BUENOS AIRES – Argentina’s Chinese migrant community, some of whom began settling in a small section of this capital’s Belgrano neighborhood four decades ago, have seen various crises come and go over the years in that South American country.
But for many members of that roughly 200,000-strong population, particularly those in Buenos Aires’s Barrio Chino (Chinatown) enclave, a popular tourist spot, nothing they had experienced before can compare to the devastating economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There aren’t many people now,” said a friendly woman who goes by the Westernized name of Azucena and runs a store selling miscellaneous items that is located just a few meters from the imposing paifang (Chinese arch) at the entrance to Belgrano’s Calle Arribeños, the enclave’s main street.
Adapt or perish. Those have been the only options for hundreds of restaurants and commercial establishments that line the four blocks of that small mini-neighborhood since word of a new contagious illness originating in China began to spread early this year.
“In January, when nothing was happening, the people already were starting to say, ‘let’s not go to Chinatown because of the uncertainty.’ Being Chinese meant maybe having the virus. That’s why the crisis is deeper. It was in January that the restaurants started to not sell like before,” said a radio announcer and prominent member of the Chinese community in Argentina, Lin Wen Chen, who was brought to that country at the age of two and is known as Carlitos Lin.
On top of that initial rejection of all things Chinese, businesses in that corner of Belgrano also have been forced to endure a more than four-month lockdown in a country that has been in recession for over two years and cope with the exorbitant and constantly fluctuating cost of renting commercial real estate, which is transacted in dollars as opposed to the always weak Argentine peso.
Todos Contentos, one of the first restaurants to open its doors in Buenos Aires’ Chinatown in the 1980s, eventually succumbed to the coronavirus-triggered evaporation of its sales revenue and closed down for good a few weeks ago, as did another long-running eatery, Hong Kong Style.
“Today my most beloved, my favorite, restaurant closed down. Hong Kong Style. Lui, Lili, Walter, Andrea, Carlos and the whole team. We love you very much. And we’ll wait for your return. Always,” celebrity chef and TV personality Narda Lepes wrote on social media.
It is estimated that of the roughly 100 restaurants in Chinatown 10 have already ceased operating, while others are on the verge of following suit.
One of those eateries, El Cisne Blanco, which is run by a woman affectionately known as Señora Chen and her husband and son and known for its steamed empanadas, was better prepared for the lockdown because it had already been offering home delivery prior to the pandemic.
Even so, it is still struggling to stay afloat.
“Sundays and Saturdays there are more people … other days, so-so,” said Chen, who added that even the 2001 crisis – when the Argentine government froze bank accounts and prevented dollar withdrawals in a policy known as the “corralito” – pales in comparison to the current situation.
It is estimated that around 200,000 native-born Chinese and their descendants live in Argentina, mainly in Buenos Aires and the cities of Rosario, Cordoba and Mendoza.
The first big wave of migrants – primarily from Taiwan – arrived in the late 1970s; some of them began to settle in Belgrano, where a supermarket, restaurant and cultural center laid the foundation for a burgeoning Asian enclave.
As would be expected, grocery stores have fared better during the crisis because of their status as essential businesses.
One of these establishments, Super ChungHwa, has maintained a steady flow of revenue by continuing to make deliveries all over the country, drawing both from its supply of fresh products and from a huge inventory of imported food dating back to before to the pandemic.
“There was an initial shock. But later on, no. It’s really good to have those customers that kept supporting us,” said Argentine Sandra Guasp, the personnel manager at that store, which is run by Asians but has Argentine and other Western employees.
Roughly 5 percent of Argentina’s Chinese population, however, have suffered so much economically that they have decided to return to their homeland.
“There are some, yes. But you have to look at the proportion. There are 200,000 Chinese people in Argentina, and 190,000 don’t want to leave,” Lin said.