Forget the blingy Russians clogging up the streets of Kensingtongrad with their Lamborghinis; ignore for now the Chinese tourists thronging Harrods and buying their tins of Lapsang from Fortnum & Mason. Shed no more tears for those French huddled masses, François Hollande’s economic migrants, currently rebasing within the SW6/SW7 corridor and cramming the Lycée with their impossibly polished offspring.
For the new big, overlooked migrant trend in London’s endless transition into the world’s leading megacity is the Brazilian Story, fuelled by globalisation and that giant country’s economic resurgence and exponentially expanding middle class.
Brazilians have been in London in modest numbers for decades, of course, but in the past they tended to be dirt-poor economic migrants, grinding out precarious livings in restaurant work or as after-hours office cleaners.
‘Ten years ago I was only aware of Brazilians in London when I took a very early morning bus, and saw the blue-collar workers going home,’ says Dan Hamilton, a partner at Bell Pottinger whose mother came to Britain from Brazil in the early 1980s to go to university, and never left.
‘Now I meet Brazilians everywhere,’ he says. ‘In the business and banking worlds, in the Tooting Primark where I was buying socks with my mother the other day, and even at the most boring type of middle-class dinner party in Balham.’
The best official guess at the numbers of Brazilians in Britain is upward of 200,000, though Brazilian expats suggest the true figure is much, much higher. Many come as students then stay on, blending into life in the capital, earning their money, paying their taxes, marrying Brits, generally adding to the gaiety of the nation, but somehow failing to register as foreign nationals.
Brazilians can blag a Portuguese passport on the flimsiest of ancestral grounds, so many thousands of them who drift into London are technically classed as EU citizens, and are therefore barely acknowledged statistically.
The London-based Brazilians’ spiritual home is the small strip of tarmac between Queensway and Bayswater Tube stations, a micro-neighbourhood inevitably dubbed ‘Braz-water’. There at the mini-supermarket Casa Brasil they can buy distinctive fizzy drinks and pastries, then go on to eat at the two local Brazilian restaurants.
But increasingly they are breaking out of their cultural redoubt, spreading across the capital to dance into the small hours at Guanabara in Covent Garden, or at Galpao do Forró in Brick Lane where they practise the traditional north-eastern Forró dance.
Fantastic Brazilian food can be found in Camden market, catering for the swiftly expanding north London population pockets. Increasingly, distinctively Brazilian delicacies are on display in corner shops all across the capital.
‘I love Brazil, but I love London too, for its life, for its culture,’ says the fashion designer Daniella Helayel. She moved from her homeland first to New York but then migrated to London, which she prefers. Her Issa fashion range found favour with many a stylish Sloane, including, most famously, Kate Middleton, who wore the label when she announced her engagement.
Helayel is now a fixture of the fashionable west London social scene, having transformed her Chelsea townhouse into one of the capital’s most sought-after party salons, complete with Brazilian fabrics and Balinese beds, where beautiful Brazilian models and glamorous stylists can be found engaging with handsome hedge funders. English guests sometimes arrive hours too early at her parties, which, as in Rio, go on into the small hours. Her maxim is to ‘work hard and party hard’. I snatch ten minutes with her on her mobile phone, between her yoga class and her intensive packing for a 36-hour trip to Marrakech for a friend’s party.
She says Brazilians are drawn to London by its culture, sense of humour and relative safety. ‘I’m afraid I feel paranoid in Rio, where people have bulletproof cars. You cannot walk the streets without fear.’ That said, her Chelsea home was burgled in May and she lost jewellery and her laptop, so she has no illusions about her adopted homeland.
Still, London remains a strong draw for Brazilians. Brazil has grown rich in recent years. It has one of the biggest oil fields ever discovered and a vast agricultural sector. Brazil’s upper-middle-class educated elite is making serious money (the so-called samba surge), yet the country remains a difficult business environment. Regulations, taxes and import duties crimp the entrepreneurial impulse, so those who have made money in Rio or São Paulo often opt to move on.
Forget the banking meltdown in London and New York, for Brazilian banks and hedge funds are expanding, and leveraging finance raised in London to buy up utility companies and assets across South America.
BTG Pactual is doubling the size of its London operation, taking on 100 more staff, while the finance arm of Brazil’s biggest bank, Itaú Unibanco, has moved its wholesale operations to London from its former colonial home, Lisbon.
Many more Brazilian-born financiers, graduates of top British and American universities, now populate the City investment banks and the hedge funds of Mayfair. Brazilians are all over London, but they tend not to stick out, forswearing the fast cars and bling of the Chinese oligarchs, the Russians and the billionaires from the ‘stans’.
Unlike the rest of the London-based global nouveau riche, they generally do not want to send their children to the grander schools along the M4 corridor. ‘Boarding schools are fundamentally un-Brazilian,’ explains Dan Hamilton. ‘The idea of sending children away seems wrong to them. Brazilians like their children, and they like different generations to live together, even on top of one another.’
So the children of affluent Brazilians tend to go unobtrusively to private days schools in west London rather than to Eton
or Wycombe Abbey.
Brazilians are globally famous for their exuberance, their dancing, their extravagant beauty. Their assumed joie de vivre has become almost a national cliché.
In London they assuredly still have fun and live very well — to do otherwise would be almost a betrayal of their national identity. But they do not flaunt their newfound wealth, or seek to attract attention by revving their high performance cars in Knightsbridge streets in the manner of the Arab super-rich.
Brazilians, coming from one of the most ethnically chaotic societies on earth, where Jews and Japanese and Lebanese rub along harmoniously with the biggest population of Catholics on earth, prefer in London simply to blend in and enjoy themselves.