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Barrí Xinès

The shadow of a slum

Botero's Gat de Raval

C/ Nou de la Rambla is the main street of what was once Europe’s biggest red light district, the section of the Raval nearest the sea and the sailors. It was called the Barri Xinès, but not because of any Chinese immigrants: a journalist named Àngel Marsá, having read the lurid descriptions of Chinatown in San Francisco, applied it to this roughest and most piquant of all Barcelona’s slums, and the name has stuck around like herpes.

Its huddled masses were painted by Isidre Nonell, and then by the impoverished young Picasso, who had his first studio here and who used the district’s poor, mad, blind and ‘mothers whose milk has dried up’ as the subjects for his Blue Period. Connoisseurs of the low life have immortalized it in other ways, most famously Jean Genet, who recorded his experiences as a rent boy, drag artist and thief in his Thief’s Journal. (He’s recently been remembered in the new Plaça Jean Genet, at the corner of Avinguda de les Drassanes and C/ Arc del Teatre). Much to the disgust of proper Barcelona, the notoriety of the Barri Xinès brought thousands of tourists to peep up the city’s skirts instead of to the Eixample, where they could have been admiring its fancy dress.

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El Raval

Streets & Squares

Text © Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls

Image by Laura Padgett