Madam Lim Chhiv Ho – who earlier this month pulled off the largest Cambodia meeting of the global Lim Clan at Diamond Island with special guest Lok Chumteav Bun Rany Hun Sen – was born at the Somrong Commune in Prey Nup district, Kampong Som province, the third of five children.
By the time she was 11, the Khmer Rouge had grown strong and caused the Lims to move around to keep away from the fighting. The Lims shifted their family from Kampong Som province to Kampot City and then to Sihanoukville when the Khmer Rouge moved into Kampot.
Young Lim spent her days selling rice, cooking and taking care of her brothers. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge entered Sihanoukville and immediately evacuated the people to the countryside, as they did throughout Cambodia. The Lims were split up and the children were put together in labour camps in the mountains near Kampot.
Lim remembers having to dig and carry soil for the construction of an irrigation system all day without rest. She would have been killed for taking a break. Of the 275 children in her group, only she and four other girls survived. They consider themselves God-sisters now and maintain contact to this day.
“The Khmer Rouge randomly took people every day and killed them. The dead people were dragged away like animals and just abandoned somewhere in the open air. The bodies attracted so many flies that you had to hold your hand in front of your mouth when speaking.” Lim said.
Asked whether the Khmer Rouge specifically persecuted people with a Chinese background, Lim said: “Some Chinese people were killed, but Khmer people were also killed; Pol Pot killed everybody. We could never speak Chinese, but what mattered most was the difference between old people and new people. The new people from the cities were threatening to the Khmer Rouge. Those who had been teachers, doctors and businessmen before the war were killed first. They only wanted fresh leaves, from the countryside.”
Finally in late 1978 Vietnamese troops invaded Cambodia. Lim and others fled to the mountains. The 17-year-old Lim Chivv Ho learned from Vietnamese soldiers that her father, sister, brother and brother-in-law had been killed. Half of her family had been wiped out – 10 Lim siblings had been reduced to five by the Khmer Rouge.
In spite of the tragic news, Lim was joyfully reunited with her mother, sister and young brother. Their first enterprise after the liberation was to start growing rice which they used to brew white rice wine.
“The Vietnamese successfully defeated Pol Pot, so in the evening, they all had a party with our wine.”
Lim’s mother, in the circumstances of newly liberated Cambodia, arranged a marriage for her with a fisherman. Lim and her new husband moved to Sihanoukville, where she stayed at home selling noodles.
Lim’s husband took an opportunity to use his boat to transport electronics, liquor and cigarettes brought to the island of Tamor Sor by big merchant ships from Singapore, some 20 kilometres offshore.
The Singapore ships were owned by a Khmer businessman who had gone to France during the war and to Singapore afterwards. Lim’s husband and other Cambodians who owned small boats purchased the goods on the island and brought them to the Cambodian mainland.
“At first, we could only buy a little,” Lim remembered. “But this well-known businessman trusted us and gave us the merchandise in advance. We would pay him back later – after we had sold the goods to middlemen from Phnom Penh who had come to the coast.”
Soon after, Lim’s husband was imprisoned by the Thai military for a year and a half following an attempt to ship a motorbike from Thailand to Cambodia.
In the absence of her husband, Madam Lim decided to stop selling noodles and move to Tamor Sor to continue what they had started. She stayed on the island for five years.
“At that time, ships from Singapore could not come to the Cambodian coast directly. It wasn’t safe because there were Vietnamese and Cambodian soldiers – with no government structure, so they came to Tamor Sor. Every night my group of men would take small boats and go to Sihanoukville to sell the products. My name became very well known on the island and people helped me and I would cook rice for everybody in the evenings,” she recalled.
In 1987 the political situation stabilised and the government introduced a tax system. Lim moved from Koh Rung to Sihanoukville as the ships from Singapore started to arrive at the Cambodian coast directly for the first time.
“After I paid tax, the middlemen from Phnom Penh would buy my products. But the profit was small, so I opened a warehouse in Phnom Penh and became a wholesaler. Later I also opened a big shop. However, with electronics you only sell to a person once in a couple of years. So I, along with some Singaporeans and local business associates, started to distribute Hennessy, Johnnie Walker and Heineken. This was the start of Attwood Import & Export. In the early 1990s we officially became the sole distributor in Cambodia.”
Lim set up 13 regional distributing centres throughout Cambodia and soon noticed a growing number of tourists coming to Siem Reap, so she opened the Casa Angkor Boutique Hotel, where she often joined meetings of businessmen, NGO people and government officials.
“I learned how to grow my business there,” She said. Attwood Import & Export opened for business in 1994 in Phnom Penh in a 6 x 4 metre room on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard with six employees. As the business quickly grew to 300 employees, Lim bought a plot of land along Pochentong Road and built the Attwood Business Center along with an adjacent housing estate of 136 luxury villas in 2004.
Since then, Lim’s business group has diversified into property and infrastructure development, hotel and catering, leisure, shopping, entertainment and hospitality.
One of her major projects is the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone, or PPSEZ. From the profit she made selling the villas, Lim bought a 365-hectare plot of land some 15 kilometres outside Phnom Penh only a year before the Cambodian real-estate boom.
Wondering what to do with the land, Lim visited an exhibition in Japan with a delegation from the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce and as a result of that visit, teamed up with a specialist from Japan, Dr Shoichi Kobayashi, who later became her advisor. Dr Kobayashi took Lim around Southeast Asia to visit other Special Economic Zones and introduced her to investors.
“Working with the Japanese feels very good. They do thorough surveys, they know how to take care of their business partners and they care about integrity.” Lim said.
Lim serves as a member of the Central Committee of the Cambodian Red Cross as well as vice-president of both the Phnom Penh Chamber of Commerce and the Cambodia Chamber of Commerce.
Her most recent venture brings her back to where she started, in Sihanoukville. Oil and gas has been found in Cambodian waters and the exploratory phase should be finished by 2012.
Since the existing port in Sihanoukville cannot cater for the needs when the drilling starts, Lim intends to build a new port. She has already purchased the 1,000 hectares of land and has started to fund early phases of construction out of her own pocket.
Lim is looking for overseas investors to offer a financing alternative to the high interest rates on loans from Cambodian banks. She’s confident about it because she’s already been successful at attracting foreign investment.
“The key to success is focusing on where you want your business to go, saving a lot and working hard to get there,” she said.
“You must find the right partners and stick together if you want to get there. Not only in Cambodia, but also overseas. To develop the port I must find large overseas companies that have experience and want to invest.”
Are Chinese people naturally prone to business success? Yes, Lim says: “Chinese are very hard-working and don’t spend a lot of money, but save it for later. Business is in our blood.”
While she may be ethnic Chinese, Lim is proud of her Khmer nationality.
She suffered the hardships and those difficulties during the Khmer Rouge period defined her – and helped shape not only her personal determination, but what we now can call modern Cambodia.
“I feel Khmer, but everybody calls me Chinese.
I speak the Teochew dialect, but I cannot read or write, and I don’t speak Mandarin.
“I’ve been in China, but only for a holiday. My mother and father are from Cambodia, I am from Cambodia,” she said.