Plaza de Tetuan, Chinese in Barcelona and the Power of Perception

“There’s a lot of Chinese people in Spain nowadays, you will see them when you go to Barcelona.”

I was curious not so much at the statement but at the perception of Barcelona being full of Chinese, Barcelona’s tourist did not seem to be made up of Chinese (they were there, but not at the levels of London or Paris), there weren’t too many Asian groups, or tour buses in Barcelona. What they missed out on in their comment, was that many of these Chinese people are not in Barcelona as tourists but residents.

We did not go searching for a Chinatown but stumbled on it while walking around town doing some shopping. Chinatown in Barcelona is centred, it seems, around Plaza de Tetuan.

It’s not like the Chinatown in Singapore, Amsterdam or San Francisco, there are no dragons, or pagodas. It doesn’t look Asian at all, to be honest if you don’t pay attention you can’t even tell that this is a Chinatown. It looks just like any other district in Barcelona.

Only a closer inspection of the area will reveal that there is a larger than usual number of Chinese businesses. While not a Chinatown in the conventional sense of the word, it was hard to miss the shops with Chinese characters printed over their doors that seemed to be found all over the area – there were supermarkets, restaurants and service shops all that seemed to cater to a Chinese crowd.

It seems that you can tell which shop caters to the Chinese residents compared to all residents based on whether or not Spanish/Catalan is similarly written on the entrance.

You’d think that a place like this where you can get authentic Chinese food in Barcelona and you would be partially right. While some Chinese have set up restaurants selling Chinese food from a particular part of China, there is also a substantial group that have taken over old Spanish tapas restaurants instead and run those restaurants serving tourists.

There are under 200,000 Chinese people in Spain – a number that excludes Chinese citizens, ethnic Chinese people not from China and Spanish citizens of Chinese heritage – amounting to under 0.5% of the Spanish population. The first documentation of Chinese people in Spain was in the 16th century were a few traders were written as having made their way to Spain and her colonies to trade. Most of the contact of the Chinese people with Spain began through contact with the Philippines, then a Spanish Colony. Most Chinese interaction with Spain prior to the 20th century, took place however not in Spain but all over here colonies in the Latin American world – providing and important reason for the presence of Chinese people in Central and Latin America.

It was only in the 1920s and 30s, at the end of World War I that the Chinese began to arrive in Spain proper as itinerant product peddlers. The end of World War II, say the itinerant peddlers be replaced by more permanent jobs in industries such as restaurants, textiles and trade. This trickle however was socially, culturally and economically negligible to the Spanish population. Meaning that they were an invisible population, and at best a cute novelty.

The next wave of immigration to Spain began in the 1980s. Chinese people around the world are not a monolith but are culturally dissimilar from each other. The original immigrants from China to San Francisco during the Gold Rush were mostly from the southern province of Guangdong where the language spoken was Cantonese. Over 80% of all Chinese immigrants in Spain can trace their ancestral homes to Qingtian County and Wenzhou City in Zhejiang Province. Many of them have settled and their children are second-generation Spanish Chinese, who have gone beyond the trades their parents started when they first arrived although it is debatable if they are considered to have been accepted as Spanish/Chinese-Catalans. The presence of the Chinese was only felt after the economic crisis of 2008 (and Spain’s economic collapse). That occasion introduced more Chinese investment into Spain, as well as providing Chinese products with low brand recognition more competitiveness with Spanish buyers. Recent years have also seen more Chinese tech companies move into Barcelona, one of the tech hubs in Europe.

You could say that just as the 1920/30s was a trickle and the 1980/90s the drop of Chinese immigration to Spain, the 2010/20s will see a third wave of Chinese immigration into Spain.

I thought back to the issue of perception, of a Chinese wave that has entered Spain, perceptions are subject to the baseline we are used to. According to El Pais the numbers of Chinese who are registered in Spain have grown exponentially in a very short time (in fact, more than 23% of Chinese in Spain are under 15 years old):

1961, 167
1971, 439
1995, 9158
2000, 28693
2015, 191000

That sort of exponential growth reshapes the real life visuals of the locals but is however not long enough for cultural adaptation, integration and assimilation to truly take place – an activity that tends to take generations. Meaning that Chinese-Spaniards who know only of Spain are seen as the same as recent immigrants from China. This has led to anger being directed at the Chinese population in Spain, three years ago a video was posted on the internet that showed a neo-Nazi assaulting a Chinese-looking man in the Barcelona metro.

The interaction between China and Spain is set to grow in the coming years.

What will this mean for perceptions between peoples?

We’ll know if a few years time.



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