In between quick bites of his pork-and-rice breakfast, Ly barked prices in both Khmer and Mandarin to people crowding his store, which was packed floor-to-ceiling with red and gold Chinese decorations in preparation for the Chinese New Year.
“I’m very busy,” Ly explained, gesturing to the crowd in his small storefront as he haggled with buyers over the price of streamers and plastic lamps. With his breakfast balanced in a Styrofoam container atop his cash drawer, Ly – who declined to give his full name – and a small team of relatives did their best to handle the sharp spike in business ahead of the New Year celebration.
While the Chinese New Year holiday starts today and traditionally lasts three days in Cambodia, celebrations start the day before, as families across Cambodia gather to honour their ancestors by hanging Chinese decorations in their homes and feasting on roast pigs and fruit.
Paper offerings were burned for good fortune, sometimes on the sides of crowded capital streets in spectacular fashion, as families asked for good luck for the upcoming year.
Stories of tensions between Chinese and Cambodian businesspeople have made headlines recently, prompting action from both the Chinese Embassy and Cambodian government officials. But Chinese New Year celebrations in the Kingdom serve as a reminder that the two nations share strong historical and cultural ties. They also serve as an example of how China’s influence – occasionally blamed for harming Cambodian businesses – can be a big boost for the local economy.
Ly, who owns Hak Seng Hong shop down the street from O’Russey, normally sticks to selling Buddha statues of varying sizes and styles. But his storefront transforms during the weeks leading up to Chinese New Year to become an impressive array of envelopes, lamps and lanterns emblazoned with Chinese characters.
“Sales are always good during Chinese New Year, more than any other time,” Ly said on Wednesday. “My revenue from the sale of goods for the holiday can be equal to three or four months of my shop’s profits during the rest of the year.”
Signs of the business boom have been visible on the capital’s streets for several weeks prior to the New Year. Yellow flowers are placed alongside the road, red and gold lanterns appear hanging from awnings and dozens of shops are transformed into stores that sell – for a limited time only – themed foods and decorations for the lunar festival.
Fears of decreased consumer confidence in Cambodia have cropped up in the past year, as some analysts have speculated that rising political tensions ahead of July’s national election could spook consumers. According to a survey last year from market research firm Kantar TNS, Cambodians were less happy in 2017 than the year before despite having higher incomes, which could depress overall consumption.
But businesses selling Chinese New Year-related goods weren’t feeling the pinch last week, as many reported booming profits and months’ worth of business being done in just a few days.
Korn Mao, a pig butcher and griller, estimated he would complete more than six months’ worth of sales over the week preceding Chinese New Year. He began receiving orders for the holiday as early as January, and plans to sell 15,000 pigs before Sunday.
“Many people think they are celebrating this event for their family’s continued prosperity, so they are willing to spend more money,” he said. “Without having a ceremony like this, I can sell only about 2,000 head of grilled pigs per month – so my sales in one week during Chinese New Year are as high as in six months normally.”
Korn Tot runs a separate pork-slinging business and also saw a surge in sales during the festival. Normally she sells 30 pigs a month, but managed to sell nearly 1,500 in just the past week.
“I received a lot of orders from customers this year,” she said. And with a profit of $5 to $10 per head, Tot is set to rake in profits from the holiday’s brisk pork trade.
Fruit sellers are experiencing a similar boom. Phan Sarith, owner of Srey Mom fruit shop, was manning a plastic table outside of his store, which was so full of fruit that it couldn’t accommodate customers.
Sarith said he was only able to receive shipments of extra fruit earlier this week to prevent spoilage, and has been working at a breakneck pace since just to meet demand.
“We added more staff for the week, to serve the massive flood of customers,” he said, noting the store had been open from 6am to 10pm every day this week.
With many families heading home to the provinces this morning, Sarith appeared relived that the profitable – and exhausting – holiday season was finally coming to a close.