Jimmy Gao, second from left, joins Yum Sui Sang, third from left, on a visit in May this year to the town of Wenchuan, in Sichuan province, which was devastated by an earthquake in 2008. The visit was organised by the Overseas Chinese Office of the State Council of China, together with Mr Yum.
State-owned carriers evolve into commercial airlines
Oneof the best-connected citizens of China living in Cambodia is Jimmy Gao, president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia – an organisation that has very strong relations with the Chinese embassy.
In the Chinese language, the term “guangxi’’ means “relationships’’, and Gao is one of the people who has a lot of guangxi in both Cambodia and in China – and that can be helpful for people who want to do business with Chinese partners.
Gao was born in Shanghai in 1967, and his father served as an officer in the Chinese air force. Gao often visits his father these days in Shanghai, and “I let him drive my BMW,” he laughs.
Gao graduated from Shanghai University in 1988 with a degree in English and specialising in foreign trade.
Back in the 1980s, domestic aviation in China was run by a big state company called CAAC. Over the years since then, a number of regional airlines have been created including China Southern, China Eastern, Shanghai Airlines and many more.
Gao went to work for Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, in its Shanghai office and later became a Dragonair staffer when Cathay Pacific became its parent company.
He worked there for six years, learning the commercial aviation business.
One of Gao’s colleagues at Dragonair was sent to Phnom Penh in 1993 as a Dragonair representative.
“He told me, ‘Why not come to Phnom Penh to have a look?’ because there weren’t many travel agents here.
“He suggested we could promote Dragonair’s business here because they had an inaugural flight coming up.”
Gao arrived in 1993, working closely with Dragonair, and realised that Cambodia was a good opportunity, especially for a travel agency.
“At the time, they didn’t have much sense of a comprehensive industry, but were just focused on airline ticketing,” he says.
At the time, there weren’t many Chinese companies in Cambodia, and most of the flights from China terminated at Bangkok.
“I had to find the easiest ways for travelling and to build up relations, especially with the sales agents for those Chinese carriers who had their scheduled flights into Bangkok,” Gao says.
The challenge was to get developing Chinese airlines such as China Eastern and China Southern to start flying to Phnom Penh directly from China.
Dragonair was running two flights a week from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong.
“At the time, Hong Kong was one of the transit points back to China from Phnom Penh,” Gao says.
At first, people didn’t know about Cambodia, only King Sihanouk, land mines and war
As a result of Gao’s efforts, Guangzhou-based China Southern became the first Chinese airline to have charter flights to Phnom Penh, beginning in 1998.
Two years later, Shanghai Airlines, which was owned by the Shanghai municipal government, approached Gao and, following negotiations with China Eastern Airlines, Shanghai Airlines won exclusive traffic rights from Shanghai to Phnom Penh.
“I became the representat-ive for Shanghai Airlines in Cambodia for all their routes, to promote the sales for them and to deal with the civil aviation authorities in Cambodia and increase their traffic rights,” he says.
Today, Shanghai Airlines operates daily flights between Phnom Penh and Shanghai, just four hours non-stop. China Southern operates 10 flights a week from Phnom Penh to Guangzhou.
China Eastern operates flights to Guangxi Province’s capital city, Nanning, and Yunnan province’s capital, Kunming, three times a week from Phnom Penh.
Concurrent with his work getting outbound travellers on flights to China, Gao had a big job helping Chinese people understand Cambodia.
“At first, people didn’t know about Cambodia, only King Sihanouk, land mines and war – that’s all they knew.
“ When you want to deal with airlines in China, to push those airlines to have direct flights between China and Cambodia – they were full of worries and they couldn’t believe you could survive.
“ I had to try very hard to convince them, but the demand was really growing.”
During the mid-1990s, China’s state-owned enterprises began getting some big construction projects financed by the Asian Development Bank and the World Bank, for roads and bridges.
During this time, garment factories also started to spring up, bringing in experienced factory managers from China. This helped fill the aircraft.
“By the end of 1999, something like 300 garment factor-ies were operating, and they had a lot of Chinese supervisors,” Gao says.
Starting in the 1980s, it was the first time many Chinese people went on overseas trips, usually classing themselves as students but actually coming to work.
“By the end of the 1990s, I think, it became the peak time for business. Chinese people really started to go overseas for business,” Gao says.
His secret to success in getting Chinese state-owned airlines to come to Cambodia was convincing them to start out with a few charter flights first. Once they got here, they were hooked.
During the course of his activities, Gao also became involved with the Chinese business community.
“At the beginning, there was a Chinese business association under the Chinese embassy, since 1995.
‘‘At the time, I wasn’t even a member, but I had a lot of contacts with Chinese companies there, so I made a lot of friends.
“Most of their committee members were my good friends, and they wanted to expand to become a chamber of commerce. I was invited to become a standing committee member, and it was quite good for my business.”
Gao’s travel agency, Transpeed Travel (Holdings) Ltd. has offices in the Phnom Penh Hotel complex and has been highly successful over the years, especially bringing Hong Kong people on package tours to Cambodia in associat-ion with Hong Kong partners Hong Tai and Wing On travel.
In addition to his presidency of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, Gao also is publisher of the Chinese-language Phnom Penh Evening Post, and owner of a number of other businesses including two hotels, three restaurants and one of the most famous Chinese restaurants in Phnom Penh, Le Palace, as well as representating both Shanghai Airlines and Shenzhen Airlines.
Gao also owns Union Engineering Machinery Leasing, which leases construction equipment brand names from China, largely to Chinese construction projects around Cambodia.
Gao is also involved in the agriculture business, growing both cassava and rubber on a plantation of about 10,000 hectares in Banteay Meanchey province.
“More and more Chinese investors are coming to Cambodia to look for opportunities and to study the agriculture industry for the growing of cassava, rice, rubber, and other products,” Gao says.
“We sell package tours in Hong Kong and for the past ten years we have brought between 500 and 1,000 tourists to Phnom Penh from Hong Kong every month,” Gao said.
By the end of 2000, Gao was made president of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Cambodia, a chamber which is perhaps the closest to the Chinese embassy, followed by the China Hong Kong and Macau Expatriate & Business Association of Cambodia
and the Cambodian Chinese Association, headed by Duong Chhiv.
In order to understand the membership of the associat-ions, it breaks down roughly like this: Gao’s Chinese Chamber has a lot of members from the mainland in construction, manufacturing, airlines and they are company members numbering about 300. The China Hong Kong and Macau group is more comprised of people from Hong Kong and Macau with a lot of sharp overseas Chinese businessmen and factory owners and his headed by Mr Yum of the Union Commercial Bank.
The Cambodian Chinese Association, however, headed by Duong Chhiv, represents a lot of the second- and third-generation Chinese people who have Cambodian nationality and whose ancestors come mostly from southern China, places like Guangdong and Fujian provinces.
All three associations are recognised by the Chinese embassy, Gao says.
Gao says there are about 50,000 Chinese people in Cambodia, holding Chinese passports.
“We think that number will grow,” he says.
Ethnic Chinese people in Cambodia, however, Khmer Chinese, number an estimated 700,000, up to a possible million, Gao says.
“The relationships between the young immigrants and the older generation, we have very good relations,’’ he says.
“The Chinese community in Cambodia is the best in the world.
“Most of the members of our association have been in Cambodia for a long time and we love this country very much. For Chinese people making investments in Cambodia, this is not such a strange atmosphere. It is quite easy for Chinese people here, very comfortable. I think also nowadays the whole world is getting less and less distance; it is also very easy for Chinese people to come to Cambodia.
Gao says in many cases the Chinese father’s generation came to Cambodia to escape wars and find a better life.
“Nowadays, with Chinese businessmen, it is totally different. Now we come for business opportunities, for win-win factors.
“We come for Cambodia for business benefits, and the most important thing we have to know is how to respect the Cambodian people.
“Making money isn’t the only issue; you also have to respect Cambodia’s culture.
“Sometimes I have met some friends coming for the first time to Cambodia, they thought it was very poor here, but after they visit Angkor Wat, they change their mind and understand how great it is.
“It becomes a responsibility for us who make our business here to let the people in China recognise the great cultural traditions of Cambodia. We are proud to do this.”
These days, Gao keeps a family home in Shanghai and flies there as many as 20 times a year to see his father and stay in close touch with his favorite Chinese city – and his home town.