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The Dragon & the Emperor


By Karen Blythe
Photos: K. Blythe


I don’t live in Madrid’s iconic Lavapies whose middle name is Chinatown. I live in that mystifying location between Plaza de España and Plaza de los Cubos where a cursory glance will tell the non-resident it’s one of the rare spots that the Chinese are still staying prudently away from.

But don’t hurl yourself precipitately into the futile job of solving the mystery; there’s none. If you don’t see any Chinese around, it’s only because they’re hidden from view, enjoying brisk trade in their ubiquitous restaurants and bazaars in the underground parking lot at Plaza España.

You climb back up on the ground level and just a few meters away they’re there too, in the vicinity of Calle San BCalle San Bernardinoernardino, again with their restaurants and the inevitable Todo a cien (dollar store). They’re invisible from the western tip of Gran Via and the east end of Calle Princesa but it doesn’t mean they’re not around. Other ethnic  — Mexicans, Arabs, Indi8ans, Pakistanis, Peruvians, Thais — have staked their claim in the place, offering their wonderfully edifying cuisines to delighted Madrileños. If it were not for them, San Bernardino might have grown into the nucleus of another Chinatown.

Calle San BernardinoAnd so the Chinaman may have failed to make the Dragon the ruling beast of San Bernardino, thanks to the cactus-licking guanaco and the long-haired Persian cat. But the Dragon stands out in the barrio for his own good or bad. He outworks everybody and for that, he’s managed to unwittingly get caught in a love-hate relationship with his co-residents. He outsells and that’s probably the only thing that matters to him. But because of that, he has turned himself into a monster of the barrio, fire-spitting despite his almost pathologically discreet ways.

Early this year I was vexed on finding the Todo a cien on the street closed; I needed to buy a manila folder. I cut to the other side of the street into what was then a grocery store (it’s now gone up a good notch higher and become a small supermarket). I asked the young proprietor, husband of the Chinese woman who runs the Todo a cien, why she’d closed her shop and when was she going to re-open? With a dignity that befits an owner of a new supermarket but still with the diffidence of someone who must toil 24/7 or sink, the Chinese said, “The señora [yes, he most definitely said señora and made it sound like a formal title] is on vacation in China and won’t be back till mid-February.”

Nuts, now I had to go all the way up to either Calle San Bernardo or past Plaza de Cubos for one lousy folder. How did these upstarts manage in a flash to decisively affect our daily errands anyway? And knowing only very basic Spanish too!

The Arrival

History books and Google tell us that the first recorded appearance of the Chinese in Spain was in the 16th century; they traveled down the maritime Silk Route. That will almost mislead us into thinking that these enigmatic people have been in our neighborhood for centuries! But you can’t possibly fall for that fanciful fallacy. Just think, in 1961 there were only 161  Chinese nationals residing in Spain. And the Sino-Spanish diplomatic ties were not established till 1973. They could not have crawled out of the woodwork; they never were there in any meaningful way until recent years.

The first major wave of Chinese migration to Spain began in the 1980s when the country, in but not yet of Europe, returned to the fold after four

Chinese supermarket

A Chinese supermarket

decades of the Franco regime and its economy took off in earnest. As late as 1995 it is said that the Chinese numbered less than 10,000. They need not have tried so hard, since they weren’t numerous enough to crowd out other nationalities, but they did seem to have done everything not to call attention to themselves. You only knew they’ve arrived because of their restaurants.* Three decades later the omnipresent smell of fried calamares (squid) in the streets of Madrid is fighting a losing battle with the cloying smell of the soy sauce that’s impregnating a city flooded over with Woks.

By2011 the Instituto Nacional de Estadistica has estimated the number of Chinese residents at 166,000. Given the relatively short time frame (1961-2011), that’s quite a leap for those tiny Chinese feet! Moreover, they’re the foreign group that’s grown most in 2010. In the Comunidad de Madrid alone Chinese expats between January 2011 and January 2012 number 47,157. And that’s not counting in those who are lying below the police radar. The total estimate of legal and illegal Chinese migrants in Spain goes up as high as 240,000 and that may still not be high enough.

The Remarkable Expat

One could say that the Chinese, given their proclivity to retail trade, would find Spain irresistible. It was the lure of commercial success in the face of the recent unprecedented economic bonanza (now a dim memory). Records show two out of three self-employed foreigners are Chinese. In 2010 this means that 27,000 Chinese owned their business. At around that time Xu Songhua, president of the Asociación de Chinos en España, offered a breakdown of Chinese entrepreneurship in Spain, one that looks overly conservative: Of the 13,000 Chinese-owned businesses some are restaurants (4000), Todo a cien (3,200), fruit shops (1,500), wholesale warehouses (600), Chinese-food groceries (80), textile factories (200) and photo processing shops (120).

A Chinese restaurant

A Chinese restaurant near Calle San Bernardino.

And yet in just the rectangle of 8 x 6 city blocks in the Plaza Anton Martin area (using Calles Magdalena and Mesón Paredes as points of reference), there are already more than 100 commercial spaces owned or managed by the Chinese for the distribution of Chinese merchandise.

Given the above, it is tempting to conclude that the Chinese are not only running a formidable number of businesses, some of which might not figure in official records but that the days are gone when they were poor insignificant peddlers working the streets. But no. Vying with the newly arrived Pakistanis and Indians are some Chinese out there peddling satiny red roses, hoping some unreformed romantic Romeo would bite the bait. You’ll see the same, but with cold canned beers and bottled water instead, at demonstrations in Puerta del Sol and in botellones (outlawed open-air drinking sessions of young people) in the jampacked Plazas of La Cebada and San Andres.

Now the Big League

The big-leaguers don’t peddle roses and beers, that goes without saying. They’re out in Lavapies overseeing the unloading of boxes and boxes of wholesale goods, unconcerned with traffic regulations, into premises that were once potato chip factories owned by Spaniards. Better still, they’re out in Fuenlabrada, the southern municipality in the industrial belt of metropolitan Madrid where the Cobo Calleja industrial park is located. Cabo Calleja is reputed to be one of the biggest Chinese trading zones in all of Europe.