Surviving thanks to the Chinese community

By Felix van den Broeck

MADRID – A tough crowd, lots of competition and family far away. These are the circumstances in which Da Cheung, owner of a small supermarket near Plaza de España has to survive, but he keeps going on.

Da Cheung, 61, is part of the Chinese community in the centre of Madrid. People call this part the China Town of Madrid; Loads and loads of small shops as well as Asian restaurants appear in the street view. The dirty and crowded streets give you a feeling of poverty as well as that of the hard-working mentality.

At first sight, the shop owner looks very unhappy but when he starts talking a subtle grin appears on his face. He sits straight behind the counter, and while talking he is adjusting the shelfs near him. “People say I’m a workaholic, but it is better to do something than to be bored all day. I believe that makes you old”, Mr. Cheung said with a huge smile on his face.

It has been 34 years since Mr. Cheung took the airplane to Madrid, leaving everything behind. In China he was working in a hotel. However the job bored him after several years. Then he heard of a friend who was moving to Spain. This made him wondering about the opportunities abroad himself. “I had followed some classes in the field of marketing so maybe I could use that, is what I thought.”

After a period of 14 months full of doubt, he decided to quit his job and take the gamble. “It was very hard to do, but it was time for me to go.” Mr. Cheung had found some contacts in Madrid, which were old friends and acquaintances of old colleagues.  “Everyone was trying to help me, because they feared that it would go wrong.” He got an address of a place to stay. And off he went to Madrid.

“The first months, or maybe even years were hard, very hard.” The small man looked to the ground and his body language showed that he was still having difficulties to talk about this part of the story. It turned out that Mr. Cheung lost a family member in the first months of his stay in Madrid, and due to financial instability could not return to attend the funeral. However he found mental support in the small Chinese community living in the Spanish capital. “They were my second family, and they still are.” This becomes clear when a fellow member of the community stops by to do groceries and the two start a very lively conversation in an Asian language. The two laugh and smile the whole time.

Mr. Cheung became owner of the shop in 1999, which opened a whole new world for him. “This was something different than my jobs in restaurants and hotels”, he said. “The adventure was exciting but also very hard, especially financially”. The fact that only one customer entered the shop since the start of the interview, seems to support that statement.

However, as the interview continues it appears that Mr. Cheung has found a stable source of income. He states that you should “not forget where you come from.” The shop owner points out that the Chinese community and with them the Asian restaurants want to have Asian products. This was the key to his survival and is now part of his selling strategy.

This community seems the cornerstone of all the local businesses here. In the neighbourhood there are Asian hotels, hair dressers, and even pet shops. “We help each other to survive”, he said, “and there are always friends or tourists from our home country visiting, which helps us as well.” The shop owner is however aware of the fact that this tight community also makes it more closed to the rest of

The two sons of Mr. Cheung went back to China. He misses them but said that it is for the best. “China is more open now to the rest of the world and that gives opportunities for the people.”  They are now working in the field of trade. “I believe that they have a bright future ahead of them, and lots of children”, the proud grandfather of two little grandchildren said with an enormous smile on his face.

On the question whether he would want to return himself he is clear: “No, I belong here now. I have everything here, well apart from my children than.” He makes a visit to China every two years, to visit his family. At the moment however he is dependent on programmes as Skype. “It’s a nice thing that the technology has evolved; writing letters takes so much time.”




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