“I’m not racist, but I hate Chinese people and blacks.” This sentiment, aired in the course of a survey on how foreign pupils are received at Hungarian schools, has become all too familiar. While the number of new immigrants to Hungary has steadily declined (they make up less than 2% of the population), xenophobic attacks have doubled, chiefly targeting the Chinese.

That is particularly true in Budapest, where illicit activities at the Chinese market have brought the community into disrepute. High-tech machines and electronics worth some $7.5 billion (€5.5 billion) account for 80% of trade between China and Hungary. But the authorities are exasperated by the goings-on in Kőbánya (a working-class Budapest neighbourhood), where inspectors find irregularities at every Chinese market stall.

According to a ministerial agency set up to smooth out relations between the two countries, however, there are actually only a small number of offenders. And the Chinese in Hungary frown upon all illegal trafficking.

A burgeoning but insular community

Asian immigrants began streaming in shortly before the fall of the Communist regime. After visa requirements were abolished between the two countries in 1988, the number of registered Chinese shot up from 0 to 30,000 in the space of three years. In the final days of the old regime, immigrant workers in Hungary began importing garments from China. At the outset, the merchandise came in suitcases via the Trans-Siberian railway. Then, in the early 1990s, it came in containers. Within a few years, Hungary became the hub of Chinese imports to Central and Eastern Europe.

According to figures from the Immigration and Naturalisation Office, there are 11,000 legal Chinese residents in Hungary at present. But the real figure is estimated at 20,000, even 30,000, most of whom live in Budapest. There is no Chinatown there, however, probably because in the 1990s the Chinese mafia found it more prudent for them to spread out.

On the other hand, there is a conspicuous concentration of Chinese dwelling around the Four Dragons market. Community members who don’t speak Hungarian – and they are the majority – can take care of just about any business they need to attend to there, where hairdressers, doctors, restaurants and entertainment venues are thick on the ground. In 2002 the Chinese community opened a bank of their own, the Bank of China – a tell-tale sign that they are averse to mixing with the local populace.

Emigration as a means to an end

On the other hand, it is true that Hungary does not help them integrate. Two years ago, parliament passed two immigration laws. But the country still has no assimilation strategy – even though the European Union would be prepared to fund a project to that end.

Would the Chinese make the most of such an offer? Not necessarily. They are not really interested in other cultures or other societies. Though extremely mobile, they adhere to their way of life wherever they go. Their paramount value is money: even friendship is motivated by the quest for financial success. Instead of learning the language and customs of their host country, the most affluent have a chauffeur, an interpreter and a negotiator, and send their children to English-speaking schools. Very few of them take advantage of the bilingual Hungarian-Chinese schools set up in 2004

In fact, the majority regard Hungary as a transit country in which to make their fortune, then return home or take off for the West. They always go back to their native country to die, however. If that is impossible, their ashes are sent to China.

Second-generation 'bananas'

A dozen Chinese organisations operate in Hungary. Rather than providing services for immigrants, however, they serve as a communication liaison to the Chinese state. On the other hand, they do put out newspapers – a dozen of them, even in these hard times – covering life in the Chinese community.

Second-generation Chinese are less attached to traditions. So the Chinese elders call these children “bananas”: yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.