Los argenchinos: the Chinese in Argentina

I’m currently working on revising my undergraduate thesis on the Chinese community in Buenos Aires for presentation at the Pacific Sociological Association conference in March and the Association for Asian American Studies conference in April. To get myself thinking about this again, I’m writing a series of blog posts on this little-known community. For a more comprehensive account of my research (including citations), please see the thesis itself. I apologize in advance for all of those typos that I didn’t manage to catch the first time around.

I was in Buenos Aires in the latter part of 2009 to do ethnographic research. I hoped to plunge into the Chinese community in Buenos Aires and discover its similarities to and differences from Chinese communities in the United States. In particular, I wanted to know if second-generation Chinese Argentines confronted similar problems with racism, xenophobia, and identity formation that Chinese Americans had. The short answer is yes. The Chinese-Argentine community is still misunderstood and mistrusted. Discrimination against Chinese-Argentines is widespread, and the media tends to portray them as closed community from an exotic culture conniving to get rich off of local people. Chinese who grew up in Argentina were stuck between two worlds, belonging to neither completely.

El barrio chino
While there are some immigrants of Chinese origin in the provinces of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, most have settled in the nation’s capital, the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires. Unlike in many North American cities, Chinese immigrants are not concentrated in any one district. Some claim that those who run supermarkets live inside them; considering that Chinese supermarkets are spread throughout the city, this would mean that there are Chinese residents in almost every neighborhood.

Most businesses catering to the Chinese community are located in a four-block area in the upper-middle class, largely residential neighborhood of Belgrano. In the Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, there are supermarkets carrying Chinese foods, as well as hair salons, video rental stores, churches and temples, and schools that teach Chinese as a heritage language to immigrant children and children of immigrants. In addition, there are many businesses catering to the local Argentine community, such as curio shops and restaurants serving Chinese food adapted to local tastes. On weekends, the neighborhood is a popular destination for Argentines of European extraction, who come to shop for trinkets and eat dishes like chop suey and egg rolls. Thus, Chinatown not only provides services for the Chinese community, but also serves as an introduction to Chinese culture for non-Chinese local residents.

The video above says the barrio chino is neither barrio (neighborhood) nor chino (Chinese). I agree on the first point. The barrio chino not really a residential neighborhood and the area is only a few blocks. However, it is very Chinese. As far as I can tell there is no Japanese presence in the area, and the reporter confuses mainland Chinese and Taiwanese nationalities with different ethnicities. (I know I just set off a firestorm here. If you disagree with me, let’s discuss in the comments.)

History
Chinese immigrants did not come to Argentina in significant numbers until the 1980s. In the 1980s, Taiwan was experiencing severe population pressure; this pressure, along with a fear of invasion from communist Mainland China, caused many to emigrate from the island. The Taiwanese came to Argentina as entire families, and many brought enough capital with them to open their own businesses. In the 1990s, when the Argentine government instituted monetary policies that made the peso equal in value to the United States dollar, many more Taiwanese came, opening import-export businesses and supermarkets. Another wave of Chinese immigrants came to Argentina in the 1990s, this time from the booming coastal provinces of the Mainland. Like the Taiwanese who came before, many of these immigrants came with capital to invest in import-export businesses and supermarkets.

There is virtually no new immigration to Argentina from Taiwan. According to one of my respondents, after the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, many Taiwanese left the country, either returning to Taiwan or moving on to third countries such as the United States. One of my friends/respondents in Buenos Aires had just moved there from Taiwan about a year before I met him; he was met with shock in Chinatown since no one thought a Taiwanese in his right mind would want to settle in Argentina. Mainland Chinese, however, are still arriving. Many immigrants from Mainland China come to invest and plan to stay in Argentina indefinitely. Others, however, are living in Argentina temporarily solely to gain citizenship, because they perceive that it is easier for Argentine nationals to settle in countries like the United States and Canada than for Mainland Chinese.

Chinese supermarkets
Many Chinese immigrants have dedicated themselves to opening neighborhood supermarkets that cater to the local Argentine community. Chinese-run supermarkets have become so ubiquitous in the city that el supermercado chino (“the Chinese supermarket”) has been shortened to el chino (“the Chinese” or “the Chinaman”); thus, the Chinese and the supermarkets they run have become practically synonymous. Although Chinese-run supermarkets are very popular with busy urban families, many Argentines do not trust them. Some claim that they unplug the freezers at night to save money, that they do not pay their employees fair wages, or that they do not pay taxes or are reimbursed for taxes by the Chinese government. Representatives of the Chinese merchants’ association have vehemently denied these claims, saying that Chinese supermarkets keep their prices low by buying in bulk and using a different business model from most local supermarkets. The ubiquity of Chinese supermarkets has given rise to many Chinese-run businesses that serve them, such as businesses that specialize in selling and repairing freezers and cold cut slicers. The vast majority of Chinese immigrants who do not own their own businesses work for another Chinese immigrant.

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