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Photo by Lee Woolcock
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Joaquín Beltrán Antolín
Joaquín Beltrán Antolín
The number of Chinese-Catalans is rising, and rising fast. Between 2000 and 2008 the number of Chinese immigrants in Spain grew five times larger, jumping from 28,000 to 148,000, according to Spanish government statistics, and a third of the Chinese people living in Spain live in Catalunya.
Already there are numerous second-generation Chinese-Catalans. Fanglu Lin’s parents are from the island of Taiwan, and have been here for more than 30 years. They own a Chinese restaurant, Son Hao, at 66 Carrer Muntaner in l’Eixample. Like many Chinese residents in Spain, Fanglu Lin has taken a Spanish name—Monica—to make it easier for locals to address her. She speaks four languages—Catalan, Castilian, Mandarin and English. “Young Chinese people my age study something so they don’t have to go into the restaurant business,” she said. “That’s a very hard way to earn a living.”
Twenty-five years old, Lin has a degree in Business Administration and, like many Catalans her age, is currently in search of a job in a tight economy. She is having a hard time finding a position in her field, but she said her difficulty has nothing to do with being Chinese. “I’ve never felt discriminated against, I’m just one more Catalan. I’ve never felt that being Chinese gave me either an advantage or a disadvantage.”
On the other hand, some Chinese people here feel that Catalan society has a long way to go before it is ready to accept their presence and wholly integrate them. They feel like anything except ‘one more Catalan’. “I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter how long I live here, integration would never happen for me,” said Heidi Tsai, 39, a Chinese-American classical musician who is married to a Catalan and has lived here seven years.
“I can speak the language and hold a job, but that doesn’t feel like integration. You’re always the Chinese person who’s speaking Catalan. It doesn’t matter what you achieve, you’ll be judged by the way you look. When you judge people by how they look and refuse to treat them on any other basis that’s the beginning of a dangerous road.”
Sushan Qu, 29, came to Tarragona 10 years ago with her parents. She holds a degree in Political Science from the Universitat Pompeu Fabra and works as a mediator between the ajuntaments of Badalona and Barcelona, and the Chinese community. “The problem is that people continue to be discriminated against for their physical appearance. This can really hurt. A person can be very integrated here and speak well, but still be labelled in the street as ‘Chinito’.”
Native Catalans might respond that if there’s fault, it lies with the Chinese immigrant community, which has a reputation for being closed and stand-offish. In fact, on July 9th, an article in La Vanguardia about the city’s various immigrant groups referred to ‘La Muralla China’ (‘The Chinese Wall’) and wrote of Barcelona’s Chinese community: “Chinese people are true to the cliché: they make up the national group that mixes the least with native-born Barcelonese…more than 40 percent confess to not having a single Spanish friend.”
A closed Chinese community is an unjust stereotype, according to Joaquín Beltrán Antolín, a professor of social anthropology at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, who has studied Catalunya’s Chinese population in depth. There are two reasons that the Chinese here have little to do with the non-Chinese around them, he said. The first and most important, by far, is language. “Of course they can take classes, but they are working 12 and 14 hours a day, and under those conditions it’s not easy to learn a language as different as Catalan or Castilian.”
Secondly, some 70 percent of the Chinese residents in Catalunya came here from the same two districts—Qingtian and Wenzhou in Zhejiang province, a predominantly agricultural, poor mountainous region south of Shanghai—and they usually have family and friends here. By nature, however, Chinese people are outgoing and very concerned with making social contacts, said Beltrán. “They would be happy to talk to people, have friends and make contacts, but there’s a linguistic barrier. In fact, Chinese people who have a good grasp of the language here have a ready-made business. Among emerging enterprises in the Chinese community are private language classes, driving classes, businesses that serve as go-betweens.”
The recent leap in immigration numbers has meant a big expansion of the economic influence of the Chinese community in Barcelona. It has been a while coming. In the Twenties and Thirties, the first Chinese visitors arrived as part of a group of some 20,000 men from Qingtian and Wenzhou who travelled across Europe as peddlers, carrying goods to sell in towns and villages between Moscow and Lisbon. After World War II, the politics on mainland China drove numerous people to leave home, and some of them began arriving in Barcelona. In 1958, Peter Yang (see box) opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city. Barcelona was barely out of a period of food scarcity, and many people had never tasted a foreign cuisine. A meal at the moderately-priced El Gran Dragon Restaurant on Carrer Ciutat, or others that followed, was tremendously exotic in those regimented years under Franco.
For many years thereafter, people arriving from China worked in restaurants or the textile industry. In the late Nineties, many new arrivals established small shops selling cheap Chinese goods—‘Todo a Cien’—and more recently opened ‘Japanese’ restaurants or beauty salons.
“People see all this and ask, ‘Where do they get all that money?’” said Beltrán. “People think there must be an organised criminal network. But there isn’t. What happens is that friends and family here call friends and family there, and say, ‘I’ve got a restaurant in Barcelona. Come here and work and after a while I’ll give you the money to start your own business. You won’t have to go to the bank to ask for it. Later, you have to give it back to me, but you won’t need to add 10 percent in interest. You give me back what I gave you and that’s it’.”
While Chinese entrepreneurs may avoid bank loans, they are, by and large, scrupulous in paying their taxes and playing by the rules, said Beltrán, adding that there are some 25,000 Chinese autonomos in Spain, mostly owners of small businesses. “Many Chinese families have 40 members in Barcelona, all working together. Not many Catalans can say they have 40 family members here with a network of small businesses, but many Chinese can say it.”
What is happening now is that there are enough Chinese restaurants and Todo a Ciens in Barcelona, and the Chinese are investing elsewhere, according to Sushan Qu. They are buying traspasos for things like an established corner bar without changing the bar at all. The locale will continue serving tallats and sandwiches made with pa amb tomàquet, as it has always done. The menu and the ambience show no Chinese influence. One day there may be a Chinese employee or two, but otherwise there will be no sign that the bar now has a Chinese owner.
Chinese residents here are melding their economy with Barcelona’s, but their cultural habits are not so quick to disappear. Fanglu Lin’s parents are from Taiwan, and a bit less conservative than people from rural mainland China. They have never insisted that she lead a ‘Chinese’ life. “I have a Catalan boyfriend,” she told Metropolitan. “It’s normal and my parents recognise that. I was born here and grew up here and it’s not unusual that I have a Catalan boyfriend. But my best friend is also Chinese, and her parents are from the mainland and her father wants her to just go out with someone who’s Chinese.”
Some things change slowly, but it is already clear that the next generation will see many more Chinese-Catalans woven into Barcelona’s social and economic fabric.
A man of many firsts
Peter Yang opened the first Chinese restaurant in Barcelona, El Gran Dragon, in 1958. Born in Pao Shin in the centre of China in 1921, he entered the seminary at the age of 10 and was eventually ordained as a priest. With the communist revolution, life became insupportable for a priest. He received a grant from the Spanish government and came to Barcelona in 1947. He enrolled in medicine here, and celebrated mid-day Mass every day in the Cathedral for many years.
In addition to his astounding list of firsts for a Chinese person in Barcelona, he also introduced tai chi to the city (and Spain), and founded a Taoist/Buddhist centre here to promote tai chi called Rincon de Silencio (Corner of Silence).
In comments published on-line in 2005, Yang said: "The essential thing is ¡viva la Pepa!...Our life is the only gift we're given, it's all that we have that's truly our own without having deserved it, without having earned it, without having chosen it. We have to be happy and grateful."