A month ago, singer Hai Xin held a concert in Cambodia’s Westport/Sihanoukville.
After working as a singer in China ten years he was still unknown, but became a local star in Cambodia. He sang “No Dream, Why Westport/ If there is no dream, why come to Kampong Som ”, which became an anthem among Chinese expatriates in Cambodia.
Sihnaoukville; once a place of adventure and now a city of sleeping beasts.
On the night of the concert, there was a big cloud of rain in the sky. Haixin’s singing touched the auditorium like a wind, and touched the boss, the gambler and the wage earners alike.
People smiled and applauded, but the smile was somewhat cold. Outside the concert venue, the lights of all the casino buildings had been turned off, Chinese promotion flyers left discarded by the roadside, dark green protective nets surrounding the shutdown construction sites, and tuk-tuk drivers who have reduced their fares from 15 US dollars at the peak to 3 US dollars.
The whole city is like a roller coaster which has just come off the thrilling rails of the ride.
Everything begins in 2017. Prior to that, the city was a quiet seaside town. The tallest building in the city was a 7-storey hotel. After dark there were only whispers of rain on tin roofs and music from beach bars.
European and American backpackers took “Lonely Planet” to find things and loved the lazy beach outside the city. The beach is like white sand, and the blue sea is picturesque. National Geographic has rated it as one of the most beautiful beaches in the world and “a place of clear desire”.
After the 2017 Spring Festival, the story of Sihanoukville became a hundredfold more complicated. Cambodia issued 163 casino licenses, of which 91 were in Sihanoukville.
Tall buildings rose, and the whole city turned into a construction site, and a large number of Chinese began to pour in. The first to come were the speculators, who always had a shark-like sense for money.
Land is forbidden for foreigners to buy and sell, but you can find a local company to hold it and lease. In two years, house prices in Westport have increased sevenfold, and land prices have increased by dozens of times.
The wasteland near the airport was originally priced at $ 1 per square meter, and it was $ 30 when it was resold one and a half years later.
A local man owning land was said to be illiterate, and the land purchase contract was signed by a painted symbol. He soon became a guest of the Xue Manzi Investment Exchange Conference.
Xue Manzi commented that “the noblest are the stupidest and the humblest are the smartest. (This man) is a grassroots hero! ”
Among the army of land speculation, the most famous are Xue Manzi and Ou Shen. Xue Manzi claims that the land he bought in Cambodia is larger than the area in Macau. “The land price in Westport doubles ten times a year, and he buys a house for four years to pay back.”
Ou Shen of the Reservoir Forum resold the land in the city to Chinese tourists. The first round sold for 250,000 yuan ($35,500), and raised the price to 350,000 ($49,770). After the speculators opened their doors, the gold rush followed.
Some individuals who participated in the Oushen study tour bought a small hot pot restaurant in Xigang. The hot pot restaurant has tables on the side of the road, and the decoration is simple, but could make a good profit each year.
“The restaurant couldn’t squeeze customers in at mealtimes. Ou Shen and friends once took three tables by the roadside and ate nearly three thousand dollars (of food).”
After the casinos opened, the restaurant scene became extremely prosperous. Thousands of wealthy customers flocked to the city, followed by fiddling puppies (*no idea what they are, but sounds cute), tattooed thugs, and colorfully made-up call girls. The online gambling army had arrived, the ‘dogs’ the ‘pushers’ and the ‘farmers’ of an industry which is nicknamed in Mandarin ‘spinach’.
Everyone rushed into Westport, like a herd on the grassland.
At an investment sharing conference Xue Manzi told the crowds “I have never seen such a city, countless people with bright eyes, go crazy to make money like chicken blood.”
He said that it was like returning to Luohu, Shenzhen in the 1980s, seeing the barren paddy fields again.
The city has a changing appearance. Some people said that they saw the seascape of Sanya (* a city on the southern end of China’s Hainan Island), some people said they stepped into the shadow of Shenzhen, some people said that this was another Macau, and some people said that this was the next Dubai.
There are indeed oil fields under the sea, with reserves of nearly 2 billion barrels. Endless fantasies inspire endless desires, which are shaped into today’s city.
The town is named after the nation’s founding father. Sihanouk means “little lion” in Sanskrit. To honor this, a pair of golden lions were erected in the city center as the main landmark.
The Twin Lions became disillusioned bystanders. In the widely circulated photos on the Internet, in January last year, there was still a large open space behind the statues. Five months later, the empty space had been filled by a building.
Today, there is Chongqing hot pot in the southwest and Northeast barbecue in the northeast. It goes west along Sihanouk Street and passes by the sauna clubhouse. At the end is the old Beijing characteristic copper hot pot. In the harbour further afield, a pink cruise ship lights up orange at night. Chinese elements are everywhere in the city.
Guizhou rice noodles are paired with Shaxian snacks, Putian Hospital is next to Home Inn, and the prominent Chinese signboards are accompanied by Khmer, most of which are translated by Google, often with spelling errors. It is difficult for the Chinese to feel alien here, except for prices.
Nongfu Mountain Spring, which sells for 1.5 yuan ($0.21) in China, sells for $ 1.50, routers that sell for 100 yuan ($14) in China sell for $ 100, $ 75 for a pound of Pippi shrimp, $ 40 for a box of fake cigarettes.
In the first half of 2017, the monthly rent of a 30 square meter single room was US $ 150, and had risen to US $ 1,500 in the second half of 2018. Second-hand housing prices have also skyrocketed. The owner of a local print shop sold a 40-square-meter shop for $ 1 million, and then rented a house opposite to continue business.
Money figures are becoming increasingly numb in Westport. A middle-aged aunt often gambles and takes a roll of US dollars and throws it on the table. Also expressionless are the dog pushers (*online scam gambling workers) in the building. They were crammed into countless partitions, dialing Chinese numbers day and night, air filled with smoke, computers and rows of mobile phones on a narrow table, and the partition glass that yellowed long ago.
The night of Xigang became more and more turbid, shootings, vice and drugs. In 2018, the crime rate increased by 25%. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has issued a notice reminding Chinese citizens to proceed to at night with caution. The game is becoming dangerous. Most people know it well, but no one thinks they will be caught out. They believe they can make money before the bubble bursts, and retire.
Contracts are already rolling back, 3 weeks late, 2 months late. “No one is digging foundations, even if they dream, they need light. “
On June 22, a 7-story building in town suddenly collapsed, causing many casualties. The building was built for the gambling army, without a construction permit, and had been suspended twice. The accident is still under investigation.
In August, two more buildings were found to have problems. One wall cracked and the other sinking. The sinking building was next to the Twin Lions Square. The building’s collapse shone a light on the gray industry of Westport.
On August 18, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued an injunction “to stop approving and issuing all kinds of online gambling business licenses operating in Cambodia.” Twelve days later, Hun Sen issued another order: All illegal online gambling activities must be blocked in 2019.
The Chinese and Cambodian police cracked down, and a large number of suspects have been arrested and returned to China. On September 2nd, Cambodia officially announced that within 7 days, the number of Chinese in Cambodia had decreased by 41,309. The official reason is that construction is not appropriate in the rainy season and Mid-Autumn Festival was approaching.
However, Westport players know it well. According to the market, at the peak, there were more than 200,000 Chinese in the city, and now 70% have left. In mid-September, local rents dropped by 60%. Many shops are seeking transfers.
Some casinos have been abandoned. Many forum posts have been made selling freezers, beds, shelves and imported ovens. Pedestrians in Westport plummeted at night, the late night parties whistled away, and the small hotels that had been bright all night closed doors and windows early.
Someone is asking about the current state of Westport, and the respondent said: “It feels a cold goodbye. The story of Westport came to an end during the escape, leaving broken levers, darkened holes and imaginary shells. All the tricky madness in three years, quickly finished in a small city. There is no light of civilization, only the sin of greed. Build a fort on the quicksand and harvest the leek and spinach at the fastest speed. No one has patience for the process. Only the slogans of the land sellers are left in the crying eyes”
The world itself is hierarchical. It is precisely the monopoly of the right to information that constitutes an insurmountable barrier for social classes.A city of desire is left, and everyone confesses his innocence. Therefore, the story always repeats itself.
In August, it rained suddenly, and more than 160 mm fell. The previous frantic construction subsided had blocked the waterways and flooded a large number of houses. The heavy rain seemed to want to wash the city back.
However, the marks left by those desires cannot be washed away. In the depth of a forum full of ‘for sale’ posts, there the ghost of backpackers. Backpackers and verses are long gone. “You will not find a new country, you will not find another coast. This city will always follow you.”
*Translated from Mandarin from Chinese blogger 摩登中产 ‘Modern Middle Class’. Submitted by Lady J.