Hui Tien Jien has eaten at a Chinese restaurant called Old Place Seafood two times – and he’s been in Phnom Penh for only two days.
The 35-year-old businessman from Shanghai flew over to visit a friend and check out the sites. What he might not check out on his four-day vacation is the local fare.
“I haven’t eaten Cambodian food yet, but I am willing to try it,” said Hui, whose favourite dish at the restaurant is stir-fried beef with bamboo shoots. “I’m Chinese, and I’m used to eating Chinese food.”
The familiar meals, he said, remind him of his mum and his home.
Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh are spreading in response to a flood of tourists from China: tourists who insist on eating their own cuisine while travelling.
The restaurants, especially Cantonese and Hong Kong-style seafood places, are growing 60 to 70 per cent faster than their competitors, said Van Porleng, president of the Cambodia Restaurant Association.
It helps that they don’t lack for customers. From 2010 to 2012 the number of Chinese tourists visiting Cambodia almost doubled. Last year, about 333,000 Chinese touched down in Cambodia, according to the Ministry of Tourism, which hopes to raise that figure to one million by 2020. Chinese neighbourhoods also exist throughout the city, and many Cambodians have Chinese ancestry.
Van, who runs a French restaurant and the Club House at the Cambodian Country Club, said she’s planning on opening a new Chinese restaurant there this year.
The Chinese “spend quite a lot of money on food. When they eat, if they like something, they are not afraid to spend”.
She’s noticed that while most nationalities seek out their own food, the Chinese tend to “switch back faster”. Tourists from the US and Europe may start hankering for home-style dishes after two or three days. But the Chinese, she said, will try Khmer food once and seek out Chinese fare for the rest of the trip.
The government has taken note. In June, officials announced the creation of a Chinatown in Cambodia to cater to tourists.
“The establishment of Chinese restaurants is increasing faster than western restaurants because the government is mainly concentrating on appealing to Chinese tourists,” said Tang Sochet Krushna, director of the Phnom Penh municipal tourism department.
Ly Vannack, in charge of Chinese tourism promotion at the ministry, said one aspect of the overall strategy involves helping restaurants craft more menus in Chinese. He said that hospitality workers could start receiving Chinese language training as early as the beginning of 2014.
The restaurants aren’t waiting that long. With its red and gold colour scheme, Old Place Seafood (Lao Di Fang in Mandarin), suggests a traditional dim sum place. There is also something Chinese about the location. It’s right across the street from the Chinese Embassy, on Mao Tse Toung Boulevard.
Old Place Seafood opened earlier this year, and is the second version of the brand in Phnom Penh (the first is on Monivong Boulevard). The investors poured $4 million into the two-storey restaurant, which can fit 600.
Chef Yu Yunhui said, “We are already planning a third, fourth and fifth restaurant. We would also consider other provinces around the Kingdom, including Siem Reap”.
On a recent afternoon, Kin Zhang, a 30-year-old businessman from China’s Guangdong province, stepped out of Old Place Seafood with his wife. He is a regular there when he visits Phnom Penh. “I only eat Khmer cuisine when I meet with Cambodians for business,” he said.
Yan Kelson, restaurant manager of the Fu Lu Zu Chinese restaurant at the Sofitel Hotel, says he also seeks out the comfort food of home.
“When I travel to London, I will try the local food once or twice, but I wouldn’t want to eat it every day.”
Sofitel’s other three restaurants, La Coupole, Do Forni, and Hachi are easily visible to guests heading to the pool, lobby or fitness room. Natalie Moser, Sofitel’s marketing executive, says Chinese guests typically ignore the options and head directly to Fu Lu Zu.
“Chinese people have a very strong identity, and when they go travelling they like to find their own identity again,” she said.