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Panama's Chinese community

US Consulate on the road to Chiriqui

Panama’s Chinese community celebrates a birthday, meets new challenges

by Eric Jackson

On March 30 of 1854 about 1,600 Chinese laborers came to Panama by way of Canada and Jamaica to work on the Panama Railroad. That, according to Juan Tam of the Chinese Association of Panama, was the beginning of a community that, depending on how one wants to look at it, accounts for between five or six percent to more than one-third of Panama’s population.

Why such uncertainty about the numbers?

In a presentation to the Panama Historical Society, Tam explained that there are about 150,000 people in this country “who can speak Chinese, who look Chinese, and who know something about Chinese culture,” but there is a much larger group that has at least some Chinese ancestry.

A Panama Canal retiree, Tam played a leading role in the Chinese community’s long battle to recover part of its El Chorrillo cemetery, which was taken away by a municipal government under the control of Arnulfo Arias’s followers in 1942 and only recently returned by the current city administration. In order to do this Tam had to put in years of historical research about the graveyard and the community it serves, so that he could document the claims set forth in the community's petition to the city.

The Confucian notion of filial piety --- ancestor worship --- leads many overseas Chinese families to send the remains of their members to family ossuaries in China. In some cases even today, the deceased are temporarily entombed in the El Chorrillo cemetery, and after the flesh has rotted away the bones are washed and put in a concrete box to be sent to permanently reside at the ancestral temple in the old country. But after all these years, for many Chinese-Panamanians an afterlife with the remains of ancestors means a spot on a shelf of a crypt here.

However, for the first generation of its existence, from 1882 until 1911, the El Chorrillo cemetery was a temporary burial ground. The first permanent burial on the site was of a five-year-old girl.

When it was established, the El Chorrillo cemetery was at the foot of Ancon Hill, above a mangrove swamp. Most of the neighborhood we now know as El Chorrillo was a canal construction era landfill. According to the feng shui specifications, the cemetery had to be “near a green dragon” (Ancon Hill) and “a white tiger” (overlooking a body of water). The geometry of the cemetery’s design was also dictated by considerations of feng shui and numerology, for example with its doors precisely 5.9 meters wide.

Numerology, Tam explained, means a lot in Chinese culture. Such numbers as 168 (which appears over the cemetery gate and has a double meaning according to its Chinese characters), 88, 68 and 128 are considered lucky, while other numbers are considered bad luck. For example, Chinese give money in red envelopes for birthday and wedding presents, but if coins are to be given there should be two of them (of whatever denomination) and it’s much better to give $101 than $100, because the double-zero snakeyes are considered unlucky. Tam noted that many Chinese people try to get luck numbers for their telephone and license plate numbers.

But all of this is lost on many Panamanians of Chinese descent, who have assimilated to the point of losing the Chinese language, culture and identity.Tam told the historical society about the gradations of assimilation he found during his travels around Panama tracing families and individuals.

He also recounted his long hours of research in old newspapers that are crumbling and must be microfilmed or else lost, a problem common to all of this country's professional and amateur historical researchers. He also described the special problems of getting information and family photos from people who are hesitant to talk about the dead. “It’s not easy,” Tam said. “It’s bad to talk about death in Chinese culture.”

Arnulfo Arias was notoriously anti-Chinese, and in his 1941 constitution stripped all Panamanians of Asian ancestry of their citizenship. He was in the process of taking away their property when, on October 9, 1941, he was overthrown in a bloodless US-backed coup. (Franklin D. Roosevelt didn’t want any friends of Hitler and Mussolini running Panama as the US entry into World War II became more and more inevitable, and when Arias left Panama to visit Cuba without first getting the legislature to give him permission to leave the country, the American Embassy insisted upon a declaration that the presidency was vacant.) Tam said, however, that the Chinese celebrations that took place the following day were the normal October 10 festivities to mark the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty by Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s Republic of China.

That party didn’t mark the end of persecution, because even with Arias out of power his followers forced many Chinese stores to close in 1942 and grabbed half of the El Chorrillo Chinese cemetery in that same year.

Moreover, Tam thinks it’s erroneous to pin all the blame for anti-Chinese agitation on Arnulfo Arias and his followers. “Actually, the bad guy was not Arnulfo,” he opined. “The bad guy was Belisario Porras,” who sponsored anti-Chinese legislation during his terms as president.

Within less than four months of the the arrival of the first Chinese in Panama, agitation began to throw them out. Although a Chinese worker was the only person killed in this country’s 1903 revolution against Colombia, the first months of the new republic were marked by prolonged debates about how to best exclude the Chinese and the sixth law passed by the independent Panamanian government declared Chinese to be “undesirable citizens.” A 1928 law provided that people of Chinese ancestry had to submit special petitions to become recognized as Panamanian citizens.

The Chinese fought back in various ways, including a 1913 commercial strike in which Chinese merchants closed their shops “for inventory” for a week. Finally, the 1946 constitution provided that everyone born here is a Panamanian citizen regardless of ancestry.

Tam, who has relatives and owns property in China, told of another personal experience with second class citizenship. “I was a second-class Chinese citizen,” he said, noting that because Chinese law may have changed, that might no longer be the case. The Chinese government recognizes the “Overseas Chinese” as citizens under their protection, and as someone who lives abroad but speaks Chinese and is of 100 percent Chinese ancestry, the Beijing government classified him as a second class citizen. “First class citizens are members of the Communist Party, third class are ordinary Chinese living in China, and there are other classes for people from Hong Kong, Macao and Singapore,” he added.

The great majority of Chinese living outside China are from Guangdong (Kwangtung) province, which is on the southeastern coast and has as its principal city Guangzhou (Canton). Migration from that area slowed to a trickle during Mao’s rule, but after Deng Xiaoping came to power emigration became legal once more and we have had a wave of Chinese immigration since 1976. They come here in many ways --- “the legal way through Tocumen Airport, and the illegal way by a speedboat from Buenaventura.”

The Chinese Association looks after the community’s welfare in many ways, from mediating disputes to looking after the needs of Chinese incarcerated in the nation’s jails and prisons. There are also 38 fraternal societies related to towns and villages from whence Panama’s Chinese immigrants come, and cooperatives that help new arrivals find jobs or establish themselves in business.

The biggest of Panama’s Chinese fraternal societies is Fa Yen, composed of people who come from a village of that name north of Guangzhou.

Although Chinese is one written language, it has numerous spoken dialects. Anyone educated in Chinese schools will have been taught Mandarin, but in Guangzhou Cantonese is the city dialect. Just a few miles out of town, however, people speak village dialects, and in Fa Yen that means Hakka. “Most new arrivals can talk to you in Mandarin, Hakka and Cantonese,” Tam said.

However, the recent immigrants are generally not well educated. Earlier generations were “more learned,” Tam said, but now there are people coming without skills and indentured to work long hours for many years to pay the legal bills, smugglers’ fees or other high costs of getting from China to here. “The Chinese community is having problems with this group,” he added.

Panama has diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which prevents normal relations with the People’s Republic of China. This country has been the focus of Chinese-Taiwanese rivalry for many decades and both Taiwan and China have their backers in the PRD-Partido Popular alliance that will take office in September. If Panama is going to change its China policy, Tam thinks that the decision will be made this year.

“I have a good relationship with both sides,” Tam said. But he added that “they’re playing politics and we’re only the chips, and we’re expendable.”

Also in this section:
Panama's Chinese community
US Consulate on the road to Chiriqui

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