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Beyond guts soup: into the heart of Chinatown

Beyond guts soup: into the heart of Chinatown


In the second of a series of articles about the Kingdom's Chinese community, Phelim

Kyne looks at what's behind the new wave of Chinese migrants who are transforming

Phnom Penh's Street 136 into a culinary Chinatown.

Hu Yung Qiang at work in his Restaurant on Street 136.

DODGING flames and hot sputtering oil with an air of calm nonchalance, Hu Yong Qiang

appears more conjurer than cook as he expertly stir-fries a pan of eggplant over

a burner in his open-air streetside kitchen.

"I taught myself to cook," the affable graduate of Shanghai University's

School of Foreign Languages explains. "When Mao Tse Tung made the call for the

[Cultural] Revolution, I did the cooking when my Red Guard unit traveled to the northwest."

Hu is the co-owner of the Pleasant Restaurant, the tenth and latest Chinese restaurant

to open for business on the short stretch of Street 136 between Psah Thmei and Monivong

Blvd.

"The more the merrier," Hu says wryly in his idiomatically perfect English

as he scans the improbably high number of competitors that face him from across the

street. "This is Phnom Penh's Chinatown."

Building Chinatown

 In November 1995 Shen Lung Hai moved his Peking Canteen from Street 63 to Street

136, making it the street's first Chinese restaurant.

"Even if there was a war, I knew I could do business," Shen says about

his move to Cambodia. "Even if there's a war people have to eat. . . soldiers

have to eat."

Arguably the busiest restaurant on Street 136, the popularity of the Peking Canteen

has been built on an almost stereotypical ethic of hard work and frugality.

For three years Shen, his sister and his wife rarely strayed from the confines of

their restaurant, waiting until the end of 1998 to take some time off to visit Angkor

Wat for the first time.

"You see that soya sauce?" Shen asks, pointing to a bottle on the table.

If you buy that in a store it costs one dollar. . . I make my own and it only costs

30 cents for the same amount."

Hoping to emulate his success, nine more mainland Chinese entrepreneurs have opened

their own restaurants around Shen's over the last three-and-a-half years.

New China Blues

On the face of it, Shen and the nine successive restaurant owners who have followed

him to Street 136 would appear to have things backward.

Mrs Jen dishes up a Sichuan speciality

As they leave China, these new migrants pass long queues of western business people

anxious for a piece of the world's biggest market and an economy that by the mid-nineties

was growing at an explosive 30 percent annually.

The same economic "reforms" that have made China so attractive to western

capitalists have simultaneously put many of the traditional verities of communist

China society in doubt.

As bloated and inefficient state industries are increasingly being left by the Chinese

government to fend for themselves in the unfamiliar waters of a new market economy,

many Chinese are experiencing first-hand a problem that China once crowed it had

solved: unemployment.

"China isn't such a good place [for business] right now," explains Liu

Chuan Mei, who with her brother traveled from the Chinese coastal city of Dalian

eighteen months ago to open Street 136's second "Restaurant China".

"Things are really unstable [in China} right now. . . things are changing so

quickly," she adds.

Liu, whose husband and 18-year old-son await her in Dalian "depending on how

well the business goes here", is frank about her motivations for coming to Cambodia.

"We didn't have much choice," she says. "Canada would have been nice,

or Thailand or America. . . but its easier to get a visa for Cambodia."

At the other end of the street, Luan Feng Ming of the Jing Tien Vegetarian restaurant

echoes Liu's appraisal of the uncertainty facing many ordinary Chinese in the wake

of the seismic economic changes sweeping their country.

"My friends and coworkers thought we were crazy to give up "the iron rice

bowl" [of government service] to come to Cambodia six years ago," Luan

says with a laugh. "Now when we go back [to China] to visit, more and more people

express interest in coming to do business in Cambodia."

Jen Xiao Ou of the Sichaun style Cheanng Nan Restaurant puts the difficulties facing

aspiring entrepreneurs in China in simple demographic terms. "There are so many

people in China, so many people trying to do business, it's extremely difficult to

compete."

Market Economics 101

At least two of the Chinese restaurants on Street 136 have their origins in the failure

of previous business ventures in Cambodia.

One of the best known meals from the Chinese quarter, boiled dumplings.

Hu first came to Cambodia eight months ago to manage a plastics factory partially-funded

by Chinese government investment capital.

The factory went bankrupt two months ago, but Hu is now obligated to stay in Cambodia

until the amount of the Chinese government investment - $100,000 - is recovered from

the factory's owners.

To keep himself occupied while he waits, Hu decided to open a restaurant. "I'll

go home as soon as the money is paid," Hu insists.

Until recently, Jen Xiao Ou and his wife had been employed by a Taiwanese-owned factory

before being downsized in the wake of the Asian financial crisis. Rather than risk

the uncertainties of a return to China, they opted to join the ranks of entrepreneurs

on Street 136.

"If you found yourself unemployed and unable to find a job, you'd go back to

your country, wouldn't you?" Hu asks. "A Chinese person would start his

own business instead. . . this is a major difference between Chinese and Western

culture."

While most of the restaurant owners speak vaguely of a return to China in the future

when they've acquired savings, Luan Feng Jing at the Jing Tien Vegetarian Restaurant

is candid about her desire to make her stay in Cambodia a permanent one.

"My kids are here, my mother's here, I'm happy. . . I don't need to go back

to China," she says.

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