It was eerily quiet as we walked past the shuttered storefronts just a few blocks from the Arc de Triomf this early evening. Comprised mostly of wholesale clothing shops run by Chinese immigrants, Trafalgar is a district usually buzzing with activity. Today, I was curious to see if the Chinese would defy Spain’s nation-wide strike and open on a day when unions across the country urged and pressured all the shops to close and all services to come to a halt.
To my surprise, all the shops in Trafalgar were closed.
Suddenly, a fire truck came rumbling and wailing down the block. We followed the sirens and saw a plume of white smoke billowing upwards to the blue sky.
It looked as if a car had been lit on fire, but as we got closer, cameras in hand, walking in the middle of the streets with dozens of other curious pedestrians, we saw it was a large dumpster that was engulfed in flames. The police had stopped traffic from entering the city’s center, but people were free to move and we got right up close to the fire and to the firefighters tending to it.
A block further, more smoke was billowing up into the air. Another dumpster was lit. Beyond that, we could see crowds of people gathering and more smoke rising. Big fires were starting on almost every major intersection. Protestors held flags, blew whistles and even clashed with riot police at the Placa de Catalunya.
The mayhem comes a day before Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy’s administration is expected to announce about €30 billion ($40 billion) in spending cuts and tax hikes. This is meant to ease increasing fears about Spain’s budget deficit and European leaders insist drastic cuts must be made this year. But some Spaniards believe the reductions in government spending will only boost the unemployment rate, which is already at 23 percent — the highest among all nations in the Euro-zone.
Spain has slid back into recession but as I reported for Bloomberg Businessweek last month, Chinese immigrants are faring well in this economic crisis. Only 2.9 percent of Chinese registered for social security received unemployment benefits in 2010, and though they account for less than 3 percent of Spain’s 5.7 million immigrants, Chinese make up nearly 23 percent of the country’s foreign-born entrepreneurs.
Today, I met Chinese immigrants from both groups — those who are entrepreneurs and those who are unemployed.
Earlier this morning I was in Fondo, a suburb north of the city which has evolved to become a sort of Chinatown. This neighborhood is saturated with immigrants from Qingtian who have opened up restaurants, bars, hair salons, and other small retail shops to serve the large Chinese population. In Fondo this morning, stores on the main road were closed, but on the side streets, I found shops that had pulled their shutters pulled down half-way, just enough for customers to slip in and buy some groceries or to get their hair cut, or to have a quick bite to eat.
“It’s the union. This has nothing to do with us,” said Shufen Chen, who runs a noodle shop with her husband serving Qingtian delicacies. “Most of the people supporting this strike are the ones who don’t have work. For us, if we have the chance to open for business, we will.”
Chen and her husband said they believed the Rajoy administration was doing the right thing. The unions, she said, were standing in the way of economic recovery.
After lunch, I was hoping to get back to the city, but all the subways and buses had been shut down during the day and only opened back up for rush hour. There was nothing to do in Fondo but to sit in the square with the other locals.
I found myself inhaling lots of cigarette smoke as I sat next to five Chinese men. They were all from Fujian and they were all out of work.
“We can’t strike if we don’t have work,” they said. “So we come here to suntan.” The men had come to Spain seven years ago and worked in construction. Back then, there were plenty of jobs to go around.
On my last trip to Spain, I met Chinese bosses who told me there wasn’t one Chinese person they knew who wasn’t unemployed. It’s true that it is not easy to find unemployed Chinese people in Spain. But here these men were, jobless in Fondo. It is interesting to note that all these men were from Fujian province. Most of the Chinese in Spain come from Qingtian and have a much longer history of emigration than any other Chinese group. Newer emigrants from Fujian and from the north of China often come to Europe without the social network and the economic support that Qingtian emigrants have established. Therefore in many Chinese communities across Europe, there is a class division that can easily be identified, depending on what region of China an emigrant comes from.
As we sat in the sun with those Fujianese men in Fondo, my husband recalled a brief conversation he had with an employee at a store on the Passeig de Gràcia.
“Where will you be on the day of the strike?” my husband had asked the day before.
“I’ll be at the beach,” the employee said.
Every Chinese person I’ve met here tells me the same thing: The Spanish know how to enjoy life. It’s a good trait, for sure. But as I looked around at the destruction today — at the burned out garbage dumpsters, at the shattered glass window of a bank, at the litter and spray paint courtesy of the protestors — I couldn’t help but think that today’s protests were just an excuse for hooligans to cause mindless destruction and for workers to take a day off at the beach. All this, at a time when the Spanish just need to buckle down and work hard to avoid more economic disaster.