This article was written by Peng Sisi, a youth fellow of China House, in March, 2019.
Its exotic meats and products are the source for almost all of the restaurants, lodges, and cruise ships in this area.
Belen Market is located in Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon region. Known as “the Venice of the Amazon jungle,” it is one of Peru’s busiest and most picturesque markets with a hubbub of voices every day.
A skinny man shuttles through the market, greeting every vendor with enthusiasm and calling their name. The vendors affectionately call him “paisano”( “fellow countryman” in Spanish ).
He is Wong, 52 years old, the owner of a popular Chinese restaurant in the center of Iquitos. If it hadn’t been for his slightly lighter skin than the locals, it would be difficult to detect that he is a Chinese. He is a third-generation Chinese immigrant. Around 90 years ago, his grandfather arrived in Peru as a collector of bird feces. This restaurant is their family business.
Wong’s family story is not uncommon in Peru. Just in Iquitos, there are 54 Chinese restaurants and dozens of Chinese department stores. Hu, the grandfather of an 8-year-old boy, possesses a two-storey department store near Belen Market. “My grandpa’s grandpa arrived in Peru over a hundred years ago,” said Hu.
Today, there are more than 1.3 million Chinese in Peru, not to mention more than 3 million Peruvians of Chinese descent, which accounts for 10% of the total population of Peru.
It is said that Lima’s Chinatown is the second largest in the world, where most of the bustling pedestrians have a Chinese face. From time to time, the different dialects of China can be heard. It is hard to imagine that it is situated in Lima, Peru, about 14,000 kilometres away from Beijing, China.
Beginning as Indentured Laborers
Founded in 1886 in Lima’s Chinatown, “La Sociedad Central de Beneficencia China,” the National General Agency of Chinese in Peru, exhibits the struggling history of Chinese immigrants, using abundant pictures and texts.
In 1820, Peru declared independence after Spain’s 300 years of colonial rule. A great amount of laborers were needed in all walks of life. Therefore, the Peruvian government signed a labor agreement with the Qing government, bringing 100,000 Chinese immigrants as indentured laborers between 1849 and 1874. Their situation was similar to that of Peru’s former slaves, who mainly engaged in dirty and heavy physical labor.
Chinese workers shed blood and sweat during the construction of several railways in central and southern Peru, with some of them even paying their lives.
Some were sent to Paracas to develop guano resources, which was the main source of Peruvian export products and foreign exchange earnings at the time.
Quite a few Chinese workers also worked in coastal manors, mainly growing sugar cane and cotton, and sometimes rice and vegetables.
Although the Chinese laborers were engaged in the hardest and toughest work, they made important contributions to the development of Peruvian society.
Communication and Inheritance of Chinese Culture
After several generations of arduous efforts, Chinese immigrants obtained the status of free immigrants. In order to survive in Peru, they managed to accept and integrate into the local society.
Chinese immigrants, who could not speak Spanish, always stood in front of their Chinese restaurant and shouted “Chifa” ( “to eat rice” ) in Chinese. After many years, the Peruvians called this kind of cheap and delicious Chinese restaurant “Chifa,” which has since spread throughout South America.
Today, there are about 10,000 Chinese restaurants with the name of “Chifa” in Peru. This number is 7,000 in Lima. All of them are the contemporary blend of Chinese and Peruvian flavors in order to satisfy locals’ tastes.
Entering a Chinese restaurant in Peru, we will find that the chefs are all Peruvian locals. It turned out that after the Chinese came to Peru, they imparted cooking skills to the locals. On the other hand, the locals, who run Peruvian restaurants, also often consult Chinese restaurant owners about cooking techniques and business experience with an open mind.
Today, “Chifa” is included in the Peruvian dictionary, meaning “Chinese Food,” which has become a part of Peruvian culture.
The diligent and intelligent Chinese immigrants from the traditional agricultural country brought superior grain and advanced rice-growing techniques to Peru. The local agriculture has been developed according to local conditions, which has greatly increased the local rice production and even changed the eating habits of Peruvians.
In the past, Peruvians lived mainly on chicken, cassava, and potatoes. Today, Peru is the country with the highest rice consumption in South America.
“Peruvians eat fried rice almost every day,” said Jin, another Chinese restaurant owner. This is a very interesting phenomenon, considering the fact that potatoes and corn cultivation occupy 60% of Peru’s land.
The integration of Chinese culture into the Peruvian society can be demonstrated in more ways than one.
Juan is a craftsman who repairs watches down the street at Belen Market. He said, “My name contains the name of my Chinese teacher. I use this way to express my gratitude to him.”
The Chinese also taught sugar refining techniques to Peruvians. “Now the purity of sugar made by Peruvians is almost 100 percent,” Wong said proudly. “Even better than that of Chinese!”
Over the past 170 years, Chinese immigrants have given a variety of skills to Peruvians and made tremendous contributions to Peru’s agriculture and economic development. Therefore, the grateful Peruvians are very friendly to Chinese, and Chinese enjoy a high social status in this South American country.
Social Integration Getting Deeper and Deeper
Among overseas Chinese society, the words “Difficulty for Chinese to integrate into the local society” comprise the usual commonplace remark. However, in the past 170 years, Chinese immigrants in Peru have proven by their actions that Chinese immigrants can also integrate into the local society.
When asked whether there is vicious competition between Chinese and Peruvians restaurants, Wong replied, “Not at all. Actually, there is an unwritten rule between us. We sell different types of fish to avoid competition.”
Chinese immigrants also provided for Peruvians a large number of employment opportunities. Most of employees hired in Chinese restaurants and companies are locals. Although Chinese bosses and local employees sometimes have problems in labor relations due to different living habits, Chinese try to care about their employees as much as possible in their daily lives.
“If the elderly or children of employees are sick or their house collapses, I will donate money to help them,” said Tan, a Chinese store owner. Gradually, Chinese bosses and local employees have developed a harmonious mode of getting along.
On top of that, since the Chinese laborers who arrived in Peru at the beginning were all male, most of them chose to marry local women after the expiration of their contract, and gave birth to children, thereby closely linking the two lineages.
With the growth of Chinese descendants born and raised in Peru who were able to speak Spanish, the industrial distribution of Chinese people in Peru has diversified, from small commodities such as catering, groceries, and supermarkets, to gradually entering the social elite to become doctors, professors, and engineers.
Since the start of the 21st century, the Chinese community has played an increasingly important role in Peruvian politics. In 2010, José Antonio Chang, a Chinese-Peruvian was nominated as the new Peruvian prime minister.
“There is no real difference between locals and Chinese in Peru. Peruvians call Americans and Canadians foreigners, but they call Chinese paisanos,” Tan said proudly.
New Era with the Belt and Road Initiative
In the past 170 years, the people of these two ancient countries have appreciated each other. In the 21st century, with the deepening of the exchanges and cooperation between China and Peru as well as the Belt and Road Initiative, a large number of Chinese have once again flooded into Peru.
The areas of cooperation between China and Peru range from infrastructure areas such as ports, electricity, roads and railways, to cooperative projects in agriculture, oil and gas, and equipment manufacturing.
Peru has abundant resources and energy. However, due to limited financial resources and insufficient power of technology, its endowment of resources has not yet been effective. As Peruvians’ paisano, Chinese are actively giving them a helping hand.
In recent years, Chinese companies, such as Minmetals and Chinalco, have taken a more active attitude to undertake social responsibility while striving to carry out their business. They invested heavily in building new residential buildings, schools, hospitals and sewage treatment plants for the residents of the project, and consequently won the support of the Peruvian government and most of the local residents.
In the past, the living water of residents in the area was directly discharged into the river, causing severe pollution. Five years ago, Chinese led the construction of drainage sewers in the Amazon Jungle and introduced leading technologies of wastewater treatment. This initiative even received official support from the United Nations.
The deepening of communication between China and Peru has also given people in both countries more opportunities to understand each other. For example, there are more and more Chinese tourists visiting Peru. When tourists with Chinese faces walk through the local market, many food vendors invite them to try a sample. “Locals are very friendly to Chinese, not only to Chinese immigrants, but also to Chinese tourists. They hope that visitors from China can know more about their culture,” Wong explained.
Although many Western countries still have some doubts and misunderstandings about the Belt and Road Initiative, the bond between Peru and China has been built and is becoming stronger and stronger.
Located in the heart of the Pacific coast of South America, Peru’s geographical advantage gives it the potential to be a strategic fulcrum for the “Belt and Road” approach to South America. At the same time, it will help to enhance Peru’s own competitiveness in the Asia-Pacific region.
On the border between Peru and Bolivia is Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. Its name is homophone to two Chinese words meaning “younger brother and elder brother,” which can symbolize the friendship between Chinese and Peruvians.
Peruvians still need external help in many areas, but they will never walk alone, because they will always have thousands of Chinese paisanos to lend them a hand and care about them.