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Rags to Riches: The Lim Chhivhoo Story

By: May Titthara and The Mekong Times Posted: March-10-2008 in
May Titthara and The Mekong Times

Lim Chhivhoo's is the quintessential rags-to riches story - the 49-year-old mother of four has triumphed over poverty, sexism, tragedy and tyranny to become one of the Kingdom's most successful businesswomen.

Medals for her contribution to Cambodia's development glint on the shelves of Lim Chhivhoo's cavernous office, sharing pride of place with her family photos. She said the cool sanctuary of her workplace is a world away from her humble beginnings.

"I spent almost my whole life working to get money for rice," she explained. "I didn't care if it was hard work or not."

Though she is known as the no-nonsense director of the firms Attwood Import Export, Cambodian Economic Zones, Japan-Cambodia Development Corporation, LCH Development, APL Cambodia and Attwood Investment Group, Lim Chhivhoo takes a deep breath before recounting her impoverished past.

"I never had a chance to study properly as we were moving from place to place because of the war," she said. "I started life with my seven sisters in Toul village, Prey Nob district [formerly Kampot province but now Sihanoukville]. When I was seven, I moved to Kampot town where my father sold ice cream and I began to study at a Catholic school. My family fled the war, moving from village to village and ending up in Sihanoukville. When Pol Pot's soldiers overran that province, we moved back to our homeland. I was one of the Kobma Chheanmok [Head Children] who lived away from their families to work on dams."

"When my sister was killed, I decided to run through the forest to tell my parents even though I could have been killed," she said, her voice trembling. "I'll never forget when I saw my parents. I was absolutely terrified because they were so thin. Pol Pot's soldiers caught me and took me to a small shack with five other children. I was just awaiting death but luckily, because of our hard work and because we were dark skinned [a trait looked favorably on during the Pol Pot era], we were released."

"After Pol Pot was overthrown I lived with my widowed mother," she continued. "We tried to farm but we were often short of food because … we didn't have enough land. We began to gather oysters to barter for rice and some clothes. After nearly a year, I started to take my oysters to barter for rice at Viel Ring Prey Nop commune in Sihanoukville."

Anxious to raise her standard of living, Lim Chhivhoo eschewed the traditional Khmer afternoon nap to cut wood in a nearby forest with her husband.

"When I had a lot of rice from my bartering, my mother took the surplus to make into traditional Khmer rice wine. I carried jars of wine to sell to villagers and we fed the leftovers from the brewing process to pigs. Although we worked hard at this business for over a year, we still had nothing for the future so my husband and I decided to leave my children with my mother to find another job."

Lim Chhivhoo and her husband worked from morning till night carrying heavy goods at Sihanoukville's port. Lim Chhivhoo also visited the market every morning to buy fruit to sell to other workers. After scrimping and saving, she invested in a small food stall for port workers, where she worked for four years until her husband decided to try to get employment in Thailand, a decision the family was to regret.

"At that time we didn't have passports, so my husband was arrested and put in prison by the Thai soldiers," she said, shaking her head. "One of my daughters was drowned when trying to cross to Thailand."

Despite her terrible sorrow, Lim Chhivhoo knew she must try to make money to support her three remaining children. She began to buy imported goods at Thmor Sor (White Rock). "Wholesalers trusted me so they gave me a lot of goods to sell such as TVs, tape recorders, fruit juice, beer and groceries," she said. "At that time there were a lot of customers from Phnom Penh coming to buy my stock to sell in Phnom Penh."

Business was good - not least because earnings were tax-free - but there were serious risks. "I was robbed several times but I count myself lucky as others were killed."

Savings from Thmor Sor allowed Lim Chhivhoo to found an import company in Phnom Penh in 1993, mostly selling alcoholic beverages to bars and nightclubs. In 2000, a drinking water company and a hotel followed.

"By this time, the country was beginning to be developed and people could afford to buy property so we started to build flats, expand the Stung Hav port and began work on Phnom Penh Economic Zone."

Lim Chhivhoo received the royal title Oknha for her contribution to the development of the Kingdom and was given the position of vice-chief of the Cambodian Chamber of Commerce in Phnom Penh for her business acumen. Her life has been dramatized in a TV movie entitled "Daughter-in-law," although she said that the film producer had "improved" her story. She is philosophical about the hardships she has endured.

"When we suffer, we have to think it out," she advised. "Just because I am successful doesn't mean my life has been easy. Most important is our effort. What I am today is because of my personal, physical and spiritual hard work."

May Titthara is a reporter for the Mekong Times


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