Psyri and Piraeus in Athens, why are there Chinese shops?

We had seen the Acropolis and the statues at the museum, and were on our way to food at the central market, when we walked into a district that striked us as surprising – Chinese store signs.

Sure it isn’t much now, but for a place that has little modern interaction with China, its notable. Was this a Chinatown in the heart of Athens? It may not be but it certainly was filled with immigrants from Pakistan, China and other countries.

Now, if there is a Chinatown in Athens and this is the one then it certainly is not the large sort like Los Angeles, Singapore and Amsterdam – packed with Chinese customs and culture and dating back at least a century but rather similar to the type in Budapest, Barcelona and Vienna – newly-industrial, trading-centric, barely a decade old and rather boring. This was to the best of our knowledge just outside Psyri district (a gentrified neighbourhood in Athens) and not far away from the Piraeus Port. Was this why?

Greece’s recent economic history is one of economic trauma. Greece like most of Europe was seeing great economic improvements from the end of World War 2, all the way till the earliest parts of the 21st century. Then in 2007/08 a period known today as the Great Recession of 2008 (the last time humanity faced such a massive crash was the Great Depression in 1929) hit the whole world.

The growth of countries like Greece was through deficit spending, spending more than the country makes. Governments finance this by selling bonds, essentially This works great when things are going great since you spend money tomorrow that you believe will be made back eventually. And that money comes from somewhere, in this case, banks lending to governments. But what happens once the banks get in trouble and start to close their wallets? The whole scheme collapses.

Greece was one of the countries worst hit by the crisis since banks and other governments tightened their purse strings, and the government lost the ability to find money to finance its programmes. Suddenly, all the benefits and services had to be shrunk, the government had to slash spending, people were sacked from jobs, citizens desperate to take money out. The nation was brought to its economic knees, and had to negotiate financial bailouts from other EU nations (led by Germany), who imposed a strict financial regime on the country.

This led to a massive economic and political crisis that threatened to bring down the whole Eurozone even and continued for a decade, until 2018, when the government was once again in a position to reissue government bonds. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund, global institutions led by Americans and Europeans worked with subsequent Greek governments but demanded huge austerity measures in place. Into this crisis, came a new partner from the east who offered to buy off the debt, and proposed investments with less punitive demands than the Europeans.

Greece and China came together because both sides had something to benefit. Xi Jinping, who took office in 2013, launched perhaps the most ambitious infrastructure project the world has ever seen, the Belt Road Initiative, and Greece (especially Athens and its Piraeus Port) was one of the important European nodes of that plan.

The Piraeus port was recently bought over by the Chinese COSCO Group as part of that initiative and turned the port into the second largest in the Mediterranean with further expansion plans and massive financial investments. It is not without its challenges, especially political.

Europe was clearly not best pleased, even though Greece’s politicians and leading negotiators like Yanis Varoufakis were.

Regardless, more trade will mean that traders, big and small will arrive; perhaps this is the reason behind the number of small trader shops in the inner districts of Athens. I could be wrong, maybe these are just extremely intrepid and enterprising traders willing to go anywhere to do business.

Will we see more Chinese traders and investors in Athens eventually, and maybe turn this district turn into a full-fledged Chinatown though?

Don’t be surprised.

ON THE MAP

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