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What Is Chino? Memories and Imaginaries of Asian Latin America

Eight years ago I was told the story of two Chinese coolies who had escaped to the Peruvian Amazon, founded a village called El Chino, which means “The Chinese,” and begun a small tapioca business before vanishing mysteriously. I grew curious about what the Chinese were doing in South America, let alone, the rain forest. Two years later I moved from New York to Lima, Peru, to retrace the geography of nineteenth-century Chinese coolie labor as well as the imaginary of Asia in the Americas, given that Peru has the highest ratio of Asian Latin Americans. When I asked limeños for travel advice on the Amazon, several well-intentioned folks warned me of river pirates, reptilian predators, terrorist activity, drug trafficking, and other perils. Undeterred, I began mapping the escape route of the rumored coolies, who had fled harsh labor conditions in search of a road home to China. I then followed the various Chinese migration waves toward the Andes and the Amazon River Basin, weaving together migratory landmarks while documenting oral histories from elders. En route I resurrected memories from cemeteries, guano mines on the Chincha Islands, coastal sugar and rice plantations, and railroads that led into the mountains, until finally, I arrived by canoe to El Chino, where no Chinese live.

Author

Beatrice glow aertiron 2013 2

Beatrice Glow

Interdisciplinary Artist Visiting Scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University Beatrice Glow is an interdisciplinary artist whose work uncovers invisible, suppressed stories that lie in the geopolitical shadows of colonialism and migration. Her... Read more »
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What Is Chino? Memories and Imaginaries of Asian Latin America MAP

What Is Chino? Memories and Imaginaries of Asian Latin America

Eight years ago I was told the story of two Chinese coolies who had escaped to the Peruvian Amazon, founded a village called El Chino, which means “The Chinese,” and begun a small tapioca business before vanishing mysteriously. I grew curious about what the Chinese were doing in South America, let alone, the rain forest. Two years later I moved from New York to Lima, Peru, to retrace the geography of nineteenth-century Chinese coolie labor as well as the imaginary of Asia in the Americas, given that Peru has the highest ratio of Asian Latin Americans. When I asked limeños for travel advice on the Amazon, several well-intentioned folks warned me of river pirates, reptilian predators, terrorist activity, drug trafficking, and other perils. Undeterred, I began mapping the escape route of the rumored coolies, who had fled harsh labor conditions in search of a road home to China. I then followed the various Chinese migration waves toward the Andes and the Amazon River Basin, weaving together migratory landmarks while documenting oral histories from elders. En route I resurrected...

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Eight years ago I was told the story of two Chinese coolies who had escaped to the Peruvian Amazon, founded a village called El Chino, which means “The Chinese,” and begun a small tapioca business before vanishing mysteriously. I grew curious about what the Chinese were doing in South America, let alone, the rain forest. Two years later I moved from New York to Lima, Peru, to retrace the geography of nineteenth-century Chinese coolie labor as well as the imaginary of Asia in the Americas, given that Peru has the highest ratio of Asian Latin Americans. When I asked limeños for travel advice on the Amazon, several well-intentioned folks warned me of river pirates, reptilian predators, terrorist activity, drug trafficking, and other perils. Undeterred, I began mapping the escape route of the rumored coolies, who had fled harsh labor conditions in search of a road home to China. I then followed the various Chinese migration waves toward the Andes and the Amazon River Basin, weaving together migratory landmarks while documenting oral histories from elders. En route I resurrected memories from cemeteries, guano mines on the Chincha Islands, coastal sugar and rice plantations, and railroads that led into the mountains, until finally, I arrived by canoe to El Chino, where no Chinese live.

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1. Taparaco Myth

For the last three decades, each time we lost a family member in my parents’ native Taiwan, a moth would appear in our home in California, before we had received any form of telecommunication about the death. Over the years, I have discovered that many cultures share this phenomenon of receiving insect messengers: from the monarch butterflies, which travel on the Day of the Dead from Mexico to Canada, and Peru’s blue flies, which swarm over the photograph of the soon-to-be deceased, to the grasshopper’s bone-chilling night song in the mountains. Perhaps the most infamous of all is the Andean taparaco, the Quechua word for a brown moth with wing patterns resembling an owl’s eyes; an elder once told me that in order to break the death...

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For the last three decades, each time we lost a family member in my parents’ native Taiwan, a moth would appear in our home in California, before we had received any form of telecommunication about the death. Over the years, I have discovered that many cultures share this phenomenon of receiving insect messengers: from the monarch butterflies, which travel on the Day of the Dead from Mexico to Canada, and Peru’s blue flies, which swarm over the photograph of the soon-to-be deceased, to the grasshopper’s bone-chilling night song in the mountains. Perhaps the most infamous of all is the Andean taparaco, the Quechua word for a brown moth with wing patterns resembling an owl’s eyes; an elder once told me that in order to break the death spell and reverse your destiny, you must pierce the gaze of the taparaco with a needle.

In 2007, following these signs led me to embark on a two-year-long auto-ethnographic travel-research project Taparaco Myth, which I began by searching for family members who had immigrated to Argentina in the seventies. In Argentina, I was befuddled by gendered and racialized encounters that highlighted the intersecting fault lines of the collective imaginary and the historical legacy of “othering.” Despite being born and raised in the US, my sense of belonging in the Americas was constantly challenged. I was expected to simply be a china, chinita, or Oriental from the Far East ("Oriental" is still used interchangeably with “Asian” among Spanish speakers). On some occasions I was brutally interrogated ¿Qué sos? What are you?, greeted with a namaste bow, expected to demonstrate tai chi on demand, or else asked which kung-fu movie I had acted in. Furthermore, given the particular relationship that the Chinese have with my parents’ Taiwanese homeland, the chinita blanket label unsettled me, even if the colloquial definition of chinita encompasses all Asian women. “Chinita” haunted me no matter how many times Spanish speakers assured me that it was a form of endearment absent of derogatory connotations.

Determined to uncover the history underlining this collective imaginary of Asia in Latin America, I retraced coolie geography to learn about undocumented Chinese Peruvian stories, and for many legs of the journey, was accompanied by Colectivo Zoom, a resourceful team of anthropologists and historians dedicated to documenting underground social movements. While much scholarly research has been conducted on Lima’s Chinese Peruvian and Japanese Peruvian communities, little is known about the fate of the Asian migrants in the interior regions of Peru. Even though Asian presence in the Americas can be traced back to the sixteenth century, this history is largely erased from the official narrative of the Americas. Taparaco Myth’s attempt to flesh out the bits of marginalized history of rural Asian/Americas only threaded together a microscopic portion of the fragmented diasporic web. Who are the real chinos versus the imaginary chinos? What global political economic inequities led to diasporization? What xenophobic histories were responsible for the formation of racial stereotypes? Where do Asians in the Americas belong if they are forever perceived as foreigners? What traditions have Peruvians of Asian descent preserved? What transcultural processes have occurred over the last six generations—and, furthermore, what might they look, sound, taste, and feel like? In recent years, as more and more Asian Latin Americans have moved to North America or their respective ethnic homelands, how can we adapt a hemispheric vision to understand Asian Americans’ movements across borders, continents, and oceans in a manner that addresses the complex and mobile world that defies the simplistic binaries of North and South America, and Eastern and Western cultures?

Mito Taparaco

Video: Beatrice Glow

2. Chino/na: A Folk-Etymological Wordplay

If the collective imaginary was perceivable by the senses, it would probably be the lemony, floral notes of the Chinese perfume tree, whose elusive aroma comes and goes like an apparition. From this evocative scent, the New World was conceived, fertilized by rumors of an exotic and resource-rich Asia, motivating Europeans to set sail. Columbus’s mistaking the Americas for India destined them to become the imaginary grounds of Asia, which is evident when dissecting the folk etymology of the Spanish words chino, or china (in Spanish grammar, the ending of the adjective or noun changes depending on the gender of the subject described). This word takes on innumerable significations, varying from one region to another and often reflecting...

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If the collective imaginary was perceivable by the senses, it would probably be the lemony, floral notes of the Chinese perfume tree, whose elusive aroma comes and goes like an apparition. From this evocative scent, the New World was conceived, fertilized by rumors of an exotic and resource-rich Asia, motivating Europeans to set sail. Columbus’s mistaking the Americas for India destined them to become the imaginary grounds of Asia, which is evident when dissecting the folk etymology of the Spanish words chino, or china (in Spanish grammar, the ending of the adjective or noun changes depending on the gender of the subject described). This word takes on innumerable significations, varying from one region to another and often reflecting historical realities as well as abstractions. An expression that sums it up is “cuento chino,” which translates as “Chinese story,” and is used to describe a convoluted lie, tall tale, or fable. Within Peru, the term chino, or china, is applicable to a person with Asian or Amerindian features or to a person of both African and indigenous descent. It may also be a term of endearment between lovers, a fifty-cent coin, or even the Peruvian presidents Juan Velasco Alvarado and Alberto Fujimori. It encompasses everything from children in Colombia, the wife of a gaucho, a person of low social class, or a servant in Central America to orange juice or soda in Puerto Rico and a ladybug in Chile. It can also describe contradictory physical characteristics, such as someone with straight hair in Cuba, someone with curly hair in Mexico, or someone who is hairless or naked in Venezuela. To further complicate the matter, china in Quechua means young woman, a definition that bears no origin in Spanish.

And the obsession with eyes! There are many derivatives of, and/or expressions with, chino that allude to the eyes. Let’s start with a salsa song titled “Ojos Chinos” (Chinese Eyes) by the band El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico that serenades the chinita’s eyes. And a less flattering example is the verb chinear, which describes squinting one’s eyes really hard, until they are thin slits, in order to better see something. On countless occasions and without invitation or provocation, Peruvians would approach me and say, “You are china” while gesturing up and outward near the eyes to emphasize my ojos achinados, or “Chinese-style” eyes, or else ojos arasgados, meaning almond-shaped and slanted eyes. Another synonym for chinita is jaladita, derived from the verb jalar, which means to pull, and when said, is often tinged with yellow-face insinuations. Additionally, fumar una china means to smoke cannabis, in reference to the smoker’s puffy, small eyes.

Click on this link to see how the concept of china, in the sense of an Asian woman, is combined with the fifty-cents connotation in this beer commercial: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U5YT4__nE_8

3. Chifa: Asian/Americas' Sazón

The first time I ate chifa, Chinese-Peruvian food, was at La Union in Queens, New York. The restaurant owner proudly shared that he was part Cantonese and part Peruvian as he served me fried dumplings that he called mariposas, the Spanish word for "butterflies." When I first arrived in Lima, I thought the airport taxi driver was driving me through Chinatown because every other street corner had a chifa (the restaurant and the food are both called chifa). The ubiquitous presence of chifa directly reflects the deep Chinese roots in Peru. Chifa is a loanword from Cantonese that means to eat rice. It is said that plantation owners always heard the coolies say “chifa” when they were eating, and thus assumed that it was the name of the cuisine. Today, chifa is fully embraced as part of Peru’s culinary tradition.

One time on a microbus in Lima, when I requested to get off at a stop, the bus driver instead skipped my stop, sped ahead, and then arbitrarily halted in front of a chifa. Perhaps he thought that I was hungry. When I moved into a new neighborhood, a well-meaning neighbor asked me at which chifa I was employed. Strangely enough, a verb derived from chifa is chifar, which means to eat chifa, but colloquially means to have sex with a woman.

4. El Chino—Loreto—Peru

Despite being a city that is inaccessible by land, Iquitos is surprisingly cosmopolitan and harbors a sizable Chinese Peruvian population. There is an active Beneficencia China, where the community gathers on the weekends for mah-jongg. Take a walk through Mercado Belen and you will discover that a majority of the businesses are Chinese Peruvian–owned. While we stayed with Colectivo Zoom member Joel Lozano’s relatives, his aunt “La Negra” and her husband “El Chino” (who are neither black nor Chinese), we met locals from Televisión Amazónica, who knew how to find the village of El Chino. Together, we piled into a crowded pecamari (a motorized canoe with a roof). We navigated up the Tahuayo River, a snaking river that became a chrome...

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Despite being a city that is inaccessible by land, Iquitos is surprisingly cosmopolitan and harbors a sizable Chinese Peruvian population. There is an active Beneficencia China, where the community gathers on the weekends for mah-jongg. Take a walk through Mercado Belen and you will discover that a majority of the businesses are Chinese Peruvian–owned. While we stayed with Colectivo Zoom member Joel Lozano’s relatives, his aunt “La Negra” and her husband “El Chino” (who are neither black nor Chinese), we met locals from Televisión Amazónica, who knew how to find the village of El Chino. Together, we piled into a crowded pecamari (a motorized canoe with a roof). We navigated up the Tahuayo River, a snaking river that became a chrome surface mirroring our images back to us with lush vegetation in the background. Did the two escaping coolies also travel up these enchanting waterways? I hypothesized about what we might encounter in El Chino. A long-lost Chinese colony? Or perhaps a village that has nothing at all to do with the Chinese? If residents of El Chino were not ethnically Chinese, would they still be chinos? As night fell, we began to worry about whether we would ever arrive. Luckily, we discovered that the governor of El Chino, Alberto Gonzalez, was aboard the same pecamari. After I expressed my intention to visit El Chino, he welcomed us to spend the night in the village schoolhouse.

At sunrise the governor gathered the residents of El Chino to tell us about the origin of the village:

Version I: There used to be only about three houses on these shores. In one of these houses there lived a Chinese man and his family. They kept to themselves. He sold farina and tapioca, and he also owned pigs. Then he disappeared. Must have returned to his country.

Version II: He was a Vietnam War refugee who arrived in 1909.

Version III: My mother-in-law was his descendant. She told me that due to his war-refugee status, he changed his name from Enrique Chang Yayi to Enrique Huanaquiri to maintain a low profile.

Version IV: In the mountains nearby, there is a clan that has strong Chinese facial features. They are all his descendants.

As there is no official version of the tale of the first Chinese man to arrive in El Chino, the only documented Asian presence in the village of El Chino is mine: I, Beatrice Glow, was the first “North American chinita” to arrive in this century. Later on I learned that there were several coolies who had escaped to the Amazon, established pioneer colonies, cultivated rice and legumes, and guided early European exploration of the region. It is noteworthy that Antonio Wong Rengifo, the son of a Chinese merchant father and a Peruvian mother, was the first filmmaker of Loreto and he also brought tourism to the region. Similarly, in Selva Central, which lies at the intersection of the highlands and the rain forest, there are endless ginger fields, mandarin orange orchards, and bamboo forests, which attest to the history of the Chinese pioneering the impervious jungles. Sadly, official Peruvian history does not credit the Chinese with making accessible the resource-rich region, as it is inconceivable that the Chinese could bring “civilization” to the jungle.

As we were leaving El Chino, we learned that three hours from Iquitos, along the Napo River, is the village El Cantón (Canton). However, its origin is not as mysterious as that of El Chino. El Cantón was founded in the sixties by a Chinese immigrant Juan Tang and his six wives.

5. Teatime

Transcription of Selected Interviews from Mito Taparaco

Translation and transcriptions by Beatrice Glow

[IQUITOS]

Aurelio Tang Ramírez: I’ve always wanted to know about my roots, is it not true? Not to live just to live, and die just to rest, but instead to verify and find out where we come from . . .

[IQUITOS]

Ana Isabel Rioza Sui: I am Ana Isabel Rioza Sui, now de Liao [married name]. Rioza Sui was my maiden name. I cannot tell you more because I don’t know more, that is all. When I was a little girl, my grandmother passed away . . . perhaps we could have asked my mother, but now, no . . . no, my mother no longer responds. Now, Jorge, look at the señorita and tell her your name and how old you are.

Jorge Liao Estrella: My name is Jorge . . .

A: Your complete name.

J: Jorge Liao Estrella,...

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Transcription of Selected Interviews from Mito Taparaco

Translation and transcriptions by Beatrice Glow

[IQUITOS]

Aurelio Tang Ramírez: I’ve always wanted to know about my roots, is it not true? Not to live just to live, and die just to rest, but instead to verify and find out where we come from . . .

[IQUITOS]

Ana Isabel Rioza Sui: I am Ana Isabel Rioza Sui, now de Liao [married name]. Rioza Sui was my maiden name. I cannot tell you more because I don’t know more, that is all. When I was a little girl, my grandmother passed away . . . perhaps we could have asked my mother, but now, no . . . no, my mother no longer responds. Now, Jorge, look at the señorita and tell her your name and how old you are.

Jorge Liao Estrella: My name is Jorge . . .

A: Your complete name.

J: Jorge Liao Estrella, and I am eighty-five years old going on eighty-six years old on the twenty-fifth of May. Well, my father is from China, from Canton.

A: Tell her . . . tell the señorita how your father wanted to send you to China after you finished primary school.

J: That . . .

A: Tell her how your father was going to send you to China . . .

J: Ah . . .

A: When Jorge finished primary school, his father was going to send him to China, and when he bought the tickets for two of his sons to go to China, all of his stores caught on fire, and so they didn’t travel. They were going to go to China to study how to be suicide pilots—yup, to be suicide pilots.

J: Yes, we couldn’t go because the fire burned everything. We had brothers we did not know in China.

A: And because of the fire, his father no longer was able to send them and became demoralized due to the loss. How was he going to be able to send them, to provide for them, and to take care of them? So they canceled the trip.

J: We gave up and my mother . . .

A: And because of this, Jorge started to work at a young age, at seventeen years old. Aye, suicide pilots, ha-ha!

Beatrice: Against Japan?

J: Yes, against Japan

A: Ha-ha, for THAT reason his father wanted to send them—to be SUICIDE PILOTS!

B: For what . . . ?

J: To learn aviation! There were these pilots who would fall . . . Rrrrrrrrrrrrrr—they would crash and then get run over . . . pilots . . . [chuckles]

[IQUITOS]

César: I am called César Ayun Liao Estrella. I was born in 1936, on July 19, 1936. I am of Chinese descent. And here in Peru, we call the descendants of Peruvian and Chinese people born in Peru tusan. Here, we say tusan. My mother is Peruvian and my father is Chinese. They brought me to get baptized; they prepared me, and my sister took me to the church. And when they were about to baptize me, the priest asked me for my name, and my sister said, “His name is Ayun Liao Estrella.” “What?!” said the priest. “THAT is his name?” exclaimed the priest. “Yes, Father, that is his name,” my sister responded. The priest said, “But that is the name of the devil! I cannot baptize him with that name because it is the name of the devil.” So my sister asked, “Well, Father, what should we do?” The priest answered, “Well, that name will be his second name. We are going to call him César!” César. So with that name, I was baptized.

[IQUITOS]

Aurelio Tang Ramírez: Well, I was born in 1941. My father came from China during the thirties in search of fortune, like the majority of the Chinese. He came from Canton, and here he found his fortune. In 1943 or 1944, he returned to China because he had left a family there. I stayed here with my three sisters—not here in Iquitos, but in Yurimaguas.

I have always been preoccupied with getting to know my roots, and so I have looked for data on Chinese immigration to Peru, and fundamentally, to the Amazon Basin. The Chinese people arrived in the Amazon Basin via two routes: through Pichis and across the Atlantic. What I do not know is how my father arrived as I was very young and they didn’t tell me. And when he had to leave in 1944 or 1945, I was very young. He wanted to take me to China. I remember very clearly being at the Consulate of Hong Kong, which then was part of the United Kingdom. Well, they fought for me in front of the consul and I had to decide whether to go with my father, or to stay with my mother. I decided to stay with my mother, and so my father bought us a house in Yurimaguas, because my mother was from the Department of San Martin, and my mother, my sisters, and I went to live in Yurimaguas. I grew up there, and I received a secondary education there, and when I finished school, I came to Iquitos.

When I arrived from Yurimaguas in 1962, the older Chinese countrymen invited me to have lunch at a chifa. There were about forty elder Chinese countrymen there. They all started to use chopsticks to eat, but I was a savage from Yurimaguas; I did not know of such things and so asked for a spoon. And one of them reprimanded me, “How can a son of a Chinese man not know how to eat with chopsticks?” Therefore, I learned. In Yurimaguas, I grew up in the jungle, in the forest. My toys were the trees. I climbed the trees, played with the animals, and everything else. Because in those years (I am referring to the fifties and sixties), during my childhood and adolescence, I traversed rivers and lakes. And that was what I have always done until I got sick. The river and the Amazon Basin, all of the great rivers—Marañon, Javari, Napo, Putumayo—I know them. We were with the indigenous communities. From then on, I began acquiring an affection for the grand Amazonian reality, which is greatly unknown to all, because in most educational studies, it is not represented; instead, it is decided in Lima what we should learn.

Yes, in Peru, they always say that humankind came from, well, Asia, or through [Asia]; it is not certain if they are from here. And thus, there are several theories. And I have found verification that humankind came from Asia through various things, for instance through the ceramics from the group Secuoya. A Japanese visitor came to my home with another friend and found a ceramic piece on top of the piano. “Oh, where is this from? This is Japanese!” And I responded, “No, this is from the Secuoya Group, from Alto Napo.” He was surprised. Another thing, the children of Alto Napo, the babies . . . many are born with a birthmark on the buttock, and that is the Mongoloid signature, this friend told me.

Beatrice Glow: I also have it!

A: Oh! Great! There you go! The physiognomy of the Amazonian man . . . he does not have a beard. He is hairless and has slanted eyes. There you go! If you go to the jungle, you will see that those born there . . . that their eyes, their facial features, are Asian. Therefore, there is no doubt about this. This is certain. I know from the facts that I have been collecting.

I’ve always wanted to know about my roots, is it not true? Not to live just to live, and die just to rest, but instead to verify and find out where we come from. And where we are going—to do a bit of metaphysics, no? The world, from where . . . all these things . . . And I share these things with those who want to know. About the Amazonian people . . . ask, please. I have information, I gather information, and I share information.

[I feel] more Loretano, more Loretano than Peruvian, inclusively, because it is quite difficult—the amount of diversity in Peru. My identity is Loretano, of the jungle, because I was born and raised here; I have my beautiful family here, and, here, they will bury me. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I know the coast, the highlands, I have traveled Peru. Perhaps I would have liked Moyobamba, When we were newlyweds, we already had this house; friends told us to go work [with them] and so we traveled through Moyobamba, Trujillo, Chiclayo, to figure out where to stay, and we decided to stay here [in Iquitos].

What we are missing is identity. I, for the Amazonians, detach from everything else, because there is no other place that is better for me.

I admire Chinese culture, and I admire more—thanks to [anthropologist] Isabel Lausent Herrera—that I descend from the Tang dynasty. Isabel gave me some documents, and I have my genealogy chart from the eleventh century, which I will give to you, although I have to look for it. So I admire Chinese culture, for its wisdom, for a lot of things. I do not reject it. I admire things from many other cultures, because at the very least, I want to be, I hope to be, a universal man without barriers, to be how we human beings can attempt to be . . . no? Because we are of flesh and bones, we are all born from the woman; no one has blue blood, we all are red-blooded. Color and religion have separated us at times; these are human limitations, or human stupidities, we are going to say that about certain entities.

[SAN RAMON– CHANCHAMAYO]

Isabel Tam Guevara: Tell her, when did you arrive from China?

German Tam: Huh?

I: When did you arrive from China? Tell her, when did you arrive?

G: Huh?

I: When did you arrive in Peru and where have you been? How was the experience?

G: I arrived in 1930 in Callao, but we were not allowed to disembark the ship. The steamship company asked us if we preferred to go to El Frontón, or to Chile. So we, the boys, said, “No, not to Chile. We’ll go ahead to Frontón.” We stayed in El Frontón for eight days. Eight days later we disembarked in Callao.

I: How long did it take for the boat to arrive in Callao?

G: From Hong Kong to Callao . . . sixty-five days, sixty-five days by steamship.

I: How old were you?

G: Seventeen years old.

I: And where did you go?

G: What?

I: Where did you go to live after Callao?

G: I stayed in Lima to get an immigration card; in Lima there were delays . . . August, September, October . . . December, we were delayed for four months in order to get an immigration card. Afterward I traveled north to Casma . . .

[IQUITOS]

Aurelio Tang Ramírez: I’ve always wanted to know about my roots, is it not true? Not to live just to live, and die just to rest, but instead to verify and find out where we come from . . .

Selected Interviews from Mito Taparaco

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6. Becoming Taparaco

“I’ve always been curious about where we come from and where we are going,” reflected Aurelio Tang Ramírez, as we shared an afternoon in his lively garden in Iquitos, which was teeming with rare orchids and a noisy toucan. After his Chinese father repatriated in the forties, his Peruvian mother raised him in Yurimaguas. It was not until decades later that he received from French anthropologist Isabelle Lausent-Herrera a copy of his family tree, which traces back to a Tang Dynasty government official.

With scarce documentation of rural Asian Latin America, preserving the oral history ensconced within the Chinese Peruvian mestizo matrix was imperative. With Colectivo Zoom, we visited elders in remote areas of Peru. Many of them opened...

Read More »

“I’ve always been curious about where we come from and where we are going,” reflected Aurelio Tang Ramírez, as we shared an afternoon in his lively garden in Iquitos, which was teeming with rare orchids and a noisy toucan. After his Chinese father repatriated in the forties, his Peruvian mother raised him in Yurimaguas. It was not until decades later that he received from French anthropologist Isabelle Lausent-Herrera a copy of his family tree, which traces back to a Tang Dynasty government official.

With scarce documentation of rural Asian Latin America, preserving the oral history ensconced within the Chinese Peruvian mestizo matrix was imperative. With Colectivo Zoom, we visited elders in remote areas of Peru. Many of them opened their doors and photo albums to share glimpses of history through their perspectives. I remember Alfonso Shiokey Leon Jho recounting the horror of Chinese workers getting cooked alive in boiling animal fat in Chepen’s soap factory, Jorge Liao Estrella joking about how his father wanted to send him to China to counterattack the Japanese as a Kamikaze pilot, Marco Farfán revealing a Chinese grandmother in his Afro-Peruvian lineage, and Enrique Kamt Nuñez proudly showing me his fake alien ID card, which stated that he was from China despite the fact he had never set foot in China. I had journeyed far away from home only to meet strangers in distant lands who, too, shared nostalgia for places in which they never belonged—be it an island, like Taiwan, or a landmass, like China, these places live forever in our minds as the homelands that never were.

When Señor Antonio Ching Wong entrusted me with the mission to locate his uncle’s grave on his behalf, I suddenly realized that I was becoming a taparaco, linking the living and the dead across geographical distance. The project transcended an initial curiosity about Asian presence in the Americas and extended into the responsibility to give those stories a chance to be heard: Yo soy taparaco. I am a taparaco.

7. Archiving Amnesia

Back in New York, I read Leandro Katz’s The Milk of Amnesia, in which a character named Beatrice travels to South America in search of ruins—and it was written the year I was born. This serendipitous find imbued a deeper sense of the fatefulness of my encounters in Asian Latin America. Now seven years have passed since I set out to uncover 160 years of marginalized history, and I wonder what has happened to those elders with whom I crossed paths? What about that crumbling Beneficiencia China in Lambayeque, which once opened its doors to Chinese immigrants but is now closed to the community due to property disputes between the descendants of the original founders? Are there efforts to preserve that yellowing immigrant registry book? Do...

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Back in New York, I read Leandro Katz’s The Milk of Amnesia, in which a character named Beatrice travels to South America in search of ruins—and it was written the year I was born. This serendipitous find imbued a deeper sense of the fatefulness of my encounters in Asian Latin America. Now seven years have passed since I set out to uncover 160 years of marginalized history, and I wonder what has happened to those elders with whom I crossed paths? What about that crumbling Beneficiencia China in Lambayeque, which once opened its doors to Chinese immigrants but is now closed to the community due to property disputes between the descendants of the original founders? Are there efforts to preserve that yellowing immigrant registry book? Do the Chinese Peruvians in San Ramon still bury their dead facing westward toward China? The contents of the Migratory Museum I created in the diasporic spirit remain scattered between Peru and New York; the collection included objects and papers from the journey, such as a preserved taparaco moth, Aurelio Tang Ramírez’s family tree, bamboo stalks and ginger roots from Chanchamayo, abandoned railroad screw spikes from Ticlio, and a found jewelry box with a chinita wood carving. How should I archive a reservoir of other people’s memories, condensed into twenty-eight hours of MiniDV tape, and at what point do they become my memories? And what if my memory falters? On whose shoulders does the responsibility to archive fall?

Toward the tail end of my time in Peru, the aunt who inspired my initial journey to Argentina passed away on the same day that I was hit by a car. Following this episode, bees came to visit me for seven consecutive days, each landing on my navel as though to open a portal to my invisible umbilical cord. Last October my maternal grandma passed. This time a grasshopper visited us for eighty days and, peculiarly, it shared her love of sponge cake and pan-fried fish. It also refused to eat yam leaves, just like her. Another tree has fallen, and there are so many questions left unasked.

8. A Transpacific Affair: Asian/Americas and Asia and the Americas

During my travels, I heard whispers of pre-Colombian contact between Asia and the Americas. There is a book penned by Francisco Loayza in 1948 titled Chinos Llegaron antes que Colon (The Chinese Arrived before Columbus). There are undeniable parallels between the costumes used in Chinese opera and those of the Andean Diablada Festival. Peruvian researcher Fernando Trazegnies suggests that Moche ceramics depict visitors from Asia. The origin myth of Lambayeque, a region on the northern coast of Peru, tells of an almond-eyed Lord Naylamp, who arrived from the ocean and brought civilization. Some speculate that he was of Mayan or even Southeast Asian origins. And there is still that inexplicable geoglyph, Candelabra de los Andes, which,...

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During my travels, I heard whispers of pre-Colombian contact between Asia and the Americas. There is a book penned by Francisco Loayza in 1948 titled Chinos Llegaron antes que Colon (The Chinese Arrived before Columbus). There are undeniable parallels between the costumes used in Chinese opera and those of the Andean Diablada Festival. Peruvian researcher Fernando Trazegnies suggests that Moche ceramics depict visitors from Asia. The origin myth of Lambayeque, a region on the northern coast of Peru, tells of an almond-eyed Lord Naylamp, who arrived from the ocean and brought civilization. Some speculate that he was of Mayan or even Southeast Asian origins. And there is still that inexplicable geoglyph, Candelabra de los Andes, which, inscribed on Pisco Bay of Peru, some argue is an ancient Chinese character.

Of all the speculations of a prehistoric affair between Asia and the Americas, perhaps the most concrete one is that of Austronesia—a five-millennia transpacific human migration story that began in Taiwan and expanded west to Madagascar, east to Rapa Nui, north to the Hawaiian Islands, and south to New Zealand. Genetic research reveals that the sweet potato of Polynesia can be traced back to the Andes, proving that Polynesian contact with the Americas preceded European contact by four centuries. What other exchanges may have taken place circa 1100 CE? These highly mobile pioneers of the Pacific echo contemporary migratory movements across and between hemispheres, connecting continents to continents, islands to islands, and cultures to cultures. Their history powerfully evokes reimaginings of human interconnectivity and diasporic circulations across vast geographical distances. While diluting divisive notions of nationalism and cultural borders, they suggest that we may all have a distant cousin in Madagascar or Papua New Guinea, or perhaps a Chinese coolie relative.

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank the US Fulbright Scholar Program of the International Institute of Education for sponsoring this research, and express gratitude to the members of Colectivo Zoom (Helder Solari Pita, Gabriel Salazar Borja, Joel Lozano, Paola Villavicencio Nuñez, Jessica Coronel Villareal, and the late Fernando Castro Villarreal) and Juan Mejia Pisfil for their camaderie. I am also grateful to Hemispheric Institute of Performance and Politics, Lok C. D. Siu, Liliana Kom, Vasco Pimentel, Leslie Josephs, and la colonia china of each town visited, and so many more supportive individuals who shared their stories, teachings, and insights with me.

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What Is Chino? Memories and Imaginaries of Asian Latin America

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