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Economic Activities

Like those of Chinese immigrants in other European countries, the economic activities of the Chinese in Spain were traditionally focused on catering. However, since the late 1990s, they have diversified. The Chinese immigrant economy in Spain was flourishing until the global economic crisis in 2008.

The Catering Business

In 1953 the first Chinese restaurant was set up in Madrid by Lin Lianshui, a Zhejiangese. In 1965 there were five Chinese restaurants there. In 1975, Chen Diguang was the first Qingtianese migrant since the establishment of the PRC to set up a restaurant in the capital. His menu catered to both Chinese and Spanish tastes and was taken as a model by other Chinese restaurants. In 1978, King Juan Carlos of Spain visited Beijing and ate with chopsticks. Suddenly large numbers of Spanish people started frequenting Chinese restaurants. In 1979 there were 59 in Madrid, rising to more than 500 in the early1990s. The number peaked in early 1996, with more than 4000 Chinese restaurants all over the Spain, the golden age of Chinese catering in the country.9

The boom attracted more new immigrants from China, so competition increased. Few cooks had much professional training—most were peasants with no knowledge of catering. The only way forward was to cut prices. In the summer of 1996, local public health department officials found that some Chinese restaurants were using out-of-date food in their cooking. Chinese catering suffered a disastrous decline almost overnight. More than 300 Chinese restaurants went bankrupt within a year. Those restaurants that survived paid more attention to regularizing their business, while some Chinese sought other economic niches.

After 2000, Chinese restaurants in Spain followed a relatively stable line of development. The number of restaurants is around 3000 but they are moving in different directions, not only because of competition but also because of shifts in Chinese owners’ marketing strategy.

At the high end of the trade, restaurants created a sophisticated environment in which to enjoy genuine Chinese cuisine. There are only a handful of such restaurants. The decor is Spanish and the restaurant is clean and quiet, with small candles rather than big red lanterns and soft Western classical music instead of Chinese music. The service is adapted to the Spanish palate. Most customers are Spanish.

Other restaurants meet the needs of Chinese customers. Some smaller ones provide cheap Chinese-style snacks, while bigger ones also cater to tourists from China. The big Chinese restaurants often have a hall that can be used for banquets on the occasion of a wedding or Chinese associations’ meeting. Customers talk loudly while toasting one another. Some restaurants provide karaoke equipment. Some Chinese like to enjoy themselves by whooping, talking and shouting.

Two other trends are worth mentioning. One is the emergence of the so-called “wok restaurant.” The most important feature of this kind of restaurant is that it has an open kitchen. Chinese kitchens are often criticized on account of their unsanitary conditions, so wok restaurants show a clean and open kitchen to convince customers of their hygiene. Customers pick up half-prepared meat, seafood and vegetables from a set of open glass cupboards and hand them to the chef, who cooks in front of them. However, wok restaurants do not usually have much of a menu beyond three or four types of dish: very spicy, spicy, not very spicy or not at all spicy. Some professional Chinese chefs despair at this development, which they believe spells death for the reputation of Chinese cuisine. When wok restaurants first emerged in around 2000, they flourished, but the model quickly declined.

Some Chinese migrants have become owners of Spanish cafes. Although the profit margins for running a cafe are small, it needs little investment and can function as a family business. Cafes are deeply integrated into Spanish daily life. There is no need to worry about a shortage of customers. To increase the profits, some owners have developed a new range of services. For instance, coffee can be ordered by phone and delivered to the customer’s shop or office.10 The working hours of these Chinese cafes are long and they stay open until the last guest leaves. By the end of 2014 there were at least 8000 Chinese cafes in Spain.

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