• Jane Han

Chinese immigration in Cambodia: A cultural struggle

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

“Do you have any interaction with the locals? Do you have Cambodian friends?” We asked a Chinese shop assistant in Sihanoukville.

“No, I just mind my own business and do my job. Why should I communicate with them?”

She is not the only Chinese immigrant who keeps this kind of notion in mind in Cambodia. With a large Chinese population surging in this country, problems regarding integration and segregation become increasingly severe.

Historically, Chinese immigrants in Cambodia can be divided into two groups—old Chinese immigrants and new Chinese immigrants, who see different engagement degree. Old Chinese immigrants refer to the groups who moved to Cambodia as laborers during French colonial rule, refugees during WW2 and Chinese Civil War as well as immigrants returning to Cambodia after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge (Lingyun, 2008). After multiple decades living in Cambodia, they are proficient in Cambodian as wellas cultural knowledge. Most of them seek Cambodian citizenship and roots in Cambodia, identifying as Cambodians instead of Cambodian Chinese.

The case diverges for the new immigrants coming for business and capital. The group includes employees in state-owned enterprises, runners of private enterprises and retailers. 

Cambodia is a country full of possibilities that has a fast-growing market with a 7.5% annual GDP increase in 2018 (Trending Economics, 2018). The political relationship between Cambodia and the Chinese governments is stable and growing. One Chinese financed road (part of BRI initiative) connects the two countries even closer. The Cambodian government has offered many beneficial policies that attract Chinese companies to invest in the country (Manuk, Alexander & Yong, 2018). The ongoing trade war between China and the U.S. has created a harsh living environment for certain manufacturing industries in China. Companies will go abroad and seek a more unrestrained investing environment where they can gain more profit. Thus, many Chinese are attracted by the prospect of investing in Cambodia.

However, the overwhelming pursuit of business success contributes to issues concerning integration and engagement for new Chinese immigrants. Chinese immigrants and locals are segregated from each other because of economic, cultural and social division. 

Chinese immigrants swarming into Cambodia not only undertake large-scale business such as manufacturing, power generation, and real estate but also monopolize the economic niche, such as catering services and retailing. The situation is especially striking in Sihanoukville, where Chinese take up industrial parks, stalls, housing, restaurants and casinos. Chinese businesses increased the prices of living and land by real estate speculation/gambling, and then pay a higher salary for their employees. However, the income of Cambodian workers remains low, which crowds out local businesses and residents with a thin capital foundation.

Cambodia is a nation where the monarch enjoys supreme status. When Norodom Sihanouk passed away in 2012, many Cambodian workers put his pictures on their desks at factories to commemorate him. However, a Chinese factory owner could not understand his workers’ culture and respect. He blamed them for their reduction of working efficiency, and even ripped the pictures of Norodom Sihanouk into shreds. Cambodian workers were enraged, and the situation got intensified and out of control. At last, the Chinese owner had to close his factory and went back to China. The deficiency of cultural engagement may cause damage to both locals and Chinese enterprises.

Norodoum Sihanouk, Cambodian King (1922-2012)

In conclusion, the local community has the ability to assimilate the immigrant community. However, the overpopulated Chinese immigrants and their rate of inflow make the immigrants enclaves too large to be penetrable. “The Chinese began flocking to Sihanoukville about three years ago. The population is now estimated at the same number as Cambodian residents, or around 80,000”, according to Mayor Y Sokleng (Puy, 2019). Chinese immigrants in Cambodia gather and form “China Towns”, which satisfies the social demands of Chinese overseas within the community and create spatial distance between Chinese and Cambodians.

What will Chinese immigrants bring to Cambodia remains to be seen. Some NGOs expressed their worrying-“they destroy local culture, control the business, and set up their own communities.” However, some assume that the next generation will witness a more harmonious and integrated Cambodia. Just like Thy Try, the executive director of ODC, once joked with us: “Do not worry about theChinese, because they will eventually become Cambodians.”

Work Cited

Zhao, L. 赵凌云. (2008, April 01). 1980 nian dai yi lai jian pu zhai de zhong guo xin yi min de yan jiu 1980年代以来柬埔寨的中国新移民研究. Retrieved from http://kns.cnki.net/kns/detail/detail.aspx?FileName=2009081050.nh&DbName=CMFD2009

M. Ghazanchyan, A. Klemm, and Y. S. Zhou. (2018, March). "Tax Incentives in Cambodia," IMF

Working Paper, IMF Asia and Pacific and Fiscal Affairs Departments.

"Cambodia GDP Annual Growth Rate," Trending Economics. (2018). Retrieved from


P. Kea. (2019, July 13). "Large Chinese presence in Cambodian city clashes with local culture," Kyodo

This article was written by Jane Han in collaboration with Jiaxin Hao, Feishi Gong and Zhiyuan Yin.

Contact Jane Han: han896959185@gmail.com

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