Chinese of Costa Rica

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Chinese of Costa Rica

ETHNONYMS: la Colonia China (the Chinese colony), los Cantoneses (the Cantonese), los Chinos (the Chinese)


Identification. The Chinese of Costa Rica constitute a small ethnic community of immigrants from southern China (Guangdong Province) and their descendants. The migrants, who began to arrive in the second half of the nineteenth century, worked as indentured servants in farm labor, domestic service, and the construction of the railroad to the Atlantic coast. Since then, other immigrants from the same districts in southern China, who are directly and indirectly related to the first groups, have continued to migrate in small numbers to Costa Rica.

The immigrants and their descendants rapidly turned to commercial activities for subsistence, coming to dominate the economy of some communities throughout the country. At present, they constitute an important part of Costa Rican society, with a strong presence in the commercial sector and increasing participation in professional fields and politics.

Location. The first and second generations of immigrants settled mostly in and around the country's two main ports on the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. From 1883 through 1973, (except the year 1892) the largest numbers were found in towns and villages throughout the Atlantic coast, where immigrants who had arrived in 1873 had been engaged in the construction of the railroad.

The Pacific port of Pantarenas was the port of entry for most immigrants, and thus became another focus of settlement. From that port, immigrants moved into the northwestern region of the country, the dry, tropical Pacific province of Guanacaste, following agricultural settlement of that area. By the time of the 1892 census, their presence was common in the main cities of the Central Valley: San José, Cartago, Heredia, and Alajuela. In 1927 the largest immigrant populations were found on the Atlantic coast and in the provinces of Pantarenas and Guanacaste, in that order.

A significant settlement pattern emerged in the first stages of migration, when immigrants clearly chose to settle away from the centers of power, accepting small-volume commercial opportunities provided by towns and villages in rural areas, possibly in exchange for limited competition and a low profile. Another pattern is that settlement radiated out from the two main ports: Pantarenas on the Pacific coast and Limón on the Atlantic side.

Demography. In 1864 only 3 Chinese immigrants were reported by the less-than-adequate census, despite the fact that nine years earlier, 73 Chinese had entered the country legally, albeit under unknown terms. The following census, that of 1883, reports 219 Chinese, only ten years after 653 had entered the country under contract to the railroad company. In both instances, the census probably failed to register all Chinese; immigrants, in turn, were probably not eager to be recorded in the census because they were subject to repatriation when their contracts expired or were canceled. Underreporting and unorthodox means of entry and registration have since affected the quality of information on the immigrants.

The largest number of immigrants from southern China living in Costa Rica at any point in time is the 933 (0.001 percent of the population) reported in 1950. In 1963 the census reported 666 China-born residents, but only 271 (41 percent) claimed Chinese nationality, an important shift toward greater assimilation, which began after the Communist Revolution of 1949 in China and is clearly recorded over the next two decades after 1963. Another significant trend is that by 1984 the southern Chinese represented only 6 percent of the Chinese in Costa Rica. Others are from Taiwan and Hong Kong, with the Taiwanese representing 83.4 percent of those who are Chinese by birth. At present, the numbers of Taiwanese continue to increase, whereas the immigration of southern Chinese has virtually stopped. The largest concentrations of Asian immigrants are found in the cities of the Central Valley and in the ports, much as in the past. No data are available on the number of individuals of mixed Costa Rican-Chinese culture.

linguistic Affiliation. Two main Cantonese dialects were spoken by the immigrants, depending on their place of origin: the dialect spoken in the area of Zhong shan, place of origin of those who settled in the Pacific and northwestern region, and the dialect, and variants thereof, spoken in the district of En ping, where most settlers of the Atlantic region originated. A very small number of immigrants spoke the Haaka dialect and other dialects of southern China. Presently, only the eldest and the most recent immigrants speak Chinese dialects. Among the descendants, both pure and mixed, little value is attached to knowing the Chinese language, although other cultural values are held in high regard. In fact, Chinese cultural values related to family structure, roles and traditions, and social values and ethics persist among immigrants and descendants.

History and Cultural Relations

In 1855 two groups totaling 73 Chinese immigrants arrived in the port of Pantarenas, Costa Rica, from Panama, where they had probably been engaged in the construction of the transisthmian railroad completed that year, to work as domestic servants and farm hands in the large haciendas of general José Cañas and the German baron von Bulow on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Little is known about them and their descendants.

A second and more important group of 653 contract workers arrived in 1873 from Macao to work in the construction of the railroad to the Atlantic coast. The government later approved the railroad company's request for additional Chinese laborers, but there is no clear evidence that any others entered the country under subsequent railroad contracts. A number of studies have focused on this second group, those who joined them later, and their descendants.

The background of these other migrations to the Americas is found in the growing poverty and political unrest experienced by China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly in the provinces of Guangdong, Fujian, Jiangsu, and Hunan. The need for a large number of cheap laborers to replace African slaves after Abolition constituted the main attracting factor of the Americas. The colonial presence of Portugal in Macao and the British in Hong Kong facilitated the emigration of large numbers of Chinese who participated as indentured workers in the construction of railroads in Peru, Panama, the Caribbean, the United States, and Mexico. They also provided labor for the plantations of the Caribbean region and for the excavation of the Panama Canal.

After 1873, when railroad contacts began facilitating Chinese immigration, the first immigrants to Costa Rica were joined by near and distant kin, real and nominal, who arrived in small numbers. Steadily, however, they increased the size of the immigrant community and also replaced elder members who were retiring to their ancestral homes in China. The immigrant community also grew through intermarriage with Hispanic women, and, very exceptionally, Hispanic men, such unions creating cross-cultural individuals, the cruzados, who were, and continue to be, a very important link to the local Hispanic community. Although primarily socialized within Hispanic culture, the cruzados retain an appreciative understanding of their forefathers' culture and a deep regard for the immigrant's historical experience, and thus they have been able to act as cultural and social brokers between the immigrant community and Costa Rica society.

Since 1950, Taiwanese immigrants have been migrating to Costa Rica in large numbers; by 1984 they outnumbered the mainland Chinese by 14 to 1. Although the Hispanic community perceives the two groups as one and the same, in fact the two differ markedly in their origins, their social, economic, and demographic characteristics, and in their reasons for migrating to Costa Rica.

Immigrants from Hong Kong have also been entering the country since the early 1950s, and, like the Taiwanese, they constitute a separate subculture of Chinese culture in Costa Rica.


The original immigrants left their contract jobs within a short period of time. Of the 653 who had entered under the railroad contract of 1873, only 236 remained with the railroad project a year later. Departure from the railroad was facilitated by the purchase of their contracts by private citizens, for whom the immigrants performed domestic services and farm labor. Once freed from their contractual obligations, a few sold vegetables, poultry, and household merchandise in the streets of the port towns, but most set up small grocery stores (pulperías ), eateries (fondas ), and drinking establishments. To finance these enterprises, they counted on the small savings obtained while under contract, and on loans from their previous patrons and other Chinese immigrants. The credit societies they established once they had begun to accumulate capital became a very importantoften the onlysource of credit, especially among newcomers.

By 1902, immigrants had become dominant in the economy of the port of Limón, where they owned the largest proportion of commercial establishments that catered to railroad and banana-plantation workers. They were also dominant in the economy of the town of Cañas, in the northwestern region, and had a very strong economic presence in the port of Puntarenas, on the Pacific, and in Nicoya, on the peninsula of the same name. In other parts of the country, although not as prevalent, the store or restaurant of "el Chino" was a popular feature.

The relative economic and social independence provided by involvement in commercial activities allowed immigrants to maintain their cultural orientation toward the motherland and to supply a steady stream of monetary remittances that significantly bolstered the economies of their hometowns in China.

Eventually, a number of immigrants established businesses that flourished and permitted expansion into other economic areas, such as agricultural production, while allowing them to provide credit to young immigrants who were just getting started. Among them were veritable tycoons such as José Chen Apuy, who established the well-known general store "Man chong sing" in Puntarenas and who helped many of his countrymen with the process of immigration and settlement; Juan José León Yee, a successful merchant, agricultural producer, and common-cause politician on the city council of the port of Limón, who was a well-regarded benefactor of that city; and Luís Wa Chong, one of the first cattlemen in the northern Atlantic plains and among the first coffee producers in the southern Pacific region of Coto Brus. He later became Costa Rican ambassador-at-large to the community of Asian nations.

Since the 1950s, many Chinese merchants have diversified their investments; from the traditional small and large grocery stores and restaurants, which are still the most visible enterprises, they have branched out into farming (rice, cattle), agro-industry (processing agricultural products, such as cocoa, for export), and small local industry (dried foods, pastries, rubber thongs).

Marriage and Family

The first groups of immigrants were composed of young unskilled men, many of whom established consensual unions with local Hispanic women of low socioeconomic status and rural background. Immigrants of solid economic status brought brides from China or from immigrant colonies in neighboring countries, such as Panama and Colombia. Otherwise, an undetermined number of immigrants, and later their descendants, traveled to China to find consorts.

As unions between Chinese immigrants and Hispanic women produced offspring, the growing population of cruzados provided marriageable partners to an immigrant community that was chronically faced with a scarcity of females.

In an effort to strengthen Chinese cultural values, immigrants who could afford to sent their older children to special schools for immigrants' children in southern China, (Hong Kong, Zhong shan) and encouraged them to marry preselected Chinese brides.

The family structure prevalent among Costa Rican Chinese today can be safely assumed to represent patterns common in southern China, first practiced by the early immigrants, mixed with those of local Hispanic society, as introduced by Hispanic consorts and by the descendants raised and educated in Costa Rica. The structure was based on a clearly defined hierarchy of positions of authority and roles, in which gender and age were the most important factors. The oldest males in the family grandfather, father, and his brothersheld the highest position of authority and respect, followed by male children in descending order. Kinship terminology emphasized the rank of males in the structure and clan membership as defined through the father's line of descent. Under traditional rules of inheritance, older males likewise, had more rights, and females were practically excluded.

Although the family structure valued by traditional local Hispanic society is similar in principle to that of the immigrants, Hispanic women play a more important role in the family hierarchy and in decision making; the incorporation of Hispanic women tended to introduce changes in the immigrant household leading to a stronger role, and increased recognition, for females. The functionality of the structure is attested by the stability of immigrant households: divorces, separations, and broken families are rare.

However, despite the father's important role in emphasizing Chinese cultural values, and despite the strength of the family structure and the economic power that helped retain descendants within the immigrant family and community, cruzado children gravitated toward the culture of their Hispanic mothers. Moreover, for both cruzado and full-blooded Chinese children, the local public-school system strengthened the process of assimilation to local Hispanic society. Today, 140 years after the arrival of the first immigrants from southern China, only the eldest members of the community, immigrants who arrived after the 1920s, retain a strong Chinese cultural identity. Their descendants, although favoring aspects of Chinese culture, are predominantly culturally Hispanic.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. Different forms of organization evolved among the immigrants in their efforts to assist each other and needy newcomers. Orientation to the culture and community, temporary room and board, and training and financial assistance were provided by each household to its immigrating kin, followed by employment along kinship lines and the establishment of credit societies (not necessarily among kin) among those who were permanently settled in a locality. The credit system, primarily run by well-established older men in the community, replicated credit systems based on games of chance common in southern China; it continues to play an important role in the economy of the community.

Immigrant groups on the Atlantic coast region also established kinship group organizations (family or clan associations), which owned "clan houses." Thus, members of the kin group arriving from China were first housed in these clan houses, often remaining for a period of time in such quarters, while working under contract to repay their kin for the cost of transportation overseas and other services.

As the immigrant community increased in size, Chinese community clubs, which grew out of the informal meetings of the merchants in a community, were established to provide assistance and formal representation to all members of the immigrant community. For this purpose, through the financial contributions pledged by each of its members, the community bought a house in which cultural symbols were kept and traditional Chinese festivities and holidays were celebrated, along with private celebrations such as birthdays and other recreational activities. With the establishment of a club, other organizations were formed.

The elders, an informal group vested with the maximum authority on community matters, continue to meet at the club to discuss community issues, especially those that require arbitration, without involving the local Hispanic community and authorities.

As the number of women in the immigrant community increased, they formed organizations that helped them adapt to the culture, learn the language, and organize social activities for their children. Women also formed recreational groups to which the game mah-jongg was central. The clubs are still present in the larger communities, although their social functions are beginning to wane. The Atlantic coast Colony Club remains socially very active, although some of the original Chinese celebrations held there are no longer practiced.

The family or clan houses run by each family on the Atlantic coast lost part of their original purpose once the club was established, yet, as the number of immigrants of advanced age increased, such houses became retirement centers for the elders of each family who did not retire to China.

At least one community, the port of Limón, set up a "Chinese School" in the late 1940s, for full-blooded and cruzado children; spoken and written Cantonese was taught, along with geography, history, and culture. This effort ended owing to a high dropout rate among the cruzado children, who could not be assisted by both parents in learning the language. Moreover, the bulk of students came under the competing demands of the Hispanic high school system in the late 1960s.

Political Organization. Two immigrant political organizations allowed them some degree of involvement in the political life of China: the Guomindang and the Chicuntong. The first organization had club houses in Pantarenas, San José, and Limón, where political meetings were held to rally economic support for the Chiang Kai-shek government in Taiwan. Through such support, Guomindang chapters in the Americas helped significantly in the military defense of the island.

The Chicuntong association was a less popular, Atlantic coast political organization, which opposed the Guomindang but was not categorically in favor of the Chinese Communist government. It functioned like a brotherhood, or "lodge," for the poor, and had a large membership on the coast.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Immigrants practiced forms of traditional or "popular" Buddhism, sometimes mixed with Daoist elements, common in southern China, but over the years many have become practicing Catholics.

Among the celebrations shared by the immigrants at the Colony Club were ceremonies paying homage to traditional Chinese figures and symbols; to this day traditional symbols of Chinese culture and representations of Buddhist and Confucian thought are found decorating immigrants' businesses and homes.

Fundamental in the system of beliefs of Chinese immigrants is the "cult" of the ancestors, based on reverence and emphasized in family history and structure. Rituals and gifts are presented in an annual ceremony (attended only by the men) at the tomb of the ancestors. Although an elaborate tradition in the homeland, without its social context, it became a simple ritual.

Other beliefs and practices relate to traditional superstitions common in Chinese culture dealing with natural justice (e.g., "filial piety brings its own rewards"), honesty, respect, sharing, and matters of luck, the latter being a very prevalent concern, involving games of chance.

Some of the Chinese traditions formerly celebrated by the immigrants are remembered only by the oldest members of the community because, through the years, they have been replaced by local Hispanic customs. The traditional Chinese symbols, the lions, no longer dance at the celebrations and ceremonies held by the immigrant community, but the Chinese dragon is a common feature in the Carnivals of the Caribbean coast and, occasionally, in other Hispanic festivities.


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Chinese of Costa Rica

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