Portuguese city eyes Mandarin boost for kids
FIVE hundred years after the Portuguese became the first Europeans to establish sea trade with China, a city in northern Portugal is counting on its youth to secure a foothold in the Asian giant.
The small industrial city of Sao Joao da Madeira - Portugal's shoe capital, which specialises in luxury models - has made Mandarin compulsory for its eight- and nine-year-olds.
The aim is to give its youth the competitive tool to help sell its footwear to China.
And the government, battling to put six years of debilitating crisis behind, is watching the city's experiment closely to see if it can be replicated throughout the country.
"Chinese is the key which will open the doors to the world's biggest market," said Dilma Nantes, Sao Joao da Madeira's city councillor on education.
Affluent Chinese with a taste for luxury are increasingly fond of handmade Portuguese footwear, which are the world's second-most expensive after Italian shoes.
As Portugal battles to encourage growth after a prolonged contraction that saw unemployment soar past 17 per cent, the industry is key in helping the country export its way out of the slump.
Exports of footwear by Portuguese brands to China soared from 10,000 pairs in 2011 to 170,000 pairs last year, reaching sales of 5.4 million euros (S$8.7 million).
If sales of footwear made in Portugal for foreign brands were included as well, last year's revenues surpass 20 million euros - although still a fraction of the total shoe exports reaching 1.7 billion euros that year.
Sao Joao da Madeira, a city of only 20,000 inhabitants, wants to get ahead of that curve by training its children from young to speak Mandarin.
And the children appear to enjoy it. "I would like to see the Great Wall," nine-year-old Eduardo said. His classmate, Daniela, said: "Chinese is not particularly difficult."
"They are young and learning fast," said their Chinese teacher, Wang Xinliang, smiling.
The idea is for the children - who started the classes when they were eight - to carry on with the language studies until the end of secondary school.
The boss of one company, Mario Tavares, is convinced that the move will give the children a clear advantage over their peers in doing business with the Chinese one day.
His firm, Tape, began selling to China last year.
"China has the potential to become our main market one day," he said, adding that the young Mandarin speakers would later be perfect for "sales jobs or managerial posts at factories".