Guest Contributor

Chinese in Argentina

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A celebration for the 2008 Beijing Olympics held in Buenos Aires, Argentina

This article is by guest contributor Nancy H. Liu. She is a health researcher, an NIH/Fogarty Scholar in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and recently completed a Fulbright Fellowship in Beijing.

The Chinese Diaspora in Latin America

by Nancy Liu

In a city renowned for its savory steak and sultry tango, a little known fact is that there is a growing Chinese population in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

During the Olympics, while Beijing displayed its magnificence to rest of the world, many Argentines watched the Games at Chinese restaurant Todos Contentos (大家乐) in Barrio Chino, the Chinatown of Buenos Aires. Todos Contentos and several other Chinese businesses hosted the Fiestas Olímpicas. Though a relatively new sight in Latin America, it was a familiar scene scattered across major cities across the world: red lantern-lined streets dragon dancing, kungfu performances and fried egg rolls, and the pop music of Jay Chou (周杰倫).

The Chinese diaspora in Buenos Aires is a heterogeneous group. Some have arrived just recently; others have lived here for decades, their children adopting Latin American names, such as Mariana Hsu or — my favorite thus far — Juan Huang.

Chinese immigrants to Argentina number to about 60,000, comprising approximately 0.15% of the country’s population. The Chinese in Argentina came mostly in two waves: the first arrived from Taiwan in the 1980s, while the second came in the 1990s, hailing mostly from Fujian Province.

After almost 30 years here, many first-wave Taiwanese have become accustomed to the porteño lifestyle. They tell a story common to Asian immigrants in Latin America arriving around the same time: hoping to reach the United States or Canada, they were met with difficulties securing a visa. Their aspirations were temporarily halted and so they waited. Only waiting led to acculturating; and acculturating eventually led to staying.

“The pace of life here is slower. When I return to Taiwan, everything moves so quickly and there is too much pressure at work,” says Chen Chaofei (陈超妃), 36, who moved to Buenos Aires in high school. “I couldn’t handle it so I came back.”

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An Argentine asado in the park with a Taiwanese-Argentine family

To her and many others, Taiwan is no longer home. She explains that her parents would be unable to adjust to life there. Taiwan has changed and so have they, she says, describing her family’s many adopted customs, such as having weekend asados, barbeques with the family.

The second-wave of Chinese immigration to Argentina tells a much different story.

Arriving mostly in the 1990s, this group is filled with twenty- and thirty-somethings, young drifters who came often through the illegal smuggling route originating in Fujian Province. According to Peter Kwong, a professor of Hunter College in New York City who studies Chinatowns across the world, the price of smuggling from Fujian to the United States is about $30,000 USD.

“Many go to these other countries because it’s cheaper,” he states.

Several of the second-wave Chinese immigrants are in the midst of paying back the debts they incurred for coming here. Chang Shenmei (长神美), 20, sleeps at a grocery store where she works in order to save money. Arriving in Buenos Aires about a year ago, she recounts her frustrations with learning Spanish and spends her free time at an Internet café, chatting with friends back home.

“Do you have QQ?” she asks, entering my name into her pink, sparkly cell phone.

In the eyes of local Argentines, however, both waves of the Chinese diaspora have melded into one group. Chinese usually run supermercados chinos (Chinese supermarkets), which dominate the second tier of grocery stores in Buenos Aires. Tinterorías for laundry are also a common Chinese-run business. And of course, the ubiquitous Chinese restaurant can be found on nearly every street corner. Empanadas chinas, egg rolls and raviolis chinos, pork-filled dumplings, are popular among local Argentines.

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However, life in Buenos Aires does not come without difficulties. Since the economic crisis of 2001, many small businesses have faced significant crime. Robberies are frequent, with one supermercado chino reportedly robbed up to 14 times in one year. Also, stories of family members shot at gunpoint in their store are not uncommon. Meanwhile, some tensions have arisen with other immigrant groups. In 2002, Bolivian immigrant workers held demonstrations against Chinese, Korean and Jewish owned stores, carrying signs stating, “We are workers, not slaves.” As a result, many Argentines boycotted these businesses.

Recently, there has been a third and newer wave of Chinese immigration: ambitious and educated members of China’s growing middle-class who are looking to find their place in China’s growing economy. Young employees of Chinese companies have recently arrived to work two year stints. Federico Calcagno, 32, an Argentine employee at the Buenos Aires branch of Hua Wei Technologies Co. Ltd. (华为技术有限公司) says the company hires younger workers because they are eager to please, seeking to better their financial situation.

“They are very hard workers,” he states.

Moreover, students who come mainly from China’s coastal cities are looking to turn to account the untapped reservoir of Spanish language abilities. Whereas their peers are assiduously learning English, they see their future in Spanish.

“When I go back, I will be one of the few who can speak Spanish,” says Pablo Chu, 21, who arrived from Shanghai two years ago and seeks to complete an undergraduate degree at the Universidad de Buenos Aires.

In many ways, the Chinese diaspora in Buenos Aires is reminiscent of the motherland. Though variegated, they are assembled into one whole, seeking to make their ends meet. Despite this heterogeneity, however a simple message continues to reverberate: the growing Chinese presence in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, is difficult to ignore.

There are currently 14 Comments for Chinese in Argentina.

Comments on Chinese in Argentina

Fascinating article, Nancy. I would be interested in learning more about the degree to which first- and second-generation Chinese-Argentinians have assimilated into mainstream Argentine society. Do most of them attend local Spanish-language schools, or has the Chinese community developed its own private educational system?

hi, ni hao? wuo tsche emiilio.I am emilio, 35, from argentina but living for 10 years in Europe! I have been many times in Singapore and a few times in Hong Kong. One of the main differences between argentina and chinese culture is the pace at work, and that thrive from chinese to be very fast doing business, being proactive, always busy improving things...well for the rest, we are quite similar, chinese share the same idea od family as argentina do, enjoy food + family and being loyal to your roots and family! i believe argentina can only benefit from asian inmigrants specially chinese! hoepfully you visit argentina and remeber to get a lot of argentinean beef at the supermarket which is 1st class quality and cost nothing. and you can cook with it delicious chinese meals! :-)

Here in Montreal Canada, there are tons of Taiwanese who moved here from Argentina in the 90s. so it's nothing new for me.

I grew up with some of them who speak Spanish quite fluently. So Learning French in high school was a piece of cake for them. Plus they could get hot latino girls easily....

Hay David,

A moderately attractive chinese guy can't get even an ugly foreign girl, and thats taking into account that most chinese men speak English. The problem is that that they have the skills to pick up on girls because most chinese spend their free time studying.

El Chingon


My wife (American-born Chinese) and I were recently in Buenos Aires. We wanted to wash our clothes and found--ta da! a Chinese laundry close by! Then, on Christmas Eve, with few restaurants open, we located a Chinese buffet on Avenida de Mayo. At the stroke of midnight, all the patrons burst into "Jingle Bells" (in English) and the owner came around with cake and apple juice! And outside, they were lighting off fireworks (from China, undoubtedly). It was a night I will not soon forget.

Hi Nancy,

I'm an occasional contributor to Danwei who is also very interested in the Chinese diaspora in Latin America. My dad has roots in Brazil as a the son of German emigrants, and I spent some time there doing civil service, so I am looking to combine my Chinese skills with that background. I'm currently applying to the MPhil in Migration Studies at Oxford for fall '09, where I hope to work with Dr. Frank Pieke (author of The Fujianese in Europe) on migration issues. I'm looking to undertake a study of Chinese regional associations in Sao Paulo, Brazil and Lima, Peru.
Anyways, it would be great to get in touch and share ideas. My email is iacobkw@yahoo.de.

I live in Argentina and go to china town bario de china many times and go to the supermarkets and restaurats, but I have never found egg rolls like the ones in china and the states, can you please tell me where I might find them, also we to to japanese resturants mainly Dashe which is excellant and is in China town. please respond

There just seems to be more interracial marriages in those Caribbean and South American countries compared to North America and Europe. I personally know quite a few Chinese men married to locals from those countries. I don't know exactly why. Maybe because locals in those countries come from various backgrounds so they are more open to interracial relationship, unlike where I live now many of them are proud of being Quebecois "pure-laine".

In fact the hispanic race is the result of breeding between the native indians of north, central, and south america and the white europeans...

Argentines, like Peruvians, Colombians, and many other nationalities of South America, are not so kind to Asians. Everyone gets called "Chinito/a", no matter whether they are Korean, Japanese, etc... and the distinction between Asian nations is lost on many mestizos. I am a Peruano and it wasn't until I came to America and met some 2 Koreans who had "escaped" for Argentina (as they put it) that I realized how we were kind of stupid for mocking of them.
My neighbors growing up were Peruvian-Japanese, longtime residents but everyone called them Chinitos and made exagerration fake karate moves when we saw them... but I guess we still were nice to them overall, just not being familiar with differenced people

Fortunately L. America is such a melting pot anyway that people who have not quite white skin and Asian eyes don't really stand out so so much physically, unlike in say N. America or Europe.

The best Chinatown I've seen in L. America is in Lima... wow the food was so great, a plate of pork fried rice with a glass of chicha, so great...

Very interesting article.

This sounds like a strange question and not related at all, but I am going to be getting married in BA in March and wanted to "rent" a lion for a 5 minute lion dance at my wedding. Would anyone know who I could contact in the Chinese community in BA in order to do this?

Any help would be appreciated!

Hi Nancy,

I was really excited to find your article. I'm a photographer and I'd really love to talk to you about possibly doing a collaborative piece.

Please email me if you're also interested!

Cheers,
Emily

Hello Nancy.

Your article is so accurate I feel you are writing about my life.
I am Taiwanese
My parents moved to Buenos Aires in the early 80 a few blocks away from Chinatown.
We had a Supermercado.
I moved to Canada for college.
I am currently working in California.

To make it brief I did enjoy my life in Argentina. In the 80 and 90s life was such a joy. Well, except that I had to help my parents working at the Supermarket whenever I am not at school. It was much easier to assimilate probably because I was just a boy. My parents love Argentina and now that they are retired they do not have plan of moving back to Taiwan.

I am traveling in Buenos Aires and am so excited to find out your article. Prior to my arrival, I have absoutely no idea of how chinese or even other asian people live in South America, and now I have a few ideas. I think learning Spanish really makes some Asian people stand out especailly there are many people just concentrate on improving English. For discrimination, I believe everywhere fills with discriminations, or I can say everyone is sort of a racist in a certain way. On the other hand, I have seen some Chinese buffets in Rio de Janeiro and they always got no people at all. I wonder how other Chinese buffets doing in BsAs. Anyway, I am so excited in finding out this article. I do hope there would be more articles exploring areas like that.

Peruvians elected a president with japanese origin. Did Peruvians called Fujimori "el Chinito" ?

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