By Patricia Maresch, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – According to the 2006 census, people of East Asian descent number 919,000 in Brazil, or just 0.5 percent of the national population. In Rio’s Zona Norte neighborhood of Tijuca, local residents are noticing an increasing presence of Chinese businesses, adding to the cultural diversity of the area.
“It would go too far to state that Tijuca is turning into Chinatown, but the growth of Chinese shops in this northern neighborhood is taking a flight,” says 30-year-old Gustavo. “I have lived in Tijuca my whole life and the difference with a couple of years ago is huge,” he adds, “I’ve never seen so many Chinese shops in my neighborhood before.”
“It’s true,” says Ricardo Caetano from the Tijuca commercial internet portal (www.tijuca-rj.com.br), “For example, look at all the Chinese pastel shops around the heart of Tijuca, the Praça Saens Peña (Saens Peña Square). The Chinese dominate the snack bar market here. We don’t have any figures, but Chinese small businesses are more than numerous here in Tijuca and that’s a fact.”
Latin America was not widely regarded as being a priority for the United States during the recent Bush years, which helped China become Brazil's biggest trading partner. China is the main destination of Brazilian exports of sugar and soy beans and Brazil has a lot of commodities, especially iron and aluminum, that China uses for infrastructure projects like railroads. China's total trade with Brazil was US$35.8 billion in 2009.
Generations ago many Chinese small business owners already found their way to Brazil. The majority of Chinese immigrants settled in São Paulo, but some estimates suggest over 10,000 moved to Rio de Janeiro. Now, their numbers appear to be rising, and carving out a larger space in the community.
“Fifteen years ago you would find two or three Chinese shops at the Saara market in the centre of Rio,” says a small shop owner at the Rua Conde do Bonfim in Tijuca. “Now there are at least forty Chinese shops at the Saara. Mark my words, this will happen in Tijuca as well.”
Many of the Chinese businesses are low-price “dollar stores,” with articles for R$1.99, and some have been in Tijuca for decades. Around the corner from the Praça Saens Peña there is a Chinese shop that sells everything in the range between lipstick, candles, home decoration and kitchen utensils.
According to one of the sales girls, this shop is owned by an elderly Chinese woman who came to Tijuca forty years ago. “We sell regular Brazilian merchandise and have Brazilian clientele. Cariocas love to shop with us because we are very cheap.”
This is the difference with some of the new Chinese stores in Tijuca, which sell Chinese goods and foods and are not particularly cheap. The competition in the area is not entirely welcome by some local business owners either. “They don’t care about the soul of Rio”, complains the shop owner from the Rua Conde de Bonfim.
Some Tijucans, however, disagree, “I hardly now half the things they sell here because it’s all in Chinese, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love this shop.” says client Dona Elisabeth while she’s loading up her shopping basket with soy bean sprouts, tofu and dim sum at one of Tijuca’s newest Chinese market stores, Mercearia Mei Sim at Rua Barão de Mesquita.
A Chinese couple started this shop last year. The majority of their clients are Chinese immigrants who have recently come to Rio. Some of the shop staff don’t speak any Portuguese yet but “Businesses is all right”, says the cashier. “We could do better. We always want to sell more of course,” he laughs while handing over Dona Elisabeth’s change.