chinesewhispers

I came across this extract of a book on undocumented Chinese workers in the U.K. and I guess I’m gonna have to add it to my wishlist (now impossibly long….so many books, so few euros…sigh). Here’s an extract of the extract of Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Chinese Whispers: The True Story Behind Britain’s Hidden Army of Labour:

It was Ah-Hua’s worst trip to date, that bus journey to Longsight to break the news [that he would stop selling pirate DVDs]. He arrived at the piantou’s headquarters and informed the gang members that he intended to return to the restaurant trade. He waited for the threats, but they didn’t come. He left the flat.

That night, five gang-members knocked on his door. When he opened it, they pushed their way in. They beat him up till he lay helpless on the floor. He felt blood running down his face. Then they dragged him out of the flat, bundled him into a car, blindfolded him and drove off into the night. He had no idea where he was being taken. It was only when they locked him up in their flat half an hour later that he realised he was being kidnapped rather than killed.

“I was in that flat for three weeks,” Ah-Hua told me. “My hands were tied behind my back. I had no contact with the outside world. I couldn’t even reach into my pocket to see if my mobile phone was still there. The gang gave me water and fed me with scraps of their leftovers. I was losing all sense of the world around me. I kept hearing the name ‘Yu Jian’ being mentioned. I got the sense that this guy was the leader of the Dong Bi gang.

“Then one morning a gang member came up to me and said what I’d been dreading more than anything else in the world. ‘We know your family in Fuqing. Pay us £12,000, or your family will be in hell.’ It was my nightmare come true. How could they have located my family? How could we possibly afford this money?”

Being a Californian, living near the world’s biggest China Town, I grew up well aware of Chinese immigration as an integral part of the culture of my home state, and of the brutal conditions of their labor (like that of so many who came to the Golden State from around the world). Asia’s our next door neighbor (just that little Pacific Ocean in between), my University was something like 40% Asian (a mix of everything – Chinese, Korean, Japanese, you name it), Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, and Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club were as normal and celebrated a part of the local canon as John Steinbeck or Joan Didion.

But when I came to Europe I realized I had little idea of what my fellow Californians’ ancestors’ modern-day counterparts were up to. (That was a totally convoluted phrase I just realize – but I like it so I’m keepin’ it! I’t’s not often I can stick 5 adjectives on a noun, including 2 possessives and a compound noun – can you tell I’m teaching English these days?)

I was so surprised to see such a large and growing Chinese community here in Spain. I mean, California? That seemed logical – it was right there, next door, sorta. Spain seemed random, so it surprised me. Here, the Chinese community is known for being the late-night shop owners (the Apus of Spain, if you will) in fact, the corner stores are commonly reffered to just as “chinos” as in – “I’m gonna pop over to the chino and get some beer.” But there are also rapidly expanding commercial districts, little China Towns, especially with clothing stores.

And of course, as we see above is the case in the U.K.,  many will be seen selling pirate DVDs and CDs, not the most savory of professions. The chinese are just one of the more recent groups in Spain that seem to be occupying, for the moment, very visible niches in Spanish society – along with Bangladeshis and their amazing community in Lavapies, or the Senegalese who seemed to have cornered most aspects of the pirating industry (which is rampant in Spain – the government is constantly being criticized for not cracking down).

I’ve become fascinated by the economics of these niches, especially the illicit ones. I’m currently trying to get my hands on a copy of a National Geographic documentary on just that subject. It’s incredible how the economy adapts to take advantage of immigrants no matter the circumstances: one century’s railroad workers are another century’s DVD sellers. The conditions and geography may be different but the motivation is the same  – the desire to make a quicker buck. And it looks like the price they pay – dynamiting accidents in the Sierra Nevada in California, or gangs beatings the U.K., in just the case of the Chinese emigrants- is similarly brutal.

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