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Comforts of home

Yan Yiqi
Updated: Nov 18,2014 9:14 AM     China Daily

Customers visit Zhang Xiangkai’s cafe in Li’ao town of Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Zhang is one of Li’ao’s residents who returned home to restart their businesses after years working overseas.[Photo by Yan Yiqi/China Daily]

Chinese town’s residents who headed overseas return for better opportunities and lives, as Yan Yiqi reports in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province.

Unlike many cafes in Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai where business will not start until 9 a.m., Zhang Xiangkai opens his doors before 7 a.m. every day.

The 42-year-old’s cafe in his hometown of Li’ao in East China’s Zhejiang province is similar to the more than 20 other cafes at the center of the 33-square-km township — all claim to offer the best coffee in Wenzhou, the city which Li’ao comes under.

The small town’s claim to authentic brews stems from the fact that most of its cafe owners had worked and lived in Europe for years before bringing back its styles and techniques of making coffee.

Li’ao itself is known for its large number of natives working and living abroad, mostly in Europe. Its overseas population number more than 25,000, accounting for 60 percent of its total, according to Li’ao Overseas Chinese Association Chairman Huang Pinsong.

While many members of the China’s nouveau riche think about migrating to the West, many of those who obtained permanent residency in European countries are also flowing back to China.

Since 2008, when the economic crisis broke out in Europe, a large number of overseas Li’ao residents have returned to China for better business opportunities, Huang said.

“Doing business in Europe was hard. It was even harder when the economic crisis came. China has been developing vigorously during the past decade. Many of us started to move back for opportunities and for a sense of belonging,” he said.

More than 300 overseas Chinese who originated from Li’ao have been returning every year in the past five years and many more choose to stay in the country for longer periods, Huang said. Those who returned are from the generation who went abroad in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and are now in their 40s, he said.

“They suffered a lot in the early 1990s but they still have the ambition to make a difference in their lives,” Huang said.

Hard times

Before he started his cafe business in Li’ao in 2011, Zhang had been working in France for almost 21 years.

To him, living in France was not as fancy as many people had imagined.

“That was the darkest period of my life. I went to Romania with the help of my uncle in 1990 and then sneaked into France, without any legal identity of course,” Zhang said.

Zhang said that he lived in a 10-sq-m basement with four others in Paris for five years, taking whatever work he was provided with by underground textile factories.

“I did not have a legal working permit so the jobs were taken secretly with the lowest pay,” he said.

Working more than 20 hours a day was common during his first five years in Paris, Zhang said. To help him stay alert during work, he turned to coffee.

“That was when I grew into the habit of drinking coffee every day,” he said.

Meanwhile, he had to endure the constant fear of being caught by local police for his illegal work. To avoid any contact with them, Zhang said, he seldom went out on the streets during the day.

“I was only 18 when I went abroad and I was wondering why I would come to this place and live without dignity,” he said.

In the early 1990s, many overseas Chinese in Europe were in the same situation, Zhang said.

Zheng Lili, who owns Huafei Cafe in Li’ao, also shared her painful experience in Prato, Italy.

“During the most trying times, we did not dare to sleep because working one more hour meant more pay,” she said.

“Even though my husband and I eventually had our own garment manufacturing business in Prato, I could not relax there.”

Better options

When the economic crisis broke out in Europe in 2008, Zhang’s business declined and he decided to return home.

Zhang’s cafe was the first one to open in Li’ao. Business started off well and during peak seasons, he would sell more than 600 cups of espresso a day.

“Although Li’ao is a small town, the overseas background nurtured people’s coffee-drinking habit,” he said.

Zheng’s cafe is the 11th in the township and she witnessed 10 more opening.

“Most of the cafe owners share similar experiences. I think we all come back to enjoy our lives,” she said.

Now, with more than 20 such cafes, Zhang sells an average of 300 cups a day. But the drop in business does not bother him.

Apart from the cafe, Zhang and his wife own a company importing garments in Wenzhou and they make more than what they did in France.

“The cafe is for fun and our garment business makes the money,” he said.

He has realized that the domestic market is much more vibrant than the European ones. His sales revenue is 20 percent more than that in France, he said.

“In the past, we all emphasized the importance of the export market,” he said.

“Now with China’s fast-developing economy and people’s growing spending power, the domestic market is more promising.”

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