Third in a series
Pianos, dresses and lemonade were among the products first introduced to Japan by Western merchants when Yokohama port opened to foreigners in 1859, after nearly 240 years of isolation during the Edo Period.
But not many know that Chinese immigrants played a significant role in the introduction of such products by acting as intermediaries between Japan and the West.
There were already Chinese merchants in Nagasaki Prefecture, where trade with China was allowed throughout Japan’s period of isolation.
However, the “Chinese who came to Yokohama were accompanied by Westerners who were engaged in trading in China,” according to the 1999 book “Kaikoku Nihon to Yokohama Chukagai” (“The Opening of Japan and Yokohama Chinatown”) by Takeomi Nishikawa and Izumi Ito.
Traveling from cities such as Hong Kong and Shanghai that had foreign settlements of their own, Chinese immigrants served as translators for Western merchants and acted as agents for Japanese traders who were not accustomed to doing business with the British and Americans.
They also taught the Japanese how to manufacture Western products such as clothes, furniture and even Western-style houses. For instance, as the Yokohama settlement flourished and Western houses needed to be built, Chinese craftsmen who had experience building such dwellings in the foreign settlements in Hong Kong or Shanghai were engaged.
Translators and architects were not the only professions for Chinese immigrants.
Many Japanese craftsmen worked under Chinese painters who had trained in Shanghai to paint ocean vessels and Western houses, according to Nishikawa and Ito’s book.
The book also depicts the first tailor shop that opened in Yokohama, named Cock-Eye and run by a Chinese immigrant. The tailor later opened a factory to manufacture lemonade and soda.
It was the Chinese who worked at English newspaper agencies in the 1870s to help print the alphabet.
“Japanese were not familiar with the alphabet at that time, therefore they were not able to set up printing types in English,” the book says.
There were also printers run by Chinese immigrants who produced hotel menus or documents and envelopes for Western trade houses.
Around 1878, some 20 years after Yokohama port opened, Chinese immigrants started forming a community in the settlement.
While Western trading houses were established along the main street, the Chinese opened shops, a theater and a shrine in the back streets and began living there. By that time, the population of Chinese immigrants had reached 1,851, more than 60 percent of all foreign residents of the settlement.
In the early days of Chinatown, immigrants’ jobs varied from architect to piano maker to merchant. Today, 40 percent of the shops in the district are Chinese restaurants, according to the Chinatown Development Association.
Kensei Hayashi, 67, chairman of the association, said the transformation occurred because Chinatown evolved along with Japan’s rapid economic growth.
As the country’s economy developed after the war and the number of Japanese tourists who visited China increased, they started to want Chinese cuisine in Japan, Hayashi said.
“If Japanese want to eat dim sum, we open a dim sum restaurant. It’s all about marketing strategy,” he said.
The role of Chinatown has also shifted from introducing modern Western culture to traditional Chinese culture. For instance, Yokohama Chinatown organizes annual events such as a Chinese New Year’s festival, a Mazu goddess festival and a mid-autumn festival.
Although such cultural events attract visitors to Chinatown, shop owners are struggling to boost sales due to the recent economic downturn.
“There are many visitors, but they don’t loosen the purse strings and they spend money on necessities, not on Chinese food,” Hayashi said.
He added that many young Chinese have landed jobs at Japanese companies and have been leaving Chinatown in recent years.
When Hayashi was young, it was hard for Chinese to get a job at a Japanese company, even though they had graduated from prestigious universities, because of prejudice against Chinese immigrants.
To be able to work anywhere in the world, Chinese immigrants had to learn English, he said. “Many Chinese went to international schools,” said Hayashi, who studied at a Chinese elementary school, a Japanese junior high school and then an international high school. “The graduation certificates from international schools gained us job offers at U.S.-based companies such as Pan Am and AIG.”
But the situation has improved, he said, and Chinese are now welcomed with open arms in the business world.
Despite the economic hardship and outflow of smart young Chinese, Hayashi is still optimistic.
“Chinatown will remain as it is, as long as we continue following our traditions,” he said.