As Chinese-run supermarkets change the economic, social landscapeFriday, January 31, 2014
City’s chinos prepare to welcome in year of Wooden Horse
For supermarket worker Cintia Hue, 28, it wasn’t the language that stumped her when she first moved here — it was the food.
“When I came to Buenos Aires I hated it, the flavours are very different,” she explained. “But now I do love one thing: asados.”
Hue arrived in Argentina almost nine years ago in search of economic opportunities — more specifically, a job at her brother’s store in the Recoleta neighbourhood, where the Herald also met 23-year-old Becky Li.
“I’m happy in Argentina, because all my family lives here,” commented Li, who nodded alongside Cintia, explaining enthusiastically that they were sisters-in-law.
“Over there, she’s my sister-in-law too,” she added, pointing across to the vegetable section to a girl seen ducking for cover.
Nobody’s likely to be shy tonight when Li and Hue gather with their family for Chinese New Year festivities, which mark the year 4712 — or the Wooden House — in the Chinese calendar.
Ana Kuo from the Chinese Cultural Association of Argentina emphasized that even though supermarket owners and workers may be the most visible part of the community, there’s more to Chinese migrants than just the corner-store “chino.”
“Professionals, investors — not just the supermarkets — are some of the Chinese groups collaborating in the dissimenation of our culture here in Argentina,” she told the Herald.
New Year’s celebrations have become a staple of City life over the past several years, with the Chinese neighbourhood in Belgrano packed to the brim with people eager to see performances and munch away at food throughout the weekend.
“The dragon — he’ll be on his feet the entire festival,” Kuo said.
Like many of the new Chinese arrivals to Buenos Aires, Hue and Li — and probably their shy sister-in-law — came from Fujian province on the southeastern coast of mainland China, trailing family connections to find work in the robust Argentine supermarket sector.
Known in Argentine vernacular as chinos, these stores have been nothing short of a phenomenon in recent years, forming an important part of the retail landscape and leading a clear obliteration of the latest immigration data, which in the 2010 Census put the Chinese-born population at a mere 9,000.
“Today we have 10,788 stores in the entire country, directly employing more than 30,000 people within the Chinese community and almost 50,000 Argentines,” said Miguel Calvete, head of Argentine Federation of Chinese Supermarkets and Associations (FESACH).
“The migration accord (signed in 2003 between Argentina and China) facilitated family reunions and meant many relatives of Chinese people who were already here came to Argentina,” he explained. “These relatives needed work. Ultimately more sources of employment had to be created, more workplaces, and so more supermarkets were opened.”
The Chinese stake of the supermarket retail sector is impressive: between 19.8 and 20 percent, Calvete told the Herald.
Chinese language teacher Laura Lin has been witnessing the growth of the Chinese community in Buenos Aires from an interesting perspective. She was just six months old in 1979, the year she arrived in Buenos Aires from Taiwan, accompanied by her entire family.
Although once seen as the land of opportunity, Argentina is now more likely to be a temporary stop.
“Most of the Chinese (who come to Argentina) plan to work for around five years, make their money and return to China to have a better and more comfortable life,” she explained. “There are few who actually settle here, who have their families, houses, cars.”
Behind the smiling faces at supermarkets, Lin also indicated that life in Argentina is challenging for recently-arrived Chinese migrants — just as it had been for the Taiwanese community — with many having come from lower socio-economic backgrounds in their homeland.
“The majority of Chinese with supermarkets come from Fujian province, which is a province that is marginalized by the Chinese government and by other provinces.” Lin explained.
“They hope to find something better than in China, but they are quickly baffled by the language, customs, they miss their families, their homes. But at that point there’s no turning back. There’s money to loans to back in China and some end up having to work more than 12 hours a day.”