What lies behind the shelves

Mei tras el mostrador de su bazar en la calle Alfonso XII. / KYLE TIZIO

Over 3,000 Chinese people live in the province of Seville. For many of them, opening their own bazaars is an occupation just as hard as profitable. Their dedication to these businesses has made them essential for their host community though, at the same time, has aroused the suspicion of local retailers, who see them as disloyal competitors.

AS LI WEI SITS BEHIND THE CASH REGISTER, he peers down at the mobile phone in his lap streaming a television program that is clearly not native to Spain. Before him lie a thicket of crowded aisles crammed with an immense variety of items for sale, ranging from pacifiers and cookware to deli meats and hard liquor. In the back of the store, even the brightest of Seville’s sunshine is obscured by the dense rows of wares.

A CUSTOMER EMERGES from the back of the store carrying a notebook. As she places it on the counter, Li instantly emerges from his affixation on the TV show. Smiling broadly, he inspects what she’s chosen. The notebook bears no price tag, but Li is quick to tell her the price of the item. “80 cents,” he says, cupping his hand to receive change from the customer.

“I LIKE IT HERE,” he says after the customer leaves the store. “The neighborhood is very calm, mostly locals, some [backpackers] too, so everyone is nice.” Li arrived to Seville from his native China in late 2008, amid widespread economic turmoil in Spain. He opened his “Supermarket Bazar” on Alfonso XII Street, just a block from the Museo de Bellas Artes, early the next year. Li made travel plans based on information from friends and family already in Spain, who hailed the potential benefits. While Li spends most of his day dealing with the affairs of his bazaar, his wife Huilang tends to their children, one girl of just over a year and a growing, energetic 8-yearold boy. Li’s wife also mans the cash register during hours when he is out of the store.

HUILANG, as the stronger Spanish speaker of the pair, often has to step into conversations in order to translate. Li happily pushes himself to accurately express his sentiments in his second language, but defers to his wife on more complicated topics.

HUILANG EXPLAINS that in the part of China where they come from, near the southern city of Guangzhou, business competition is fierce.

“IT IS MUCH HARDER to own a business, and earn money from owning a business. You can be paid much more for the same work in Spain than you would be [in China]. When we got here, we decided we wanted to open up the store.” However, Li and his family didn’t have the money to immediately open their market. They worked in a textile factory for several months until the money they earned and a loan from a friend whose business had become profitable allowed them to open the store.

ANY SEVILLE LOCAL will tell you that the convenience store industry has been utterly flooded by the Chinese demographic. The 2011 census found that 3,617 Chinese natives reside in the province of Seville, but that number is believed to be lower than the reality. As a result, it is almost impossible to come upon a convenience store run by a native Spaniard. Which might explain how these stores got their name in the first place. In a society where the term competencia amarilla (literally “yellow competition”) is the accepted technical term used by officials and Spanish journalists alike, it’s not surprising to find a similarly controversial name being used to describe the shops – “chinos.” But is the direct use of nationality to name an establishment merely a factor of Spanish culture or the result of resentment for said nationality?

“IT’S ALRIGHT, we are all Chinese anyway,” Li says, laughing off the issue. Six years of observing his adopted society have surely left an imprint.

LITERALLY ACROSS THE STREET from Li’s “Supermarket Bazar”’ is the uniquely titled “Bazar Supermercado.” This isn’t a fluke, as most “chinos” in Seville have either one or both of those words in their name. Inside, Mei stands at attention behind the counter, a stark contrast to Li’s laidback managerial style. The difference is especially reflected in the level of organization of her store. The same myriad of items is available, but they are more neatly stacked and divided, due in part to some additional floor space but equally as much to her ever-watchful eye. Mei seems wary of the foreigner looking to interview her and take pictures of her store.

“YOU REALLY LIVE AROUND HERE? I’ve never seen you before.” Her Spanish is much stronger than that of the folks next door, most likely because she has been running the store on her own. Something turns inside her when she realizes I come with good intentions. Mei’s story is all but identical to that of Li and Huilang. Her husband, who has a separate business in the Sevillan textile industry, learned of the many advantages of moving to the area. “Chinese people are very good workers. We can provide great services for the people here,” she says.

MEI DESCRIBES LIVING IN SPAIN as much easier than her life in northwest China. “My family was very, very poor,” she explains. “We had relatives who died of hunger.” Still, Mei insists, there are things she misses about her homeland. “At home, we were all family together… It is difficult to be away from [that].” Mei’s perception of herself as an outcast is clear. “We provide a very good service, through textiles and the stores, but some don’t want us to advance.”

MEI REFERS TO LEGISLATION aimed at preventing more Chinese bazaars from opening up and, furthermore, restricting their hours of operation. The Andalusian Law of Interior Business states that any establishment that measures less than 300 square meters (which easily falls within the size of most “chinos”) can determine its own operating schedule. Thus, “chinos” stay open 12 hours a day, including Sundays and holidays. Considering Seville’s strict adherence to the siesta time and to maintaining the quietness of Sundays, this certainly gives these Chinese entrepreneurs a serious advantage over other business owners.

SHOULD “CHINOS” HAVE TO ADHERE to the reduced workweek of the average Spaniard, or will they be allowed to continue to prosper in an environment far less competitive than their native China? This lack of competition is the very thing that Brought Li’s and Mei’s families to this country. China’s booming, overflowing population breeds a culture of extremely dedicated laborers yearning to beat out one another for job opportunities. There are currently more than 175,000 Chinese immigrants in Spain, a number that continues to grow each year.

ALTHOUGH LI’S SPANISH has much room for improvement, there’s no denying the impact his adopted country has had on him. He never seems to be stressed or rushed, letting the mornings and afternoons pass at a smooth, calm pace.

“I LIKE THIS [TIME OF DAY]…very calm,” he says, peering out the store entrance from his universe of a never-ending mishmash of household items, before turning back to the phone in his lap.