The untold story: Wenzhou people, Jews of China
Last night I was chattering with an Italian friend of mine. At some point we were joking about how seriously Chinese worship money nowadays. He then told me an amazing story about some Chinese merchants in Rome:
The story started with his mother involving in a small scale garment business a few years ago. She needed someone to prepare for some special buttons and sew up the label on the clothes. As it’s very small scale, it was hard to find anyone who is willing to do the work. But she somehow found this Chinese family in Rome, who agreed to work for her with a ridiculously cheap price. His mom’s business prospered soon and grew much bigger. The amount of work increased and that Chinese family were also upgrading for a much larger scale of work in association with his mom. A few months ago his mom paid a visit to that Chinese family in Rome. She found out that that family are in fact not doing the work at all. Instead, they outsource all the labor to another Chinese family, who just arrived in Italy and presumably don’t speak Italian (probably not even Mandarin). His mom was amazed at the business mindset of her Chinese partner and went to ask the new family about the price they were offered from the original family. To her surprise, the price they got was not even half the price the she pays to the original family! She was shocked and tried to ask them why they would accept such a low price. At this very moment her Chinese partner stopped her and whispered to her ear to tell her not to reveal the original price between them, for the new family do not even know about it at all!
There goes the story. Of course after the story I was pretending to laugh hard as well about how stingy and greedy those Chinese are. Luckily his mom does not have to directly compete with the Chinese producers (yet), otherwise the whole tone of this joke would be much much bitter. It is always a humiliation for me to hear from such absurd stories about the Chinese, especially from my friends. What’s more humiliating is that all those negative images of Chinese in Europe, are actually largely owing to one specific group of people from China: Wenzhou people.
For those who are not aware of the situation in Europe, the image of Chinese here has been largely corrupted by the invasion of Wenzhou people, especially in the Southern Europe where the regulation and law enforcement are loose (e.g. Spain, Italy, even Romania…). Though lack of official statistics about the number of Wenzhou people in Europe compared to the amount of Chinese in Europe in general, everywhere I go in Europe I could easily spot them on the street and hear about the local complaints about “those Chinese” (UK, Netherlands, Germany, France, Italy, Spain ….). The both Chinese families in this story, are exactly from this group as well. It is always a big headache for me to deal with those lowly image they left for the Chinese in general.
I must admit normal Chinese is probably not much more decent either. but as soon as I realize most of negative images of the Chinese stem from those stingy gold diggers, I just couldn’t hold myself being neutral on this one.
Most of those Wenzhou people are not directly from the Wenzhou city but numerous counties and villages around Wenzhou. The place is at the southeastern coast of China, traditionally an important seaport in the imperial China era. Chinese are the most agricultural-drilled people in the world, thus have the strongest affiliation to the land we settle down. The Wenzhou people, on the contrary, live on the most barren and hilly land off the coast, have little agricultural activities and share the least sense of land affiliation (They are the most dedicated merchants in China, so dedicated that we call them copper/money-stinky). They were driven to become full-time traders in and out of China. When mainland China just allowed the private ownership in early 1980s, they were already everywhere in China, blatantly selling counterfeit products of low quality. Their pure thirst for money without ethics left them a very notorious reputation all over China. At some point the term “Wenzhou product” literally equals to “fake and low-quality product” in every city in China. The image of Wenzhou people in China is equivalent to the Merchant of Venice under Shakespeare’s quill. Actually they are called as “the Jews of the Orient” by some westerners. Regardless of others’ disdain, they wouldn’t really care and many of them soon became the first people to get rich in China. Nowadays Wenzhou people in China are always associated with major negative social phenomenon such as real estate bubbles, garlic mania, Puer tea mania in the country. Obnoxious opportunists, that is how a normal Chinese would think of about Wenzhou people.
Apparently when they were exploiting every marketplace within China, their cousins already stared westward at Europe, the affluent Europe, as the place full of gold for them to dig in. Together with the Fujian people, Wenzhou region has one of the highest illegal emigration rate in China. They’d borrow a few thousand euro from all relatives to pay the smuggler to hide underneath the filthy cargo tank for months to reach Europe. Speaking no local language, not even Mandarin, they know they have cousins there who made big money; and that’s all they care.
Anyway, I am not deliberately dissing the Wenzhou people, nor I am exaggerating their deeds. Those people are THE MOST clannish people I’ve seen in China. They stick everything inside the big family, even for financing (they are famous in China for they’d rather turn to family members for financing than the actual bank). They are also the most pious followers in Chinese money worship cult. Sure they are, after all, harmless to the locals as they don’t steal, don’t rob, don’t rape, and don’t suck the welfare (maybe to local small business owners they are quite damaging). But to me, they trashed the image of China even before a European could meet an actual Chinese for a conversation. What they stand for, is exactly all that I loathe about the stereotype of a modern Chinese, money worshiping, unethical, impetuous, no respect for intellectual culture and manners. And that is inexcusably low.