For her PhD, researcher Rui Guo compared Chinese in the streets of the Chinese neighbourhoods of Brussels and Antwerp and noticed that the language used differs a lot from each other. This is because the migration to Brussels is younger and more diverse, and the Chinese immigrants in the Dansaert neighbourhood of Brussels respond to their much more diverse audience. Brussels also appears to have a second, much more hidden, Chinatown.
Rik Vosters, professor of sociolinguistics at the Department of Linguistics and Literary Studies at VUB, is the supervisor of the Chinese researcher Rui Guo who completed her PhD on the topic in the spring before going back to China. Vosters said Brussels has a much more multi-layered Chinese population influenced by general migration whereas Antwerp has the oldest ethnic Chinese neighbourhood with a more traditional community, mainly Cantonese speakers from the south of China.
“Antwerp and Brussels have the largest Chinese communities in Belgium,” Vosters said. “Yet the neighbourhoods look very different.”
The first Chinese restaurant in Belgium, Wah Kel — freely translated as ‘Chinese emigrants’ — opened its doors in the Antwerp Schipperskwartier in 1923. The establishment, which originally focused mainly on Chinese sailors, still exists a hundred years later.
The migration of the Chinese to the Dansaert district is more recent and much more diverse. In the 1970s and 80s, refugees of Cantonese origin came from Vietnam or Indonesia, but also much more recent migrants from the Chinese (south) east coast. The researcher said the Dansaert district time was less developed and therefore offered cheap properties.
Certainly, from the 1990s, the Dansaert area became hipper, and it began to appeal to a more Dutch-speaking and international audience. At the same time, large numbers of Chinese left their country.
The Chinese restaurateurs and shopkeepers transformed their neighbourhood much more than in Antwerp into “a neighbourhood with pan-Asian characteristics,” Guo calls it. To explain this with a concrete example, Jianwei Xu, Vosters’ colleague at VUB, uses the example of a signboard above a restaurant in the Visverkopersstraat in Brussels.
The sign says, ‘Restaurant Chinois-Thai Xu Ji Feng Wei,’ accompanied by Chinese characters. Xu explains that the owners immediately show their Chinese roots, but also respond to the international character of the neighbourhood.

“They have chosen traditional Chinese characters, not the simplified ones that the Communist People’s Republic introduced in the fifties to increase the literacy rate,” Xu said. “With this, they want to be inclusive and also appeal to tourists from places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong or Macau, where they still use the traditional characters.”
Promoting the restaurant as inclusive of Thai cuisine is also a strategy to bring in more money from Westerner visitors.
“In English, you see ‘soup noodles, fried noodles,’ then there are the traditional Chinese characters and the conversion of sounds from the People’s Republic into a Latin script,” Vosters said. “They try to attract different audiences with each of those systems.”
Responding to such trends is seen as necessary for Chinese entrepreneurs in the Dansaert district, where a considerable number of Chinese businesses have already lost their way due to gentrification.
For example, the owners of the Ninja House have opted for a Japanese image, just like that of Super Dragon Toys in the Rue Sainte-Catherine: a ‘specialiste en Japanimation,’ a shop specialising in typical Japanese culture such as comics and video games. Still, the Asian characters on the façade are again traditional Chinese.
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For non-Chinese speakers, the Chinese-language signs, slogans and menus evoke authenticity, and that inspires confidence. On the Rue Antoine Dansaert, there is a tea shop run by a Belgian-Nepalese couple.
“The names of those teas and their conversion into Chinese characters do not mean anything to us, it only convinces customers that it is authentic Chinese tea,” Vosters said. “It is not about what it says directly, but about what the texts indirectly convey with the image they evoke.”
According to Guo’s research, there is a second, lesser-known ‘Chinatown’ in Brussels: in the Bara district around Gare du Midi, which originated at the beginning of this century. Only the Chinese migration is not visible there at all.
“I have lived in the neighbourhood for years, but I did not know it,” Vosters said. “Much of the textile wholesale trade in that neighbourhood appears to be in Chinese hands, and that is a completely different migration pattern.”
The Chinese in Anderlecht, Guo discovered in her interviews, try to hide their origins, because of the less positive connotation of ‘Made in China’ in clothing. Most of them give their companies neutral or even Italian-sounding names and do not use Chinese characters.
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