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Asia Pacífico | Observatorio Parlamentario

The Chinese community in Latin America

11 noviembre 2008

The Chinese community in Latin America is notable for its austerity, toughness, low profile and business acumen. Its members represent a valuable economic and social contribution to the nations of the region. Among other issues, this article addresses their group demographics as regards where and in what fields they work.

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The Chinese community in Latin America is notable for its austerity, toughness, low profile and business acumen. Its members represent a valuable economic and social contribution to the nations of the region. Among other issues, this article addresses their group demographics as regards where and in what fields they work.

Reasons for immigration

The nineteenth century witnessed major waves of Chinese migration to Latin America, increased in large part by high demand for manpower required for the expansion of capitalism in the region. Since then, the Chinese community has increased in every Latin American country, forming clusters of wealthy merchants with thriving family businesses in the industrial, commercial and agricultural sectors.

The Chinese model of integration in Latin America is exemplary throughout the region. They originally arrived to bolster the African workforce on plantations in the Caribbean, Panama and Peru. Then, little by little, and through the strong work ethic which characterizes their community that is enhanced by their strong family ties, the community built successful businesses in every country in the region.

A century of consolidation

After decades of hard labor in Cuban sugar plantations, the Panama Canal and US and Canadian railways, the twentieth century brought the consolidation of the Chinese across the continent. And Central America was among the first areas to bear witness to this fact.

By 1950, Guatemala and El Salvador’s Chinese immigrants owned large import/export concerns, textile factories and restaurants. And by the end of the 20th century, the demographic was beginning to grow exponentially in several countries, including Panama, which was already home to 30,000 Chinese.

They live alongside us... and they like it

28 million Chinese are scattered outside China, 24 million of whom live in Asia. However, in Latin America there are more Chinese than Europe, Oceania and Africa combined.

“They enjoy their life here because they deeply value the easy access to nature and the large, open spaces they can enjoy. This, as opposed to what they encounter in the large, crowded cities of China”, states Jorge Di Masi, an Asia-Pacific expert who teaches at Universidad Nacional de La Plata’s Institute for International Relations.


The fact that Latin America’s Chinese community feels comfortable in Latin America is supported by telling figures. Peru is home to more than 60,000 Chinese, Venezuela more than 50,000, Paraguay 40,000 and Brazil more than 200,000. Argentina and Panama have fewer at 30,000, followed by Costa Rica which has 20,000 residents in its Chinese community. Despite lower numbers than the aforementioned nations, Ecuador, Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, Bolivia and Chile (among others), also have colonies Chinese who are well-known for their commercial and social contributions to each of their new countries.

A breakdown of this phenomenon

In this vast network of Chinese residents in Latin America one area stands out; the so-called Triple Frontier shared between Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil. The largest Chinese community in Latin America is concentrated in this zone. Proof of this is in Brazil, which has a population of more than 200,000 Chinese, or double that of Africa’s Chinese colony.

According to Severino Cabral, director of Brazil’s IBECAP, one principal issue that leads to so many Chinese to feel comfortable in Brazil is the fact that "there is no discrimination based on color, creed, politics or religion". He adds that their success in Brazilian business has been replicated in every other profession, too, as well as the Brazilian Armed Forces. Paraguay has also been involved because, although it has a smaller colony of nearly 40,000, it is a fertile territory for further settlement, as evidenced by its over 15,000 Chinese residents in Ciudad del Este and its recently opened Chinatrust Bank branch.

In Argentina, there is a special phenomenon. It has more than 30,000 Chinese residents in its territory. And, unlike other countries in the region, has no strict immigration laws. In addition to benefiting Argentina with regard to its tax burden, the policy has led China to be a key factor in the revival of its economy. The contribution made by the Chinese to Argentina has not been restricted to Buenos Aires. As a result of the new immigration law, which requires new immigrants to live outside the capital, many Chinese are located in other major cities, such as Rosario and Cordoba. Needless to say, these immigrants have been setting up businesses.

According to Gustavo Cardozo, coordinator of the Asia-Pacific Program at the Argentine Center for International Studies, the spectrum of Chinese citizens’ economic activities is broad. It includes commodity exports, technology imports and tourism. Cardozo adds, “The most representative economic and social factor (the Chinese presence in) retail. Small supermarkets which, thanks to their low prices, strongly compete the most important chains, such as Wal-Mart and Carrefour.” Annual revenues at Argentina’s more than 4,000 Chinese supermarkets exceeded $1 billion, attracting more than 46% of the national customer base, as compared to 23% shopping at the larger stores.

The Chinese presence is also large in Venezuela, which is home to nearly 60,000. Almost all their businesses are related to the culinary field. Chinese restaurants in Venezuela are very affluent, mainly due to Venezuelans taste for Cantonese food.

Mexico is one of the surprises of this article. With a national population of 106 million, its territory is home to just over 10,000 Chinese. This figure is far behind the 600,000 in Canada and 1.6 million in the United States. However, Mexico is currently negotiating a “China Town” project, with a planned investment of $ 350 million, which would include a hotel accommodation for business people with typical Chinese architecture, a shopping plaza and to facilitate the arrival of Asian traders. Similarly, it wants to introduce more Chinese cuisine in Mexico, via restaurants.

One of the most probable hypothesis on the number of Chinese in Mexico is the one that gives us Carlos Uscanga, Asian Pacific expert and professor at UNAM’s Center for International Relations (CRI): "Those Chinese who remained in Mexico after their arrival in the twentieth century have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. However, many became undocumented residents in the United States, primarily setting up dry-cleaners, restaurants and grocery stores." In Uscanga’s opinion, the migration of these Chinese "Mexicans" to the US led to an anti-Chinese backlash in Mexico, resulting in "deaths across the nation."

Nowadays, life is much more enjoyable. “There is greater integration into the Mexican society. Many have adopted Catholicism, while preserving their own cultural features. The new migration, on a par with China’s process of economic expansion, means that we are seeing Chinese businesses established throughout the country, which has become much more tolerant,” states Professor Uscanga.

In Peru, trade is the main business activity of Chinese residents. There are also many professionals. Another highlight is the extension of the colony: official figures speak of 60,000 people, although the Peruvian-Chinese Cultural Institute says that the community “per conservative (estimates), it easily exceeds one million.” Accurate or not, one tenth of Peru is Chinese. This is why they have forged a position not only in social and economic life of the country, but also in politics. It is perhaps the Latin American country where the Chinese population is most camouflaged.

This journey through the principal concentrations of Chinese in Latin America ends in Chile. Official figures speak of nearly 4,000 Chinese in the country, but the embassy states that they exceed 8,000. The Chinese work mostly in restaurants and in the sale of textile products. The Free Trade Zone in Iquique is also an area of strong trade for Chinese residents, whose colony has been concentrated in the north.

All the above speaks to the power that Chinese exercise in Latin America. They are possessed of a tremendous work ethic and sense of responsibility. They love business, and will definitely play an increasingly significant role in the region as they progress in the social, economic and cultural sectors of their respective new home countries.


NOTA: como parte de su misión de promover el debate informado, respetuoso, tolerante e inclusivo, que permita vincular la labor de nuestro Congreso Nacional con la ciudadanía, la BCN se reserva el derecho de omitir comentarios y opiniones que pudieren afectar el respeto a la dignidad de las personas o instituciones, en pos de una sana convivencia democrática.

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