How Spain’s Chinese immigrants went from dishwashers to doctors

Second-generation migrants are no longer content to remain in the family business

Natalia Junquera
Dídac Lee in Madrid on June 25.
Dídac Lee in Madrid on June 25.LUIS SEVILLANO

“When I was little, I used to think that I was the only Chinese child on the planet,” recalls Dídac Lee.

Lee was born in the Catalan town of Figueres in 1974, a year after his Taiwanese parents opened the first Chinese restaurant in Girona province.

Back then, being an immigrant in Catalonia meant “being from Andalusia or Madrid.” Certainly, nobody expected to find an Asian person in the neighborhood, or sitting next to them in class.

Now I’m out of a job precisely because a Chinese fund bought the company I was working for and they fired nearly the entire team”

Miguel Lam, journalist

“Everybody used to stare at me at school. They spoke two languages and I didn’t understand either of them. It took me quite a while to adapt,” recalls Lee, who now spends most of his time speaking in Catalan.

He struggled to fit in until he found a shared passion: Barcelona soccer club.

“Soccer was my foothold into Catalan society. I was different in every way, except when I was playing or we were watching a Barça game,” he says.

Lee tried to join the team. “But I was very bad, so I decided that if I could not be a player, I would be a Barça executive.”

And he didn’t stop until he achieved his goal. Lee was in charge of new technologies at the club until June 10, and is now running to be re-elected in the role on July 18.

Just like Lee, many other children of Chinese immigrants who were either born in Spain or brought over to reunite with other family members are moving away from their parents’ traditional businesses, such as restaurants and variety stores.

“They are studying for all kinds of degrees and we are starting to see teachers, doctors, lawyers, physicists, economists..,” explains Joaquín Beltrán, a social anthropologist and coordinator of Eastern Asia Studies at Barcelona’s Autónoma University.

Exponential growth

N. J.

In 1961 there were 167 Chinese nationals living in Spain. A decade later, there were 439. But in the five years between 1995 and 2000, the country’s Chinese community increased from 9,158 to 28,693, and growth has been exponential since then.

It is now over 191,000 strong, making it the second largest non-EU group behind the Moroccans (749,274) and ahead of the Ecuadoreans (176,247).

Traditionally, Chinese students had higher dropout rates than other nationalities because their parents gave them a job in the family business. But a 2014 report by La Caixa bank titled Crecer en España, la integración de los hijos de los inmigrantes (or Growing up in Spain: the integration of immigrants' children), which interviewed over 5,000 students aged between 13 and 15 and then again when they were 17 to 19, found that this second wave of Chinese students was reaching high school and university in higher numbers than nearly everyone else.

“This trend is also noticeable in the United States,” explains expert Joaquín Beltrán. “Over there, the Chinese, Korean and Japanese students all got the best grades, but it emerged that there was a preliminary selection: not all students of these nationalities were studying, only the best.”

This academic year, 6,381 Chinese students were enrolled at Spanish universities, most of them on social science and law courses. Twelve years ago the number was just 202. The figure doubled between the academic years 2007-2008 and 2009-2010. And that is without counting master’s degree and PhD students.

In 2003, there were 202 Chinese students attending Spanish universities. That figure has since risen to 6,381, including 2,435 taking master’s degrees and doctorates. Many of the latter come expressly from China to take these courses.

“This is a growing trend,” says Beltrán. “Around 23 percent of Chinese living in Spain right now are under 15. The longer the parents have been here, the more money they will have saved, increasing their chances of investing in their children’s education. Chinese culture attaches great importance to education.”

Lee is living proof. He dropped his computer science studies in the second year, because at age 21 he had already set up his own business, an internet service provider in Girona. At 32 he received the young Catalan entrepreneur of the year award, and is now CEO of a corporate holding that employs over 400 people.

“But my parents are still on my case to get me to complete my degree,” he laughs. “To the Chinese, studies are a matter of honor.”

Jiajia Wang, 27, is often a guest speaker at events for young entrepreneurs, and she likes to tell the story of how her parents used to sleep in the bathtub to make room for a study table for her brother and herself inside the tiny room where they lived. The family had been forced out of their village after Wang’s mother got pregnant a second time. The fine for violating the one-child policy in China was so high that they decided to leave the country.

Her father made it into Spain on a fake passport, and once he had settled down in Catalonia in 1997, he brought over his wife and children. They worked exhaustingly long days, first to pay off their debt for the trip, and later to set up their business, a Chinese restaurant in Blanes (Girona) where Wang and her brother worked as children until their parents were able to afford paid employees.

When Wang turned 18, they asked her whether she wanted to go to university or open a variety store or a restaurant.

“I wanted to study, to open new doors and horizons for myself,” she explains. She wanted to study literature or philosophy, but her parents would not hear of it. So she opted for economics.

Chinese New Year celebrations in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.
Chinese New Year celebrations in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol square.Cristóbal Manuel

In 2009 she obtained a scholarship to study at Harvard, and later she was offered a position at Deloitte. But two days before taking up the post, she turned down the offer.

“I was 22 and I didn’t want to shut myself up in a multinational and just be one more number. I was dreaming of my own projects,” she recalls.

But her parents were so excited about her job offer that they had bought her a new outfit for every day of the week. Wang didn’t dare tell them that she had turned it down, and pretended to go to work every day until one day she finally confessed.

“They took it very badly; they felt disappointed. It is not easy for them to understand that you may want to seek out your own path. They wanted to save me from taking unnecessary detours.”

In 2010, Wang won the UPF Emprèn Prize, which earned her €20,000 to fund her project: a publishing house specializing in educational material to teach Chinese to children adopted by Spanish couples. After trying her hand at that venture for four years, she worked in real estate investment and still feels “the urge to start a new project.”

Like Wang, the Lam siblings washed a lot of dishes at their parents’ Chinese restaurant before setting up their own ventures.

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“When we were little they kept insisting on the need to study,” recalls Miguel Lam, 49. “They wanted their children to do better for themselves than they had done. I studied journalism, my sister Man Yee studied economics and my brother is a telecommunications engineer.”

“My father was very proud,” he adds. “He was the son of peasants and when he got here he didn’t know how to read. It was my mother who wrote the letters that he sent to his family back home.”

Lam remembers that the day former Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died, they got the day off and decided to go visit a fellow Chinese migrant who lived in Torremolinos. “We couldn’t really be active in the Chinese community back then, because there wasn’t one. It was a case of complete immersion. My siblings and I are all married to Spaniards, and most of my friends are Spanish as well, although at age 49 they still call me El chino,” he laughs.

All of Lam’s bosses have always been Spanish, except for the time when he worked for his sister at the Spanish Trade Office in Hong Kong.

“Now I’m out of a job precisely because a Chinese fund bought the company I was working for and fired nearly the entire team,” he sighs.

English version by Susana Urra.

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