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Chinese: South of the US Border
Chinese Food in Central and South America
Winter Volume: 2014 Issue: 22(1) page(s): 22-23 and 33
How, when, and where did the Chinese first get to South America, the place Americans call ‘South of the Border?' One of the first ships from China to Mexico arrived in 1635. It was the Tehuantepec and it came from Macao. Those on it spoke Portuguese and were said to be barbers and servants going to Mexico City. They did not stay long, and they were considered guest workers. When did they leave, and to where?
Many Chinese also went to South America in the late eighteen hundreds. They were invited to help build the railroads in or after the 1880s. Some were invited to move north to increase the population there, others invited to move to the country’s capital. Some reports say many did just that, and that many did not stay after moving to one place or the other; but where they finally went was not reported.
Mexico had tried to attract Europeans to go north and work building their cross-country railroad. Most were not interested; is that why they then invited the Chinese? About one hundred thousand Chinese did eventually come as contract laborers, but most did not stay in the place they first arrived at. Many were told of opportunities but those who accepted them were actually sent to sugar plantations in Mexico and in Peru, and to the guano mines and coastal plantations.
By 1930, Mexico City had about thirty thousand Chinese, many came there after they left the mines, railroads, and plantations because there was growing anti-Chinese sentiment. For some, their leaving included illegal deportations and expulsions from this country. Today, thanks to newer immigrants, there are about seventy thousand Chinese in Mexico, most in Mexicali, Mexico City, and in other cities.
Other Chinese came to Peru, most after the 1912 founding of the Chinese Republic. Still others came after World War II, and many more arrived in 1949 after communist rule was established in China. In the early days, most Europeans and Americans in South America were associated with railroad and mining companies. It was these companies that wanted Chinese and other contract laborers to come, and many did prior to the 1920s; and they did make up the fastest growing Asian population in South America prior to the 1920s.
Earlier than that, seventy-seven men did come to Costa Rica in 1855, and a handful of others came there in 1863. Many new immigrants came and remained in Mexico. Years later, many came to Brazil, a country that today has a quarter of a million Chinese people there. A few thousand came and stayed in Argentina, and about one hundred twenty thousand now living there. Overall, people of Asian descent do not constitute a large proportion of any South American country other than in Peru; and many there are of mixed ancestry.
In Argentina, many Chinese had come in the mid-1830's when the country tried to bring them in on a large scale, but these plans did not come to fruition. The same was true in Brazil because their government would not sign bilateral ‘coolie’ contracts. Actually, the Chinese government did not authorize its citizens to accept work in either country, and so a good number of Chinese did go back and forth between these countries not staying long in any one of them.
In the 1850s, many Chinese went to Brazil from Paraguay to work in low-end clothing industries. More than ninety thousand went to Peru, most from the Guangdong and Fujian provinces. Not all stayed, but those that did, managed to ascend the economic ladder slowly by the mid-twentieth century. Other Chinese came to Peru from Caribbean Islands or went to Ecuador and other South American countries including the Philippines.
A bilateral treaty with Mexico in 1893 did give the Chinese the same legal rights as Mexicans, so many went there and developed small colonies, particularly in the towns of Guaymas and Ensenada. More came between 1895 and 1910, including from the United States. Later, thousands came from China to work in the mines, on the railroads, and in the cotton and sugar cane fields. These opportunities gave them some stability. Their monthly rice ration contracts rose and that helped the Cantonese, Fujianese, and Hakka men, most under the age of thirty. Many who did stay became merchants after their contracts expired.
Initially, the Chinese were welcomed, but that did not last long. When they became middlemen and developed social networks, and they learned Spanish, and also when they married non-Chinese women, they developed improved relationships encouraged by the women’s families. Those that were energetic and hard workers were lured to South America by high wages that actually were never delivered. They did outnumber the locals and soon became a group of unhappy folk agitating for change.
Some did open eateries that served Mexican and Chinese food, a few became politically active. some politically powerful, some more conservative. There were some that supported the political situation in China, others on the opposite side; a good number of them fermented trouble. By 1926, as Chinese immigration and unrest grew, many were deported, particularly those from Mexico, so then their numbers shrank to under five thousand. There actually were many illegal deportations and expulsions.
Initially welcomed, those remaining did carve out communities for themselves with fewer backlashes thanks to their monetary success and their increased status. However, they were often reminded of their foreign status and their low hygiene. Because of these issues, they were targets of blame for the spread of disease, accused of vices such as smoking, gambling, corrupting the morals of the locals, inciting civil unrest, and not assimilating with the locals. Many local people said they competed with them for jobs by cutting their wages.
These minority experience and lots of prejudice in Mexico had additional Chinese prohibited from entering that country for years to come. Some did go back to China, others were forced to cross the border going into the US. This they did illegally, It was a particular problem for couples with children born in Mexico where the lady had married a Chinese partner. Their exodus grew in the 1960s and 1970s when many did voluntarily go back to China. Others went Canada, Spain, Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States.
In China, there were campaigns to return them to Mexico renouncing or disregarding their Chinese heritage, birth, or marriage. In China, they also experienced many hardships including when more than four hundred Mexican women and many of their children went back to South America and their husbands were not permitted nor encouraged to do so.
In the late 1950s, there was a push in China to allow those who did not want to become communists to stay, but many did not want to do that, either. In 1960 there was another repatriation to Mexico. Today there are only two large Chinese communities in Mexicol one in Mexicali, the other in Mexico City.
There is still some tension among Chinese in Mexico. It can be seen on the news even though Mexicali has about twenty thousand, Mexico City a few less Chinese than that. Perhaps it is less so in Peru as many there have adopted the last name of their early patron so they are less visible, less recognized for their mixed ancestry, and in better economic situations.
In Barrio Chino in Mexico City, there are only two or three blocks recognized as a Chinatown; these are on or near Dolores Street. There are about seven restaurants and a like number of import and other Chinese businesses in Mexicali, a city with more Chinese people and more Cantonese restaurants. They might be better appreciated there as they serve their Chinese food with tortillas, steak sauce, and barbecued meat, and have on their Chinese altars, statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe and of San Judas Tadeo, a popular Mexican saint.
In Peru, there were no similar problems. Many were able to stay, even encouraged to do so after their contracts ended. With very little hostility, they became the largest Chinese Community in South America, today there are some five million Chinese living in that country with some twenty percent of Peruvians who have some Chinese ancestry.
In Barrio Chino de Lima de Peru, and throughout the city and the entire country, there are many chifas which are Peruvian-Chinese eateries. They are said to be part of what is probably South America’s largest and earliest Chinese eateries.
While there are diluted Chinese regions and smaller Chinatowns elsewhere in South America, most Chinese-Mexicans, Chinese-Peruvians, and other Chinese- South Americans do celebrate Chinese New Year to promote their Chinese culture and their Chinese businesses. Some are supported by major sponsors such as Coca Cola, but many are sparsely attended.
In Peru, the Chinese government helped the people start Chinese schools in the 1940s to promote their cuisine, restaurants, and people. Non-Chinese-Peruvians became fascinated by their cuisine, and in some towns and cities there are now more chifas restaurants and places usingsillao or soy sauce that serve fried rice and other Chinese-related dishes than there are local Peruvian and creole eateries.
Newer Chinese immigrants in Peru, that is those arriving since the 1970s, have opened chifas throughout the country. They have done likewise in neighboring Ecuador and Bolivia. When we were in Peru and in Ecuador, we ate in many of them, and in large upscale Chinese restaurants. We were amazed at the large number of Chinese eateries no matter their name, and met with many in the growing Chinese communities. We also acquired a great book about early Peruvian Chinese immigrants and their food. This book is available in the Special Collections area of Stony Brook University, and well worth perusing as a great historical volume with outstanding Chinese recipes and historical information.
This Peruvian-Chinese book is by Maria Balbi. For other information about Chinese food in South America, check out the following issues in Flavor and Fortune; for that in Mexico, go to Volumes 4(1) and 13(3); for Chinese food in Peru look into Volumes 9(2) and 9(3), for Chinese food in Costa Rica go to Volume 7(1); and in Venezuela check out Volume 10(3). Also, check the entire index listing of related articles and other materials. There are many recipes of the Chinese-South American hyphenated foods you can enjoy making in your own kitchen, as well.
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