This is a story about a guest we had on Koh Rong Samloem. His name was Jacky, he was Chinese, spoke no English and walked everywhere with a big toothy smile on his face. Jacky was capital “C” Chinese, if you saw a cartoon version of him you might think it was a little racist.
When he arrived at the resort he began to attempt communication in singular English words and charades, which, to his credit, ended up with us knowing his name and that he wanted a place to stay for the night. We accommodated him and he had lunch and dinner at the resort but was otherwise unseen.
The next morning we tell Jacky at breakfast that he has to check out at 11AM indicated by holding up one finger on each hand. He smiled ear to ear and nodded furiously in recognition and walks in the direction of his bungalow.
3PM rolls around and Jacky comes back to the reception manned by a nice Belgian lady who had taken on the burden of being our de facto leader. I could see her blood pressure skyrocket as his late checkout had led to our inability to clean to room and the new guest had already arrived.
“Jacky checkout?”, she asked smiling through gritted teeth.
“No”, Jacky replied with a big smile and a wide eyes like a cow looks at an oncoming train.
After a big hubbub we manage to navigate the conversation enough to figure out he wants another night. So we move him into an extra staff dorm, since literally every room has been booked. This trend continues for around 5 days. Every morning we say, “JackyCheckOut” and every morning he replies, “No” and every morning we move him into whatever vacancy we have.
Jacky’s antics were never malicious and were mostly born of cross-cultural awkwardness and misunderstanding. For example, one day he approached the aforementioned Belgian lady on the beach while she was sunbathing and tried to ask about a plot of land and the cost per square meter. She had just arrived days prior and didn’t know there was land for sale, much less the price.
Every breakfast and dinner he would come into the kitchen with a big smile, motion towards his mouth and say, “choap choap”, then he would proceed to point at all the things he wanted to eat. He also wanted rice with every meal because stereotypes exist for a reason.
One day, a box of wine fell off the boat enroute to the resort and we were sent to retrieve them. Just as we’re about to leave, Jacky walks onto the pier with his trademark smile and points to the boat. After a vain attempt to explain the situation to him we eventually succumb and let him on the boat.
After diving and retrieving a couple of bottles Jacky now understands the sitch and quickly jumps in with us, only to realize that he doesn’t really know how to swim (inability to swim is a common stereotype the Cambodians have of the Chinese). He flails in the water comically and ends up clutching the boat, lying prone in the water, snorkel up, watching us.
One afternoon a young Chinese girl checked into the resort who spoke near perfect English. As I check her in, Jacky wanders into the restaurant for lunch and they begin to speak in Chinese. After their conversation ends she relays to me that Jacky has spent one night in literally every hotel and hostel on the bay (an expensive and time consuming feat) and that he’s looking for a piece of land to build a hotel on.
This makes sense as the port that leads to the southern islands, Sihanoukville, has largely been taken over by the Chinese, much to the resentment of the Cambodians. Sihanoukville's street and store signs are now predominantly in the Chinese, Chinese exclusive resorts and casinos are springing up everywhere, so the skyline is littered by half built high rises while the streets remain mostly unpaved and lined with trash and construction debris.
Koh Rong Samloem lacks this problem for now. But a single Chinese casino has sprouted up on the opposite side of the bay, a concerning premonition of things to come. I also can’t help but mention that the casino blares loud party bangers obnoxiously until the wee hours of the morning. The music carries well over the water and is compounded by the fact that the entire rest of the bay is pin drop silent.
Anyway, after a solid week of Jacky antics we eventually come to really like the guy. He’s friendly and observant. Another comment he made to the Chinese girl and that our resort was his favorite on the whole island which is why he stayed so long. That may have been BS and the real reason was probably that there was land nearby that he wanted to purchase, but I’ll take the compliment.
We continued to have conversations over google translate with Jacky until he left. We tried to convince him not to build a big gaudy casino, instead to opt for something more like the ecolodge. He seemed to be in agreement.
These conversations also gave us some interesting insights into his life. He was in the Chinese military, he comes from a wealthy province.
But most interesting of all is he’s building another hotel. In Africa.
More specifically in Zambia, a nation who has seen incredible investment from the Chinese government. So much so that in mid-2018 it was claimed that the Zambian utility companies had been repoed by the Chinese. Although, for clarity this was a US backed claim, it has been denied by the Zambians and the Chinese, but it still shows the extent of the Zambian debt and Chinese involvement.
China has been pumping hundreds of billions of dollars into African economies since the mid-2000's in the form of investment financing and cheap or no interest loans. Ports, roads and other infrastructure are being built on the Chinese dime. And this isn't McDonalds soft power either, this is unsustainable debt, economic colonization.
After I learned of Jacky's African Antics, I couldn’t help but think of this goofy character as, in my mind, the face of Chinese imperialism. That statement is obviously a little dramatic and says nothing of the man himself, but I think it represents a growing trend. China is undoubtedly looking to expand its sphere of influence and grow its middle class; while some of that could spill over nearby into poorer economies like Cambodia, it’s up to the Cambodian government to regulate Chinese expansion. In Sihanoukville, the prevalence of Chinese casinos and luxury resorts cause rent prices to skyrocket leaving locals on the street. At the end of the day these entities, both private and state-run, are looking out for Chinese interests.
But it’s easy for those currently in power in the federal and local Cambodian governments to see this type of expansion and make a quick buck off of it, but it comes at the cost of the enrichment of the local economy in the long run. Especially when many of these establishments are often Chinese exclusive and Chinese tend to only do business with Chinese, it leads to situations like Sihanoukville where the Cambodians are driven out of the city.
If you mention Sihanoukville to practically any Cambodian in the nation they’ll have something to say about the Chinese. I don’t want to make any sweeping generalizations about Cambodian attitudes toward Chinese, but what I do know is this: economic tensions lead to finger pointing and ethnic minorities are often an easy thing to point at. These are just my observations from having conversations with locals but I think that these kinds of attitudes aren't unique to Cambodia either, a number of the Vietnamese that I've talked to have also seen Chinese expansion on their beaches and hold a similar animosity. American presidents have historically been received warmly by the people in SEA, but when ya boy Xi Jinping comes to town it's a state affair.
I think there's a healthy balance to the extent of Chinese expansion, no one is going to argue that external investment purely a bad thing. But boundaries must be set, otherwise all roads will lead back to China and there's a healthy amount of historical evidence that colonialism doesn't end great for the colonized.
As for Jacky, I wish him the best!