A Dose of Cambodian-ness in an Ocean of Chinese Globalization

A ferry service transports passengers and vehicles along the Mekong river in Phnom Penh on April 19, 2019 (AFP)

We are a few steps from Independence Monument, the Buddhist Institute and the National Assembly: three pillars of the Cambodian nation. 


There, at the heart of the capital, at the foot of towers whose top floors enjoy a breathtaking view on the confluence of the ”Quatre Bras“ (four arms) whose waters intertwine precisely in front of the Throne Hall as if in a pledge of allegiance to the king’s divine power; streets crisscross each other, sketching a dreary commercial zone especially meant to meet the needs of white-collar people and tourists. 


 A short time ago, the area drew the attention of the press as illustrating the growing presence of the Chinese in Phnom Penh and in Cambodia as a whole.


The area lends itself to it: Most signs announce in large Chinese characters the services they offer. Restaurants, travel agencies and various businesses obviously mean to specifically target Chinese expats, workers and tourists.


However, in this tidal wave of “Chineseness,” one sign marks this territory with the footprint of another universe: a Starbucks. 


As if, in a deep conspiration, the two empires of the triumphant neocapitalism had agreed to meet in this nondescript setting in order to set, in a definitive way, contemporary Cambodia’s course. 


Towers, straight streets, businesses housed in concrete cubes, fast-food outlets, standard coffee and pies, travel agencies and financial services, service companies managing the flow of goods, international labels’ ready-to-wear boutiques, leisure and entertainment outlets linked and tailored. Here as there, like everywhere.


Cambodia is a big, one may point out, and there still are millions of hectares where, outside those assimilated areas, Cambodia’s culture can be embodied, and not as a legacy of a time past but as a promise for the future. 


But a word of caution: The last few years have shown that, from now on, asphalt and concrete grow faster than rice fields and forests. 


The powerful networks of globalized economy and geopolitics could move like an ocean swallowing boulders and spewing pebbles. 


It’s up to the decision makers to add in a strong dose of Cambodian-ness so that palm trees can stop pebbles from sterilizing the land. 

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