Chinese Immigrants in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in Lima, Peru: Preliminary Case Studies

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Chinese Immigrants in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in Lima, Peru:

Preliminary Case Studies

In Essays on Ethnic Chinese Abroad, vol II. Women, Political Participation and Area Studies. Edited by Tsun-wu Chang & Shi-yeoung Tang: pp. 355-376. Published by Overseas Chinese Association, June 2002, Taipei


Maria A. Benavides


This paper is based on preliminary case studies of Chinese immigrants in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and in Lima, Peru. It is part of a more extensive research project that purports to compare contemporary Chinese immigration patterns in Peru and Brazil and to evaluate the relative importance of immigration from Taiwan and Mainland China in both countries.

The majority of Orientals* in Brazil have settled in Sao Paulo, the more affluent and populated State in the country. The largest number is of Japanese origin, followed by Taiwanese, many of whom migrated to Brazil in the 1960s and 1970s. The first immigration of Mainland Chinese occurred in the nineteenth century, but the largest influx was in 1949, when important industrialists from Shanghai and other Chinese cities moved their families, entire factories, and qualified personnel to Sao Paulo, where their descendants are still among the more affluent Orientals. Between 1989 and 1999, about one hundred thousand people from Mainland China have migrated to Sao Paulo. A recent amnesty has permitted the application for local residence to illegal aliens. But there are some doubts as to the legitimacy of the activities of some of the more recent Chinese immigrants.

Chinese presence in Peru is of much earlier date. The nineteenth century immigration of circa one hundred thousand coolies, almost exclusively male, resulted in miscegenation with local women. The presence of settled Chinese encouraged the immigration of younger relatives, and this chain of events has continued to the present. Many recent immigrants regard Lima as a stepping stove: after obtaining Peruvian citizenship and passport, they apply for a visa to the USA, Canada, or the other countries. The period between 1880 and 1950 saw an influx of Chinese businessmen who set up stores and managed the estates of absentee landlords. Since the 1940s, Chinese restaurants and cuisine became popular at all social levels, and more recently, Lima’s Chinatown has become a tourist attraction.
This paper compares case histories of Chinese contemporary immigrants in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Lima, Peru. As a rule, Chinese prefer migrating to North America (the United States or Canada) rather than to Latin America. But, if the former is not possible, their first choice is Brazil, reputed to offer better opportunities rather than Peru and the other Spanish-language republics. On the other hand, the anti-Oriental* immigration laws are not as strictly enforced in Peru as in Brazil, and the presence of established immigrant relatives is instrumental in obtaining first an entrance permit, and later residence or nationalization papers.

One remarkable difference between the two countries and the cities discussed in this paper, is the importance of Taiwanese presence in Sao Paulo. In Lima, since 1972, the Taiwanese have taken a back seat and the more visible presence is that of the People’s Republic: possibly because of the Chinese Embassy in Lima; while in Sao Paulo, the People’s Republic is represented only by a Consular office, since all embassies are located in Brasilia, the official capital of Brazil.

This paper therefore has a section on Taiwanese in Sao Paulo, and no such section for Lima. Hopefully, further research will allow me to portray the more significant members of the Taiwanese society in Lima, to which I have not had access to date.
Brazil, as all the American Republics, has historically been a country of immigrants. Other than the native Indians, who were decimated by the seventeenth century, Brazil was populated by African slaves and their masters, the Portuguese colonists. After the middle of the nineteenth century, the Brazilian government encouraged immigration of European labor, primarily Italian and German. As the laws against slavery became more stringent, Japanese peasants largely replaced African labor on the coffee plantations in the States of Rio and Sao Paulo.

Brazil did not see the large numbers of Chinese coolies that were introduced into Peru, Central America, and the Caribbean during the nineteenth century; although the earliest record of Chinese immigration shows that in 1810, 400 Chinese laborers entered Brazil under temporary contracts. The Chinese population gradually increased, but records show only 10,000 Chinese immigrants in all of Brazil up until the mid-twentieth century.

The first large Chinese immigration to Brazil occurred in 1949, when “the mainland was lost” as one eminent Taiwanese immigrant in Sao Paulo defines the Communist victory over the Nationalists, when General Chiang Kai-shek and his troops fled to Taiwan. The Nationalist army was largely from the province of Shandong, and Sao Paulo has a considerable number of Taiwanese immigrants of Shandong origin. The 1949 Chinese Diaspora to Brazil consisted primarily of the economic elite fleeing the Communist takeover: businessmen and industrialists from Shanghai and other Chinese cities who shipped entire factories together with their families, managers and workers. In fact, of the more famous Shanghai families, only the Soong did not send one of their sons to Brazil at that time (James Li, personal communication, July 1999). One family sailed with the entire equipment of their three factories: two flour mills and one cigarette factory, and settled in Sao Paulo. They sold the cigarette factory to the Brazilian tobacco firm Souza Cruz, and continued operating the flour mills until recently.

The city of Sao Paulo has 15 million inhabitants; and “greater” Sao Paulo, which includes neighboring towns that have been absorbed in the Metropolis, has approximately 25 million inhabitants. In the heart of the city, a stone’s throw away from the cathedral in the main plaza, begins the quarter of Liberdade (Liberty). For many years now, Liberdade has been the equivalent of American China Towns. However, most of the people that own and operate stores, hotels, and restaurants in Liberdade are Japanese, followed by Taiwanese and only minimally, Mainland Chinese. Most of Liberdade is clean and well kept. There is a pharmacy in one of the main streets that sells Chinese medicine in the form of pills, tablets and capsules; but the sale of imported herbal medicine is not allowed in Brazil, thus obviating one of the principal methods of Chinese treatment. Stores in Liberdade sell Chinese cooking ware, sometimes “made in Japan”, and fresh Chinese foods, such as tofu (soy cheese), soymilk, Chinese dumplings and bread, and fresh vegetables and mushrooms, as well as medicines, calendars, and trinkets. Liberdade has all the services that traditional Chinese demand: hairdressers for men and women that perform the ritual 30 minute shampoo combined with massage of the head before rinsing, cutting, and dressing the hair; restaurants, new and used Chinese book stores, offices of doctors, dentists, and lawyers. There are Chinese travel agencies that cater primarily to travelers from and to the Motherland.

Another sector of town where many Oriental stores are to be found is the mostly second rated old center. Rua 25 de Maio and surrounding streets have crowded stores in which each dealer has a small booth, on the Chinese model. Rental of the booths is disproportionately expensive, in most cases because the tenant cannot provide a guarantor, which Brazilian custom requires from all tenants.

Many Taiwanese and Chinese are engaged in trade, importing Chinese foodstuff, clothes, household goods, and traditional Chinese medicine. Others are professionals in the fields of Science and the Liberal Arts. The University of Sao Paulo’s Center for Oriental Studies boasts a corpus of professors of Chinese Language, History, and Culture and publishes a periodical with studies of Overseas Chinese in Brazil (Yang 1994, 1996).

Sao Paulo has a considerable number of well-established Chinese Medical Doctors who specialize in Acupuncture, which Brazilian Law recognizes as accepted medical practice for insurance purposes. Two Chinese language newspapers are published daily and sold on the streets in Liberdade. A subscription for a year costs about 200 dollars. The more important daily paper, funded by the Government of the People's Republic, prints 2,000 6-page copies, Tuesday through Saturday; the editor, born in Qingdao, Shandong, is the author of a book in Chinese, which deals with successful Chinese businessmen in Brazil (Yuan1995; for the same subject, see also Yu, 1996).

Neither the Chinese nor the Taiwanese communities are integrated, and, as opposed to the Japanese community, they lack political representation at State and Federal levels. But a number of social clubs and religious centers provide occasions for socializing. Chinese Catholic and Protestant churches hold services entirely in the Chinese language and organize sports and Portuguese Language courses. There are several Chinese Buddhist and Taoist temples in and around Sao Paulo. In Liberdade itself there is a small building with altars and statues dedicated to the Buddha. In Vila Mariana there is a very fine temple consisting of a three-story building. The first floor consists of a large hall where services are held on Sundays, followed by meals prepared in the ground floor kitchen and served by a voluntary team of Taiwanese women. And near Cotia, about 25 km. outside Sao Paulo, there is a Buddhist Center with temple, living quarters, and an adjacent school, funded by a rich Taiwanese who intends to build the largest Buddhist temple in the Americas.

One Sunday in January 2001, an important service was held at the Cotia Temple by three Buddhist monks and attended by a congregation of over 500 people. Many men and women wore the Buddhist black robe, a few, who have more advanced studies, the saffron robes similar to the celebrants. A few Western observers were invited to join the congregation in the temple, and to participate in the ritual singing, the prostrations, and the candle holding procession round the main altar.

After the two-hour-long service, a vegetarian meal was served at tables set under a roof. During the meal, non-Oriental male volunteers, who are studying Buddhism, and are doctors and other professionals, waited on the monks and the congregation. The senior celebrant read from the holy books and preached throughout the meal, accompanied by occasional ringing of bells by his assistants. According to one bilingual assistant, the sermons during the celebration and the meal were less than enlightening.

After dinner, people socialized and told each other about themselves. One businessman from Rio de Janieiro, who wore the black Buddhist robe, had come to Sao Paulo specially to attend the service. A Taiwanese lady serving as a voluntary assistant told me that both her daughters are married to Japanese men, and that they all live together in perfect harmony. The Secretary of the adjacent Chinese school told me that adults could attend the school to learn the Chinese language.

A Buddhist Hall pertaining to the Tantric school functions in a small house in Lapa. The person responsible for the Hall is Professor Chen, a Taiwanese born in the Chinese Province, Canton; he is a retired Electrical Engineer who worked for many years with the Sao Paulo Power Company, and now teaches Chinese Culture and Language at the Universidade de Sao Paulo. The congregation at the Hall consists of about 100 faithful, who follow the teachings of Grand Master Shen-yen Lu. Master Lu was born in the county of Chianyi, Taiwan, and migrated to the United States in 1982, where he founded the True Buddha School and teaches Tantric Buddhism in Redmond, Washington. The sect has four million followers throughout the world, most of whom are in East Asia. The congregation of the Lapa temple is both Taiwanese and Chinese. Many of the latter are only now learning about Buddhism, since all religious teaching was discouraged, when not outright prohibited, during the Mao regime in China.

Newspapers in Sao Paulo publish cases of extortion of and by Orientals, in which thugs threaten the owners of stores and restaurants if they do not pay for “protection”. Occasionally the police arrest members of criminal gangs. Although the Brazilian newspapers print stories that point to a Chinese Mafia, Mr. Gao, the Consul for the People’s Republic of China, says there is no such thing in Sao Paulo. But he is perfectly aware that there are persons in the Chinese community best avoided. His records show that Sao Paulo has approximately 100,000 immigrants with PCCR Passports, many of whom are newcomers whose background is unknown.

On February 12, 1999, Mr. And Mrs. Gao gave a reception for about 700 Chinese people in Sao Paulo, in celebration of the Chinese Spring Festival, the Communist euphemism for the Festival of the Lunar New Year (first day of the Year of the Rabbit). Among the people that attended were the Head of the Acupuncture Institute in Sao Paulo, who was instrumental in obtaining the Brazilian Government’s recognition of Acupuncture as a branch of the Officially Recognized Medical Therapies; and a very famous 92 year old Chinese Medical Doctor.

Case histories: Chinese from Taiwan (Republic of China)
1. The more affluent people from Taiwan tend to avoid other nationals. Mr. Lin** is one who has reason to doubt the honorability of some of his countrymen. Mr. Lin is 71 years old, a retired businessman who came to Brazil in his youth as a wireless technician, and later made a fortune with a flower mill and Chinese noodles. He is regarded as a patron of the Taiwanese colony, and many people have asked him for loans of money over the years. Unfortunately, not all have responded well: recently, a man asked Mr. Lin to loan him the money to purchase a home; he then sold the house and absconded from the country with the money.

Mr. Lin is now retired; his sons by his first marriage with a Taiwanese lady manage the family business. He is now married to a young woman of Portuguese extraction and they have a seven year old daughter who attends the Spanish school, according to her parents, the best school in town. Mr. Lin has moved his family from Lapa to Morumbi, so as to live within walking distance of the school.

Mr. Lin has great energy, thinks nothing of driving to Ribeirao Pires, about one hour and a half distance from his home, to spend an afternoon with his Brazilian friends there. He has some property on the lake nearby and enjoys boating on the lake. When asked what he thought of the separation between Taiwan and Mainland China, Mr. Lin said the differences need to be resolved, and Taiwan must go back to the Motherland, as one more province of the People’s Republic of China. When asked what he thought of Brazil as a country for the migration of Chinese, he said it is great: Brazilians are lazy, Chinese are industrious, and easily get ahead.

Mr. Lin is very fond of singing Karaoke, and every Saturday and holiday he invites several friends to sing with him. He has a good voice, and favors both Oriental and Western style music. On these occasions, all the guests are Chinese, mostly from Taiwan, occasionally from Mainland China. A friend introduced him to Mrs. Yang,** a young Chinese immigrant from Wengchow, near Shanghai. She was having problems with the sale of goods that she had imported to Brazil from China. Mr. Lin was impressed with her looks and singing voice. He offered her his store in Lapa, with adjoining living quarters which she has rented from him and where she and her brother now sells their goods.

Mr. Lin has a brother who lives part time in Sao Paulo and part time in Miami where his children have settled. Both brothers are on friendly terms with the golfers at the San Francisco Club, but there is little intimacy between the Orientals and the other members of the Club, many of whom are of Italian or other European origin. This is typical of Brazilian society, which tends to be subdivided into cliques according to national origins.
2. Mr. Wu, nicknamed O Gordo Wu (Fat Wu), runs a food and commodities store in Liberdade, across the street from the Chinese Pharmacy. Mr. Wu’s store has a wide selection of traditional and modern cooking ware, tinned, dried, and fresh foods, stocked both within the store and outside on the sidewalk. Outstanding are the fresh tofu, soymilk, Chinese dumplings and freshly steamed man tou (steamed white bread with stuffing), also freshly baked cakes and pastries. There is also a fair selection of Chinese medicines. Sometimes Mr. Wu has fresh seafood and shark fins; also black preserved eggs and a variety of mushrooms. His customers are both Chinese and Japanese.

Mrs. Wu, a delightful woman, is always at the cash register, every day in the week until late at night and Sundays until 5 p.m. She hardly takes a day, or even an hour off from work, is always cheerful and pleasant with customers who stop by as much for a chat as for business. She is always willing to lend or even give away the previous day’s Chinese newspaper for which she has a subscription. Recently, she went home to Taiwan for a few weeks, to visit with family and attend to business. During her absence, Mr. Wu took the cash register, very much against his liking.

Mr. and Mrs. Wu have a son and daughter but the youngsters rarely give a hand in the store. Most of the time, Mr. Wu sits in his upstairs office, chatting with friends or talking on the telephone. He often takes an hour or so off from work, to lunch or drink with friends. He enjoys partying until the small hours. He has on occasion lent money to some of his countrymen, but his wife complains that he often gets ripped off, and then they are short of money. The Wu’s import some of their own merchandise, and on occasion they have trouble with customs. Members of a gang have recently threatened them. The gangsters are probably small timers, although the Brazilian press makes them out to be affiliated to a Chinese Mafia. However, Mr. Wu refused to be browbeaten and eventually the criminals were arrested.
3. One of Mr. Wu’s friends, who hangs out quite a bit in the store, is Mr. Wang**, a Taiwanese carpenter who has a carpentry shop in Liberdade. His wife is a dentist with an office nearby. Mrs. Wang has a considerable number of Oriental patients. She graduated in dentistry from a reputable University in Sao Paulo, but even so, she speaks very little Portuguese, as do most of her people.

Mr. Wang knows everybody and is anxious to make new customers, but he has been known to take money in advance for carpentry jobs which he has subsequently not delivered. He is very friendly and loves to take people out for fancy meals. One of his haunts is the Chinese Vegetarian Restaurant, which is rightly famous in Sao Paulo. A Taoist Temple owns the restaurant, and two nights a week the Chef is the Taoist monk who is in charge of the Temple’s kitchen.

Mr. Wang and his friends enjoy the nightlife in Sao Paulo, including strip tease joints, casinos, all night bars, and brothels, all well attended by Orientals. Mrs. Wang complains that her husband sometimes does not come home to her and their little boy for several days in succession, and that he squanders hard-earned money.

When he first came to Brazil eight years ago, Mr. Wang worked with his sister and brother-in law in the country near the small town of Susano, about one hour from the city of Sao Paulo. Here, Mr. Wang’s relatives raise mushrooms under roofing from which hang plastic curtains that keep out the daylight. Under the roofs, shelves made from sugar cane stalks support the boxes where the mushrooms grow. When grown to the right size, they are treated in saltpeter and placed in plastic containers with lids. In Brazil, most mushrooms are sold in this way, which is less tasty than the more expensive fresh and dry mushrooms sold in the better stores.

Mr. Wang’s family does well. They have built themselves a big three-story house on the mushroom farm, and the Sunday we visited with them they were entertaining relatives newly arrived from Taiwan. Everybody was participating in the preparation of a lavish meal in the kitchen on the ground floor, next to a small dining room. A large upstairs living room sports a large television set, plush sofas, velvet curtains, and fancy furniture.

Down the street from the Wang family in Susano is the home of a wealthy Taiwanese friend of Mr. Wang. The spacious grounds include a miniature golf course, a tennis court, and an Italian style avenue flanked by pine trees and ornamented with fountains. The house consists of a large square building, two stories high. The ground floor has an enormous hall subdivided into several sectors, one for dining and others for lounging. On one side, glass doors lead to a Japanese style tatami set of rooms, possibly built for the sake of the owner’s Japanese-Brazilian daughter-in-law and her baby boy. The kitchen is spacious and elegantly furnished, and the upstairs has a suite for each member of the family.

Mr. Wang is a member of the very grand Sao Paulo Taiwanese Social Club, where mostly married couples congregate for ballroom dancing and Karaoke professional singing. In October 1998 there was a big party at which the young Oriental candidate for the State of Sao Paulo Congress, Mr. Wong, gave a speech. He said that his father was Chinese, his mother Japanese and his wife Korean, hence that he could well represent the interests of all Orientals. Mr. Wong did not win the elections, but he is now a member of the São Paulo Municipality or Town Hall.
Case histories: Chinese from the Mainland (People’s Republic of China)
Brazil has for many years discouraged the immigration of non-European foreigners. Hence, when it became known that in July of 1998 an amnesty would be granted to illegal immigrants who had entered the country before June 14 of the same year, a large influx of foreigners took place. Many Orientals arrived after the June 14 deadline, but managed notwithstanding to apply for residence permits.

Many newly arrived Chinese settle in the 25 de Maio downtown areas and rent booths in the large stores that cater to non-documented tenants. According to an officer of the Brazilian Federal Police, the owners of the stores are known exploiters: they operate in league with people in China who provide Chinese passports and Brazilian tourist visas, for which they charge exorbitant rates. The store owners also assure their tenants that they will get their wares through customs, which, however, they sometimes fail to do, possibly because containers hold clothes and medicines which are not officially declared, together with other officially listed wares.

On several occasions the police have arrested the store owners known to transgress Brazilian law. But the culprits were soon released, possibly because of political connections. I have heard rumors that in fact the capital for the purchase of the stores and of the apartment buildings in the vicinity where the tenants live, was put up by the Bank of China and that the “owners” are employees of the Chinese government.

The apartments are usually crowded, as the immigrants’ system consists in sending one family member ahead, as often as not a woman. Relatives, both men and women, soon follow her, or him: brothers, sisters, in laws, and friends from the same town or village, all sharing living quarters and household duties. As a rule, only one of each married couple migrates while the spouse remains in China taking care of the family business. When not engaged in business matters, the men attend bars, Karaoke parlors, casinos, and brothels. The women try to find affluent locals who will help them with the intricacies of Brazilian legal requirements.

1) Mrs. Yang, previously mentioned, was one of the tenants of the 25 de Maio store and neighboring apartments before she moved to Mr. Lin’s property in Lapa. In China she was manager of a bank in a small town near Wengchow, south of Shanghai. Her husband’s family has a factory, which her husband and his brothers manage. Mrs. Yang traveled to Brazil with her brother, a woman friend, and the latter’s boy friend in July 1998. Soon thereafter, her sister-in-law and other relatives joined her. Mrs. Yang also provided lodgings for visitors from her hometown, among them the Mayor and members of the Town Hall, who came for a few weeks to study the economic conditions in Sao Paulo. The two-bedroom apartment had hardly any furniture except for beds, and it housed crates of wares and foodstuffs imported from China.

In July 1998 Mrs. Yang shipped a container of suitcases and Christmas ornaments from China, and she set up shop in a small booth in the 25 de Mayo store. The storeowner requested all tenants to leave their passports with him; later he claimed that the Federal Police had confiscated his tenants’ passports. Mrs. Yang obtained a new passport from the Chinese Consulate in Sao Paulo, and with this document she was able to apply for the residence permit allowed by the July 1998 Amnesty. Subsequently, Mrs. Yang made friends with Mt Lin, who has rented her the store in Lapa.

Mrs. Yang’s sister-in-law arrived too late to apply officially for the Amnesty benefits, but was able to purchase a residence permit for two thousand dollars. Mrs. Yang put up the money, and the arrangement is that the debt will be repaid in labor at the rate of one hundred dollars per month, plus food and lodgings.
2) A common activity of people from Mainland China is to work in restaurants. Three women from Shandong Province run a small restaurant near the Avenida Paulista in up-town Sao Paulo. Two are sisters, both with husband and son at home in China; the third is their young unmarried niece. They all sleep at night on foam mattresses that they lay on the tables, since they do not want to spend money on living quarters.

The food is sold by weight, a common system in Brazil. Customers put their choice, selected from a buffet with cold and warm Chinese style food, on their dish that is then weighed. The food is not outstanding, and customers are few. But the restaurant is mostly a cover for the sale of Chinese medicine and medical equipment. The customers are local Chinese doctors. Not all the merchandise gets through customs and the business is facing a seven thousand-dollar loss of medical merchandise held by customs.

3) The best Chinese restaurant in Sao Paulo is probably China Lake, located in the elegant quarter of Chacara Flora. The owners, Mr. and Mrs. Yu, are Shanghainese and have been in Brazil for 15 years. Mrs. Yu speaks very good Portuguese. She and Mr. Yu are unassuming and quite charming. They have a young son who attends the nearby Chapel School, a traditional Anglo-Brazilian Catholic school attended by English and Brazilian children.

The Yu’s first business venture was a smaller restaurant, down the street from the present location. Mr. Yu learned to cook by working in restaurants in Shanghai at the time that he decided to migrate to Brazil. China Lake consists of a two-story building. The bar and the business offices are on the ground floor. The kitchen, a large dining room and a banquet hall available for private parties are on the first floor. Fine oil paintings by a Shandong painter who resides in Sao Paulo ornament the walls. Mr. Yu is the Chef, and Mrs. Yu the manager. The fare is excellent and covers a variety of specialties from the different provinces of China, from Peking duck to spicy Shanghai lobster.

Meals at China Lake are expensive, but there is no lack of patrons, both Oriental and Brazilian. The members of a Japanese woman’s club periodically gather at a large table for lunch. And Japanese and Chinese businessmen are often seen dining together, discussing business in Chinese.


The history of Chinese immigrants in Peru is very different from the Brazilian experience: in the mid nineteenth century, an estimated one hundred thousand Chinese “coolies” were imported to Peru to work on the coastal sugar farms, in the extraction of fertilizer in the Guano (bird droppings) Islands of the Peruvian coast, and in the building of the main railway line, which runs inland from the port of Callao. Apparently, the vast majority, mainly from the southern provinces, did not return to China after their eight-year contracts were up. Many settled in Lima or elsewhere in Peru making homes with Peruvian women.

The history of the Chinese nineteenth century immigration of indentured laborers or “coolies” (often called slaves), their sufferings and despair has been amply documented (see for example Stewart 1951; Rodríguez Pastor 1987; Trazegnies 1995; Hu-Dehart 1988, 1989, 1992; Derpich 1999). As regards their descendants, second and third generation Chinese, often with Peruvian grandmother and/or mother, has been less documented although Mariella Balbi (2000) has made a good case for their influence in Peruvian food preferences. Also, little has been said regarding the immigration of well-to do Chinese in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who came with some capital from Hong Kong or California, and established successful businesses. In general they combined commerce (import of Chinese wares, food and furniture), with the administration of absentee landlords’ sugar and cotton plantations. Lausent-Herrera (2000) Derpich (1999) and Benavides (2000) have touched on these subjects, but no serious research has been done on the political and economic impact of this less well-know sector.

The Peruvian Catholic church went to great pains to evangelize Chinese coolies and their descendants. In 1885 there were Chinese Catholic priests in Lima (Lausent-Herrera 2000 p. 33). The Chinese that were baptized adopted Christian names and changed their family names for their godparents’ last names, originally Spanish, such as Mendoza, Escudero, Córdova. Possibly because of the influence of the Catholic Church, there are no formal Buddhist or Taoist temples in Lima. Mutual Aid societies have rooms set aside with altars dedicated to a variety of Immortals, the most popular being Guangong, a general who lived in the third century B. C. and is regarded as a kind of god of monetary wealth.

Chinese medicine was practiced in Lima since 1871. In the1920’s, one of the more famous Chinese medical practitioners in Lima was Dr. Pun Luy, whom I consulted in 1943, when he was already very old. His son by a Peruvian wife, Dr. Jorge Pun de la Torre, at this time has a successful practice in the residential quarter of Higuereta.

For many years, the Chinese Ambassador in Washington was responsible for diplomatic representation in Lima. In 1921, a Chinese Legation was established in Lima: Cheng Tsao Yu (also known as Zheng Sa Zaorou, or Chian Chou Yu) was the first Chinese Ambassador to Peru, and he helped to fund the Chinese Welfare association (Beneficiencia China) which is still the most prestigious Chinese organization in Lima (Lausent-Herrera 2000, p. 21). Chinese merchants and professionals who arrived in Lima in the early twentieth century propagated the image and ideas of Sun Yat Sen. In 1924 y en 1936 the first schools teaching Chinese language were founded, joining in 1962 to form the school known as Diez de Octubre. En 1962, Franciscan friars founded the Chinese Catholic school named Juan XXIII.

Starting in the 1930s, the Peruvian government passed laws restricting the immigration of Orientals; during World War II, Japanese immigrants were forcibly removed to the United States, where they were interned in Alien Camps. Although the Chinese were not directly affected by these measures, anti-Japanese attitudes tended to generalize to all Orientals, although Chinese corner stores were part of Lima landscape as they were always open and well stocked with daily essentials: foodstuffs, kerosene, soaps, candles, cigarettes and matches, etc. Although a continuous trickle of Chinese immigrants continued arriving via the ill-protected borders with Ecuador and Bolivia, large numbers did not enter the country until the end of the Mao era. The 1964 fire, which destroyed Lima's Central Market Place and surrounding area, thickly settled by Chinese, led to a decline in what was considered Lima’s Chinatown. Many Chinese families moved to the residential middle class subdivision of San Borja.

In 1971 Chinatown began to pick up. The Taiwanese donated the prominent Chinese Portal. But as Peru followed the United States in the shift of diplomatic relations from Taiwan to The People’s Republic, the Taiwanese, who in the 1960s had flourishing businesses, either withdrew from Lima or functioned with a low profile.

During 1997, Alberto Andrade, the Mayor of Lima, had the street vendors who were blocking traffic forcibly removed and renovated Calle Capón, the heart of Chinatown, on a Californian model (Somos 1997). At the same time, the government of President Alberto Fujimori allowed gambling houses to function officially. Many Chinese restaurants diversified into casinos. A Chinese businessman turned a large office building in Miraflores into a Hotel and Casino, which caters primarily to Chinese businessmen and tourists, and operates a branch of the Chinese Tourist Agency Tian Ma.

In the year 2000, according to the Chinese People’s Republic Consulate in Lima, in Peru there were 25,000 people born in China with Peruvian resident permits, 85,000 people born in China with Peruvian nationality, and 1.5 million people born in Peru with one parent or grandparent born in China. This calculation did not include illegal Chinese residents, or Taiwanese.

At the time, Lima had circa six million inhabitants; about 2,000 Chinese restaurants served mostly Cantonese foods, although some offered dishes from Sichuan, Shanghai, and Beijing. Several typical Cantonese dishes had become integrated into Peruvian cuisine, and Chinese medicine, both in the more traditional form of herbs and other natural products, and in the more modern form of pills and tablets, were available in stores in Chinatown. Acupuncture was practiced both by Orientals and Westerners, but was not recognized as official medicine as required for insurance purposes.

Case studies: Chinese from Mainland China

1) Yang Jian Ping was born in Shanghai in 1952. His father was a government official from a small town in the neighborhood of Shanghai, who during a period of work in the province of Canton married a medical doctor of that province, subsequently settling in Shanghai. Jian Ping studied painting in the Liu Hai Su Institute that taught French impressionist painting. During the Cultural Revolution he was required to move to the countryside and requested to be sent to the province or Yunan famed for its beautiful landscapes. After a short time seeding rice, he was freed of all manual labor because he offered to paint a large portrait of Chairman Mao. The painting covered the facade of the town hall, which so delighted the village mayor that he allowed Jian Ping to spend the rest of the required time painting and strolling in the woods with colleagues, with whom he would listen in secret to recordings of Western classical music, prohibited by the Communist Government.

Later, Jian Ping taught painting at a Shanghai Grade School, always taking time off to paint town and country landscapes. In 1985 he was allowed to travel to Peru thanks to the good offices of his Cantonese maternal uncle who had previously settled in Lima. Jian Ping tried to making a living with painting but having learnt to tattoo eyebrows and eye and lip outline, he now makes a living in this profession, as well as giving classes of Tai Chi, which he had learnt with one of the most renowned Masters in Shanghai.

Jian Ping has exhibited his paintings more than 30 times, of which seven in Shanghai and the rest in Lima, three times as individual exhibitions. In 1988, Jian Ping married a young woman of Chinese descent who was divorced with two young sons. The marriage was a failure and ended in divorce. In 1998 Jian Ping married again, this time with a Chinese girl from Canton, and I was asked to witness the Civil Marriage at the local Town House. The young couple does not plan to have children because Jian Ping says it is very difficult to raise children in these times. Jian Ping is nostalgic for his homeland, its landscapes and nature, and for his painter friends in Shanghai. He complains that all the Chinese in Lima run restaurants and only think of their trade, nor do they have a taste for art and for classical music. He also complains about the gray skies during Lima’s long winters and of the lack of public parks and walks such as are enjoyed in China over weekends and holidays. On the other hand, he feels that it would be too late for him to find a position in China that would allow him the same living standard as he enjoys in Lima.

2) Wong Lai Si is Chinese by birth, born in Taishan (Tusan), province of Canton. She migrated to Peru fifteen years ago, at the age of eighteen, to accompany her grandfather who was visiting China after many years in Peru. Lai-Si’s father, Mr. Wong, is an important member of the Chinese Community: he is a prominent member of the Chinese Welfare Society, Beneficencia China, and President of the Association of Immigrants from Tusan, which counts about 100,000 members. En 1998 he organized a great banquet in one of the major Chinese Restaurants located in the pent-house of the building El Dorado, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first immigration from his homeland; at which celebration I was one of the few Peruvian guests.

Lai Si speaks three languages: Chinese, Cantonese, and Spanish. She is well-integrated into Peruvian life and, although she has traveled several times to the village of her birth and other towns in China, and knows Hong Kong well, she has no desire to move back to the Motherland. She has worked as secretary for a Chinese business firm, and has taught at the Chinese Grade School in Lima. At present she is in charge of production of man tou which is sold in the chain grocery stores named after its founder, E.Wong, of Chinese origin. She and her parents, before starting the business consulted with the oracle of Calle Huanta, where German Ku, a self-styled medical Doctor and Taoist Monk, reads the future for twenty soles for Orientals and Peruvians alike. Having received a positive answer, the Wongs started the business, which has been successful.
3) Dr. Chen Asan is also from the Province of Cantón. She traveled to Peru in 1995 with the intention of building a practice which would allow her to bring her family to Peru. She set up an office in Avenida Aviación in Lima, and obtained a permit to treat patients with Western as well as Oriental Medicine, also applying Laser treatments. She then engaged in a partnership with a Chinese doctor and moved with him to Tacna where they established a clinic for both local and Chilean patients from Arica and Iquique, who are accustomed to crossing the border to Peru for medical treatment. Dr. Asan specializes in venereal diseases since her patients in China were primarily the inmates of brothels and their clients. After two years of hard work she has established a successful practice which has allowed her to bring her mother and daughter to live with her in Tacna. Dr. Asan manages to maintain an intensive rhythm of work even though she herself suffers of anorexia and bulimia. She considers herself a “soul”, not a human being, because she can concentrate exclusively on work, and take very little rest.
4) Dr. Xia Hong Lai was born on April 7, 1954, in Qingdao, Shandong Province, the People’s Republic of China. He was the eldest son, fourth child of a prominent local official who was the director of the port of Huangdao, adjoining the town of Qingdao. His family had been rich before the Communist regime confiscated their property.

After Hong Lai, Mr. Xia Senior and his wife had three more children: twins, a boy and a girl, and another daughter. As is the custom in China, Hong Lai is known in his family as Gege, Eldest Brother, his brother as Didi, Younger Brother. His sisters are First, Second, Third, Fourth and Meimei, Youngest Sister, respectively.

Although Mrs. Xia had seven children altogether, her favorite was always Hong Lai, who in turn was extremely devoted to his mother. As a child, he was willful. As he grew older, he would often play truant from school, choosing to play with his friends. He particularly loved the Qingdao beach where he spent many hours in spring and summer. In the 1950s, food was rationed and scarce, but Hong Lai’s mother always saved a special morsel for him. However, when he was about ten years old, his father decided that he should go to Harbin to live with his grandfather who was an important Government official and was allowed a larger ration.

Hong Lai lived for two years with his grandparents, and thanks to the nourishment they provided he grew to be strong and healthy. But he was always homesick for his mother and family, and he lived in fear of his grandfather who treated him severely. When the Cultural Revolution took its toll of Hong Lai’s grandfather’s possession, and the old people were moved from their mansion to a one-room apartment, Hong Lai made the two-day train voyage from Harbin back home to Qingdao.

Soon he met a boy a little older than himself, who was the son of a well to do banker, whose home was always well stocked with food. Hong Lai was a frequent guest at his friend’s house where he partook of the meals and sometimes spent the night. The friend had a camera, which at that time was quite an unusual possession. Together the boys set up business in a booth near the sea front, where they would take pictures for a small fee. This was Hong Lai’s first business venture of which he was still proud after he became a successful medical doctor in Peru and Brazil. He found his old partner again in Lima, where the latter owned a shoe factory and had a young Peruvian common-law wife.

At the age of 15, Hong Lai was employed as worker under his father and he had the responsibility of driving a large crane, moving rocks onto a pontoon. At 17, he moved away from home to study at a medical university in Beijing, where he shared a dormitory with about 30 other students. One of his assignments consisted of field trips in the mountains, to learn about medicinal plants. As he had an adventurous spirit, on these occasions Hong Lai would wander away from his companions and on two occasions he was lost for several days, his companions believing that a wild animal had killed him. Twice, he mistakenly ate poisonous herbs in the belief that they were edible or medicinal plants. He lost consciousness and was only saved because he was rushed to the nearest hospital and treated for poisoning. Later, Hong Lai would reminisce of the times in the wilds of the northern forests, saying those were the happiest days of his life.

Among the girls he knew, Hong Lai favored one, because, although she was poor, she could make a living through her ability knitting, sewing, and embroidering. This girl’s mother was one of the two wives of a Communist official, and she had learned early on that harmony in marriage requires renouncing jealousy in regard to men’s sexuality. Hong Lai and Xu Rui Hua were married in 1978, and they set up home in a one-room apartment in Qingdao. As was customary at the time, the government officials were assigned lodgings for a nominal rent. The building consisted of rows of rooms on two levels; at the end of the corridor was a common toilet. There were no bathing facilities on the premises, as it was customary for people to take showers in public bathrooms or at work.

After the birth of their son, named Hawaii, Hong Lai was able to prevail on the commissioner of the building complex where he lived, to be allowed to raise the roof of his room, which was located on the upper storey. This allowed him to build a mezzanine, so as to place the couple’s bed at a higher level, even though the roof above the mezzanine was too low to allow one to stand upright.

In 1979, Hong Lai heard that discotheques had opened in Beijing. After much difficulty, he was able to convince the mayor of Qingdao that, if the Government permitted discotheques in Beijing, it must permit them also elsewhere. Having received the formal permit, he himself set up first one, and later other discotheques, funded by government money. He himself danced on the floor every night, sometimes with his wife but mostly with the prettiest hostess.

Notwithstanding his other occupations, Hong Lai continued to study medicine, both independently and as apprenticed, first to a Buddhist, and later to a Taoist monk, both famed for their knowledge of traditional medicine. In 1981, Hong Lai was employed by the Government in a series of increasingly important posts in Beijing, culminating as head of the offices in charge of analyzing new medicines and authorizing their production. Shortly thereafter he entered partnership with a colleague with whom he developed a factory of natural medicine.

After the Tien’an men event, in 1989, both partners traveled to Peru in the hopes of setting up a branch of their business in Lima, but were unsuccessful in their project. After a period of great hardship, Hong Lai set up practice as a medical doctor, practicing acupuncture and natural medicine with remarkable success. In time, he applied for Peruvian Nationalization and was granted Peruvian Nationality.

Together with medical treatment, he imparted philosophical principles to his patients, his objective being to teach people preventive medicine and systems of self-treatment, as well as a philosophical attitude towards life and its problems to obviate stress and worry. Hong Lai believes that he has a calling to preach World Peace. He feels that China is so powerful that it needs to lead the world in Peace; that the teachings of Confucius are not only for the Chinese people but also for the whole world. And that the town of Qufu should be not only a shrine to the memory of Confucius but also an International Center for the study and attainment of World Peace. As opposed to mainstream doctors of Traditional Chinese Medicine, Hong Lai is interested in other systems of natural medicine such as homeopathy and dietary supplements. He also knows and uses the new technology of computerized diagnosis equipment, and the theory of ECIWO which explains the relationship between acupuncture and acupressure points and their relationship to the organs.

At present, Hong Lai is working in Sao Paulo, Brazil but he still considers Peru his second Homeland and frequently visits his patients and friends in Lima.
The case histories sketched in this short paper are obviously insufficient to draw any valuable conclusions regarding the relative importance of Chinese immigrants in Sao Paulo and Lima, their relationship with other immigrants and with local people, and their future prospects in Brazil and Peru respectively. As a rule, modern immigrants are not penniless peasants, as frequently occurred with the nineteenth century indentured workers. To obtain a passport and a Peruvian or Brazilian visa and to pay the fare from China to South America requires considerable expenditure. And although many new arrivals are in difficult financial straits, and sometimes heavily in debt, they come from relatively well to do urban sectors.

In Sao Paulo, successful Taiwanese built up their business ventures through years of hard work. They or their parents arrived in Brazil thirty or forty years ago with little if any funds but with some technical or professional training. On the other hand, the more affluent Mainland Chinese came with money: the 1949 Diaspora consisted largely of educated businessmen from the industrialized cities who migrated with their factories and capital. Newcomers are managers of Chinese government enterprises that have filtered money to their private businesses, and/or have illegally operated brothels masquerading as hotels, massage parlors, and Karaoke bars. They fear a clamp down of the Chinese authorities; hence they regard an investment in Brazil as a safeguard against hard times at home. Most pertain to the generation which was growing up during the 1969-79 Cultural Revolution, and have little schooling and technical or professional training.

As for Lima, the presence of a considerable number of well established Cantonese allowed their younger relatives to migrate, thanks to the funding they at least helped to provide, and since the Chinese Government allows its people to travel abroad if Overseas Chinese relatives guarantee their expenses. Well-to-do Chinese who could afford the greater expense of traveling to Brazil, Canada or the United States by-passed Lima, regarded at best as an inferior option or possibly a stepping stone to arrive in Brazil or North America. A case in point is that of Dr. Xia Hong Lai, mentioned above, who, having a Peruvian passport was able to travel to Brazil coincidentally with the Brazilian 1998 Amnesty for foreigners.

In Brazil, the introduction of contraband wares requires high expenditure to corrupt customs officials, and eventual loss of imported wares withheld by the authorities. The Brazilian Federal Police are very much aware of the illegal introduction of people and wares from China, and determined to clamp down on irregularities. But apparently there are powerful forces in Brazil that fund some of the illegal activity, and the recent law of amnesty for illegal foreigners that permits them to apply for residence, was supposedly attained by Orientals bribing the members of Congress that proposed it.

In a sense, the Taiwanese community in Sao Paulo forms a bridge between Mainland Chinese and Japanese. On one hand, Taiwanese language and culture are Chinese. On the other hand, some Taiwanese say there is no distinction between the Taiwanese and the Japanese, who modernized the island during the 50 years of Japanese occupation. It is not uncommon for Taiwanese and Japanese to marry.

In Lima, the vast majority of Chinese are from the southern provinces, and their main occupation is in restaurants and casinos. There is little contact between Mainland Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese, although during the recent government of Alberto Fujimori, the son of Japanese immigrants, politicians of Chinese extraction circulated political propaganda based on the assumption that the same qualities applied to the descendants of all Orientals. But, although it would be hard to find as many success stories of Chinese in Lima to compare with those of Sao Paulo, in Lima Chinese customs, primarily culinary and medicinal, have permeated to the general public much more successfully that in Sao Paulo.

As May Paomay Tung (2000) has shown for California, immigrant Chinese in Brazil and Peru have difficulty in learning the local languages: in this case, Portuguese and Spanish respectively. In both countries, the Chinese language community is sufficiently large to allow many people who have been in the country for many years to deal only with their nationals. As a rule, the older generation never acquires the local language, and it is only the children who either come very young, or are born in the country, who speak, read and write the local language fluently. In some cases, the second and third generation knows little if any Chinese, and this of course exacerbates the generation gap between parents and children. It is relatively common for grandparents to be unable to communicate with their grandchildren who are monolingual in Portuguese or Spanish. Hence research on Chinese immigrants is largely conditioned by the approach taken: alternately, the analysis of the immigrants themselves, or of their descendants.

* I have used the term Orientals for the people of China, Taiwan, Japan and Korea, because it is the term they themselves favor. Asians or East Asians are geographical terms which the Chinese, at least, have difficulty in interpreting. On the other hand, they make a distinction between Oriental and Western culture and people.

** In this, and in some other cases, I have used pseudonyms to protect my informants’ privacy.


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