Lisbon-Castro Daire

Throughout the 20th century, the Bairro Chinês (“Chinese neighbourhood”) was the largest shanty town in eastern Lisbon (Portugal), where today we can see the tower block neighbourhoods of Marquês de Abrantes, Pinheiros, Salgadas and Quinta do Chalé.

Interestingly, the name of the neighbourhood is not connected to the presence of Chinese immigrants, but rather to its “eastern” localization in the city of Lisbon and to the presence of poor wooden shacks that made local inhabitants ironically connect these with the Chinese-style wooden houses.

Since the beginning of the 20th century until the 60’s there was a great exodus of rural population from the province of Beira Alta (Centre Portugal) to this area in ​​Lisbon, coming in search of work and better living conditions. Many worked in factories such as the National Soap Factory, the Rubber Factory, the Matches Factory and in the wine warehouses of Abel Pereira da Fonseca. As the money was scarce and the living conditions poor, in order to have the family together, these immigrants began a process of occupation of farmlands and ruined areas in order to build thousands of wooden and plate shacks, distributed in very narrow alleys. However, despite being one of the largest shacks in Lisbon, the “Bairro Chinês” was different from many neighbourhoods with the same characteristics, since its population was humble and orderly because of its common rural roots, therefore more socially interconnected and well integrated into the local labour market.

At the end of the twentieth century, more precisely in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a great need to put an end to the shack areas that proliferated throughout eastern Lisbon, therefore an immense urbanization project was put in place and naturally demolitions took all the population who lived in the shacks to the new tower blocks that were built throughout the neighbourhood. Paradoxically, the previous deep social connections that existed when people lived in very poor conditions were totally shattered when they moved to the new apartments in huge tower blocks.

The other side of the coin of this story is connected with the places of origin of these populations: the mountain rural areas of centre Portugal, particularly the municipalities of Castro Daire, São Pedro do Sul and Cinfães,, the epicentre of the rural exodus to the “Bairro Chinês”, villages with an ancient and rich ethnographic context, but that until the end of the Portuguese dictatorship (1974) were deeply poor with no electricity in the houses and with an economic system still based on subsistence farming, where money, and therefore jobs were almost nonexistent.