The factories of Budapests’ Chinatown

When you live in Stockholm for a while, and you are ethnically Chinese, you start to occasionally crave some proper Chinese food from time to time. That’s me when I travel around the world these days, but even by my reckoning, this Chinatown was quite a stretch.

There are a few waves of Chinatowns. The first wave that can be traced to mostly Southern Chinese during the 19th-20th century are usually located in the more sleazy parts of a town (think Amsterdam, Los Angeles and San Diego), then came the next wave from present day China who settle in suburbs instead (think Barcelona and Vienna). Budapest is part of the second wave, and while the largest Asian shopping mall in all Europe is located in Budapest (Asia Center Budapest) it is not this place that is Chinatown.

Rather, the main chinatown in Budapest is located in a factory area, Monori Centre in the Kőbánya district. Kőbánya is the Chinese/East Asian enclave of Budapest and it is therefore logical that a Chinatown can be found here.

It doesn’t look like a conventional Chinatown in the United States or Western Europe, not a drop. To my eyes, I saw a factory or wholesale district and yet here I was, in the heart of the Chinese community in Budapest, these shops didn’t look they were permanent, if I’m being honest they did look cheap but shady.

How did it come to be though?

It all began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Hungary, then still a Soviet nation offered visa-free travel to Chinese, another member nation of the communist sphere. Why did people take it up? Tiananmen. The events of 1989 in Beijing led to not a little trepidation among the the merchant class and so a significant number took up the visa-free offer and set on to Budapest via the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Unlike the first wave of immigrants in the 19th century who moved to Europe, this wave of migrants to Hungary were not low waged workers. They were traders and businessmen, who for some reason as all Chinatowns in the world, settled in run down and low rent parts of the city. There was a market for their goods. The Soviet Union had just collapsed and people wanted to buy things, the cheap products brought out of China found a ready and excited market. Within 4 years, 50,000 Chinese people were living in Hungary. This growth in 4 years, turned the excitement into fear and led the Hungarian goverment to cease the visa-free requirement. The numbers of Chinese decreased to between 10,000- 20,000.

The Chinese that remained continued to do business, but because of the high corruption in the country and the difficulty in obtaining passports and becoming Hungarian citizens, tax avoidance has apparently become a problem.

There is another group of Chinese migrants to Hungary today, a move that began in 2012 when the Orban government sold government bonds for 300,000 euros each, which serve as a sort of residence permit, according to this article, some 2000 rich Chinese have bought these bonds and continue to invest in Hungarian property.

The business relationship has continued with Hungarian business eyeing the Chinese market and Chinese investors being courted, look at the advertisements below, note the subtitles…

The movement of Chinese to Hungary, has led to the birth of a new category of Hungarian citizens and Overseas Chinese – the Hungarian Chinese. Chinatowns tend to retain a flavour because the initial burst of immigration tends to congregate (as all migrant groups do really), but overtime, the offspring of these immigrants become part of the larger society and proud Hungarians, something you can very clearly see in this short documentary – especially when you see the older generation compared to the younger ones. The societies are not fully integrated, but this is not surprising, integration is a time-sensitive process.

Another interesting way to determine which wave of Chinese immigration is dominant in the city is to look at the type of food that can be found. Cantonese inspired food tends to belong to the first wave (and can be found in most of America and Western Europe), on the other hand Chinese food from the larger spectrum of China are usually found with the second waves of Chinese immigration. They even have a Chinese Street Food Fair to introduce proper Chinese cuisine to Hungarians.

The growth of Chinese populations especially in the second wave also means that genuine authentic Chinese food can be found in these places (and here), ironically unlike ‘Chinese’ in America and Western Europe which is only know being introduced to and embracing proper Chinese food.

Honestly I was there for honest Chinese food, and I got what I looked for 🙂 I was a happy boy when I walked out the restaurant.


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