On the corner of San Diego and Alonso de Ovallle, in the heart of downtown Santiago, a group of approximately 60 Chinese immigrants has installed shops in what could become a small Chinatown or, as Chileans have come to call it, the Chinese Mall. Almost four years after arriving in the country, these merchants continue to adapt and to take advantage of the economic opportunities that led them to travel to Chile.
The first of the 54 Chinese-owned shops located on the second floor of the Multicentro Alonso de Ovalle were set up in February 2006. The vast majority of the merchants come from the port of Wenzhou, south of Shanghai. “Most of us come from the city, but a few come from the countryside, the interior,” says Li Ji, a young 26-year-old woman who owns a small bazaar that sells Christmas ornaments. Li is among those who are most fluent in Spanish: “It is easier for the younger people to learn,” she affirms, while the older shopkeepers memorize the prices of their products in Spanish so they can tend to their customers.
Like the majority of the people who opened shops in the Chinese Mall, Li Ji settled down in Chile because of the economic opportunities it offers compared to overpopulated China. “Over there you have many big factories and many businesses selling the same thing, meaning that competition is very fierce. It is different here in Chile; it is a new market for us,” she explains.
The Multicentro Alonso de Ovalle involved a US$20 million investment and currently offers countless products at low prices, from clothes to decorations and electronic goods, almost all from China and Taiwan. Ji Rubin (or Miguel, as he has Chileans call him), one of the merchants here, says that they offer quality at lower prices. “That is our advantage and how we want to come into the Chilean market,” he says.
Chile signed a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with China in 2005, the first of its kind between an Asian and a Latin American country. Exports to China doubled during the first year of trade liberalization, while imports grew by 40%, which has catapulted China into the position of Chile’s main trade partner with close to 20% of exports, thus displacing the United States.
As almost everywhere in the world, all Chilean cities boast a Chinese restaurant. Both the Chinese and the Taiwanese have formed numerous communities across the country, with over 10,000 members each. At any rate, there is a long history of Asian immigration to Chile. The first Chinese people arrived in the northern part of the country to work in the nitrate mines during the 19th century, forming large groups in northern cities like Iquique and Antofagasta, which exist to this day.
Jui Fen Zhang comes from Taiwan. He has been in Chile for 13 years and speaks perfect Spanish, which is why he acts as spokesman for the Chinese community in San Diego. “I came to Chile to study to become an interpreter. The decision to come and stay here was my father’s, who wanted a change of atmosphere,” he says. Jui says that after retiring his father wanted to live in a place that was “calmer and more relaxed,” and that he thought about crossing the Pacific Ocean because of a friend who lived in South America. After visiting Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Chile, he decided to settle in Santiago “because of the stability and security it offers.”
Jiu, whose Spanish name is Elena, adds that “after living in Chile we realized that the country was experiencing positive development and always progressing,” which provides new opportunities for the rest of the family. In fact, that is the case with Jiu, who works in the Chinese Mall. “The people who come now are attracted by the good business deals that can be done in Chile,” she says. “And there is no better letter of presentation than that.”