There were no convenience stores (or corner shops) in Spain until relatively recently. Retail had always been highly regimented and regulated: you bought your newspapers from the newspaper stand, your cigarettes from the tobacconist and your bread and milk in the grocer’s — or latterly the supermarket. And shops opened and shut at a given hour. Under pain of prosecution. It is still somewhat like this (try chasing down a packet of cigarettes on a Sunday evening or during siesta time), but the arrival of the Chinese convenience store has been a game changer. Since the early noughties, Chinese immigrants to Spain, spotting a gap in the market, have dedicated themselves to the opening of corner-shop-like businesses, which have sprung up in their thousands in neighbourhoods across the country, saving the lives of guys like me who might have the need for a half dozen eggs or a kilo of sugar in the dead of night, when every other shop in the city is closed.
The Chinese corner shop in Spain has three main characteristics: it stocks a little bit of everything; it is dingy and, shall we say, not the most luxuriously outfitted; and it never closes. Spain being Spain, and sectoralist–protectionist regulations being what they are, there are certain typical corner shop items (from an Irish point of view) that the Chinese are not allowed sell — notably cigarettes and newspapers — but there’s a darn good chance they’ll have whatever else you need. It is a feature of Chinese businesses in Spain (predominantly restaurants, discount stores and corner shops) that they don’t seem to lavish a whole pile of investment on outward appearances. Thus, their corner shops are not pretty. There’s no clean-edged shelving with recessed LED lighting, bells ‘n’ whistles displays of the latest products, or space-age refrigerated cabinets that look like something Michael Jackson might have used to attempt to defy the aging process. Inside the Chinese corner shop things are pretty basic. Rough and ready — worse than that, things are old and tacky and somewhat ramshackle. But they are open all the time, reinforcing the stereotype that exists among the Spanish of the hardworking Chinese (so much so that killing yourself working in Spanish is “working liking a Chinese” — trabajando como un chino).
Chinese immigration to Spain began in the 1980s. It would have been almost impossible to find a Chinese person in Spain prior to this: General Franco’s dictatorship was not too gone on communist China. (I’m sure the feeling was mutual!) When the Chinese did start to appear in Spain they came with one clear idea: to open restaurants. As with every other country in the developed world, Spain saw a boom in interest in, appreciation and consumption of Chinese cuisine, to the extent that every neighbourhood has its Chinese restaurant and takeaway. But when growth in the Chinese restaurant sector plateaued, the steady stream of Chinese immigrants to Spain had to find another sector into which to plough their entrepreneurial spirit. They chose retail.
At the turn of the millennium a new type of shop began to appear in Spain — the Chinese discount store (or pound shop if you come from Britain or Ireland). These are colloquially known as Chinos and are ubiquitous. Like the Chinese corner shop these too sell everything under the sun (bar foodstuffs) and are also open night and day. Their products are typically of the non-branded, cheap ‘n’ cheerful variety and are of a Chinese, mass-produced provenance. Some of the goods they sell are not quite right, off-the-mark or unintentionally funny (figurines of the three wise men with Asiatic features come to mind), and there are constant rumblings in the press that these stores’ success rests ultimately on sweatshop labour, but their products — and low prices — are immensely popular among Spanish consumers. The Chino is now as much a feature of Spanish life as Semana Santa or Hola magazine.
Chinese immigration to Spain has, in contrast to that of other nationalities, been an unqualified success story for those choosing to make a new life for themselves. Although smaller in number than other immigrant groups such as Moroccans or Ecuadorians, the Chinese are leaders among foreigners for running their own businesses; one third of the two-hundred thousand or so Chinese in Spain are officially sole traders. Their businesses are family businesses and their motivation for working as hard as they do is tied in with family pride. They are staunchly independent and the fact that only family is hired to work in their shops or eateries, and that Chinese don’t tend to enter the general labour market renders them somewhat aloof from wider society. They don’t ask for bank loans (family credit or guanxi is availed of). They don’t interact with the state’s social welfare system. They don’t go to the police or the police don’t come looking for them. Even though we shop at Chinese stores all the time and pass them on the street every day of the week, the Chinese are somewhat inscrutable to the rest of us.
This is changing though. The demographic of the Chinese community in Spain is forcing them to interact more intimately with the locals on one front: in the schools. The Chinese who come to Spain, like most other immigrants, tend to be between twenty and forty — and tend to start families when they settle down. Chinese children in schools are now a common sight. There are a couple in my youngest daughter’s class. Growing up side by side with the natives is going to do more for integration than a million government programmes. A million birthday parties, schoolyard games and play dates will do more to show us what they’re all about and vice versa than any worthy official measures. When my daughter’s generation are all grown up I am certain that the Chinese will be more fully joined-up members of Spanish society than at present — and their corner shops will still be open for business. We might even have a Pen Gwi or Chen Yang knocking in goals for the national team!