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22 Mar 10

East Meets West in Blok 70

Belgrade has long been a crossroads in many aspects, and convergence of two rivers is a great metaphor for all that flows in and out of the nation, through business, the arts, and culture.
By Mona Mangat

The Balkans were always a lively mix of peoples and traditions, particularly during the days of Yugoslavia but since the wars of the 90s, Serbia has had to reinvent itself and the coming and going of many of its citizens, the changing of its borders and identity, have brought with it a new element of cultural interaction, primarily ushered in by immigrants.

Walking down the street in the city, you might chance upon a few foreigners, usually tourists in-and-out for the weekend, or business people rushing to a conference or a meeting. Bumping into a settled expat is a bit trickier, and rarer than that is meeting someone of either African or South Asian decent, who lives in Serbia. Yet, you will certainly come across signs written in Cantonese or Mandarin, countless Chinese eateries, and the always reliable thrift shops run by the city’s many residents who have brought the flavour of the Orient to Belgrade.

Belgrade Insight went to the city’s own Chinatown in New Belgrade’s Blok 70 to better get to know the ‘East’ that lives inside our South Eastern European city.

Many Chinese  have gone on to build successful businesses and lives in the city, and the multi-cultural and oriental vibe they bring to the town is a welcome breath of fresh air. Like in most major cities where the Chinese settle, they take with them their traditions and skills, and usually set up a market or central meeting place, creating a ‘Chinatown’ where the exchange of goods and culture can conveniently take place.

In Belgrade, this location is Blok 70, in a series of ramshackle buildings that have been given a second life by being transformed into a vibrant market. We decided to check out what all the noise is about. Taking the bus, no. 95, from Zeleni Venac on a chilly Sunday afternoon, we weaved our way through the ‘Blokovi’, passing the brand new Belville housing complex, and the ever popular Delta city to  Blok 70 which stands out in stark contrast. A multi-coloured assault, the aging mini-mall set-up is not easy on the eyes, and the throngs of people getting off trams and buses rushing to the entrance makes the initial walk-up intimidating. Set amongst cascading Socialist-era high rise apartments, and surrounded by trash heaps, the market explodes with people, sounds, smells and music.

Inside, it’s like walking into another country, a bizarre oriental market of all things fascinating and incomprehensible, from clothing to kitchen utensils,  to toys, stationery, cosmetics and laundry soap, it’s all there and usually cheap! Most of the shopkeepers are either Roma or Chinese, and ready to haggle, announcing their special offers by shouting last minute deals to passers-by. The goods spill on to the floor and hang from every possible crevice, and confusion reins. The first market, marked with the big red 70 seems in utter chaos, the constant motion of loading and unloading boxes withcartons everywhere, but the chaos is what makes it fun. Hunting through miscellaneous junk to find something useful, anything from a bathmat, to a can opener, to a scarf, can be rewarding, especially if you’re prepared to haggle on prices which are already often a steal. Anything you imagine that you might need, and many that you definitely do not need, can be found inside these four walls: a pack-rat’s dream.

It’s also a great place to try to your luck with the food. There are several cafes and make-shift eateries offering assorted, often unidentifiable snacks, and to add to the confusing ambiance, as we walked into the cafe in the court-yard, there was Greek music blasting from some speakers, but the regular market goers endlessly streamed by. It is the ultimate place to people watch, as bargain hunters get lost in the action.

The atmosphere is not all business. We found several locals fromthe Chinese community playing traditional card games for a wager. The social scene the markets provide seems to the keep the Chinese community tight-knit and together.

Recent estimates put the number of Chinese citizens in Serbia at 40,000, though official counts are more conservative. Most came during the late 1990s after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and his wife Mira Markovic visited China in 1997. Milosevic was rumoured to have enticed over more than 50,000 Chinese by offering them Yugoslav passports, in an effort to get more voters in elections. Markovic is credited with initially sketching out the idea of a Chinatown in Belgrade. The local newspaper, Vecernje Novosti, at the time reported “The entire population of the Chinese village of Jincun in the Zhejiang province has moved to Belgrade, specifically to Blok 70 in the suburb of Novi Beograd.” Novi Sad also houses a sizable Chinese community, the second largest in Serbia, where there is also a Chinese trade centre, along with many Chinese shops and restaurants, but nothing on the scale of Blok 70.

At the time of this ‘Milosevic Immigration’ Serbia secured both loans and diplomatic support from China. The 1999 NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade further strengthened relations between the countries. Last August, Serbian President, Boris Tadic made his first state visit to China.

Yet, some political tensions do exist. Most Chinese citizens are in the country legally but some are not. The perfect position of the city as a crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe makes the country an attractive waypoint for people smugglers. Organized crime such as the Chinese ‘Snakeheads’ and local human trafficking networks have been linked to cases in Serbia where mafia organisations trafficked people into Western Europe via Serbian territory for a fee. Such a case ended in tragedy for illegal immigrants in Maidstone, England when in 2001, after a lorry arrived in Belgrade from Turkey, 58 Chinese nationals boarded the truck hiding in a container, hoping to be transported to the UK via Austria, France and The Netherlands. Instead, all but two died of suffocation in their attempts to reach their dream.

In the main, however, the community seems to be making their lives here in Serbia and the two cultures are starting to blend. Chinese Language and Literature classes at the Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade are packed with locals working as translators. They earn a living translating customs’ declarations, residency permits, wedding certificates and other official documents for the Chinese locals, in travel agencies booking flights for Chinese business people back home or for holidays to Montenegro, a popular seaside destination for the community.  Conversely in the past few years, enrolment in the same Faculty’s ‘Serbian for Foreigners’ classes have filled up, with up to 90 per cent of the students being of Chinese descent.

Haggling and searching through the treasure in Blok 70, we  expected English to be of use, but were surprised to find that Serbian is the language for deal-making. And as more and more immigrant Chinese decide to permanently set up house and raise their children in a multi-cultural and bilingual environment, the combination of Serbian and Chinese looks set to confuse unwary foreigners for years to come! Belgrade Insight recommends giving our own little piece of the East a new look, misleading as looks can be, getting lost is fun, and you never know what you might find.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jia and Zhen have lived in Belgrade for 5 years now, and plan to stay here and build their life. “We really like Serbia and we will give our Children Serbian names. We came here to have a family and give our children a life they couldn’t have in China, so we are really happy with our decision.” Jia said she likes the names Serbs have, but is still trying hard to learn how to pronounce ‘Š’.

“I love to play cards, especially ‘Pu Soy’ says Fang. We call it Chinese Poker. We get together here at the market when business is slow, and gamble a little to pass the time, and have fun, like we did when we were growing up in the village. Most of us, we really love to play, and are here every day. I win most times, and sometimes I lose, but I never feel bad, because we are all friends.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jian Jun has only been in Serbia for a short time and does not understand Serbian at all. “I studied at my University in China, but here I am only working. We have internet at the shop so  if the store is not busy I chat online and talk to my friends back home. It can get lonely because I have no school an not so many friends, but the market is always busy and I met a lot of people now, so maybe things will change.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I speak Serbian pretty fast so sometimes people cannot understand what I say, but I love meeting new people talking and being social, says Mei Li. “I did the Serbian classes at the Filoloski Fakultet when I first came here and it really helped me. But I really want to study fashion. Belgrade is a great place to live and it has a great Arts school, so I will definitely apply.”

Yong Liang says he doesn’t like to sit at home alone, and since he lives in the block he just comes here and talk, watch people, laugh, make jokes and listen to music. “I don’t go to the centre of town that much, my life is basically here in this area but it’s good for me. I feel happy and all my friends live here.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“My family had a business in flowers back home,” said Li Wei. “Here we are just struggling to survive, but anything is better than back home. I don’t want to go back. Serbia is my country now and I really want to live here for my life. My family will come soon, I have a very big family back in China and they all think Serbia is a wonderful place to be. I am very lucky.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I like shopping here, I can find all my favourite spices and food so I can cook at home. There are always people here to talk to and I know a lot of people now because we are all in Blok 70. Sometimes I miss China, I miss my home, but Belgrade is a very good opportunity and that is why I want to stay, for my future’ says Qiang.

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