Guest Author Oliver Allen is running from the predator that is the real world, all the while chasing the delicious feast that is the manifestation of his dreams, which is currently in Madrid.
“Cerveza, cerveza…Hola amigo! Oferta para ti. Seis por cinco!” Those, ladies and gentleman, are the most uttered words in Madrid’s famous Plaza Dos de Mayo every late evening, barring any rain. Actually, every plaza in the center of Madrid is ringing with this tune. In fact, these phrases are so important they should be the first Spanish tip in the next version of Lonely Planet’s Madrid on a Shoestring. Nowhere else in the world, or at least nowhere that I’ve been, has drinking on the street been so much fun and so damn cheap. And so much fun. Alright, one could technically get beers for cheaper if buying direct from a convenience store, but if you’re too lazy and enjoy a good haggle (it gets exponentially easier and more fun the more beer you consume), I’ll tell you all about buying your booze from the Chinos (not a racially excluding term) of Madrid. Yes, this piece is very much not politically correct.
Sorry, I should preface; Madrid is the greatest city in the world (fact), and boasts [possibly] the most bars per capita in Europe. A casual 45 minute walk from one edge of the “center” to the other reveals a variety of beautifully unique neighborhoods and people, all interconnected by bar after restaurant-bar after bar. But, that is not the only phenomena of the city. While all of the pubs in the city are actually frequented, many, and I mean many (over 50%), of our young lushes are unemployed. Pair this fact with the beautiful weather, a struggling economy in general, and a large and industrious Asian immigrant population and you get the ubiquitous Madrileño street-beer-slingin’ “Chino.” Although Chino is also used as a derogatory term when so intended, more often than not it is used to refer to a Chinese-owned and operated convenience store, or the walking variety that sells beers, sometimes sunflower seeds or nuts, and very rarely cigarettes. However, it is important to note that neither this profession nor the term Chino is restricted to those of Chinese origin. More and more South Asians (Bangladeshi, Pakistani, and Indian) are now following in the footsteps of the Chinese, and their titles change from Chino to whatever other obvious and superficially appropriate term only once they’re approached.
The rap sheet
I arrived in Madrid, Spain, two years ago with a pocket full of cash and some expectations in change. And although I barely knew one person, I made a good friend the first night I went out for a drink in the popular Malasaña neighborhood (think East Village). The streets then, as they are now, were packed with young Spaniards, tourists, and expats, drinking in every doorway, on every stoop, and on every sidewalk. Every inch of the neighborhood was drowning underneath the piss-stained soles of Converses and New Balances. And in the midst of it all, there were the Chinos crunching empty Mahou (the local Madrid brew) beer cans in everyone’s faces offering “ofertas.” That evening, one middle-aged Chinese woman came up to me with a sweet smile and a wink, calling me “guapo” and handing me a six-pack before I could say no. So I played her game and negotiated. She made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Pondering why I had just bought six beers for four Euros when I still had a half-full can in my hand, she handed me an extra one “Para ti, amigo. Regalo.” Regardless of whether she was doing business or hitting on me, she became my supplier in that part of the neighborhood; always seeing me from blocks away before I saw her, always giving me an extra beer for free. Eventually, however, I earned a bit more money and grew tired of the same ole’ routine, and saw less and less of my friend. I never even got her name. But over these years I’ve observed, purchased, and reflected plenty. Who are these people? Is what they’re doing legal? How do they claim their territory? What the hell am I participating in here?
The “botellón” (the act of congregating to drink in a public space) is illegal, technically. But its prohibition does not deter people, or vendors. Locales have raised drink prices, the city bans alcohol sales at supermarkets after 11pm, and smoking is no longer allowed indoors. What do they expect us to do? Spain is an extremely social culture. In Madrid, we like to smoke, drink, and play music together as we please. It is inevitable that people would start exploiting this opportunity. I’ve taken the chance to get to know some of the people that have sold me my beers, and with the information they’ve provided me (it’s all suspiciously similar) have tried to compile a couple of profiles.
The typical Chino is, as the name usually accurately implies, Chinese. This Chino is often a middle-aged woman lugging around rolling grocery tote full of beer. She always smiles, speaks Spanish well enough for her job, and loves the word “amigo.” Suzanna is one of these ladies. Every time I have gone to the plaza, she was there making her rounds. She has been living in Madrid for nearly a decade, while her husband and children have stayed behind in China. Her “boss” comes around with a car full of beers every time she needs him, apparently on-call, which for Suzanna is very often on weekend nights. She also told me that the more beer she sells the more commission she earns, which makes sense for an employed woman. When asked where her boss gets the beer, answers became more unclear. Regardless, they seem to average a 20 Euro per night income. While I certainly can’t live on a cash flow like that, they even tend to manage to send money home. This is the typically vague story that I’ve gotten from many Chinos on the street, so I try to invent some things to elaborate. I like to think that there is a Chinese mafia godfather sending his minions all over Madrid; however, Suzanna and my first friend are those kinds of vendors that made me think that they don’t all share the same boss, even if working in the same neighborhood. There are many Chinos who hang out at the same corner, or same plaza, night after night. It seems that once a turf has been established, it is difficult for others to infiltrate due to the loyalty that has been developed with the usual locals. I am guilty of choosing my vendor and never buying from anyone else until recently. “Turf wars,” however, definitely occur. Suzanna has been accused of scratching others, as she has accused others of trying to steal her territory by undercutting her. Nothing is truly understood. They may not share the bosses who bring them their beer, but those bosses must go to a more centralized distribution center to acquire their supplies. At the end of the chain there is that Triad Dragon Head I’m hoping for.
Mamun is Bangladeshi. I only met him this past summer in Plaza Dos de Mayo, but it seemed like I knew him. That’s because I met a young man exactly like Mamun a year ago, in the same exact place. Many of Mamun’s fellow South Asian peers have told me the same story he has. Mamun is in his early twenties and often speaks English better than Spanish. He carries around a backpack or grocery bag full of beer. His father worked in some sort of government role in Bangladesh, whether as a police officer or high-ranked politician, and his mother is a house wife. Both of them still live there. His brother and sister are still working in London, where he had been studying a business degree until…something. Something happened. Words like “visa,” “no work,” “had to leave,” are always thrown around in an incomprehensible explanation. Probing questions are always avoided like the plague. These guys’ stories are good, and they’re good at telling them. As the conversation is inclined to pass this phase, when I assume they were thrown out of the U.K. for some petty violation, I usually find out how they ended up in Spain. “My uncle lives here.” Apparently, every Bengal has family both in England and in Spain. Normally, their ‘uncle,’ who owns or works in a fruit shop, restaurant, or convenience store in the predominantly South Asian and African populated neighborhood of Lavapiés, has lived in Madrid for many years. He finds Mamun a shared apartment to stay in for cheap, and promises him a job in the near future. In the meantime, Mamun resorts to selling beers to obnoxious people in the street. Being a Muslim, Mamun can’t really empathize with his customers’ desire to drink, but he can certainly relate to them better than his elder Chinese peers thanks to his age and lingual abilities. When I asked him where he gets his beers, Mamun says he goes to buy his supply at the nearest Carrefour (a local supermarket chain) as he needs, or buys a lot in bulk and stashes them in his refrigerator, which is a half hour walk away. My suspicions have already grown since he told me his uncle owns a shop, and now they are affirmed. But I remain silent on that topic and inquire about something more interesting, how much cash he rakes in, and his future. Mamun claims that he lives well off of the 80 Euros per week that he earns. Working nearly the entire week every week, he still makes less than his Chinese associates, which makes me even more certain that the elusive Chino Mountain Master is sitting on his throne made of gold-plated Mahou beer cans somewhere in Madrid. But he seems happy and satisfied. As every young man does, or at least should, Mamun has dreams. He hopes that after enough time he will gain residency in Spain, finally go back home for a visit, and come back to start a fruit shop, convenience store, or restaurant. Hell, maybe even an internet café. As long as I’ve got change in my pocket, I’m going to keep supporting his dream.
Now I’m drunk
So, you may be wondering where the police are in this matter. Our street drinking ruckus is tolerated in most areas for the better part of the evening, especially in neighborhoods and plazas where bars operated large terraces. But as soon as they start shutting down, so do our parties. The police usually arrive around 1:30am, when it’s time for us to let the neighbors sleep in peace and throw some of our money at the venues that remain open. Fortunately, they don’t really ticket people that voluntarily leave. Our beloved Chinos, however, aren’t as lucky. If they are caught selling beer, at any time, by the Policía Municipal (local cops), their beer is taken away and they’re thrown in jail for the night, at most. However, if the national police catch them, it more than likely means a large fine and possible imprisonment if they are legal residents or deportation if they have the misfortunate of being here illegally.
I have to assume that this system is tolerated because of the state of the economy. The government has to answer to its growingly poor and tired constituents, as well as to the greedy corporations, bars, and the occasional influence of the mafia. The black market that emerges out of this kind of environment is essential to the survival of all of the people living within it. The Chinos aren’t selling us beers because they want to, but because they and we need them to do so.
All of this just seems so surreal. After a long night in the plazas of Madrid and stumbling home, I’ve interacted with Romanian prostitutes (likely sex slaves), street performers, gypsies scavenging the entire city for recyclables and metals, and an insanely large homeless population begging for money at every single corner. The place I currently call home often looks like a dystopia, but I can’t help but enjoy every moment of the hedonistic life in what feels like utopia. Thanks, Chinos, for making it affordable.