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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Chinese Community in Spain

There’s a corner café near my house staffed by an older Chinese couple who work every day, all day, from about seven in the morning until ten or eleven at night. I have lived in this neighborhood for four years and they have never had a vacation unless their vacation coincided with one of my many holidays. I doubt this is the case because I have never been by this place when they weren’t working. The woman—who appears to be somewhere between 40 and 60—is about half bat-shit crazy from spending so much time locked up in her concentration camp disguised as a corner café with a pleasant terrace. This couple isn’t any sort of an exception as the absolute minimum work week for Chinese people here is six days a week. My question is this: who is forcing these people to literally work themselves to death (the woman doesn’t look good at all)?

There is no way that any person would work this much of their own volition. I just don’t fucking believe that. What I believe is that the Chinese hierarchy here in Valencia is making these people work. It is impossible not to notice the enormous wave of Chinese immigrants here in Spain, even in some of the smallest villages. They generally work in little variety stores that sell products, most of which are manufactured in China. In the last couple of years, at least here in Valencia, the Chinese community has been buying up bars and restaurants at an alarming pace which certainly isn’t news to anyone who lives here. The Chinese community seems to be completely apart from the rest of Spanish society.  Labor, health, security, and other laws don’t seem to affect them in the least.

I have said this before and I stand firmly behind this statement: the Chinese in Spain are not immigrants at all; they are economic colonists sent here by the Chinese government to sell Chinese manufactured goods and to earn hard currency for the Chinese mainland.  Think about it. If you are Chinese you can’t go to your local government and say, “You know, I think that I’d like to leave this shithole of a country and go live in Spain. Is that OK with you guys?” I doubt if an average slob can even get a passport in Spain let alone emigrate on his own accord. Therefore these “immigrants” are sent to Spain and that begs the question “Why?” I think that I answered that question in the first sentence of this paragraph.

Most of the Spanish people that I have talked to have very ambivalent feelings about the Chinese. On the one hand the Chinese cause no trouble and keep to themselves. And of course they work hard, not the most admirable trait as far as the holiday-loving Spanish are concerned. On the other hand the Chinese do not participate in any way in the quotidian life of this country other than performing their assigned tasks within their own community. Last year I was with a group of friends downtown for a fireworks display during Fallas, Valencia’s biggest and most important festival (in a country where it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of festivals). There were perhaps 120,000 people crowded into the main square. I challenged my friends to point out a single Chinese person in the crowd. Not one. Every other immigrant group was represented that day, South Americans of every stripe, black Africans, and even a few Pakistanis, but no Chinese. I have never seen a Chinese family at the beach. It’s rare to even see a Chinese person sitting in a café.

In my years here in Spain I have read only one or two articles about the Chinese community in the newspapers—and I read at least two Spanish papers every day(OK, I admit that perhaps I spent too much time in cafés).  No one seems to know anything about them or how their community functions.  I should point out that anything I put forth in this essay is purely speculation and strictly anecdotal.  From what people have told me there are very few Chinese students enrolled in the local universities and the few that you do see may very well be adopted children of Spanish families (about 100% of whom are girls—another story for another essay).  I would wager that the Chinese government does not want the children of “immigrants” to attend Spanish universities to pursue careers in this country. Their job is to continue working for the Chinese mainland, selling Chinese merchandise and earning money which is mostly sent back home.

The brilliant Canadian economist and polymath, John Ralston Saul has stated that China doesn’t believe in globalization. They aren’t interested in free trade; they only care about selling their products around the world. Spain’s Chinese population certainly backs this point.

P.S. Myth Busters: The Chinese in Spain Never Die

This is one of the first urban myths I learned upon arriving in Spain. Many people have told me that the Chinese immigrants in Spain never have funerals and that there are no Chinese cemeteries. I’ve heard a lot of bad jokes about how you should be careful about eating in a Chinese restaurant because you don’t know where the meat comes from. The whole idea seemed rather silly to me and not really important enough to give much thought to it. I doubted that the Chinese passed on their documents to others when they passed away and their bodies were unceremoniously discarded in unmarked graves or tossed in the sea as legend has it.

In Roberto Saviano’s book, Gomorra about the Mafia in Naples, Italy he addresses this issue in the first chapter. He describes a scene at the port of Naples in which a container breaks open and dumps a load of frozen Chinese corpses on the wharf. Evidently, the Chinese pay to have their bodies shipped back to China when they die so that they can be buried in their native land. The expense of the shipment is sometimes deducted from their pay. Anyway, that makes more sense than the urban myth version.


  1. Well, first, the work ethic of the Chinese is generally insane. I remember 25 years ago when I was teaching at a community college in NYC and one of my students, Chinese/Mayalsian, was going off on Americans. "You people are lazy! You think a five day work week is enough! And only 8 hours a day! We know the only way to succeed is to work all day, every day. And we're going to take over the world!!. Hmmm

    More to the point, the way the Chinese can land here and hit the ground running with a small business is that the Chinese business community has its own system of private banking and loans (much like those sweet old men who supply mozzarella and tomato sauce to the pizzarias of Brooklyn.) You borrow your money, you pay it back with a healthy dash of vigorish, or your grandmother's village in the old country disappears in a mysterious avalanche.

    They also have a very existential view of Western bureaucracy. The Chinese population in Madrid, for example, has a very low death rate. Only a cynic would think that deaths are unreported and passport/NIE numbers are re-sold.
    Or take the case of one of the local merchants here in Barrio de Las Letras, Madrid. One day I was in the stationary store and saw the owner yelling at a Chinese guy and kicked him out. She said,, "He's in here every two week asking for a new rubber stamp (for his recipts and bank forms)with a different tax number. He's just rolling the business over and over* and I told him I'm not going to participate in his fraud anymore. (*probably using bought and stolen business numbers).

    But I sure do like being able to buy wine at 23:30 at night. On Sunday.

  2. As far as their legendary work ethic and cafés I only wish they would put a bit of elbow grease into cleaning.

  3. You will never find a Chinese name in the local cemetery, so when they die, where do they go? Surely not into the numbah Seventy Foah!

  4. Lenox, I added an afterword to answer your comment. I heard these same rumors since I arrived in Spain. It just goes to show how little the Spanish know about this growing segment of their population.

  5. I certainly remember the 2008 Olympics in Beijing when the Spanish Basketball team raised some eyebrows (as well as their own).


    Classic stuff! But really, what did you expect from basketball players (from any country).


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