Follow the Signs11 min read

In Search of Chinatown in Panama City – Susan Blumberg-Kason

Editor’s note: This is the second in a new monthly column, Diaspora. For more context, read Rebecca’s introduction to the multiplicity of Chinese identities outside of the mainland.

My mother is one of the most worldly travelers I know. Mention any city or country around the world, and she’s either been there or is game for going. “What about Panama City?” I asked. She agreed immediately.

Panama City had been on my mind since reading Cristina Henriquez’s The World in Half and Come Together, Fall Apart. Both books are set in the city. Panama City also boasts one of only six or seven Chinatowns in Latin America. I’d been to the Chinatown in Havana 14 years earlier, had spent most of the 1990s in Hong Kong, and am interested in the Chinese diaspora. Plus, my oldest son from my first marriage is Chinese, so I’m raising all of my kids with Chinese culture and working out what that means along the way. Cristina Henriquez had told me the Chinese community in Panama arrived long before the construction of the canal (both the French and United States’ iterations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

My mom and I set out to find the gate, the famous sign, and a Chinese restaurant for breakfast.

In 1852, during the Gold Rush, 700 Chinese men sailed to Panama chasing the promise of decent jobs. But when these men arrived, they learned they’d been tricked into building a railroad across the isthmus. During the Gold Rush, Panama became a hotbed of activity and a cross-country railroad helped move gold from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. It was grueling work in humid conditions infested with insects and contagious diseases. Many Chinese workers became depressed, mass suicide became common, and the men who survived felt isolated in Panama.

Over a century and a half later, the Chinese community in Panama is the largest in Central America. Estimates are somewhere between 5% and 10% of Panama’s current population of 3.5-4 million, though it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact percentage because mixed heritage is notoriously difficult categorize. Former Major League Baseball player Carlos Lee, for instance, has a Chinese grandparent though doesn’t “look” Chinese. Other famous Chinese-Panamanians include major league baseball player Bruce Chen; writers Sigrid Nunez and Juan Tam; models Shey Ling Him Gordon and Marelissa Him; and comic creator Jorge Cham.

Besides locating the physical parts of Chinatown, I wanted to meet Panamanian Chinese to learn their thoughts on belonging and identity and assumed we could speak to people who worked in Chinatown. The Panama City tourist maps show a prominent Chinatown gate and I’d seen many photos on the internet of a large sign welcoming people to El Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, in Spanish, Chinese and English. So, directed by hotel concierge, my mom and I set out to find the gate, the famous sign, and a Chinese restaurant for breakfast.

We came first to the Kwang Chow restaurant, set apart by the many red lanterns just under the overhang. A short note about the name Kwang Chow. There are three major Chinese romanization systems. Wade-Giles and Yale were used in the past, and pinyin is used in China and around the world today. The romanization of Kwang Chow doesn’t adhere to any of them. Instead, it likely derives from the Nanjing dialect of Mandarin. This predates the usual early 20th-century Cantonese or Taishanese origins of many Chinatowns in the world. It was my first sign of Panama’s distinctive roots.

In Panama City, the history of Chinese immigration is bound up with the history of words

My mother and I assumed Kwang Chow was just the beginning of Chinatown and that we’d have more restaurants to choose from. But after an hour, we still hadn’t come across another Chinese restaurant, or the famous gate. We did see many small shops with Chinese red banners above the doors, shops that sold plastic toys, stuffed animals, and inflated balloons. As it turns out, old Chinatown is now known for these wholesale toys and souvenir shops, each adorned with these little red banners.

We eventually headed back to Kwang Chow and arrived just as Panama’s daily two-hour rainfall started. Over congee (rice porridge) and dim sum, I spoke Mandarin and a little Cantonese with our waitress, who I’ll call Ms. Lee. She also spoke Spanish, a little English, and the Guangdong language of her hometown (I guessed Hok Shan). Ms. Lee was in her fifties and when I asked how long she’d been in Panama, she replied, “for years.” She learned Spanish after she arrived. All the other staff at the restaurant were Chinese and spoke the same local Guangdong language. The restaurant seemed to be another kind of home for residents from the same town to find work and share a common language.

Across the street from the restaurant we spotted a teachers association that used a combination of traditional and simplified characters on the wooden sign above the balcony. This area was settled long before simplified characters were developed in the 1950s, but the sign must have been installed sometime after that, calling my attention to more obscured layers of Panama’s diverse Chinese communities. This was the first time I’d seen Panama written in Chinese. In Mandarin it’s pronounced Bānámǎ (巴拿马).

After the rain stopped, we said goodbye to Ms. Lee and turned left out of the restaurant. We made another left and – lo and behold – ran right into the multilingual Chinatown sign I’d seen on the internet. A sign proclaiming the Sociedad Hok Shan shed some light on the early migrants from China. Hok Shan is the Cantonese for Heshan, a city in the southern province of Guangdong (or Canton in the old days), which is also the birthplace of the Chinese lion dance. We found more traces of old Chinatown in this back alley: another old colonial building stood across the narrow street from the Hok Shan Society and Rosticeria Mey Mey (meaning beautiful and tasty barbecue).

It didn’t take us long to finally find the Chinatown gate. We never would have found it from the main street we’d been walking up and down all morning and afternoon. Upon closer inspection, I saw the gate was dated to the 86th year of the Republic, forming another layer of Panama’s Chinatown. Taiwan still uses dates based on the founding of the Republic of China in 1911, so any year dated this way uses 1911 as ground zero. In this case, 1911 plus 86 years brings us to 1997. The gate was dated this way because until 2017, Panama had diplomatic relations with Taiwan, unlike most countries in the world that now have relations with the People’s Republic of China. (Countries cannot have both.) In Latin America, Nicaragua,  Honduras, Guatemala and Belize still recognize Taiwan. Panama’s switch to recognize China on June 13, 2017 was not only an enormous blow to Taiwan, but could also signal a broader shift in Central America toward allegiance with mainland China. (El Salvador recognized the PRC in August 2018, leaving only 17 nations worldwide that maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.)

The next day we took a taxi to another area to Lung Fung, a dim sum restaurant advertised in our guidebook. Old Chinatown hadn’t proved the best place to speak with Panama City’s Chinese residents, but a dim sum stadium? That sounded promising.

Unlike at Restaurante Kwong Chow, about half the staff at Lung Fung were not Chinese, including the maître d’. I spoke with our waitress, who I’ll call Ms. Huang. Fourteen years ago, she moved to Panama at the age of 15. Born in a small village in Guangdong Province, she didn’t have the resources to attend secondary school and had no choice but to find a job. An uncle lived in Panama and helped her emigrate, which Ms. Huang explained was much simpler in the early 2000s. In recent years, it’s become difficult and costly for Chinese immigrants to obtain permanent residency here.

Now 29, Ms. Huang isn’t married, doesn’t have a boyfriend or children, and prefers it this way. “I never want to get married,” she told me. When I asked if she liked Panama, she replied “yībàn, yībàn” – it’s all right. Although she doesn’t plan to return to China, other than for short visits, she still feels like an outsider in Panama City. Ms. Huang explained that she wasn’t a native Spanish speaker and doesn’t look like the majority of residents. Even though the Chinese community makes up a significant minority in Panama, Ms. Huang doesn’t feel integrated. “People see me and think I’m not from here.”

One reason she doesn’t feel like an insider is that taxi drivers often try to cheat Chinese customers, she explained. Language is a barrier, too. Like Ms. Lee from the Kwang Chow, Ms. Huang learned Spanish after she arrived in Panama. She had studied English in China and is fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese and Hakka, but said Spanish is tougher because certains sounds are tricky to pronounce. I thought of Ms. Lee and the original Chinese immigrants in Panama during the Gold Rush, and imagined the overwhelming alienation of existing amidst so many languages and cultures.

Ms. Huang lives in an area where the majority of the Chinese population in Panama City resides. The area is called El Dorado and the Chinese presence is much more visible there than in old Chinatown. Chinese characters in this area are simplified, indicating that the residents of this area arrived in Panama relatively recently. It’s safe to assume that this area was developed sometime in the last 30 years, after the PRC reopened to the world. In Panama City, the history of Chinese immigration is bound up with the history of words.

Just outside the El Dorado district is a Chinese bilingual school with a student population of 1,700 named after Fermin Chan, a Cantonese immigrant who arrived in Panama in 1929 and passed away in 1997. He moved to Panama for work opportunities and built a large business that produced school uniforms. His son, also named Fermin Chan, has followed in his father’s philanthropic footsteps and sits on various boards in Panama. (Fermin is the name of a Spanish Catholic saint, which Chan Senior must have taken after he moved to Panama.) On the campus of the school is the Sun Yat-Sen Institute, which promotes Chinese cultural events for the greater Panamanian community. The family’s foundation also established the Parque de la Amistad Chino-Panameno, or the Chinese-Panamanian Friendship Park. The gate of this park, like the Chinatown gate, is dated from the 86th year of the Republic, 1997. Quite what this friendship means now that Panama has switched its political affiliation to the PRC remains to be seen. But 1997 was also the year of Fermin Chan, Sr.’s death. I wonder if the Chinatown gate was donated at the same time as the park in memory of the elder Fermin Chan?

The gate in Panama City’s Friendship Park.

The Chinese community in Panama wasn’t what we’d expected: a cohesive area where restaurants, businesses, and residences stood side by side, like the Chinatown we’re familiar with in Chicago. Instead, the old Chinatown with the gate and the welcome sign is the shell of a settlement from decades ago, that is now home to wholesale toy and gift shops and a couple of restaurants. Other than that, there are few Chinese residents. Lung Fung is the dim sum restaurant listed in the guidebooks, but it isn’t in a Chinese neighborhood and has few, if any, Chinese businesses in the same vicinity. El Dorado, which isn’t listed in any tourist literature, seems to be the real center of the Chinese community in Panama City. Like the original Chinese settlers in Panama over 150 years ago, working class immigrants from China haven’t had an easy time integrating into Panamanian life.

The old Chinatown with the gate and the welcome sign is the shell of a settlement from decades ago

Panama City has a multitude of attractions for curious travelers: the Canal, the old city, and many museums. But these treasures also include an alternate history of Chinese identity, half-obscured by centuries of political and linguistic change. It’s evolving before our eyes, in Panama City’s architecture, signage, shops and restaurants. All waiting, if you know where to look. ∎

This column was made possible by the generous support of Stephen O. Lesser on Patreon.
Header: Pagoda-inspired exterior of Lung Fung dim sum stadium, Panama City. All photos courtesy of the author.