Insight: The law of the jungle

Paulo Barbosa

A recent feature published by The New York Times (“Historic Loss May Follow Rise of Rents in Barcelona,” by Raphael Minder, Oct 19) describes what’s happening in the capital of Catalonia, one of my favorite cities. It’s a story that resembles that of innumerable cities worldwide, including Macau.
Barcelona is a city with a special charm, where immaculate historical districts coexist with modernist architecture (some of the world’s best architecture schools are there). On one of my visits I was lucky enough to tour the city with a local, who took me to some of the Barcelonians’ favorite shops. We shopped in the Boqueria food market, located on Las Ramblas. We ate churros and hot chocolate at lively cafés, and partied in the picturesque Barri Gòtic (Gothic Quarter), drinking beer in a bar frequented by Manu Chao, who lives nearby. Although my hopes that the great Latino musician would appear singing “Clandestino” were dashed, we had a great time.
But upcoming changes are threatening this “way of life.” Like Portugal, Spain is scrapping rent control legislation that kept small businesses like family-run shops thriving for decades. The NYT reports on the consequences: “It is not that the establishments did not know the changes were coming — they had 20 years’ warning. But slowly, now suddenly, that time has arrived, provoking 11th-hour resistance as small shops are pushed from historic districts by an inundation of international brands, which are virtually the only ones that can afford the staggering spike in rents. The rapid turnover has spurred soul-searching and debate about just how far the city should go to protect its distinctive character in the face of the homogenization that accompanies the arrival of multinational chain stores.”
The local association of traditional stores estimates that over 100 shops in Barcelona will close their doors this year, in many cases to be replaced by multinational chains that look the same (and sell the same) all over the world.
The report illustrates the challenges faced by Barcelona’s traditional retailers with the case of “Palacio del Juguete” (the Toy Palace), owned by Xavier Banchs’ family since 1936. Mr Banchs is relocating, firing some staff, and handing over the shop to Geox, which pays rent of about 35,000 euros a month (MOP354,000). The Toy Palace owner used to pay 1,000 euros a month. “This has been a long countdown, so I’ve had time to get over the sorrow of moving out and getting rid of my staff,” Mr Banchs said.
Others don’t accept the changes so peacefully. The removal of traditional stores from the Gothic Quarter, is seen by Josep Maria Roig, the owner of “La Colmena” (a pastry shop founded in 1872) as “a criminal loss of patrimony in a city that is getting drowned by big money and international brands and is losing all sense of history, order and proper urban planning.”
In Macau we witness the closing of traditional stores that have been visited by generations of locals. Almost nobody seems to care, but when places like the old Cantonese restaurant “Long Kei” close, the city loses part of its soul. Eating at Senado Square’s “Long Kei” (closed in 2011) was priceless because the place had character. We entered and it almost seemed that we were traveling back to 1945, when it was founded.
Like in Barcelona, we should discuss the state of traditional stores in Macau and assess whether authorities are doing enough to protect them from speculation. If nothing is done, the few old and significant family shops that remain will close down and be replaced by multinationals. If so, the city will be a step closer to the loss of its identity.
Instead of leaving market forces to their own devices, as the government intends, rules should be introduced to protect the city’s commercial heritage and the locals’ livelihood. Legislation to control the rental increase (both for shops and residential buildings; establishing a ceiling on the rate of increase some percentage points above inflation) must be introduced. Otherwise we are heading towards Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Law of the Jungle”: “Now this is the Law of the Jungle/as old and as true as the sky;/And the Wolf that shall keep it may prosper,/but the Wolf that shall break it must die.”

Categories Opinion