1988 / 7月
Chrissie Lu /photos courtesy of Vincent Chang /tr. by Phil Newell
They live on Brazilian time; their shop prices are posted in U.S. dollars; each person has passports or permanent resident certificates from several countries; and when they open their mouths to speak out comes fluent Portuguese or Spanish. They call themselves "citizens of the world." The only thing that doesn't change is their eating habits--Chinese food fills the dinner table.
This special place is to be found in Paraguay, in South America. There one of every thirty people is a Chinese; one out of five depends on a Chinese for their employment. One overseas Chinese figure loudly said: "You go out and walk past five shops; if one is not owned by a Chinese you come back and find me."
If you dig a hole straight through the earth from Taiwan, you would come out in Paraguay.
There you will find a city which, after Singapore and Monterey Park, California, has the highest concentration of overseas Chinese in the world. Though its official name is "President Stroessner City," Chinese call it "Bridgehead."
The other end of the bridge is in Brazil. And only twenty minutes away by car is Argentina. "You can go through three countries in thirty minutes" says Lee Chao-luo, Vice Director of the Bridgehead Chinese Association. This unique location has made Bridgehead the commercial center of Paraguay.
Almost all the customers come from Brazil, notes Yu Feng-lin, who runs a shop selling Hong Kong products. Because of Brazil's large foreign debt, imports of luxury goods (like cigarettes or perfume) or products made in Brazil (electronics) are restricted or prohibited. So Brazilians come to Bridgehead to shop.
For business reasons, most people in Bridgehead set their watches on Brazilian time (an hour later than Paraguay). And many can only engage in small talk in Paraguay's language--Spanish--but talk prices in the Brazilian Portuguese tongue.
Amidst the ups and downs of the Brazilian economy, Bridgehead has slowly taken shape over the last thirty years. The last five have been especially prosperous. According to unofficial statistics, last year Bridgehead imported over US$1.5 billion in products.
With success, land prices in Bridgehead have also risen. The house that US$300 could buy in the center of Asuncion, the capital city, could only buy the same sized piece of land in Bridgehead, and then not even in the market area. A seventy square foot stall in the market center costs US$15,000 per month to rent. In this market area of less than two square kilometers are 2,000 shops and 1,000 vendors. "Its just like going back to Hong Kong," says one former Hong Kong resident now doing business in Bridgehead.
Chinese have poured in over the last five years. The first, the current Director of the Chinese Association Wang Hua-chao, came eighteen years ago. He recalls: "Aside from my family, there weren't any Chinese to be seen." Nine years ago Lee Chao-luo entertained the entire city's Chinese community at a movie showing in his back yard. Today there are about 3,000 overseas Chinese in Bridgehead.
All kinds of Chinese products are popping up there. Szechuanese food, Chekiangese food, or pig's blood soup from Taiwan--you want it, you got it. Within three days of the holding of the Miss Universe pageant in Taipei, the videotape was on the shelves.
"Compared with other places, 3,000 overseas Chinese is not very many, but we're very concentrated. So even if the children don't see Chinese characters, speaking standard Chinese is absolutely no problem," says Chiang Hsiao-hui, the owner of Casa Stella. Recently one son of an overseas Chinese went back to Taiwan to study; speaking and listening were no problem, but he could only recognize a few machong characters.
Paraguay is a small country, with a per capita GNP of US$1,320. Its standard of living is lower than that of Taiwan. How did so many Chinese come to live there? Briefly said, it was simply coincidental. Many were on their way somewhere else, but went to Paraguay first because it was relatively easier to gain residency. From there one can go to Brazil or Argentine without a visa; and since Paraguay has diplomatic relations with the U.S., getting to the States or Canada is more convenient.
Some see that they can do business in Bridgehead, and decide to stay; some cross over the bridge, but come back. Chang Chih-mei, a former pilot, started a large farm in Argentina but moved to Bridgehead when devaluation of the Argentine currency hurt his business. (Brazil has a similar problem. At the beginning of the year the Brazilian currency was 100 to the U.S. dollar; by the middle of June it was 250:1.)
Regardless of their backgrounds--soldier, cop, priest, salaryman--when they get to Bridgehead they all do the same thing: business.
The experience of the Chinese in Bridgehead can be seen through the vendor's sales case. At the beginning it was just a briefcase, with some lipstick, hair barrettes, and ladies lingerie. Later the suitcases became bigger and bigger, eventually becoming trunks, while the products broadened to include all kinds of makeup, watches, tape players, and clothing. . . . "It's like a little department store," as another Vice Director of the Chinese Association, Tsai San-yi, describes it.
"Don't look down on vendors; a lot of leading overseas Chinese got their start as vendors," says one who did exactly that. One could live for a week on the sale of one watch. Each brought a price ten or twenty times its cost. Imported things sold briskly, and could lead to quick fortunes.
From trunks they moved to importing, first by the crate, then by the container. As Chinese became shop owners, Paraguayans took over as vendors. When business is good, people open up at 7:30 a.m. and have to throw the customers out at one or two the next morning. The shops are so busy "we even forget to eat," says Chiang Hsiao-hui.
With news of Bridgeheads's prosperity, added to the problem of 1997 hanging over Hong Kong, Chinese have flooded into the area. The number of Chinese shops has gone from 100 to 400 in the last five years. It is estimated that Chinese account for forty to fifty percent of Bridgehead's trade.
As the number of Chinese increases, life gets a little easier. A Chinese school has been opened. And there are lots of marriages, with over 1,000 men and women of marriageable age.
There is a bad side effect to the flow of immigrants: competition. Since most of the shops sell similar products, and from the same places (Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Korea), the only way to compete is through pricing. When the Brazilian economy did well the last couple of years, the vendors clogged the roads and sidewalks. "When business is good, its not unusual to have a turnover of two or three hundred thousand U.S. dollars every day," says Chang Chih-mei. The problem is profit. "Before one could turn a profit of 20,000 on sales of 50,000; now one only has 4,000 left." Watches, for example, have dropped from ten U.S. dollars to eighty cents.
This year the Brazilian economy is not so strong. Shops close at seven. "This is the worst it's been in the seven years I've been here," says Chang. Tsai says that of every ten stores only three are showing a profit, four are breaking even, and the others are losing money. Huang Dian-yi hopes that other Chinese will think twice before crowding into Bridgehead.
Now that they're "in," it's not so easy for those in Bridgehead to "take the money and run." Orders placed at the height of the boom may still be at sea and now have to be sold. Nevertheless, bad business and the lack of interesting things to do in Bridgehead have led many to plan to leave. Some already have.
But some are optimistic about the future. Yu Feng-lin, owner of the Hong Kong Gift Shop, argues confidently that, given Brazil's debt problems, it is unlikely to liberalize imports of luxury items, and that its industrial products cannot always compete with those from East Asia, concluding "Bridgehead has a unique geographic location, and it still has at least ten years of good business left."
Chang Chih-mei suggests that "Everyone is concerned, but also optimistic." Whether business improves in the latter half of this year will be decisive in determining whether the Bridgehead Chinese community will continue to grow, or slowly disappear.
Just cross this bridge of friendship, and you go from Paraguay to Brazil.
A bird's eye view of the market.
Wang Hua-tsao, Director of the Bridgehead Chinese Association, and his China Department Store. This was the first establishment opened by a Chinese.
Makeup and sundries are the staples of Bridgehead shops.
Most Chinese shops in Bridgehead look like that in the photo; if the goods look familiar it's because over half come from Taiwan.
(Left) Doesn't the "Lai Lai Sales Center" in Bridgehead seem similar in spirit to a Taipei department store?
This seventeen-story building, the tallest in Bridgehead, was built by a Chinese. Moreover, all the residents are from Taiwan. At the bottom of the picture is a Vice-Director of the Chinese Association, Lee Chao-luo.
A young Paraguayan selling yo-yos in the market.
Business was not so good in Bridgehead the first half of the year; the streets were quiet. Will the next six months be a turn for the better? Everyone hopes so.