Where have all the restaurants gone?

Vienna, Austria 2015: A City without a Chinatown

When I first arrived in Vienna so bright-eyed and naïve, I imagined finding footing in the community through helping out in a Hakka family’s Chinese restaurant somewhere in a Chinatown. According to my original Watson proposal, I saw myself connecting with restaurant daughters (in Hamburg, Germany, actually) and having pleasant storytelling activities about food and identity.

As usual, plans did not go accordingly. But I’m still quite happy with where it’s led me anyway.

What baffled me the most when I first came to Vienna was the lack of a Chinatown. Perhaps there haven’t been enough Chinese in Vienna for a concentrated community to form. But Chinatowns across the world have largely depended upon their economic life, namely restaurants, for their economic life. Hakka-Indians have been around since the 1970s, and before that there were already other Chinese living here. The lack of a visible Chinese community has brought me to wonder: Where have all the restaurants gone? And what are Hakka doing now for a living?

Perhaps I am still accustomed to how Chinese-Americans live in the United States, where we still largely have to perform our ethnicity to be somewhat visible. Likewise, Hakka-Indians depended upon their businesses. Before independence, the British favored Chinese laborers for being “obedient.” The favoritism directed toward the Chinese inevitably sowed tensions between ethnic Chinese and Indians, and these tensions seemed to exacerbate after India gained independence.

From then on, Chinese truly depended upon their family businesses for economic survival in India. Some kept restaurants, though Hakka in India were especially known for opening leather tanneries and shoe shops. Their ethnic occupations maintained tremendous cultural divides between the Chinese and Indian communities. I’ve heard stories of Hakka who were not allowed into some Indian homes because they were considered unclean for working with leather goods. Other Chinese were distinguishable based on their professions. Hubei people were great dentists. The Cantonese were skilled carpenters. Shandong people were hawkers. Ethnic business kept the Chinese-Indian community halted in one place.

That’s not the same story I hear in Vienna though. Over time, I’ve asked myself why restaurants are on the decline. To put it simply, there’s really not much of an economic incentive to own a restaurant anymore. If anything, families figure that it’s more of a burden. With a socialist system come strong financial security nets. Many Hakka-Indians have commented that they would prefer to get a job with a large company that can offer a pension or other benefits. Restaurant work just can’t compete when strict labor laws and property taxes slim down the profit margin.  Moreover, Hakka Indians explain that they have developed new values.  Many compare the advantages of living in Austria versus Canada and America.  The best explanation that migrants have provided for me is this:  “Americans live to work.  Austrians work to live.”  The Austrian system makes it possible for families to productively work while also setting aside time for leisure and family.

Unless you own a restaurant.  If you do, it’s back to living to work.

On the one hand, the lack of an ethnic enclave makes it possible for Chinese in Vienna to exist beyond stereotypes and performance. Hakka have been venturing into occupations outside of their traditional niches. On the other hand, I’ve questioned if there is a loss, and how this affects the Hakka Indian community.

I reflect upon what the restaurant meant to me while growing up. I’ve talked to a few individuals here who also grew up as restaurant children, though there are actually very few. And while the restaurant was by no means a happy childhood, it was nonetheless a space where they developed self-awareness and experienced ethnicity, integration, discrimination—but perhaps most importantly, dreams.

Some Hakka Indians from abroad worry that their community is “too comfortable” living in Vienna, especially when families opt out of business ownership in favor of part-time or government jobs. In response, Hakka Indians in Vienna comment that the “business class” left already for the United States and Canada for a more competitive lifestyle; they believe that the trade-off between running one’s own business and integrating into an Austrian lifestyle has been a worthwhile one.

Restaurant Wives: A Woman’s Ticket Out

“My mother was quite beautiful and had potential. But it’s like the restaurant wore her down.”

So what exactly is the connection between this restaurant-talk and arranged marriage and gender? The link struck me during an interview with a woman, I’ll call her Lina, who found herself on an arranged date when she was 18 years old. Though she had a boyfriend at the time, her parents arranged for her to meet a Hakka Indian man who was visiting Vienna. He seemed like a perfect bachelor—he had migrated to Canada, had a stable job and was relatively wealthy. He was also 26, and while many young people recoil at this age gap, older generations of Hakka Indians found it ideal for women to marry older, more mature men.

When Lina recounts this story, she does so while laughing. The evening ended in the heel of her shoe getting caught under the table and falling on her face as her date sprung up to fruitlessly catch her. But I’m more intrigued by Lina’s interpretation of why this all happened.

Lina explains that her parents took the challenging route when they bought a restaurant. The business became a family effort that was a constant source of frustration for Lina’s mother. After all, opening a restaurant was a return to the lifestyle that she thought she had left behind in India.

Austria was usually meant to be a pit stop for Hakka Indians working their way toward their final destinations. Geographically speaking, it was the closest country to India, and it could be reached by land—meaning it was the most affordable country to travel to. The first group of Hakka Indian migrants arrived in Austria through a combination of train and bus routes. Some of these routes took them through Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and the Balkans. And on the way, buses were pulled over, travel documents were denied, migrants were detained in local jails. And yet, they still kept pushing on to the next border.

But these long journeys were pioneered by men. Women rarely traveled abroad without knowing that they had someone on the other side to meet them at the train station or airport.

Perhaps it was just their generation’s way of dealing with women. Education played a large role as well. To this day, even after meeting women in Vienna, I know very few Hakka Indian women who went on to finish school and find a job outside of the Hakka Indian community. Most women who did not finish school ended up working in someone’s family business—in India or abroad.

Families hoped to send their daughters away. In particular, low-income families saw daughters as a ticket out; through arranging her marriage, the entire family could slowly migrate out of India. The best way to do this was to arrange her marriage with a bachelor who had already established himself abroad. Usually, these men had developed their work experience in Chinese restaurants in Austria, Canada, Sweden, Germany, Australia, and the United States. While families desired to eventually leave India, there were preferred destinations. The United States and Canada were coveted as dream destinations where a young couple could get rich with some hard work and family support. Sweden was ideal for those with European tastes, yet did not want to work with learning new languages (most Hakka Indians can speak English).

I’ve asked myself how women’s migration is connected to class. It turns out that families of all class backgrounds sought to send away their daughters. Even women whose families could afford for their daughters to finish their studies and go on to college had their hearts set on taking their education to another country. And again, there was a hierarchy of preferred destinations, with the United States and Canada being at the top. For these women, their education would be a wasted investment if they were to start over in another country.

Lina tells me that her mother used to be considered a beautiful and bright person. It was as though her dreams eroded with the years that she spent in the restaurant. She didn’t want Lina to find herself in the same position someday. Though Lina decided to take a different route, she can understand that marriage seemed like a well-tested solution for her mother’s and past generations.

Meanwhile, Lina did get married, though through a different route. Coincidentally, she had also been studying Anthropology just before she and her boyfriend decided to get married. In retrospect, she does think that her marriage was rushed, partially due to family pressures. But that doesn’t stop Lina from being proactive about her relationship with her growing son. She emphasizes that communication was something that seemed to be lacking in her relationship with her parents—though she can understand how the restaurant had a role in that. And in the meantime, raising a family hasn’t stopped Lina from thinking about returning to school. “I really enjoyed my Anthropology classes. Maybe in a few years, I’ll go back.”