History

THE EMERGENCE OF A . CHINATOWN. AS A TOURIST SITE IN ANTWERP?

 Paper for the sixth International Metropolis Conference, Rotterdam, The Netherlands, 26-30 November 2001.

 

 

By Ching Lin Pang,

Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism

Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Leuven, Belgium

 

 

A.      Introduction

 

In www.visitantwerpen.be/NEDERLANDS/winkelen, the page on . shopping. of the official website of the City of Antwerp, . Chinatown Antwerp. www.chinatown-antwerpen.be is recommended as a shopping area (winkelwijk), worth a visit.

 (for a Dutch version please visit this link: www.maanfeest.be/brochureChinatown.pdf )

. Across from the Central Station you will find Chinatown. In the Van Wesenbekestreet and at the Square Coninck there is a wide range of specialised shops and supermarkets, offering Chinese, Thai and other foreign food and other products.

 

Whereas many questions arise when reading this passage, the most salient issue one can point out seems to be the unproblematic usage of the term . Chinatown. . It is precisely this unproblematic use of Chinatown, which will be explored in this paper. First, we retrace the development of the Chinese migration and restaurants in Antwerp. Due to the lack of quantitative data like reliable figures a more descriptive/qualitative approach will be adopted. Second, the concept of . Chinatown. will be discussed in order to better understand its contemporary forms such as satellite Chinatowns to long established . core. Chinatowns and as tourist site, marketing ethnic diversity for tourist purposes. Third, this last model of the thematized consumptive Chinatown will be applied to the concrete case of Antwerp with reference to other . Chinatowns. in other European cities.

 

B.       Development of Chinese restaurants in Belgium and in Antwerp in particular

 

The first Chinese arriving in the late 1920s and the 1930s were sailors working aboard of ocean steamers and who jumped ship in major ports, among which also Antwerp. The migration of this period tends to be fragmented. The city archive of the city of Antwerp instructs us that most Chinese at that time originate from the two traditional emigration provinces of China, namely Guangdong and Zhejiang. Most of these bachelors did not settle permanently in Antwerp or other cities. Their single status and their high mobility were not conducive to community formation. However, they were part of the larger migration pattern of young Chinese males from these coastal provinces to different European countries (Pann 1994). Generally the ship owners were enthusiastic about their industry and docility. European sailors loaded them because the Chinese represented a threat for them, all the more since they were brought in as strike breakers as in the case of the Netherlands (Wubben 1986). In Germany the employment of Chinese seamen led to an open conflict in 1898 between the Chinese and the local German workers (Gutinger 1998: 197). Many jumped ship in different European ports including East London, Liverpool, Hamburg, Bremen, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, Antwerp, etc. and set up laundries or worked in the boarding houses. During WWI 100,000 Chinese workers from Shandong were contracted to work on the Western front by both France and Britain. This has no direct bearing on the Chinese in Belgium.

Chain migration started to take off after WWII, when Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong Chinese from the New Territories found their way to Britain (Baker 1994; Watson 1975; Parker 1995), the Netherlands (Pieke 1987,1988; Rijkschroeff 1998), Belgium (Pang 1998;1999) and Germany (Gutinger 1998). Push factors in the country of origin in conjunction with a relaxed immigration policy in most Western European countries accounted for the emigration from the hinterland of Hong Kong to European cities as London, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Antwerp, etc. They set up restaurants serving immigrant Chinese food. In contrast to the pioneering generation of immigrants, these Chinese men were joined by their spouse, children and other family members/relatives. Although there is a consensus that a large share of the Chinese are involved in the catering service, figures are hard to find. First, the total number of Chinese is estimated at 23,000 (Li 2000). Second, there is no instance, which registers the number of Chinese restaurants. Third, given the high rate of naturalization of the Chinese-both first and second generation-the figures of self-employed people does not give an accurate figure, either since the criterion used is the nationality. A crude instrument is the counting of the number of Chinese restaurants in the Yellow Pages of the Telephone Book. In 1990 a total of 194 Chinese restaurants were counted. This figure has increased to 235 in 1994 and to 261 in 2000. Aside from share increase, Chinese restaurants have undergone changes as a response to changing opportunities in the market and lifestyle of the consumer. The first generation Chinese restaurant tends to be small-scale mom-and-pop shop with a minimum of personnel. Children under the guise of . helping out. in fact substituted official and thus paid personnel. The financing of the restaurant is generated within the own co-lineage/ethnic community, where loans were made on the basis of trust and word of honor without any written document. In terms of cooking experience and marketing of the product, most newcomers worked for a while in a Chinese restaurant on the basis of an . on-the-job-training. . The first generation restaurateurs have no notion whatsoever of sophisticated marketing principles aside from the most basic one, namely offering a product at a very low if not dumping price. They succeeded in making profit by cutting on other costs such as personnel. Another factor which explains the success of the Chinese restaurateurs, as most of them have been quite upwardly mobile certainly in financial terms, is that they by chance have found and further developed an ethnic niche in a market, namely the demand for . exotic. food. In the 1960s and 1970s there was a general trend of improvement of the general living standard and social mobility from working to middle class status among the general populace of the mainstream society. As a result the new members of the middle class wanting to simulate the higher class, discovered the joy of eating out, which was hitherto a privilege of the higher middle class. It is in this period of social, economic and cultural changes that the Chinese entered the restaurant business (Pang forthc.). In the mid-1980s the Chinese catering sector has reached a high level of saturation. Business slowed down and some Chinese restaurants responded to this negative trend by restructuration and rethinking the menu. At this period many Chinese of the intermediate and second generation have reached adulthood and became professionally active. As most of them did not attend higher studies and as their parents have built out a lucrative business, they mostly took over the restaurants. With a different business outlook and ambition than their parents. generation, they upgraded the venue and as well as changing the menu. In terms of interior refurbishing, the examples of luxurious, grand, and almost . palace-like. restaurants became the desirable norm. Thus, many restaurants have undergone a major face-lift. More qualified personnel is recruited in the restaurant instead of relying on the labor of the own children. More investment was made in equipment. Alongside the refurbishing and expansion of the Chinese restaurant, there was also the tendency to include more . authentic. dishes on the menu, dishes their customers have eaten during a trip abroad or which they know from the media such as leading life style magazines, culinary articles in newspapers, on television, etc.

Besides the expansion trend, there was and is a counter-tendency of downscaling at the other side of the spectrum such as the mushrooming of take away shop, a formula imported from Great Britain. However, fish and chips never became very popular in Belgium. This formula was mostly adopted by those with less means given the low entry in terms of personnel and financial resource. Basically a nuclear family with one of two helping children can manage such a take away shop. Although the Chinese are not overwhelmingly present in the recent trend of cosmopolitan food in trendy urban neighborhoods, it is apt to state that Chinese immigrant food enjoys a large popularity. Moreover, it has been completely integrated in the daily eating practices in Belgium. Chinese immigrant food is not only available in Chinese ethnic businesses but it is also sold in mainstream supermarkets, local pubs, etc. Mainstream catering businesses also serve some of these dishes. Oftentimes some ingredients, snacks and dishes have become so mainstream that sometimes the . foreign. dimension is no longer noticeable. Overall, all types of Chinese restaurants in Belgium in the first place serve predominantly native customers. This is not an isolated phenomenon but can be retraced in other European countries such as Britain and the Netherlands.

 

C.       Typology of Chinatown and the recent concept of Chinatown as a tourist area

 

The bachelor society (Kwong 1996; Lin 1998a) is the result of a racial exclusionary policy. Chinese newcomers were excluded from American citizenship by the Naturalization Act of 1790 and retained the status of resident aliens until the McCurran Walter act of 1952. Through the Chinese exclusion act of 1882 until 1943, which bans the immigration of Chinese for six decades. When the first . coolies. or slave workers arrived in the US few of them brought their spouse along. With the enactment of the Chinese exclusion act, immigration of Chinese laborers, men and women, family reunification and mixed marriages were prohibited. The ratio man/woman was 27 to 1 in 1890 (Lee in Kwong 1996:14) During the early exclusion years from 1880-1910 the settlement pattern of the Chinese was dispersed across from the western to the mid western and eastern states. From 1910 to 1940 the Chinese tend to live in urban ghetto. s and mostly active in the restaurant and laundry sector as a result of discrimination in the labor market, anti-Chinese sentiments and exclusion from entry in certain occupations in some states. Chinatowns in the more rural areas died out with the aging population, while Chinatowns flourish in the . urban frontier. of low rent districts near waterfront or railroads or in red light districts, deemed unsuitable for living by the whites.

 

The immigrant enclave. As the US immigration policy has become more liberalized in the 1965 the demographic composition of Chinatown changed from a bachelor to a more family-based community. In the direct aftermath of WWII the War Brides Act of 1946 allowed Chinese American veteran of WWII to bring their spouse and children to the country. Students and professionals entered the US during the war, who were granted the permission to remain in the country in the aftermath of the war. After the establishment of the PRC in 1949 different displaced people and refugee acts provided the opportunity for many Chinese students, scholars, professionals, government workers who happen to be in the US to become American citizens. However, it was the Hart-Cellar Act that fundamentally changed the demographic composition. National origin quotas, hitherto privileging white European immigrants were lifted. The 1965 law established seven quota-enforced preference categories based on family reunification and special manpower requirements. Among the Chinese newcomers, those who enter under the special manpower requirements were mostly highly qualified professionals from the middle class and those entering through family reunification came from a wide range of socio-economic classes. After the improvement of the American-Chinese diplomatic relations in 1979 more Chinese from the PRC entered through the relaxation of the ban on exit visas.

 

Satellite Chinatowns

 

The emergence of satellite Chinatowns in the US is due to congestion in the core Chinatown areas. The lack of space and the consequent high commercial rent explain partly the move out of the core Chinatown. In addition some of the out-movers are second generation upwardly mobile people aspiring for home-ownership. Concurrently middle class immigrants from Taiwan join them in these satellite Chinatowns. Given more prosperity in the satellite Chinatowns they are able to attract more transnational capital, thereby bypassing the core Chinatown. In the less prosperous satellite Chinatowns the same process of leapfrogging the core Chinatown can be found. In this case the working class Chinese move to Brooklyn since they cannot afford the rent in the original Chinatown.

 

. Chinatown. as a tourist attraction in the contemporary symbolic economy

 

It is argued that tourism, which already represents a significant share of the urban economy with still high growth potential offers immigrants an interface with the emerging kowledge economy and the experience industry (Hannerz 1996; Pine and Gilmore 1999; Rifkin 2000) or the so-called . symbolic economy. (Zukin 1995). By drawing upon their specific resource of cultural diversity they are able to carve out a niche for the own group. In Europe where immigration is of a more recent date than in the traditional immigration countries of the US and Australia the recasting of an immigrant neighborhood into a tourist area is quite new. In the case of Chinatown London, it grew out of the settlement of shops and restaurants for the Chinese and the presence of the social sector. In contrast to the US where Chinatown has undergone many changes ranging from bachelor ghetto. s, enclave economies and the more recent satellite Chinatowns the concept of Chinatown London is part and parcel of this new trend of urban renewal programs to upgrade main urban neighborhoods. It came into being when a significant group of Chinese has migrated to Britain with a relative dispersed pattern, although a majority tends to live in the greater London area. Their dispersed pattern in contrast to the Chinese ghetto. s and enclave economies in the US can be explained by their economic activities in the catering sector, serving predominantly the white dominant group. Therefore there was no room for clustering in one particular neighborhood as in the American context. However, when the number of Chinese living in Britain increased as the time passed by, a new necessity arose among the Chinese to have a neighborhood serving the own ethnic food and products, which in turn attracted other businesses and social/cultural activities primarily geared towards the own group. The experiment of Chinatown London has proven to be quite successful since it is ranked by the City Council as one of the top-ten attractions of the city.

 

Recasting . Chinatown Antwerp. as a tourist site?

 

In the mid 1980s one of the first supermarkets selling predominantly Chinese produce and objects opened its door. It is located in the Van Wesenbekestraat in the immediate vicinity of the Central train station. Prior to this establishment, the indoor market . Criée. in the same street was visited by a lot of Chinese restauranteurs. They came to this market on a very regular basis for purchasing food and  products for business and personal purposes. This spontaneous meeting point of Chinese restaurateurs prompted a Surinamese-Chinese family by way of the Netherlands to open the above-mentioned supermarket in Antwerp. It has attracted other businesses such as dim sum restaurants, video rental shops, Chinese bakeries, travel agencies, dentists, doctors, acupuncturists, Buddhist temple, etc. This supermarket is located in what is now commonly and conveniently called . Chinatown of Antwerp. . At first these restaurants and services targeted the Chinese. But very soon Belgians but also other immigrants and ethnic minorities found their way to these shops. The presence of Belgian shoppers can be explained by changing eating practices and more generally the overall lifestyle becoming ever more cosmopolitan and multicultural. Moreover, given the expansion of products not only from Asia but also from other parts of the world such as Africa, other immigrants, newcomers and ethnic minorities started to shop in this supermarket, too. Very soon after, many other Chinese supermarkets were opened. In addition, in the 1990s some Thai supermarkets and cafés surfaced in these two streets. Aside from a commercial function, these two streets also serve as an informal meeting ground and thus major Chinese associations have their office in this neighborhood, notably a) the Association of the Chinese in Belgium, which is recognized by the PRC as the official representative Chinese association in Belgium, b) the Chinese Association of Merchants, c) the Association of the Chinese elderly, d) the Chinese school, run jointly by the Association of the Chinese in Belgium and the Association of the Chinese in Belgium. The last association organizes yearly the Chinese New Year, of which the Lion Dance constitutes the main attractions. The Association of the Merchants holds a yearly Chinese festival in the fall. This social event consists of an open-air Chinese opera performance and a market of food and . exotic. products. Both events attract a heterogeneous public, including Belgians but also other immigrants and ethnic minorities, while receiving much media coverage. Two Buddhist temples are located in the same area, celebrating the major Buddhist festivals. Although their activities are generally developed for the Chinese community given the exclusive usage of the Chinese language (Cantonese and Mandarin), recently the more religious festivals such as festival of the lights received much (local) media attention. Given the different functions of this neighborhood, it has been conveniently labeled . Chinatown. by many local government officials, journalists and inhabitants of Antwerp . Chinatown. , while referring vaguely to Chinatowns in San Francisco or New York. However, not much thought is given to the notion of Chinatown and certainly the potential of . Chinatown as a tourist site. has not received systematic attention or careful reflection. In the further development of this notion of Chinatown as a tourist site more collaboration and exchange of ideas, good practices and experience would be useful with other European cities with a significant Chinese population such as Rotterdam, Amsterdam, London, etc. This exercise is all the more interesting given their manyfold commonalities. On the side of the Chinese, they share a similar migration history, a common language (Cantonese), similar social class in country of origin, similar professional activities in the country of destination. Some share even similar family/lineage ties across national boundaries. On the side of the receiving society, despite differences these countries are basically Western European welfare states with a specific immigration policy, comparable migrant policies, etc.

To conclude, in fact, all the main ingredients are currently present in this ethnic precinct but it needs imagination and structured collaboration between the Chinese restauranteurs, local assocations and the local government, to make something worthwile pursuing. What is lacking is a coherent vision, learning from good practices abroad, the collaboration of all the players involved like city council members, the Chinese and their organizations, the neighbors, the visitors both from Antwerp and abroad and cultural organizations specialized in setting up cultural/social events.

 

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