Train to Salamanca: Local Perspective about Asian Immigrants in Spain

I still vividly remember that train ride back to Salamanca from Madrid, where a casual conversation transformed into one of the most memorable moments during my time abroad. 

After a long weekend in Barcelona, I was exhausted and looking forward to a quiet train ride back to Salamanca until someone sat down beside me and started a conversation. He initially asked where I was from and was very interested in my Korean heritage. He introduced himself as Jose Gonzalez, and he was a former professor at the University of Salamanca and currently works in the history archives researching East Asian politics. I realized I had unintentionally run into an expert on Asian immigration in Salamanca. I immediately asked if I could interview him about Asian immigration in Salamanca, and he responded, “¡por supuesto! [of course!]”

Interview translated by author

[Woohyun]: What is the initial history of how Asian immigration came to Spain?

[Gonzalez]: The first Asian immigration began with the Filipinos because of Spain’s history of having the Philippines as a colony. However, there wasn’t a significant number of Filipino immigrants to Spain. 

[W]: When did a significant number of Asian immigrants start moving to Spain? Were they immigrants from one specific country?

[G]: In the early 1930s, the first significant Asian immigration happened when Chinese immigrants moved to Spain. Many Chinese immigrants moved to big cities around Spain and started restaurants and chinos.

[W]: What are chinos? Isn’t that word used to refer to people from China?

[G]: In Spain, chinos are bazaars. Like the corner stores that sell everything from screws to flowers. 

[W]: Is there a specific reason the corner stores got that name?

[G]: Yes, many Chinese immigrants back then and even today are owners of bazaars. Spaniards automatically associate bazaars with Chinese immigrants. 

I was so shocked to finally learn that the word “chino” refers to a bazaar. During my first few weeks in Salamanca, a host mom saw me running in the rain and told me I needed to buy an umbrella from a “chino.” When I first heard this, I initially thought I misheard her. I had no idea why I would buy an umbrella from a “Chinese person,” so I was pretty certain that I had misunderstood what she was trying to say. However, learning this new information from Gonzalez made me realize how common it was for these corner stores to be run by Asian immigrants all around Spain. 

After learning about the history of the initial Asian immigration in Spain, I became curious about this topic, specifically in Salamanca. I proceeded to ask Gonzalez about the history of Asian immigration in Salamanca.

[W]: Would you say there is a history of Asian immigration in Salamanca as well, despite the fact that it isn’t a very large city?

[G]: Yes, of course! In fact, I would say there is a negative view of Chinese immigrants due to Salamanca’s previous history. 

[W]: What is Salamanca’s previous history that brings a negative view?

[G]: I’m not sure if you’ve ever heard of this, but until quite recently, the neighborhood right where you said your center was, on Calle Ancha, used to be called the “Barrio Chino” [Chinese neighborhood]. 

[W]: Why was it called the Barrio Chino? Were there lots of Chinese immigrants in that neighborhood?

[G]: Oh, you must not know the definition of Barrio Chino in Spain. In other countries like the US, Barrio Chino means “Chinatown,” but in Spain, it means a red light district. Salamanca has an infamous history of prostitution. In fact, we were mainly known for that and the university. You know the huge “El Lunes de Aguas” festival in the spring? The history of that day stems from Salamanca’s long history with prostitution.

[W]: Why did Spain start calling its red light districts “Barrio Chinos?” Did many Asian or Chinese immigrants work as sex workers?

[G]: I’m not sure if a lot of the Chinese immigrants actually worked in the industry, but many of them lived in these red light districts, which made people associate the two together. This was around the early 1900s, like 1920-1930. These places [Barrio Chinos] are also associated with higher crime rates.

Learning about Salamanca’s history with sex workers and the term “Barrio Chino” made me realize the presence of a negative connotation in the word. It is important to recognize that, unfortunately, in many countries like Spain, neighborhoods with many immigrants tend to have higher crime rates. Despite the fact that this correlation is most often due to financial disparities, it is true that immigrant neighborhoods are given negative views for this reason. 

After the interview with Gonzalez, I gained a much deeper insight into Asian immigration in Spain and Salamanca, which was a valuable experience. Running into Gonzalez on the train was definitely not planned, but the biggest lesson I learned from studying abroad this semester is that sometimes, an unexpected turn of events can often lead to pleasant surprises!

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