The Chinese of Panamá Also Have a Story to Tell

By Mon, Ramón A. | ReVista (Cambridge), Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

The Chinese of Panamá Also Have a Story to Tell


Mon, Ramón A., ReVista (Cambridge)


PANAMÁ'S CHINESE IMMIGRANTS ARRIVED 159 years ago after a hellish journey from their homeland. Hired by the Panama Railroad Company, the company in charge of the construction of the railway that would link, for the first time, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans, the group of 705 Chinese arrived aboard the "Sea Witch" of the Holland and Aspinwall line on March 30, 1854. Sailing from Shantou (China), 11 passengers had died during the 61-day trip. These ships were called "floating hells" because of the inhumane conditions of the journey. Later, many of these workers died of tropical diseases and various committed suicide, but the few Chinese who survived made up a solid group that marked the beginning of a migratory flow which would be uninterrupted throughout our history as a nation.

The story of this first group of Chinese workers has been studied in detail. Panamanian, U.S. and Latin American historians have looked into the large number of suicides among the Chinese laborers that alarmed the directors of the Railway Company as much as the Panamanian community in general. Environmental causes such as tropical diseases (malaria, yellow fever) sometimes led to despair. However, miserable living conditions, the inability to communicate in their own language, the radical change in the customs and meals, as well as the lack of opium, fostered an attitude prone to depression and suicide. Historical studies show that when the directors of the Railway Company in New York learned about the cost of the opium distributed daily to the Chinese, which had been promised in their contracts, they abruptly suspended the supply, worsening the emotional situation of these immigrants. Similar self-destructive circumstances have been described in Chinese communities in Peru's Chincha Islands, where guano was mined, and in Cuba's sugar plantations.

The first Chinese immigrants became a sui generis class of workers. Many of them were consigned at the ports and enticed by misleading promises; others wanted to escape their situation of poverty and social marginalization at home. Among them were individuals with gambling debts or addiction to opium. Few knew for sure the place and the work that awaited them in foreign lands. However, all came from a much more developed society and from a civilization with knowledge transmitted from generation to generation. These factors guaranteed a good working performance and the possibility of upward labor mobility, compared to the performance of blacks brought to the Antilles. As recorded in their hiring and payroll records, the Railway Company paid $ 109.00 to labor recruiters for each Chinese brought to Panamá.

Men came alone. Some of their contracts expressly prohibited them from bringing their families, but as soon as they managed to save enough money, they would indeed bring the wife, children and other relatives. It often happened that immigrants formed a new family in Panamá and kept the other one in China; and in some cases the Chinese family emigrated and lived with the new Panamanian family, wives included.

Of the Chinese who survived the subhuman conditions in which they worked for the Trans-Isthmian Railroad, many were exchanged for black Jamaicans, and $17.77 was paid for each Chinese man brought to work on the sugar plantations of Jamaica. As many as 197 Chinese were exchanged at this rate; the remaining few stayed in the country. However, this small group began working as shiftlaborers or in service activities so successfully that the future Republic of Panamá decided to enact laws of exclusion and immigration restrictions against the Chinese, some of which are still in force. Today's convoluted immigration laws, which restrict immigration from the People's Republic of China (as well as several other countries ranging from Cuba to the United Arab Emirates), only encourage human trafficking. Immigrants from Taiwan, on the other hand, have easy access to permanent residence because of diplomatic treaties. …

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