Celebrating the Chinese New Year in Madrid’s Chinatown

Last week was the beginning of the Chinese New Year, the Year of the Rooster, and what better way than to celebrate than in Madrid’s Chinatown, a neighborhood called Usera. I actually worked in Usera during my first year living in Madrid and teaching as a conversation assistant in public schools. Shamefully, I didn’t explore the neighborhood too much because I was always so exhausted from leading classes of 20-30 kids that I usually beelined it home immediately after work. Every so often though, I would pick up groceries from one of the many Asian supermarkets or have a menú del día by myself at a Chinese restaurant. Coming from New York, where all varieties of Asian food and culture are everywhere, it was always a strangely nostalgic experience. This year, I’m determined to get to know Usera and other of Madrid’s unique neighborhoods even more, starting with celebrating Chinese New Year in Madrid’s Chinatown.

When we arrived at the parade route, we were unsure if the parade had just passed by, as people were milling in the streets and the sounds of drumming ricocheted off the walls, making it difficult to tell the direction from which they were originating. In New York, there would have been police barricades making the streets inaccessible to parade-goers. But we’re not in New York anymore, Toto. Turns out the parade was just about to start going by us – we had perfect timing.

chinese new year in madrid's chinatown
Waiting for the parade to pass by.

The mixing of the parade attendees with the parade occurred throughout the parade as well, which for a photographer, was both a tremendous gift and a nightmare. I could get up close – but so could everyone else.

celebrating chinese new year in madrid's chinatown

After we had gone to the parade, I had posted a few photos on Instagram and Snapchat, eliciting more than a few surprised responses that there was any significant Chinese population in Madrid. Curious, I looked into it and found that there are around 35,000-50,000 Chinese-born residents in Madrid, 70% of whom come from the southern Chinese province of Zhejiang. So, not a number to rival that of New York or San Francisco, but substantial nonetheless. Those who do move to Madrid from China open restaurants, grocery stores, bargain stores, and fruit markets. The first time I learned what these dollar or bargain stores are called in Spanish I made a double-take, as they’re most often referred to as chinos. Translation: Chinese. The same word is used for the people as for the shops that they run. It’d be like calling a bodega in New York an Indian. Yep.

Spain’s flag (front) and Madrid’s flag (back)

18% of Madrid’s immigrant population lives in Usera, Madrid’s Chinatown, so it’s not strictly Chinese nationals that live there. In fact, there is a large Bolivian community here as well. The area was developed in the 1920s as a working-class neighborhood. The daughter of a wealthy landowner got married to a certain Colonel Marcelo Usera, who as a dowry received a bunch of land that he then developed, slapping the name of his family members all over the streets. The main thoroughfare is named after him (surprise!), and it was down this street that the parade ran. Every street in Madrid has such a unique history.

Onto the parade. It was dance of dragons.

chinese new year in madrid's chinatown

And a rainbow of color:

We were standing next to an adorable dog that attracted a lot of attention from the young performers:

Most people in the parade seemed to be having fun:

Ok…maybe not everyone:

“Someone drew the short straw that morning.” – Our friend Kate

There was representation from many countries in Asia:

As well as countries outside Asia (still strange in a Chinese New Year parade):

And some things that had no explanation:

Unfortunately, these memories are tainted by an unsettling situation that we witnessed after the parade, one that underlines the difficulty of being an immigrant in any country. Trying to escape the hordes of the parade, we found a family-run place (teenage brother and sister serving, parents in the kitchen) off on a side street with a lot of veggie options. The restaurant was clearly overwhelmed by the sudden influx of all the parade-goers hungry for lunch. We waited a while to get our food, but we didn’t mind as we were hanging out, chatting, and people watching. Our food finally started to come out when a family with seriously rowdy kids (unusual for Spain) sat at a large table next to us. We attempted to pay them no mind as we dug into delicious sauteed vegetables, noodles, and saucy taro root cubes.

At one point, we noticed the father of the group get up and speak agitatedly to the teenage girl waiting tables. He stood way too close and towered over her, undoubtedly trying to intimidate her. He had perceived that other, later arriving customers had received food before his table. Shortly after, she brought out a massive plate of spring rolls, presumably to silence the demon’s mouth and placate his angry stomach. We didn’t think much more of it and left after finishing our meal. Out on the street, we only got a couple minutes down the road before realizing that we had gone in the wrong direction. We backtracked and came upon the restaurant once more, only to see people streaming out of it looking scared and concerned.

At first, we thought it was a fire, but as we peered in, Veren saw two men grappling: the angry father and the teenage boy server. An elderly patron tried to calm the father as the little boys cried and screamed at their father to stop, seemingly like they had said those words too many times before. In a flurry, the angry father stormed out, nose bloodied and cursing. We went in tentatively to see if everyone was okay and if there was anything we could do. The teenage brother looked a bit shaken up but no worse for wear and his little sister continued to clear tables.

The family of the aggressor was huddled on the street outside, the boys crying, and the mom looking scared.  He stormed around the street, threatening to call the police and swearing at the restaurant. The tension in the air was palpable and we all found ourselves shaken and unsettled, despite the fact that we hadn’t even witnessed the entire event. In the end, there was not much we could do. We hadn’t witnessed the fight break out and there were other people helping the family that owned the restaurant.

The experience got me thinking that this could have easily happened in the United States, undoubtedly has, but especially in this current climate of xenophobic hate. It was a dose of perspective that even though I am a foreigner living in Madrid, I get the term “expat” because I’m from a wealthy country. Literally, at the foreigner’s office, when my residency card was delayed months because of multiple mistakes on the part of multiple governmental offices, the office workers told me, “Oh don’t worry, it’ll be fine…you’re American.” Someone with a different passport could have had a very different experience.

It can be difficult to know what to do in situations such as the one we witnessed that day. I’m not pretending like I knew what to do. Maybe – probably –  I could have done more. At the very least I felt compelled to share this story.

Have you ever witnessed an unsettling situation, a fight, something that you thought was wrong?  What can we do when we witness events like these? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments. 

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celebrating the chinese new year in madrid's chinatown

  • Kristen Sarra

    It’s a shame that incident occurred at the end of what sounds like a fantastic day. You’re right, it could happen in any city and it’s so upsetting most countries still have to deal with such xenophobia in this day and age. It’s been awhile since I’ve been to Madrid but I would have loved to explore Usera! Crazy about the sizable Bolivian population there as well!

    • Yeah, Spain has only fairly recently experienced a large wave of immigration, so a lot of people still are not used to interacting with people from another culture. So at best it leads to a lot of stuff that would be considered really politically incorrect in the U.S., or at worst situations like these.

      I just read that the cultural center in Usera created an app that you can walk around and learn about the history of the neighborhood, so I’m definitely gonna have to do that! And hey – if you ever feel like making a trip to Spain, you know I’ll give you the royal tour of Madrid =D

  • Marybeth Petersen

    What an upsetting situation. Similar did happen at a Tim Horton’s when a driver cut off another in the drive through. Threats of “I will beat your head in” were made by the guy who truly is a bear before that first morning cup of coffee. Police were called & defused the situation before anything got physical. I don’t know if I would get involved in a dispute in another country unless I knew the laws surrounding the situation. I have had two volatile situations I got involved in and in one it worked out and the other it didn’t. One situation a husband backhanded his wife in a bar when she asked him for a cigarette during a Foosball game (during a score break). I intervened when he went to tried to hit her again. He first tried to reassure me with; “She is my wife and needs to learn” (he thought it was legal). He warned me he would hit me if I didn’t move (I had pushed his wife under the table for her safety). He went to raise his hand to (supposedly) hit me and 4-6 other guys in the bar jumped him, contained him, police were called, couple was separated for overnight, and they eventually divorced after they tried AA. The law was on my side that time. Another time, my mom & I intervened when a father (who was not American citizen) choked & bloodied his 16 year old son. The police chief at the time (decades ago) said that since the father was not an American citizen he had certain protections because that level of discipline of a 16 yr. old son would be accepted in his country. The son was born in America though. He said the best he could offer was to take photos of the injuries & have the son file a report of abuse. That way if it happened again his son could have the father arrested the next time. The son did not want to file a report against his father. He was beaten because he had come to our family about a private issue and the father felt it was an embarrassment.

    • Wow…I can’t believe those stories, especially that the police at the time said that the law did not protect the son because his father wasn’t a U.S. citizen! That’s crazy! And it’s a good point about not knowing the laws in the country. I really have no idea about the legal system in Spain (beyond what it took for me to be a legal resident here, which was no small feat!). Thanks for sharing your stories. That was really courageous of you to protect the woman at the bar, I’m glad that others backed you up and the police did the right thing there.