Often demonised by the ‘host’ country for taking away jobs of locals, Sheila Yuanjiahuan looks behind the story of ordinary Chinese workers at construction sites in Cambodia. It can be a heartbreaking portrayal of the life they left behind in their homeland to seek opportunities abroad.
It was a Friday night. The skyline was filled with stars adorning Diamond Island (Koh Pich), Phnom Penh.
There was a party in full swing. Guests donned their gowns and high heels, and sauntered into the wedding ballroom. Delighted with the traditional Khmer music, people were smiling and dancing, and they seemed unperturbed by the pounding, banging and screeching from the Morgan Tower construction site directly in front of the building where guests were enjoying the wedding party.
At the neighbouring Morgan Tower construction site, you will be greeted with thick dust in the air when you open the small blue gate. The pungent dust will hit the back of your throat and might make you grasp for breath. This is where Zhao Gan lives and works.
Zhao Gan was leaning on a motorcycle, looking at his smartphone and grinned occasionally when I met him.
“I have two sons. I left them behind since they were children. Now, If I don’t call them, they’d never call me and say I miss you, dad,” he keyed in while looking at the smartphone, checking the Wechat Moments of the two boys.
It’s 2019 – the seventh year since Zhao Gan first set foot in Cambodia.
Originally from Huai Bei, a city in northern Anhui Province, China, Zhao first worked in construction sites in Sihanoukville Province for four years, and moved to Phnom Penh in 2016.
“Before I was not used to the lifestyle in Cambodia. There was a huge language barrier,” he said. “But after six years, it’s getting better.”
In 2013, as soon as Chinese President Xi Jinping brought up One Belt One Road Initiative to help Chinese companies export excess capacity and expand overseas markets, a massive amount of Chinese investors came to the once war-torn land – Cambodia – looking for opportunities.
According to a recent government report, China has become the top-ranking foreign investor in the construction and property sectors in Cambodia. With the influx of large amounts of Chinese investment, Cambodia has become one of the most popular destinations for Chinese workers seeking a higher income through employment abroad.
Diamond Island was the place that used to be full of slums and farmland. However, that has changed. It’s now the epitome of the construction boom in Phnom Penh City. Most of the properties on Diamond Island are Chinese investments and for that reason Chinese workers are employed to work on the construction sites.
No one knows the exact number of Chinese workers there are on these construction sites as most of them come to Cambodia and work without official work permits – so there are no Labour Department records. They are usually from rural areas on the Chinese mainland.
With the hope of realising their dreams of supporting their families, they choose to work overseas. This, of course, takes a toll on them in the form of acute homesickness and loneliness. Zhao is one of them.
“In the past six years, my wife and kids never visited me in Cambodia,” he said sadly. “And I usually can go back home only once a year. I really miss them.”
But this is not the first time Zhao has worked abroad. When job opportunities for low-skilled workers ran dry at his hometown in 2009, he headed to Nigeria for a higher salary to support the family. His sons at the time were only two and seven, respectively.
With 17 years of experience in the construction industry, Zhao was promoted two years ago as a site manager in Cambodia with a decent monthly salary of $2,000. The company that Zhao works for in Cambodia does pile foundations which provide support for structures. Overtime work is common for workers like Zhao due to the occasional rainstorms.
“I’m getting used to the high-intensity work,” he said with a toothy smile as he stepped into the muddy soil with his yellow Wellington boots.
According to a report by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the number of overseas Chinese has reached 35 million, making them the largest migrant group in the world. And overseas Chinese are usually employed in construction, farming and logging sectors.
Xu Fengchao works at the same construction site with Zhao. The two are roommates. He showed Good Times2 the place he lives with other five Chinese construction workers. It is a blue steel container with the Chinese words “Daily Rent, One Dollar” painted on it.
“Chinese workers live together. Four to six workers can squeeze in a container,” he said as he pointed to a double-decker bed inside, which he sleeps in every night.
The 50-year-old man is from Lesser Khingan, a mountain range in Hei Long Jiang, the northern part of China.
Introduced by friends, he came to Cambodia in June 2018 and worked at construction sites in Phnom Penh. As a newcomer, if compared to Zhao, he seems to still enjoy his newfound life away from home.
A Cambodian worker pats Xu’s shoulder as he passes by.
“My Cambodian colleagues are nice. We’re all Asian and share a similar culture,” he added, “But I still have a language barrier here, so I often hang out with Chinese colleagues after work.”
Xu is intrigued with life abroad and experiencing different lifestyles. But he revealed that the main reason he was driven to work in Cambodia was due to the labour surplus in China.
“I’m already 50 years old. It’s probably the last chance in my life,” he said. “Lots of women are joining the construction industry now in China. It’s highly competitive.”
During the winter season, Xu’s hometown will be picturesque with snow-capped mountains doting the landscape. As he reminisces, he gave a distant smile recalling his days in China.“I still remember that I built a snowman and threw snowballs with my son.”
Far away from home, in Cambodia, this is probably the memory that keeps him going in this country.
With straight shoulder-length hair and naturally modest makeup, Wang Li is the only female Chinese worker at the construction site. After getting married at the age of 22, the 33-year-old is now a mother to three girls.
“I have no choice. My husband needs to work overseas to earn money, so I came here to take care of him,” she said. Her husband’s health status is Wang’s big concern as he has to do the night shift daily at the site.
Born in Chong Qing, a city which is famous for its spicy cuisine in southwest China, Wang is good at cooking Chinese food. The company then also employed her to be a chef with a $500 monthly payment.
“We loaned the money to buy a new apartment in my hometown and we have to pay back to the bank,” she said.
It’s Wang and millions of other hard-working overseas Chinese around the world who have pushed China to be ranked second after India as top remittance-receiving (the money that overseas workers send back to their hometowns) countries in 2018.
However, as the only female Chinese worker, living at the construction site is not an easy thing for Wang, especially regarding hygiene and sanitation. Her husband did take pity and built a portable toilet for her.
“My husband loves me,” she said with a smile. “It’s the motivation that drives me to pull through all the hardships in life.”
Two months before the 2019 Chinese New Year, Wang has already booked her return air ticket back to Sichuan. “I miss my daughters so very much,” she said with a sadness in her voice.
“They have no idea where Cambodia is, but they know mom and dad are going to somewhere really far away from Sichuan,” she adds while sliding her finger across the screen of her smartphone, trying to find photos of her three daughters to show them to me.