyllic Cambodian Beach.’ News.com.au. [Online] Available from: https://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/asia/chinese-mafia-taking-over-idyllic-cambodian-beach/news-story/23e247e1af47257c2ff9e90c7112548e. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Fullerton, J. 2018. “Cambodian Unease as Chinese Casinos Turn Seaside Paradise into ‘Macau no2’” The Telegraph. [Online] Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/11/cambodian-unease-chinese-casinos-turn-seaside-paradise-macau/Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[6] Neubaur, I. 2018. ‘Chinese Mafia Taking Over Idyllic Cambodian Beach.’ News.com.au. [Online] Available from: https://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/asia/chinese-mafia-taking-over-idyllic-cambodian-beach/news-story/23e247e1af47257c2ff9e90c7112548e. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[7] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[8] Fullerton, J. 2018. “Welcome to ‘Tourism Vacation Town:’ China to build $1.2bn holiday hotspot in Cambodia.” The Guardian. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/07/welcome-to-tourism-vacation-town-china-to-build-12bn-holiday-hotspot-in-cambodiaAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[9] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Fullerton, J. 2018. “Cambodian Unease as Chinese Casinos Turn Seaside Paradise into ‘Macau no2’” The Telegraph. [Online] Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/11/cambodian-unease-chinese-casinos-turn-seaside-paradise-macau/Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[12] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[13] Pinsei, H. 2018. ‘We’re Going to Wisney World!’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/business/were-going-wisney-world Accessed 18 Feb 2019.

[14] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[15] Murdoch, L. and Geraghty, K. 2018. ‘The Next Macau? China’s Big Gamble in Cambodia.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. [Online] Available from: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/the-next-macau-china-s-big-gamble-in-cambodia-20180615-p4zlqg.htmlAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[16] Chan Thul, P. 2018. ‘Cambodia Launches Crackdown on Chinese Prostitution Rings.’ Business Insider. [Online] Available from: https://www.businessinsider.com/r-cambodia-launches-crackdown-on-chinese-prostitution-rings-2018-8?r=US&IR=T. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[17] Neubaur, I. 2018. ‘Chinese Mafia Taking Over Idyllic Cambodian Beach.’ News.com.au. [Online] Available from: https://www.news.com.au/travel/world-travel/asia/chinese-mafia-taking-over-idyllic-cambodian-beach/news-story/23e247e1af47257c2ff9e90c7112548e. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[18] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[19] Murdoch, L. and Geraghty, K. 2018. ‘The Next Macau? China’s Big Gamble in Cambodia.’ The Sydney Morning Herald. [Online] Available from: https://www.smh.com.au/world/asia/the-next-macau-china-s-big-gamble-in-cambodia-20180615-p4zlqg.htmlAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[20] Ellis-Peterson, H. 2018. “‘No Cambodia Left’: How Chinese Money is Changing Sihanoukville.” The Guardian. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jul/31/no-cambodia-left-chinese-money-changing-sihanoukville. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[23] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[24] Fullerton, J. 2018. “Cambodian Unease as Chinese Casinos Turn Seaside Paradise into ‘Macau no2’” The Telegraph. [Online] Available from: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/08/11/cambodian-unease-chinese-casinos-turn-seaside-paradise-macau/Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[25] Xuxin. 2019. ‘Interview: Spike in Chinese Tourists Drives Cambodia’s Tourism Growth Last Year.’ XinhuaNet. [Online] Available from: http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-01/29/c_137783936.htmAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[26] Kotoski, K. and Sokhorng, C. 2017. ‘Big Trouble in Little China?’ The Phnom Penh Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.phnompenhpost.com/post-depth-business/big-trouble-little-china-0Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[27] Reuters. 2018. “Cambodia Says Relations With China Are at ‘Best Stage’ Ever After Agreeing $259m Loan to Build Road” South China Morning Post. [Online] Available from: https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2156142/cambodia-says-relations-china-are-best-stage-ever-afterAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[28] Freund, C. and Ruta, M. 2018. ‘Belt and Road Initiative.’ The World Bank. [Online] Available from: https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/regional-integration/brief/belt-and-road-initiativeAccessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[29] Ellis-Peterson, H. 2018. “‘No Cambodia Left’: How Chinese Money is Changing Sihanoukville.” The Guardian. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jul/31/no-cambodia-left-chinese-money-changing-sihanoukville. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[30] Parameswaran, P. 2019. ‘China-Cambodia Military Fears in the Headlines with New US Intelligence Report.’ The Diplomat. [Online] Available from: https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/china-cambodia-military-base-fears-in-the-headlines-with-new-us-intelligence-report/. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

[31] Ellis-Peterson, H. 2018. “‘No Cambodia Left’: How Chinese Money is Changing Sihanoukville.” The Guardian. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jul/31/no-cambodia-left-chinese-money-changing-sihanoukville. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.

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Image Source: Ellis-Peterson, H. 2018. “‘No Cambodia Left’: How Chinese Money is Changing Sihanoukville.” The Guardian. [Online] Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2018/jul/31/no-cambodia-left-chinese-money-changing-sihanoukville. Accessed: 18 Feb 2019.