Sunday, September 4, 2011

Letters from Portugal: The Chinese in Lisbon

Some months ago this epistolary series made reference to an underground Chinese restaurant in the vicinity of Lisbon’s Praça Martim Moniz. The experience was so grittily unappealing that it is only in the best interests of the reader that the experience that ought to have been a hipster’s fantasy adventure is not repeated on the pages of this newspaper.

The Chinese in Lisbon however are the source of a number of interesting stories. Ubiquitous in urban Portugal, the Chinese shops, the Lojas dos Chineses, are invariably large stores that host all varieties of goods, ranging from electronics, shoes, umbrellas, kitchen utensils and underwear. Given that these stores, not surprisingly, also offer the cheapest prices for similar quality goods, they are also the first option for those looking for the cheapest option. Judging from the snazzy canvas shoes a friend was displaying the other day, these stores may not necessarily be lacking in style either.

Speak to some Portuguese and they will tell you that the Chinese presence in Portugal is not related to the handing over of Macau, and nor was it a slow growth of a community. It was more like a big bang. One day they weren’t there, and the next day, there were Chinese all over the country. This sudden presence has not come without observation in Portuguese society, some offering a suggestion that this presence, and the rumour that the Lojas dos Chineses pay a lower tax rate, is linked to the investments of the Republic of China in the Portuguese economy. Some of the best stories however, are linked to the restaurants that the Chinese run.

There used to be a time, the story goes, when Lisbon was full of Chinese restaurants, and then one fine day, they all began to shut down. This closure was only temporary however. These restaurants soon re-opened with a new décor, and cuisine. The formerly Chinese restaurants were now Japanese, serving among other things, a cheaper sushi-dining option.

The change occurred, if one is to believe the rumour, after people started getting sick from eating at these Chinese restaurants. Their popularity plummeted drastically. An alternate version is that some over-enthusiastic health and hygiene inspector started targeting the Chinese restaurants, and rather than risk going under the block, they voluntarily shut down and re-opened under a new guise.

One can’t help but imagine, in this context, that there is a certain attempt at dissimulation that the Chinese are attempting, a certain turning of the Orientalist tables on ‘the white people’. It is as if the Chinese decided that since all ‘Oriental’ people look the same to the white-eyes, they might as well pull a fast one on the presumably none-too-sharp Portuguese customers.

The wickedest story about these restaurants however is tied straight to the presence of this large community and the anxiety it must create in some Portuguese. The story goes that till date, there have been no Chinese people buried in the local cemeteries or otherwise consigned to the elements. There are similar stories of the Vietnamese population in Warsaw. The rumours in Warsaw are that the dead are covertly buried and their papers are used to support new ‘illegal’ entrants into the community. The reasons the Chinese in Lisbon apparently give, is that they send their dead back to China for burial. The version some wicked Portuguese peddle however, is that the dead, end up in… the Chinese restaurants!

(A version of this post was first published in the O Heraldo 4 Sept 2011)

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