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Memories of a

Future Home:
Diasporic Citizenship of
Chinese in Panama

Lok C. D. Siu

Stanford University Press

Memories of a Future Home

Memories of a Future Home

diasporic citizenship
of chinese in panama

Lok C. D. Siu

Stanford, California 2005

Stanford University Press

Stanford, California
2005 by the Board of Trustees of the
Leland Stanford Junior University
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any
form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or
retrieval system without the prior written permission of Stanford University Press.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Siu, Lok C. D.
Memories of a future home : diasporic citizenship of Chinese
in Panama / Lok C. D. Siu.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 0-8047-5302-4 (cloth : alk. paper)
1. ChinesePanamaHistory. 2. ChinesePanama
Ethnic identity. 3. ChineseForeign countriesEthnic identity.
4. ChineseMigrationsHistory. 5. ChinaEmigration and
immigrationHistory. 6. Transnationalism. 7. Geopolitics.
8. NationalismSocial aspects. 9. PanamaRace relations
I. Title.
f1577.c48s58 2005
Printed in the United States of America on acid-free, archivalquality paper
Original Printing 2005
Last figure below indicates year of this printing:
14 13 12 11 10 09 08 07 06 05
Typeset at Stanford University Press in 10/13 Sabon

For my mother and in memory of my father


Introduction: Diasporic Citizenship


1. Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens: The Social History and

Background of the Chinese in Panama


2. The Queen of the Chinese Colony: Contesting Nationalism,

En-Gendering Diaspora


3. Migration Stories: Serial Migration and the Production of

Home and Identity in Diaspora


4. Home at the Intersection of Nations: Between Panama, China,

and the United States
5. Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares: Remaking Community
Amid New Migrations


6. Good-bye, Uncle Sam, Hello, Uncle Chang: Globalization,

Diasporic Allegiance, and the China-Taiwan Conflict


Conclusion: Toward a Framework for the Study of Asians in

the Americas


Epilogue: The Chinese CenturyRedefining Panamanian

National Identity









At Stanford, where this project began, I benefited immensely from the

guidance and wisdom of my advisors. Akhil Gupta, from chair to trusted
friend, has provided sustained critical engagement and steadfast support
through the years. Renato Rosaldo, who taught me to trust my instincts,
has always encouraged me to explore without losing sight of what is
most important; his wisdom continues to inspire me in every way. I have
always admired Sylvia Yanagisako for her astute intellectualism, thoughtful mentoring, and unmatched professionalism. And I thank both Gordon Chang and George Collier for their unyielding support from the moment I arrived at Stanford. At UC Berkeley, Trinh T. Minh-ha showed me
the pleasure of writing and playing with theory; L. Ling-chi Wang encouraged me to pursue graduate studies; and Loni Ding taught me the
power of stories and storytelling.
Through the years, a number of colleagues and friends have provided
invaluable advice on drafts of the manuscript. I thank Rhacel Parreas
for her immense generosity as colleague and friend; our conversations
have sustained me through this challenging process. I am grateful to Ien
Ang, Kathy Chetkovich, Lane Hirabayashi, Jeffrey Lesser, and an anonymous reader for commenting on the entire manuscript and offering insightful and detailed suggestions. I also appreciate the feedback I received
from Arlene Davila, Akhil Gupta, Cynthia Liu, Margo Machida, Aihwa
Ong, Arvind Rajagopal, Renya Ramirez, Rayna Rapp, Renato Rosaldo,
Bambi Schieffelin, Celine Parreas Shimizu, Sandhya Shukla, and Jack
Tchen, who read specific chapters of the manuscript. The women in the
Gender and Cultural Citizenship Working GroupKia Caldwell, Kathy
Coll, Tracy Fisher, and Renya Ramirezhelped nurture this project. And
the New York-area writing groupwhich has included Juliana Chang,
Evelyn Chien, Grace Hong, Shirley Lim, Mary Lui, Sanda Lwin, Suzette

Ac k n ow l e d g m e n t s

Min, Mae Ngai, Shuang Shen, and Sandhya Shuklacontinues to be a

great source of support. I have also benefited from conversations and discussions with Tom Abercrombie, Donald Carter, Nahum Chandler,
Paulla Ebron, Deborah Elliston, David Eng, Faye Ginsburg, Stanley
Heckadon-Moreno, Meg McLagan, Purnima Mankekar, Toby Miller,
David Palumbo-Liu, Dhooleka Raj, Anupama Rao, and Roshni Rustomji-Kerns.
At NYU, Fred Myers and Jack Tchen have been terrific chairs; I
appreciate their sustained support and guidance. Also, I have been very
fortunate to have Carolyn Dinshaw, Aisha Khan, Rayna Rapp, and
Angela Zito as colleagues; I am grateful for their advice, encouragement,
and friendship. I also want to thank the very capable and talented administrative staff of New York Universitys Anthropology department
and Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program. Sheelagh Cabalda, Fannie
Chan, Laura Chen-Schultz, Ruby Gmez, and Jennie Tichenor have been
truly amazing. My students, especially Alicia Carmona, Julie Chu, Alysha
Galvez, Eleana Kim, Keiko Kitagawa, Lawrence Lin, Ayako Takamori,
and Kristine Wang have been excellent interlocutors; Katie Hynes provided much needed research assistance.
Along the way, this project has received support from a number of institutions. I thank Stanford Universitys department of Anthropology,
Latin American Studies program, and Asian American Studies program.
I received support from the Mellon Foundation Pre-dissertation and Dissertation Write-up Fellowships; the Inter-America Foundation Research
Fellowship; the Smithsonian Foundation Predoctoral Research Fellowship; the Stanford University Institute of International Studies Dissertation Write-up Fellowship; the New York University Goddard Fellowship;
and the Rockefeller Foundation. Parts of this book were revised at Johns
Hopkins University, where I had a postdoctoral fellowship in the Comparative American Cultures program. Nahum Chandler, Aaron Goodfellow, and Bettina Ngweno made my visit there especially enjoyable. I am
most grateful to my colleagues in Anthropology and Asian/Pacific/American Studies at New York University for graciously allowing me to take
time off to work on this manuscript. Kate Wahl at Stanford University
Press has been an excellent editor; I appreciate the attention she gave to
the manuscript. Thanks to Kristen Oster for her diligent editorial support
and to John Feneron for his patience and flexibility in the production
process. The talented Carmen Cham provided excellent proposals for the
book cover, and I thank Alfonso Siu and the Cham Siu family for allowing me to use the photographs that appear on the book cover.

Ac k n ow l e d g m e n t s


I could not have written this book without the generous support of the
Chinese in Panama. I am grateful to everyone who participated in this
project, and I owe them much for answering my persistent queries, sharing their intimate stories, and inviting me into their homes. Enrique Castro and Ramon Mon were instrumental in getting this project off the
ground. Juan Tam, with his in-depth knowledge of the community, always provided insightful details. I am particularly grateful for the generosity and enthusiastic support of Winston Cham, Peter Chan, Toms
Lam, Julio Mock, Dorothy de Sing, Maria Sang, Carlos Siu, Cecilia Siu,
and Rosita Wong. I thank my good friends Enrique Castro, Elaine
Hooper, Cesar Kiamco, Liling Li, Sylvia Mitchell, Jorge Williams, Lisa
Yee, and Raul Yee, who provided excellent company and were always
there in times of need. They made my year in Panama truly unforgettable.
I also want to thank Olga Linares and Fernando Santos-Granero at the
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama for facilitating a productive fieldwork year. The staff at STRI could not have been more supportive. I appreciate their taking interest in my work and showing me
their Panama.
Over the years, my good friends Asale Ajani, Bettina Ngweno, Rhacel
Parreas, and Celine Parreas Shimizu have been wonderful allies. Their
delightful humor, talent for storytelling, and passion for good food have
sustained me through the good and the bad. I also want to thank Jaime
Cham for sharing his memories, experiences, and insights; our conversations have shaped this manuscript.
If it were not for my family, this project would not have been possible.
Raymond and Lise Bertrand have cheered me on to the finish line. My
sisters, Joanne and Linda Siu, have heard this project a thousand times;
their interest and encouragement mean a great deal to me. Andre
Bertrandwith his patience, generosity, understanding, and lovehas
sustained me throughout the writing of this book. He always made sure
I had the optimal writing environment and provided all the necessary
support and more. I cannot imagine a better person with whom to share
my life. I give him my deepest love and gratitude.
Finally, I am forever grateful to my mother, Joyce Siu, who nurtures
me with unconditional love. Her humor, wisdom, and delightful recipes
of food for the soul keep me healthy and strong in all aspects of life. This
book is dedicated to her and in memory of my father, Willie Siu, whose
stories and sacrifices have inspired this book and so much more.



Bocas del

Coln Canal





300 Miles

0 100 200 300 400 500 Kilometers

Central America and Panama



My familys history of dispersal since the mid nineteenth century to different parts of the worldincluding Australia, Nicaragua, Singapore,
Britain, Spain, and the United Statesboth inspires and informs my engagement with questions of belonging in diaspora. My fathers connection to Nicaragua, in particular, has always intrigued me. I grew up listening to all kinds of fantastic tales involving witchcraft and sorcery, love
spells and magic potions, tales laced with nostalgia and anticipated returns, tales told with such passion and realism that I could never be sure
of their truth-value. In 1989, I set off in search of my fathers homeland,
my fathers Nicaragua. When I found it, however, it was not the same
Nicaragua I had imagined. The bustling communities of Chinese that my
father so often described were nowhere to be found. Years of civil war,
political unrest, and economic instability had driven the majority of Nicaraguan Chinese to seek a home elsewhere in the Americas. Nonetheless,
traces of their passage remained: tarnished signs reading Restaurante
Chu Wah, Tienda Lau, and Hospedaje Kong Fat hung over small
storefronts in different towns throughout the country. In seeing and not
seeing what my father had impressed upon my memory through years of
storytelling, I became that much more intrigued about how diasporic
Chinese create home and experience belonging (and nonbelonging) in
this part of the world. When and why did they come? What were the political, social, and cultural circumstances in which they lived? And finally,
why did they leave? Although I ultimately decided not to conduct my research in Nicaragua, these questions stayed with me and motivated my
exploration into the politics of diasporic belonging for Chinese in Latin
While the general idea for this book project grew out of a longstanding interest, the current debates about globalization and its effects on



identity and community informed its central concerns. In the past few
decades, transnationalism and late-capitalist globalization have sparked
considerable discussion about the changing role of the nation-state, the
nature of community, the significance of ethnicity, and the meaning of citizenship and belonging. At the heart of these discussions is the struggle to
understand how people imagine and practice community in a world
where migration and displacement are becoming more commonplace
than ever before. This book enters into these debates by examining the
politics of belonging, the critical tissue that binds the questions of how,
why, and on what basis people forge transnational forms of community.
It explores how peoplethrough remembering and narrating their past,
performing cultural identifications, negotiating with different governments, and creating transnational social networksconstruct belonging
in migration and displacement amid the shifting geopolitical conditions
of globalization.
Indeed, it is particularly timely to examine the case of diasporic Chineseand the Chinese in Latin America, specificallyat this historical
juncture. The ascendance of China as a major economic power in the late
twentieth century, coupled with the ever-increasing global migration of
Chinese, has not only raised critical questions about their citizenship in
diaspora but also ignited a strong backlash against their belonging. The
case of Wen Ho Lee (a Chinese American nuclear scientist who was accused of espionage in 1999) exemplified the anxiety about Chinese loyalty to the U.S. nation-state; however, the anti-Chinese mass riots in Indonesia in 1997 represented the violent rejection, not just of Chinese
belonging, but of their very presence.
It is well recognized that while diasporic Chinese generally have
achieved a certain level of economic mobility, they also have experienced
tremendous political and cultural marginality. Their citizenship has always been contingent and their presence fraught with questions about
national loyalty and their right to belong. Today, with an estimated fifty
million diasporic Chinese living in more than 136 countries, it may be
useful, if not critical, to reexamine the shifting conditions and practices
of their citizenship. In particular, it is especially timely to turn our attention to the Chinese in Latin America. Between 1992 and 2000, the Chinese population in this region grew from 1 million to 3.5 million, and
mainland Chinese President Hu Jintao recently announced more than
$30 billion in new Chinese investments in Latin America. Indeed, this
fast-growing population of Chinese, along with increases in Chinese in-



vestments, demands that more attention be paid not only to the Chinese
communities in this region but also to the ongoing interaction between
China and Latin America more generally. Given the paucity and unevenness of scholarship on the Chinese in this region, our knowledge of their
history and contemporary situation is quite limited. While several anthologies on the topic of Asians in Latin America have been published in
recent years, much original research still needs to be done. A central goal
of this book, then, is to contribute to the emergent field of Chineseand
Asians more generally in Latin America.
I am often asked, Why the Chinese in Panama? In my experience of
traveling throughout Latin America, the Chinese in Panama definitely
stood out as the most vibrant of all such diasporic Chinese communities.
Within Panama City alone, there are two Chinatowns. Numerous Chinese restaurants of various sizes, styles, and scales are scattered throughout the city; and, on every corner, there is either a general store or fruit
market or electronics store or laundromat that is owned and operated by
diasporic Chinese. Upon closer examination, I grew to appreciate the
case of Chinese in Panama even more, primarily because it offered insight
into a number of important questions and concerns of our time, four of
which I have outlined below. First, the particular configuration of relationships between Panama, the United States, the Peoples Republic of
China (PRC), and Taiwan (the Republic of China, or ROC) offers a
unique context in which to examine diasporic belonging. The tensions,
contradictions, and possibilities of inhabiting such an intersection can all
be observed in diasporic Chinese, who are situated at the cultural and political intersections of these geopolitical entities. By exploring the case of
diasporic Chinese in Panama, what we learn more generally is not only
how the nation of residence, the homeland, and the colonial government
each contribute to diasporic formation, but also how the geopolitical relations between and among them generate the conditions of diasporic belonging, as well as the divergent ways in which diasporic subjects engage
these constantly shifting conditions.
Second, the case of the Chinese in Panama highlights the interwoven
relationship between the Chinese homeland state (Taiwan, in this case)
and its diasporic subjects. The extent to which the two parties interact
and provide mutual support suggests a more equal relationship than one
would expect between a state and its subjects. This brings up the question
of how homeland statediaspora relations are changing as more and
more states adopt an active policy of sustaining ties with and recruiting



support from their subjects living abroad. What this book does is clearly
illustrate, with ethnographic detail, the manner in which the homeland
state and diasporic Chinese sustain multilayered relations through mutual
support and exchange.
Third, the focus of this project provides a different perspective on
globalization, one that involves the diminishing role of the United States
and the increasing interaction between two globally Southern nations. By
calling attention to PanamaPRC/ROC relations, this project disrupts the
common view of globalization as yet another phase of American hegemony. Certainly, it is undeniable that the U.S. continues to impose its economic and political agenda on certain parts of the world. The recent wars
in the Middle East are one such example. However, we should not lose
sight of other emerging powers, sets of relations, and forms of interactions that also have an effect on the global political economy. This book
intervenes in globalization studies by documenting a different unfolding
or experience of the cultural, political, and economic processes of globalization. Our understanding of the contemporary world, I suggest, stands
to be enriched and broadened by more analyses of how countries in the
global South are participating in and affected by globalization.
Fourth, this project contributes to the rethinking of area studies by
providing empirical research that brings into conversation Latin American, Asian American, and Chinese diaspora studies. By making these different areas inseparable for the purposes of this study, it is my hope that
the book will not only contribute to each of them individually but also
help to develop a more integrated model of study, as well as spark new
theoretical inquiries. One of the most challenging tasks in doing this kind
of inter-area study has been the process of addressing multiple audiences
that have very different reference points, sets of knowledge and expertise,
and expectations. Presenting my work in a variety of venues has helped
clarify some of the different concerns and interests, and although I have
learned that it is impossible to please everyone, I have tried my best to incorporate the most important points necessary in understanding the case
at hand.
While it was a set of conceptual questions that brought me to Panama,
it was the dynamism and warmth of the people and country that held my
attention and fed my imagination. My research in Panama spanned the
years between 1994 and 2000, although the bulk of it was done in thirteen months of sustained fieldwork in 1996 and 1997, preceded by several preliminary fieldwork trips and followed by one post-fieldwork visit.



My sample included people who self-identified as Chinese, either partly

or in whole. The names they used to identify themselves include Panamanian Chinese, Chinese Panamanian, Chinese, and/or Panamanian.
They were from a wide range of racial, gender, religious, class, and generational backgrounds. While Panama City was my primary research site,
the project took me to other parts of Panama too, as well as to San Jos,
Costa Rica, and Oakland, California. A few contacts established before
my fieldwork began facilitated my speedy integration into the community. I began participant observation by attending a variety of activities
sponsored by Chinese Panamanian community organizations, which
numbered over twenty (and growing). These included association meetings, special occasion banquets, karaoke performances, debutantes balls,
beauty contests, carnival festivals, transnational conventions, and social
gatherings. To reach diasporic Chinese who do not participate regularly
in these activities, I also studied cultural sites such as the Barrio Chino
and El Dorado (respectively known as the old and new Chinatowns) in
Panama City, as well as the Chinese Cultural Center, the Sun Yat-Sen
Institute, and the Chinese Catholic Church. These combined efforts
enabled me to establish contact with a broad range of people from different social backgrounds and networks.
In view of the lack of published literature on the Chinese in Panama, I
relied heavily on life narratives and semi-structured interviews to provide
situated histories, elaborate on specific themes, and reconstruct a skeletal
outline of their collective experience. My ability to speak Cantonese, English, and Spanish enabled me to reach a broad cross-section of diasporic
Chinese. In total I recorded eighteen life narratives and conducted over
forty in-depth interviews with Chinese of different backgrounds. Additionally, I conducted small group interviews and had countless informal
conversations. What these life narratives, interviews, and conversations
forcefully reveal are a series of social ruptures that constitute their experience of belonging in diaspora. Rather than being social aberrations,
these ruptures, through repeated occurrence, gain a certain degree of normalcy in the lives of diasporic Chinese. This book, hence, is organized
around the notion of rupture, examining specific moments of disjuncture
as sites in which diasporic Chinese citizenship is simultaneously challenged and transformed. Rupture, after all, entails both deconstruction
and reconstruction.
During the second half of my fieldwork, the convergence of several
geopolitical events brought into relief the significance of examining Pan-



amas shifting economic and international relations with the United

States, Taiwan, and the PRC. To investigate their interwoven relationships, I interviewed members of the diplomatic corps of all three countries and attended their sponsored events and lectures. I also closely followed the print media, especially the two nationally distributed
newspapers El Panam Amrica and La Prensa, both of which offered
rich materials for analysis. This book strives to find a balance between illustrating the geopolitical factors that shape the conditions of citizenship
and, at the same time, showing the various tactics, negotiations, and
strategies of diasporic Chinese as they engage and rework these shifting
A few notes on my own position as a Chinese American anthropologist are called for here. Being a fellow diasporic Chineseand one with
direct ties to Nicaragua and Central America in generalundoubtedly
framed my interactions with the Chinese in Panama. In fact, the Central
American region was one of the main nodes where the Siu family clan
congregated. These ties, combined with my ability to speak the three primary languages used by diasporic Chinese there, clearly facilitated my acceptance into the community. I was treated more as a distant cousin than
as a total stranger. They were quick to offer support: lowering my rent so
I could have a safe place to live, lending me a car so I could get around
easily in the city, giving me dishes because I had none, and inviting me to
their homes, weekend outings, and other social gatherings so that I did
not get too homesick in this new city. Moreover, being ethnically Chinese
gave me firsthand experience of what it feels like to be Chinese in Panama. My everyday interactions with Panamanians at large were not much
different from those experienced by diasporic Chinese living there. I was
cross-examined by a Panamanian immigration officer, asked by young
children if I knew kung fu, subjected to catcalls in the street, and made
friends with Panamanians of various backgrounds. I was perceived on the
basis of my gender and racial phenotype, and I was treated as though I
were a regular Panamanian Chinese. In this sense, I not only entered
into their social world but also inhabited it (if only for a short while).
In order to protect the privacy of my interviewees, I have used pseudonyms for everyone except for those holding public offices and those
cited or quoted in newspapers. The terms ethnic Chinese, diasporic
Chinese, and Panamanian Chinese are used to describe the Chinese in
Panama in general. While all reference the same people, ethnic positions Chinese in relation to the Panamanian nation-state, diasporic



stresses their multiple relations with different communities (i.e. China,

Panama, and the larger diaspora), and Panamanian Chinese acknowledges their localized, culturally mixed identity. The terms are not exclusive of one another. In one sense, I use them to avoid repetition. In another, I use them depending on context, and they reflect more the
positionalities of Chinese in Panama than objective categories of identity.
Finally, out of respect, I have left Chinese words used in interviews in the
native Cantonese dialect of diasporic Chinese in Panama rather than
transliterating them in Mandarin.

Memories of a Future Home

Cartoons of Uncle Sam and soldiers and of Uncle Chang. Source: La Prensa.

Diasporic Citizenship

In August 1997, the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa featured several

cartoons that accompanied a three-article series provocatively titled
From Uncle Sam to Uncle Chang (De To Sam a To Chang). The first
of the three parts juxtaposed two separate images. One cartoon frame
shows a group of American soldiers, dressed in uniform and carrying military gear, marching in an orderly line toward an American Airlines jet.
Following behind them, the last American to leave, is Uncle Sam. Outfitted in his usual red, white, and blue top hat and tailcoat, he is not marching with the soldiers but running so quickly that sweat is spewing from
his head. In the background stands a watchtower, signifying the Multinational Anti-Drug Center, which was the only American military agency
that would remain in Panama after 1999. Standing just outside the frame,
a Panamanian man watches pensively.
At the bottom of the page, a different scenario unfolds. In this frame,
the same Anti-Drug Center remains in the background, but in the foreground, Uncle Chang (representing Uncle Sams Chinese counterpart)
makes his entrance. This commercial jet sits, unlike the American jet, on
a proper landing strip. Deplaning from the new aircraft of Taiwaneseowned Eva Airlines, Uncle Chang steps boldly forward and smiles. He is
dressed in a Western suit and hat and carries two large suitcases bursting
at the seams with green pieces of paper, no doubt signifying money. An
entourage of Panamanians kowtows as he deplanes, and another Panamanian is running into the scene with a duster in hand to make sure
everything is clean and tidy. Unlike Uncle Sams hurried departure, Uncle
Chang, with money in hand, arrives with class, and Panamanian service
comes with it. The pensive Panamanian, reflecting national ambivalence,
once again appears just outside the frame.
While American presence is represented in the first cartoon by Uncle


Sam (as political agent), soldiers (as military force), and American Airlines (as American transnational capital), Uncle Chang represents the
Chinese. Whether Uncle Chang is a symbol of the Peoples Republic of
China (PRC or mainland China), the Republic of China in Taiwan
(ROC), or both is unclear, but, of course, their distinction is important
(as I will discuss later). He brings with him not his military but his
transnational capital, in the form not only of an airplane but also of suitcases full of hard cash. The juxtaposition of these images references the
confluence of two processesthe long-anticipated American demilitarization of Panama and the unexpected arrival of Chinese capitalas
well as Panamanians uneasiness about the cultural and political-economic implications of this convergence. As depicted by these cartoons,
cultureand, more precisely in this instance, cultural representationis
the critical site through which Panamas postCold War globalization is
rendered socially meaningful. The specter of empire pervades the accompanying article. Will the Chinese replace Americans as the next imperial force in Panama? Will China/Taiwan be to Panama in the twenty-first
century what the United States was to Panama in the nineteenth and
By the time this tripartite article was published, the Panamanian public was already absorbed in heated debate on the significance of the Chinese in Panama. In fact, rumors that the Chinese are taking over the
Canal had spread across not only Panama but also the world, via the
global media. Cold War rhetoric revived in Washington, inciting fears of
the possibility of a mainland Chinese takeover in Panama.1 Given the
longstanding colonial relationship between the U.S. and Panama, it is not
surprising that American officials would be concerned with Panamanian
affairs. With increasing national and international attention being paid to
the question of the Chinese presence in Panama, the diasporic Chinese,
about 6.5 percent of Panamas 2.7 million population and a community
that has been there for over 150 years, were pushed into the limelight,
becoming objects of curiosity as well as participants in and mediators of
these discussions. Like the rest of their Panamanian neighbors, the diasporic Chinese had become engulfed in a heated debate and a quest for answers. But their concerns were quite different from those of their neighbors. Rather than speculating about Chinese empire-building ambitions,
they were grappling with ideological and existential questions that hit
closer to home and compel a thorough rethinking of who they were and
are: What does it mean to be both Panamanian and Chinese simultane-


ously? Where do we stand in relation to Panama, the PRC, and Taiwan?

What will happen if the PRC-Taiwan conflict intensifies and plays itself
out in Panama? Indeed, not only do the two Chinese states, locked in bitter struggle since 1949, project oppositional ideas of what it means to be
Chinese, but their competing presence in Panama will stimulate a new
level of complexity and internal strife in identity and community formation among diasporic Chinese.
The scenario I describe above is only the most recent eruption of debates about Chinese belonging in Panama. While the terms of the debate
are unique to this particular historical conjuncture, the general question
of Chinese belonging and citizenship has been a relevant one since
Panamas independence in 1903. This book examines the issue of diasporic Chinese belonging in several different contexts, illuminating both
the shifting terrain on which debates about belonging emerge and the
kinds of maneuvers undertaken within the realm of what is possible. Depending on the historical and sociopolitical context, the Chinese in
Panama respond by using the various strategies and tactics available to
them, which have included migration, social mobilization, and the assertion of ties with Taiwan, mainland China, and/or the United States. Like
the changing scenes in a kaleidoscope, each chapter of this book represents a specific time-scale scenario that illuminates a different dimension
of how the Chinese in Panama define, reposition, and transform their belonging in diaspora. Together, they convey the multiple articulations and
modalities of diasporic Chinese citizenship across time and in relation to
local and transnational community formation.

Diasporic Citizenship
Although it focuses on one particular diasporic group, this book is more
generally about the politics of belonging for any diasporic people who are
affiliated with at least two cultures and places at once. The central question is how diasporic subjects experience, negotiate, and articulate their
sense of belonging amid intersecting cultural-national formations. It proceeds from the premise that diasporic subjects engage a unique configuration of cultural-political dynamics that generate a complex politics of
belonging. For one thing, the context within which they imagine and
practice belonging is not confined to a single nation-state. Instead, it is
situated in the transnational frame where nation-states interact with one
another through geopolitics, neocolonialism, and cultural and economic


globalization. Being diasporic means sustaining a sense of connection to

both where one is from and where one is, both ones homeland and
ones nation of residence (Lavie and Swedenburg 1996; Tlyan 1991).
It also entails being part of a larger collectivity of people who share the
same sense of displacement from a homeland and emplacement elsewhere
in the world (Gilroy 1991, 1993; Hall 1990). These multiple links to
places, cultures, and communities are nurtured by ongoing social relations, memories and imaginaries, and cultural production. Being diasporic, then, not only involves sustaining all these relationships at once; it
is also an ongoing formation of a consciousness, a positioning, a subjective expression of living at the intersection of different cultural-national
formations. It is within this configuration of intertwined relationships
that the complexities of their belonging emerge.
The spread of global media and advances in communication and
transportation technologies have facilitated the reproduction of social ties
and cultural links across geographical space. These factors, coupled with
increasing transnational migrations, have contributed to the proliferation
of diasporic formations. Indeed, as people migrate and maintain cultural
ties with their place of emigration while creating new ones with places of
settlement, as more nation-states offer possibilities of dual citizenship,
and as ethnic homelands continue to recruit labor migration from their
diasporas, questions of belonging acquire a new level of complexity
(Glick Schiller and Fouron 2001; Lesser 2003; Tsuda 2003; Roth 2002).
It is no longer (if ever) simply about belonging to one culture or nation.
When people forge identity and community between two or more nations
and amid transnational flows and exchanges, their particular experience
of belonging must be examined within the broader transnational and
geopolitical context. So, what does it mean for diasporic people to belong?
The newspaper cartoon cited earlierevoking the roles of Panama,
the United States, the PRC, and Taiwan in defining the parameters of national belonging for diasporic Chineseoffers a glimpse of its complexities. In fact, the case of diasporic Chinese compels a critical rethinking of
citizenship itself. It insists that our conventional understanding of citizenship as being exclusively linked to a single nation-state needs to be
fundamentally reexamined. Citizenshipthe qualitative experience of belonging to a nationoperates in both national and international spheres.
Drawing on the case of the Chinese in Panama, I suggest that the politics
of belonging in the diaspora can only be understood through the lens of


diasporic citizenship, a concept that brings together diaspora and citizenship into one analytical frame in order to clarify the process of diasporic
subject formation. By juxtaposing these two concepts, I use each to examine and extend the other. While diaspora highlights the intersectional
position one inhabits when sustaining simultaneous ties with the homeland, nation of residence, and the larger diaspora, citizenship underscores
the process of negotiating, asserting, and redefining what it means to belong to those cultural-political communities. Diasporic citizenship hence
describes the processes by which diasporic subjects experience and practice cultural and social belonging amid shifting geopolitical circumstances
and webs of transnational relations. By situating my analysis of diasporic
citizenship within the particular constellation of forces that affect the
Chinese in Panama, I show how diasporic Chinese construct their contingent sense of belonging in relation to multiple communities. Contingent here references both the conditional manner in which these communities have treated diasporic Chinese belonging (rejecting and accepting
them depending on historical circumstance) and the ways that diasporic
Chinese have formulated their own strategies of belonging within this
Diasporic citizenship provides both a methodology and an epistemological framework in which to understand citizenship in a transnational
context that accounts for geopolitical dynamics and peoples situated and
simultaneous commitments to different cultural-political communities. It
illuminates two interconnected processes: how the different cultural-national entities intersect and interact to determine the parameters of diasporic belonging, and how diasporic subjects engage these parameters, as
well as each of the entities separately, to assert, redefine, and/or transform their belonging. In this book, I use diasporic citizenship to examine
primarily diasporic subjects efforts to negotiate and rework the conditions of belonging generated by several intersecting cultural-political
This formulation of diasporic citizenship differs from Michel Laguerres definition of the term, which turns on a set of practices that a
person is engaged in, and a set of rights acquired or appropriated, that
cross nation-state boundaries and that indicate membership in at least
two nation-states (Laguerre 1998, 190). While Laguerre uses the concept of diasporic citizenship to illustrate how Haitian Americans participate simultaneously in both Haitian and American social-political life, I
use the concept to emphasize how diasporic Chinese experience and ex-


ercise contingent belonging in the ever-shifting geopolitical terrain. In the

case of the Chinese in Panama, this geopolitical terrain is generated not
only by the homeland and the nation of residence but also the United
States (the colonial force). Though our specific definitions differ, reflecting the particularities of our field sites and the groups with whom we
worked, our shared insistence on examining citizenship in the transnational field and through the lens of diaspora suggests that the general
phenomenon that can be captured by this concept is much more common
than we had each assumed. Indeed, our mutual interest in exploring diasporic citizenship affirms that the concept may have wider import for
others besides just Panamanian Chinese or, for that matter, Haitian
The case of Chinese in Panama offers unique ethnographic insight into
how diasporic citizenship transpires on the ground and illustrates its essentially double-edged nature. As Ien Ang puts it, diaspora can be the
site of both support and oppression, emancipation and confinement
(Ang 2001, 12). While being diasporic complicates the terms and practices of belonging, it also holds the promise of belonging to multiple communities. Similarly, while it facilitates the ability to identify with and
draw on the cultural resources of several communities at once, it also
means subjection to the multiple, overlapping, and sometimes opposing
demands of these entities. Such relationships between diasporic subjects
and nation-states are always mutually constituted. And more often than
not, diasporic conditions are not of ones choosing. Diasporic citizenship,
then, suggests marginality, difference, and lack of full belonging to any
one nation-state, yet it also holds out the possibility of creativity, innovation, and perseverance that come with occupying this intersection. We see
this reflected in their diverse expressions of cultural identity, forms of social affiliation and institution, and strategies of political mobilization.
Indeed, living in diaspora may not be a choice, but exercising particular forms of belonging is, for it implies both the recognition of contradictory forces at work and a willingness to engage those conditions. In other
words, migration or displacement does not dictate an automatic adoption
of diasporic practices, a formulation of diasporic sensibilities, or the development of a diasporic consciousness, which always already implies an
engagement with multiplicity. One can choose to assert a single ethnic or
national identity and refuse diasporic identifications. Importantly, then,
diasporic citizenship should not be confused with what Nina Glick
Schiller and Georges Fouron call long-distance nationalism, which de-


scribes transmigrants identification with a particular, existing [homeland] state or the desire to construct a new state, in that diasporic citizenship is less concerned with ones singular identification with and participation in homeland nation-state building than with articulating a
contingent sense of belonging in relation to multiple sites (Glick Schiller
and Fouron 2001, 23). Diasporic citizenship emphasizes a complex form
of habitation and subject formation generated by the politics of maintaining simultaneous ties with multiple cultural-political communities.
Since citizenship and diaspora are the two main ideas that inform diasporic citizenship, I now turn to discussing each of them separately.
C i t i z e n s h i p i n t h e Tr a n s n a t i o n a l C o n t e x t

Since the emergence of cultural citizenship studies, citizenship has become widely accepted as a set of cultural and social processes rather than
simply a political status or juridical contracta set of rights, entitlements, and obligationsbetween individuals and a nation-state (Shafir
1998). Feminists and critical race theorists have long understood that citizenship is not universal and that ones gender, race, class, and sexuality,
among other categories of difference, all shape experiences of citizenship
(Lister 1998; Young 1990; Yuval-Davis and Werbner 1999; Williams
1991; Crenshaw 1995; Rodolfo Torres et al. 1999).2 Indeed, citizenship
is a qualitative experience produced and sustained by everyday interaction and practices that enact inclusion and exclusion (Flores and Benmayor 1997).
Two approaches to cultural citizenship have been particularly influential to this project.3 In his study of Latinos in the United States, Renato
Rosaldo establishes that social movements have helped to redefine and
expand the meaning of citizenship in the United States. For him, citizenship is a continually expanding process of inclusion and enfranchisement,
in which people are the main agents of change (Rosaldo 1996). Aihwa
Ong treats cultural citizenship as a process of subject formation by which
civil institutions socialize newcomers and integrate them into the nationstate (Ong 1996). While her work with Hong Kong elites theorizes flexible citizenship as strategic practices of acquiring citizenship (Ong 1999)
and her work with Cambodian Americans considers the dual processes of
being made and self-making within institutional webs of power (Ong
2003), Ongs approach remains primarily concerned with regimes of governmentalitybe they family, civil institutions, or the statein subject
formation. Moreover, while both authors gesture toward transnational


concerns, with Ong doing so more explicitly, their analysis of citizenship

remains in the context of a single nation-state. My concept of diasporic
citizenship, then, not only brings together both Rosaldos emphasis on
peoples agency in transforming citizenship and Ongs focus on regimes of
governmentality that mold people into cultural citizens, it also departs
from these approaches by arguing that citizenship, conventionally defined
in relation to a single nation-state, is embedded in and constituted by
transnational as well as national and local forces.
To extend the analysis of citizenship into the transnational sphere, I
suggest we accept citizenship to mean more than membership in a nationstate but as participation and membership in a variety of political communities (Soysal 1994).4 Doing so makes possible the analytic separation
of citizenship from the territorially and conceptually bounded nationstate. It also calls into question the assumption that citizenship equates
with belonging to a single community or having a singular loyalty to a
particular collectivity. Certainly, people belong to more than one political
community at once, among them local, ethnic, religious, national, and
supranational communities (Yuval-Davis 1999). For instance, diasporic
Chinese in Panama belong not only to the local Chinese community and
to the Panamanian nation but also to the regional community of Chinese
in Central America. Under these circumstances, the relationships between
people and these communities, as well as the relationships among the
communities themselves, crisscross and overlap to form what Nira YuvalDavis calls a multilayered citizenship (ibid.). Citizenship, in this view, is
not restricted to the relationship between an individual and a single nation-state or to any one community, for that matter. Instead, it is a dynamic process in which two sets of relationshipsthose between people
and polities and those among the polities themselvesintersect to define
the limits and possibilities of belonging and unbelonging. For instance,
not only do the separate though simultaneous relationships that diasporic
Chinese maintain with Panama, the U.S., and China/Taiwan affect the
overall politics of belonging, but the geopolitical relations between these
nationssuch as U.S. colonial relations with Panama and American opposition to mainland China during the Cold Waralso frame both the
terms of the debates and the constraints and openings for Chinese responses. These are precisely the sets of relations I map out ethnographically in this book.
Because it interfaces with both the national and international arenas,
diasporic citizenship becomes a site of mediation between internal de-


bates of belonging within the nation and geopolitics between nationstates. Diasporic citizenship therefore underscores citizenship as situated
in and mediating between the national and the international arenas. In
other words, citizenship not only operates within the nation-state but is
also subjected to the global system of nation-states. The realm of the national is directly linked to the realm of the geopolitical, and what happens domestically is connected to the currents sweeping across the globe
(Enloe 1990). My notion of the local, then, is thoroughly engaged in and
part of the transnational. Constructions of Chinese Americans as bad
citizens during the Cold War period and Japanese Americans as enemies
of war during World War II are two examples of how localized treatment of citizens is shaped by geopolitical imperatives. It is also worth remembering that even though citizenship binds individuals to a particular
territory and nation-state(s), the ideas and practices of citizenship travel,
are shaped by transnational discourses, and intersect with other nationalist projects. Human rights is a prime example of a transnational discourse and global movement that has intervened in determining national
belonging and citizenship rights and entitlements.
My choice of field site has been instrumental in highlighting issues of
colonialism and geopolitics as they pertain to diasporic citizenship, because American (informal) colonization of Panama played such a crucial
role in framing the terms of diasporic Chinese citizenship. The fact that
most citizenship studies have hitherto focused on Britain and the United
States, two former imperial nations, has thus far made colonialism and
geopolitics a secondary issue in discussions of citizenship (with the exception of Lisa Lowes work).5 These studies of Britain and the United
States have been most concerned with citizenship within the national domain, sidestepping the effects of their colonial projects on immigration
and the national politics of belonging.
To think that diasporic Chinese citizenship is determined solely by
forces within Panama is to assume that nation-states are bounded and
isolated entities, when in fact they are subject to transnational forces and
operate in relation to one another (Malkki 1994). Indeed, diasporic Chinese citizenship is defined vis--vis Panama, the PRC, Taiwan, and the
United States all at once. It is therefore always contingent on their shifting geopolitical relations, relations that give rise to certain constructions
of Chineseness, the valuation of diasporic Chinese in the global context,
and ideas of belonging.
Despite the contributions of cultural citizenship studies, commonsense



understanding of citizenship has remained rights-oriented and state-centered. In countries where the legal-juridical system is central to the structure of governance, citizenship not only defines who belongs and has
rights, but it also serves as a crucial site for contesting social injustice and
advancing widespread social change. Diasporic citizenship, I would emphasize, is a social process that encompasses both the legal-juridical aspects and the cultural-affective dimensions of belonging. Indeed, the concept of belonging, most strongly forwarded by feminist scholars,
addresses the affective dimensions of citizenship more explicitly by stressing the process of forming affinities, affiliations, and solidarities in community formation (Yuval-Davis 2003; Parreas 2001; Ramirez 2004;
Coll 2004; Benmayor et al. 1997; Pateman 1979; see also Calhoun
2003). Moreover, Lisa Lowe, in her seminal study of Asian American citizenship, argues forcefully that culturebe it in the form of stories, memories, icons, or narrativesis the primary terrain on which national
belonging is enacted, felt, visualized, and challenged (1996). While citizenship often evokes the realm of formal politics and governmentality,
belonging alludes to the cultural and social realms of everyday life. The
two processes are inseparable in diasporic citizenship; where they differ
is in emphasis. I therefore use the term diasporic citizenship in this expanded sense of belonging to illustrate the role of the state, the contending forces of cultural nationalisms, and the power of geopolitics, while at
the same time not neglecting the imaginative, sentimental, and experiential aspects of diasporic life. I use the terms belonging and citizenship interchangeably throughout this book, insisting that they both
reference the dynamics and processes involved in diasporic subject formation. The aim is to capture as fully as possible the complexity of diasporic Chinese citizenship as a historically situated, geopolitically contingent, and culturally mediated process through which the Chinese in
Panama negotiate, define, and create a sense of belonging.
Diaspora: the Condition and Meaning of
Living with Intersectionality

In the case of the Chinese in Panama, the framework of diaspora as both

social formation and cultural process is particularly useful in delineating
the parameters of belonging, the specific players involved and the nature
of their relationship, and the ongoing negotiation with multiple influences. The term diaspora refers to a collectivity of people who share a
common history of dispersal from a homeland (real or imagined) and em-



placement elsewhere, and who maintain a sense of connection to both

places, as well as with their geographically dispersed co-ethnics. With few
exceptions, diaspora studies have focused on either the binary relationship between the homeland and a local diasporic community (Raj 2003;
Louie 2004; Hsu 2000; Manalansan 2003) or the relationship among dispersed communities of a given diaspora (Gilroy 1993, 1987). The concept of diasporic citizenship disrupts this convention by treating the two
processes as simultaneous modes of diasporic subject formation. This approach is particularly important in the case of diasporic Chinese because
the Chinese homeland continues to exert a strong cultural pull on the diaspora and diasporic Chinese continue to maintain widespread transnational ties with one another. My discussion of the annual Convention of
Chinese in Central America and Panama, an event co-sponsored by diasporic Chinese and the Taiwanese state, is one such example (see chapter
2). Also, the migration stories in chapter 3, which map the serial migration of diasporic Chinese from China to Panama and throughout different places in the Americas, provide an example of how diasporic belonging is articulated through links to multiple sites.
While the noun diaspora often connotes a stable object, a static collectivity with assumed and unchanging sets of identifications and connections,6 I prefer to use its adjectival form, diasporic, to emphasize
the processual nature of producing diasporic subjectivities. It underscores
that diasporic subjects are not ready-made, homogenous, or replicas of
their ethnic counterparts in the homeland. The specific manner and style
in which one articulates that subjectivity depends on a number of factors,
including migration circumstance, place of settlement, and historical context. Moreover, being diasporic means experiencing both identification
with and displacement from both home sites at once (Parreas and Siu
forthcoming). By this, I am referring to the tension between ones affinity
and affiliation with these sites and ones acknowledgement of only partial
belonging to and acceptance by them. Being diasporic entails active and
conscious negotiation of ones identity and ones understandings of
home and community. Hence, diasporic points not only to multiple links to places but also to the process by which those links are reworked and reproduced through sentiment, memory, and imagination
(Hall 1990; Appadurai 1996; Leonard and Werbner 2000). I use diasporic not as a fashionable substitution for immigrant,7 then, but
explicitly to engage the conceptual framework of diaspora.8 Diasporic
subjects are not generationally specific, and their sensibilities do not au-



tomatically fade with time. The term signals a subjective position, a state
of being and becoming (Hall 1990). As such, it applies to all those who
actively generate and reproduce diasporic relations, identifications, and
sentiments. Diasporic citizenship addresses this complex process of subject formation, one that involves not only ongoing relationships with
multiple communities (i.e., homeland, place of settlement, and the larger
diaspora) and the continual production of a shared history but also the
production of difference and disjuncture in relation to those communities.
I have found Stuart Halls discussion of diasporic identities as reflecting a doubleness of similarity and difference particularly useful here.
He suggests that these identities are framed by two simultaneously operating vectors. While the vector of similarity and continuity gives grounding in and reflects a shared past, the vector of difference and rupture indexes the discontinuity associated with dispersal and insertion into
different locales (Hall 1990). In other words, traces of Chineseness across
the diaspora reflect a shared history while local or national differences reveal the process of dispersion and emplacement. Following his argument,
likeness and difference is reflected not only among diasporic communities
(i.e., Chinese Panamanians and Chinese Americans) but also between a
diasporic community and both the homeland and place of settlement.
With this in mind, the study of diasporic citizenship seeks to examine
situated experiences of belonging and insists on exploring specific histories of encounters that shape diasporic subject formation. Indeed, the vast
scholarship on overseas Chinese studies reflects a diversity of contexts
and experiences that cannot and should not be reduced to one formulation. In Southeast Asia, with its long historical presence of Chinese merchants, the dominant themes of study concern the resilience and persistence of Chinese cultural traits and social institutions, political loyalty,
and Chinese cultural strategies in achieving economic success (Freedman
1957, 1965, 1979a, 1979b; Skinner 1957, 1968; Dewey 1972; Wickberg
1965; Olsen 1972; Amyot 1973; Crissman 1967). In the United States,
where labor migration, economic integration, and political-cultural exclusion have been most salient, the central themes have been labor, exclusionary policies and practices, and the emergence of ethnic enclaves
(Takaki 1989; Chan 1991; Hing 1993; Lee 1999; Kwong 1987, 1999;
Tchen 2001). In Latin America and the Caribbean, where migration was
split between indentured laborers and merchants, scholars have focused



on the different conditions of migration and patterns of settlement (HuDehart 1980, 1989, 1998a, 1998b; Lai 1993, 1998; Stewart 1976;
Lausent-Herrera 1983, 1987; Rodrguez 1989). In the past decade, with
the end of the Cold War and increasing interest in transnationalism, diasporic Chinese studies have enjoyed a rebirth. Different conceptual approaches to understanding the Chinese diaspora (Tu 1994; Ang 1994;
Ma and Cartier 2003; Wang 1991) and Chinese transnationalism (Ong
and Nonini 1997; McKeown 2000; Palumbo-Liu 1999) have emerged
from a variety of disciplines. Moreover, while Southeast Asia and the
United States have traditionally been the two dominant sites of diasporic
Chinese studies, more attention is now being given to Latin America, Europe, and Africa (Pieke et al. 2004; Hart 2002; Siu 2000; Rustomji-Kerns
Given the array of differences among diasporic Chinese, it may be
helpful to outline briefly four important aspects that are of particular relevance to the Chinese in Panama and, with some deviation, to the Chinese in Latin America in general. First, the national ideology of mestizaje,
or cultural and racial mixedness, plays a critical role in determining the
integration of diasporic Chinese into their nation-state of residence. Second, homeland state influence has been significant in sustaining diasporahomeland ties and in reproducing a diasporic Chinese consciousness.
Third, American imperialism has thoroughly complicated the politics of
belonging by offering alternative channels of cultural and social participation for diasporic Chinese, while at the same time contributing to nationalist anti-Chinese sentiments. Finally, transnational organizations,
whether they take the form of institutionalized associations or informal
family networks, have created yet another alternative resource for cultural production and diasporic subject formation. The next section explores these four aspects of diasporic Chinese citizenship in detail.
While this book focuses specifically on the Chinese in Panama, the
concept of diasporic citizenship is applicable in a variety of contexts. Certainly, the experience of cultural intersectionality is not uncommon
among other diasporic groups. And the triangulation of forces among nation of residence, homeland, and American imperialism in diasporic subject formation may also be applicable to many. My hope is that this
ethnography, while providing a close analysis of what is taking place on
the ground among the Chinese in Panama, will also offer a viable framework to study belonging for other diasporic subjects.



Diasporic Citizenship at the Intersection of Panama,

China, and the United States
To understand what it means to inhabit the intersection of Panama,
China, and the United States, one must first examine the nature of the relationship between diasporic Chinese and each of these cultural-political
formations. Constructed as perpetual foreigners in Panama, treated as
overseas compatriots by the Chinese state(s), and considered reliable labor resources by the American administration, diasporic Chinese confront three different hegemonic forces which bind them to each cultural
polity in particular ways. Their intersectional positioning has everything
to do with their ongoing marginality in Panama, their sustained relationship with the Chinese state(s), and their labor relations with American
capitalism. (I should note here that these hegemonic forces by no means
capture the full range of cultural complexity that emerge from this set of
triangulating relations; I draw them out only to highlight their distinctive
intervention in diasporic Chinese subject formation.) At the same time,
all three entities embody and offer different cultural resources that diasporic Chinese can draw upon to construct identity and belonging. In addition, the larger diaspora of which Panamanian Chinese are part also
plays a role. Below I delineate the position of diasporic Chinese vis--vis
each of these entities. By separating them to gain analytic clarity, I hope
to draw out the existing and potential contradictions, tensions, and collisions among them in order to better reveal how their interactions and
overlaps produce the various limits and possibilities of diasporic Chinese
Pa n a m a : C i t i z e n s h i p i n t h e C o n t e x t o f M e s t i z a j e
and Political Instability

Since becoming independent in 1903, Panama has survived U.S. military

occupation, several military coups, at least two presidential assassinations, four different constitutions, two military regimes, a violent American invasion, and an international arrest of its chief of state. Under these
conditions, not only are the rights and entitlements of citizenship difficult
to maintain, much less enforce, but the people have virtually lost faith
and belief in the state. Indeed, in everyday discourse, Panamanians consistently express their disillusionment by characterizing their politicians
as mere puppets of the United States, money-mongers acting in their own
interests, and/or corrupt, power-hungry dictators. Jokes about the police



are also rampant.9 It has become common knowledge that if a policeman

pulls you over for some unknown traffic violation, you simply give him
some coffee money and he will let you go. Another revealing comment
was expressed by a leading representative of the Chinese Association. He
told me that, as part of his duties, he negotiates with Panamanian officials almost every week to resolve the ongoing problem of illegal Chinese
immigration. He underscored that this has been and remains the largest
problem for the community. When I asked him why he doesnt try to
change the law itself, he paused, looked at me with a raised eyebrow, and
replied skeptically, Hmmm. I never thought about that. Whether his
comment was meant to suggest either the irrelevance of the legal system
or the impossibility of changing the law, it was clear that he did not seem
to believe that working within the legal-juridical system would provide a
solution to his problem. (Trafficking in Chinese, one of the most profitable ventures in Panama, in fact requires extensive official and unofficial networks.) Comments and jokes like these reveal Panamanians pervasive lack of confidence or faith in their government. Moreover, they
perpetuate the undermining of state governance and legitimacy. With
such a pervasive lack of faith in the formal political system, the realm of
everyday culture becomes the key site of contest and negotiation of citizenship and national belonging.
Panamanian nationalism, as ideology and social movement, is the central locus of defining and contesting national belonging. In 1940, after a
decade of intense popular movements, Panamanian nationalism heralded
the paradigm of mestizaje,10 the concept of racial and cultural mixing (especially in terms of indigenous and Spanish people and cultures), and
made it the defining feature of Panamanian national identity and citizenship. Like all nationalist ideologies, mestizaje masks unequal power relations and is filled with contradictions. Even as it tries to construct an inclusionary vision of national belonging, it nonetheless relies on strategies
of exclusion. In Panama, the paradigm of mestizaje has two different sets
of meanings. While popular usage of the term mestizaje invokes the general ideology of racial-cultural mixing, its legal usage, as written into the
constitution of 1940, referred only to people of mixed indigenous and
Spanish backgrounds. It therefore deliberately excluded all those who do
not fit into this categoryincluding the Chinese, Arabs, Jews, Japanese,
and English-speaking blacksand made them into outsiders and foreigners, against whom Panamanian mestizos were defined.11 (In excluding the Chinese and English-speaking blacks, the constitution disen-



franchised the two largest immigrant groups in Panama at the time.) Even
though this constitution was revoked a few years after its implementation, the ideological tendency to posit Panamanian national identity
against cultural and racial outsiders remains strong.
Popular discourses about the Chinese in Panama today continue to reflect and reinforce the notion that diasporic Chinese are perpetual foreigners and outsiders. I was often shocked to hear statements like The
Chinese keep to themselves and The Chinese do not mix by non-Chinese Panamanians, when in fact I saw constant interaction or mixing
among Chinese and non-Chinese in workplaces, churches, schools, and
social gatherings. Moreover, interracial marriage is quite common. Yet,
despite daily encounters with diasporic Chinese, the general perception
that the Chinese are separate from and outside of Panamanian cultural
and social life persists with great tenacity. By eliding the fact that diasporic Chinese are mixing with the larger Panamanian society, dominant
perceptions of Chinese as cultural isolationists and purists are used to justify their marginalization and exclusion. The argument is such that because the Chinese do not participate in cultural and social mixing, they
are the ones choosing not to take part in Panamanian society, and in
making that choice, they do not deserve to be part of the nation.
Even the term used by both Chinese and non-Chinese Panamanians to
refer to the community, La Colonia China, the Chinese Colony, suggests cultural and spatial separation of diasporic Chinese from the rest of
Panama. No doubt a remnant of nineteenth and early twentieth-century
ideology of spatial confinement based on race, the idea of a Chinese
Colony suggests a self-contained, bounded cultural-political unit that is
more a satellite of China than an ethnic community in Panama. These images reinforce perceptions of the Chinese as an insular and closed community, as having an unquestioned affinity with China, and as forever
separate from the rest of Panamanian culture and society. More recently,
popular concern about the existence of a Chinese mafia has emerged.
Such discourses not only imply a culturally distinct system of self-governance but also invoke orientalist mystique and fear. These everyday discourses and perceptions of Chinese insularity, separateness, and unwillingness to mix with Panamanian culture and society have proved to be
one of the most significant barriers to achieving full cultural and political
belonging in Panama.
Diasporic Chinese have been part of Panama for more than 150 years.
They are the largest nonLatin American immigrant population, and they



currently make up 6.5 percent of the total population. The experience of

the Chinese in Panama is one that is familiar to diasporic Chinese (and
arguably to diasporic Asians more generally) in the United States and
elsewhere in the world. They live in a situation filled with contradictions.
Though they have been subjected to exclusionary laws since the founding
of the nation, in practice, they have managed to work around certain
state disciplinary forces, and Chinese immigration has been more or less
continuous since the 1850s. Also, while they have been subjected to antiChinese movements, disenfranchisement, and state violence, they have
been able to achieve a certain level of economic integration and social
mobility. And even as the Chinese continue to be construed as foreignersto be tolerated, rejected, or embraced, depending on circumstance
within the Panamanian nation-state, they have nonetheless carved out a
place of belonging. Establishing social institutions like community clubs
and Chinese language schools, nurturing certain cultural practices like
kung fu training or preparation and consumption of Chinese food, and
participating in everyday Panamanian life, diasporic Chinese create their
own way of belonging to Panama. The extent to which they have been
successful in doing so, however, is due in large part to their strategy of
nurturing transnational ties with the U.S., China/Taiwan, and the larger
diaspora. Their emplacement in Panama, then, has always been embedded within webs of transnational flows and relations.
American Imperialism and Cultural Hegemony

It is impossible to discuss the Chinese in Panama without addressing

American imperialism and hegemony. From the outset, it was the American-based New York Railway Company that organized the initial labor
migration of Chinese to Panama during the mid nineteenth century.
When 500 of the first 705 Chinese laborers died within five months of
their arrival, organized Chinese labor migration came to a halt. It was
not until the late 1800s and early 1900s, with the expansion of the
United Fruit Company and work on the French Canal, followed by the
American Canal, that Chinese immigration got under way again.
Panamas growing economy attracted Chinese immigrants from Asia and
the Americas. Some came directly from China, while others remigrated
from Peru, Cuba, Jamaica, Central America, and the United States,
among other places. They came through kinship networks, by pure
chance, and/or in search of economic opportunities and less hostile conditions. Like the Chinese in Mexico, many Chinese in Panama built their



livelihoods around American enterprises (Hu-Dehart 1980). They opened

small grocery stores, eateries, cantinas, and laundries that served the
workers of these enterprises. While the interaction between diasporic
Chinese and American capitalists and government officials has shifted
and changed over the past 150 years, their relationship was formed primarily as a result of labor and trade affiliation, diplomatic representation
(for a short while), and, to a certain extent, Chinese marginality in
Being outside of the Panamanian social structure, diasporic Chinese in
the early decades of settlement searched for alternative routes of employment and social mobility. In addition to creating their own networks and
structures, they also found an economic niche in American expansionism
in Panama. In 1903, when Panama gained its independence from Columbia with the help of the American military, the United States formalized its occupation of Panama. The long-standing American dream of
constructing a canal through Panama became a reality, and the United
States gained controlled of the land surrounding what would become the
Panama Canal. This U.S.-controlled area, known as the Canal Zone,
had sovereignty and created its own cultural, social, and political structure separate from Panama. It was governed by an American administration and had a separate medical, educational, and juridical system. It was
essentially an American city on Panamanian soil. The Canal Zone,
though located inside Panama, operated under a different cultural logic
and sociopolitical system. Diasporic Chinese, disadvantaged when competing with other Panamanians in the Panamanian social structure, found
it easier to enter into the American system.
This labor and trade affiliation between diasporic Chinese and the
American administration has, however, been double-edged. While it
opened an alternative path for social mobility, it also adversely affected
the efforts of diasporic Chinese to gain full citizenship in Panama. Indeed,
Panamanian nationalism has traditionally associated diasporic Chinese
and black West Indiansthe two largest racialized labor groups working
for the American administrationwith American imperialism. In the
eyes of Panamanian nationalists, not only are diasporic Chinese foreigners and cultural outsiders, but they also are peons of American imperialism. Diasporic Chinese are thus caught in a double bind: their route of
economic survival and pursuit worked against their cultural and political
acceptance by Panama.
Moreover, this connection between diasporic Chinese and the Ameri-



can administration is reinforced by the fact that the American consulate

actually provided international representation for the Chinese in Panama
between 1885 and 1912. At the request of the Chinese government, the
U.S. consul during that period served as the protector of the Chinese
community there and mediated relations between the Chinese and the
Panamanian state. This politically binding relationship further solidified
diasporic Chinese/American relations and perpetuated the Panamanian
perception regarding the position of the Chinese vis--vis the colonial
government and Panama.
Currently, the relationship between diasporic Chinese and the U.S. administration is most evident in the widespread use of English among all
generations of Panamanian Chinese. While it may come as no surprise
that Chinese youth today can understand and speak at least some English, given the global distribution of American media, many older diasporic Chinese also speak English fluently. This phenomenon is specific to
the Panamanian context and contrasts with diasporic Chinese in other
parts of Latin America. This is so for several reasons. First, many of them
at one time lived and/or worked in or near the Canal Zone, U.S. military
bases, or the United Fruit Company. Diasporic Chinese workers and
shopkeepers had to learn English in order to keep their jobs or to do business with their primarily American and West Indian clientele. For these
people, English was their primary language of work.
Second, as a result of being excluded from Panamanian Catholic
schools based on religion, many diasporic Chinese during the first half of
the twentieth century attended American-run Methodist schools where
English was the primary language of instruction. For many diasporic Chinese of this generation, learning English was their only means of getting
an education. Third, diasporic Chinese of a certain privileged class, following in the footsteps of the Panamanian elite, often sent their children
to study in American universities, and they returned to Panama upon
graduation. As a form of cultural capital, an American university degree
enabled diasporic Chinese to compete with Panamanian elites for employment in American and other transnational companies. It also served
as an emblem of social class status and facilitated entry into certain social
circles of Panama and elsewhere. And, finally, a small number of immigrants who came via the British colony of Hong Kong had attended English schools before migrating to Panama.
Diasporic Chinese, across different class backgrounds and generations,
acquired English in these various ways. For some, speaking English was



a form of cultural capital, but for many, it was a practice of everyday life,
a strategy of survival, or the only option they had. It emerged from the
particular contact zone, to use Mary Louise Pratts phrase,12 in which
they lived. Some even joke about speaking their own hybridized languages of Spanglish or Chinspanglish, in which they mix Chinese,
Spanish, and English in everyday speech. Of course they understand the
implications of speaking English. On the one hand, it has given them access to work opportunities within the American colonial structure in
Panama (and elsewhere); on the other, their association with the Americans has inspired anti-Chinese sentiment among Panamanian nationalists. Speaking English, then, indexes the legacy of American imperialism
and its role in shaping the limits and possibilities of diasporic citizenship
for the Chinese in Panama.
O n e C h i n e s e H o m e l a n d , Tw o C l a i m a n t S t a t e s

It is precisely the existence of the Peoples Republic of China as a nationstate and the salient position it occupies in both the global political economy and global imagination that differentiates the experience of diasporic Chinese from people of other diasporas today. Posing one of the
biggest challenges to American hegemony, China arouses global fascination (Ang 2001). It is shunned for its communist ideology, celebrated as
the ultimate investors dream, and cheered as the fearless anti-West. Its
monumental standing in the world creates a challenging predicament for
diasporic Chinese, whose links to China, whether imposed by others or
nurtured by choice, always haunt their presence abroad. It is virtually impossible for diasporic Chinese to escape Chinas shadow. As Akhil Gupta
and James Ferguson suggest, people, culture, and place remain conflated
in our transnational world (Gupta and Ferguson 1992). In the case of diasporic Chinese, even though they no longer live in China, their Chinese
ethnicity links them to China culturally, historically, and sometimes even
During one of my visits to Guangdong, China, I came upon a monument composed of blocks of stones commemorating diasporic support in
the 1911 Chinese revolution. A stone is dedicated to every diasporic community that gave support to the revolutionaries. Somewhere in the middle of the monument is a stone engraved with Bocas del Toro, Panama,
signifying the contributions of diasporic Chinese based in the city of Bocas del Toro in Panama. As indicated by this stone, the relationship between China and the diasporic Chinese in Panama has a long history.



What is important to remember, also, is that homeland-diaspora relations

are often mediated by the state. And with China, the situation is complicated by the fact that there are two states claiming to represent the Chinese nation, not one. In the international arena, the issue of Chinese state
legitimacy remains contested. Since 1949, mainland China and Taiwan
have been competing for Chinese state legitimacy.13 In doing so, each has
actively sought to recruit diasporic Chinese support.
Panamas recognition of Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese state has facilitated and enabled homeland state-diaspora relations between diasporic Chinese there and Taiwan. Just as diasporic Chinese have contributed to the development of the modern Chinese nation-state,
Taiwanese state officials have also been involved in diasporic Chinese institutions in Panama. Not only have they been instrumental in developing certain diasporic organizations, such as the Federation of Chinese Associations in Central America and Panama and the Chinese Panamanian
Professionals Association,14 but they also play important roles in the governing apparatus of the diaspora.
One of the most significant projects illustrating the symbiotic relationship between diasporic Chinese and the Taiwanese state has been the construction and administration of the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center,
which includes the Sun Yat-Sen Institute and Friendship Park. Located in
the neighborhood of El Dorado, the new Chinatown, in Panama City,
the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center represents what some have
called the heart of the Chinese Panamanian community. Stretching several city blocks, the administrative offices of the cultural center and the
institute sit on one side of the highway, with Friendship Park on the
other. Connecting the two sites is an elevated footbridge to ensure safe
crossing. The Cultural Center houses all the administrative offices of the
Chinese community, and the Sun Yat-Sen Institute provides kindergartenthrough-secondary education and is fully recognized by the Panamanian
state. The institute teaches all the state-required courses, in addition to
offering classes in Mandarin, Chinese folk dance, and kung fu. It consists
of several school buildings, a large gymnasium, a library, computer facilities, and a sizable play yard. Friendship Park, its very name representing
the sustained connection between Panama and Taiwan, prides itself on its
pagoda structure and Chinese-inspired landscaping.
This monumental project truly represents the joint efforts of both the
Taiwanese government and diasporic Chinese. Representatives from both
the Taiwanese embassy and the local Chinese community were responsi-



ble for the architectural design, oversaw the actual construction, and are
now managing the Cultural Center together. Special materials that went
into the building of the pagoda and the Manchurian-style roofs were sent
from Taiwan; and labor was drawn from Panama. Moreover, the project
was built with funds from both the Taiwanese government and private
donations from the Chinese community. The Cultural Center is by far the
largest joint project in Panama of the homeland state and diasporic Chinese, and its existence continues to bind the two parties together. It could
be said that the Cultural Center is as much an investment in the relationship between Taiwan and diasporic Chinese in Panama as it is in the communitys growth.
Why is Taiwan so committed to this relationship? Up until the mid
1970s, the Taiwanese government was widely regarded as the legitimate
Chinese state by most countries in the world. But when the United Nations formally recognized the mainland Chinese government in 1971, the
tide began to shift, and one by one, individual nation-states slowly
switched relations from Taiwan to mainland China. Today, only 28 out
of 19215 countries still recognize Taiwan, while the rest have established
formal relations with mainland China. Given this imbalance, it becomes
increasingly important for Taiwan to do whatever it can to maintain formal relations with these remaining 28 countries, among which are
Panama and the Central American states. One of its main strategies has
been to recruit the support of diasporic Chinese, whose role as cultural
translators and political mediators can influence the opinions of Panamanian officials.
Diasporic Chinese communities have long served as the battleground
on which the China-Taiwan conflict is played out. Indeed, the ongoing
struggle between the two governments has created deep antagonism
among diasporic Chinese everywhere, and Panama is no exception. One
must keep in mind that the decision to ally with either government is not
simply about which claimant state diasporic Chinese like better. Beyond
the economic benefits that come with their political allegiance, what is at
stake for diasporic Chinese is the power to define and shape who they are
as Chinese subjects, as it involves debates about ideology, Chinese history, modernity, cultural authenticity, and identity. Yet, as much as the
PRC-Taiwan conflict divides the diaspora and informs their contested notions of Chineseness, diasporic Chinese also have tremendous influence in
shaping that conflict. Diasporic Chinese can and often do play an important intermediary role between the claimant Chinese states and the com-



munitys nation of residence. Both mainland China and Taiwan understand the importance of gaining diasporic support; this is why they so actively engage the diaspora in their ongoing struggle.
In several chapters of this book, I illustrate the various ways in which
the Taiwanese government has integrated itself socially and structurally
into the diasporic community of Panama. Whether it is by cosponsoring
transnational meetings or establishing the Chinese Panamanian Cultural
Center, the Taiwanese government has made itself an integral part of the
diaspora. (Undoubtedly, their close relationship has contributed to dominant perceptions of diasporic Chinese as outsiders in Panama.) On the
other hand, the mainland Chinese government holds a different power
over diasporic Chinese. Having sovereign control of mainland China, it
has moral claims to representing the Chinese homeland and Chinese
authenticity. We should recall that even as recently as 1996, the PRC
launched missiles into the Taiwan Strait to reiterate its territorial claim
over Taiwan. Today, the two governments continue to work toward their
divergent agendas. As long as the PRC-Taiwan conflict continues, so will
their struggle for diasporic Chinese allegiance and affinity. The drama is
far from over. Until 1997, Taiwan enjoyed a virtual monopoly over Panamanian Chinese allegiance, but this may all change now that mainland
China has established an official commercial office in Panama and its
representatives now have direct contact with diasporic Chinese.16
Diasporic Chinese in Panama draw heavily on the cultural, moral, and
political resources, not only of Panama itself, but of the United States, the
PRC, and Taiwan. Emerging from their experience of being situated at
the intersection of these national entities is their imaginative and creative
production of identity, belonging, and community. Their play with difference is crystallized in numerous events, practices, and cultural sites, including the Chinese Colonys annual beauty contest, serial migration,
community plays, karaoke performances, and the Sun Yat-Sen Institute.
All these are sites where diasporic Chinese invoke and practice their layered identifications. Moreover, inhabiting an intersectional position can
enable diasporic subjects to leverage their placement in one nation
against another, to use their positioning in one to negotiate, remake, and
revise their relationship with the others. Take, for instance, how the
Canal Zone offered an alternative arena for Chinese economic advancement, thereby allowing diasporic Chinese to gain relative influence in
Panamanian society. Also, consider how their status as diasporic Chinese
in Panama, which makes them into potential mediators between Panama



and China/Taiwan, has given Panamanian Chinese more leverage in negotiating their relationship with the two Chinese governments. The in-between-ness of being in diaspora, though at times disconcerting, can also
be used to challenge and undermine nation-states. It is precisely this dialectic between the limits and possibilities of displacement that comes to
define the parameters of diasporic citizenship.
Th e L a r g e r C h i n e s e D i a s p o r a

Furthermore, the vectors of diasporic formations are not limited to the

homeland, nation of residence, and the colonial presence but also include
the larger collectivity of diasporic communities dispersed in other locations. Paul Gilroy has described the black Atlantic as a cultural-political formation forged by historical and ongoing ties among diasporic
black communities in Britain, the United States, and the Caribbean. Similarly, diasporic Chinese also maintain social and cultural ties through
formal and informal networks with Chinese dispersed elsewhere. Transnational organizations such as the Federation of Chinese Associations in
Central America and Panama, the Association of Chinese in the Americas, and the Global Association of Cantoneseall co-sponsored by the
Taiwanese governmentoverlap and crisscross with kinship and other
informal networks. These organizations and their annual meetings provide regular venues for reconnection and reproduction of social ties
among diasporic Chinese. Meanwhile, family gatherings and reunions offer more intimate encounters. For instance, many Panamanian Chinese
who have migrated elsewhere often return to Panama during the Christmas season to reconnect with their relatives and friends. Holiday parties
provide an important arena to reconfirm bonds and to create new ones.
Through participation in these organizations, annual meetings, and informal gatherings, diasporic Chinese gain a perspective, sensibility, and
consciousness of being part of a larger diaspora, a diaspora linked together through a shared sense of collective history and cultural identification with Chineseness, the Chinese homeland, and their emplacement
outside of China. While these transnational occasions powerfully affirm
ones ties to a larger collectivity that is geographically dispersed but
nonetheless shares a sense of connectedness, they also make evident localnational differences and unequal power relations within the diaspora. Although the global diaspora is not a nation-state, the supranational organizations work as the political apparatus of the larger diaspora. While it
does not wield the same power as Panama, the United States, the PRC, or



Taiwan in diasporic Chinese formation, the global diasporaas a cultural and political entitynonetheless plays a significant role in shaping
diasporic subjectivity. At the very least, it makes possible the reproduction of a global collectivity among transnationally dispersed diasporic

Three Methodological Features of Diasporic Citizenship

Having outlined the specific components involved in shaping the diasporic citizenship of Chinese in Panama, I want to draw attention to the
three methodological features inherent in diasporic citizenship: intersectionality, contingency, and mediation. In making explicit these three features, my intention is to clarify how I approach diasporic citizenship and
use it as a heuristic device.
The intersectionality of diasporic citizenship alludes to the cultural-political positioning of diasporic subjects and underscores the significance
of geopolitics, by which I mean the cultural and political-economic conditions created by interstate relations between nation-states. For the Chinese in Panama, diasporic citizenship is situated where Panama (the nation of residence), mainland China/Taiwan (the homeland), and the
United States (the former colonial presence) intersect. I treat these nationstates as geopolitical entities with distinct political agendas and cultural
logics of their own. Each embodies and conveys a distinct set of political
and cultural forces that differentiates them from one other. The concept
of intersectionality points to the manner in which these political-cultural
forces collide, overlap, and conflict with one another, out of which diasporic Chinese citizenship is defined.
Employing the analytics of border studies, which examines the emergence of a third syncretic culture when two nations of unequal power
share one geopolitical border, intersectionality highlights both the literal
border between Panama and the United Statesas embodied by the
Canal Zoneand the figurative border between mainland China/Taiwan
and Panama. For instance, many diasporic Chinese work in the Canal
Zone, while their children attend the Sun Yat-Sen Institute (co-founded
by the Taiwanese state), and the family participates in Panamanian social
life. Their simultaneous and differentiated forms of participation in these
arenas contribute to their subject formation as Panamanian Chinese.
Take, for example, their development of conversational Chinspanglish,
their knowledge of both Panamanian and American popular cultures,



and their experimentation with Panamanian and Chinese cuisine. Intersectionality also points to feminist interventions concerning intersectional
modes of subject formation, in which race, gender, class, and other categories of difference coexist in tension with one another (Anzalda 1987;
Alarcn 1990). In this sense, intersectionality underscores difference
among diasporic subjects as well as their differentiated positioning in society, recognizing their uneven access to resources and unequal power relations within the diaspora. Certainly, a recent immigrant woman who
works as a domestic worker occupies a very different position than a
well-established Chinese businessman. The intersection of gender, class,
and ethnicity place these two people in very different social locations
within the diaspora.
The contingency of diasporic citizenship to historical circumstances is
the second feature. Tracing the shifting terms and practices of diasporic
Chinese citizenship from 1940 to 2000, this book argues that diasporic
citizenship is always historically situated as well as culturally mediated. It
emphasizes that diasporic citizenship is an ongoing process that changes
over time and is sensitive to sociopolitical shifts and ruptures. Recall for
a moment the scenario opening this introduction in which a pair of political cartoons illustrates Panama grappling with the new conditions of
postCold War globalization, the PRC and Taiwan extending their economic reach into Latin America, and the United States demilitarizing and
preparing its exit from the country. This scenario differs dramatically
from that which pertained in the 1940s, when Panamanian nationalism,
the Chinese Communist Revolution, and American military expansion in
Panama gave rise to another formulation of diasporic citizenship.
To emphasize contingency is to underscore that belonging and citizenship do not necessarily follow a unidirectional, linear progression from
nonbelonging to full belonging in a nation-state over time. On the contrary, they are processes that are always contextual, negotiated, and in
production. The aspect of contingency in diasporic citizenship fundamentally contradicts both the concept of cultural assimilation,17 which
posits the notion that immigrant ethnic groups can and will achieve national integration simply by adopting dominant values and behaviors,
and that of ethnic succession, which holds that immigrant groups will be
automatically absorbed into the higher ranks of society as the moral capital of suffering and contribution is accumulated through the generations
(Flores and Benmayor 1997; Ong 2003; Portes and Rumbaut 1990).
While both concepts of cultural assimilation and ethnic succession



suggest that citizenship is achieved through the gradual accumulation of

certain moral and cultural capital through time, diasporic citizenship
holds that citizenship is always historically situated and subject to sociopolitical ruptures. This means that citizenship can be stripped away as
easily as it was granted, and the slow march toward first-class citizenship
can be reversed by changes in policy. Recall in American history the disenfranchisement of Japanese Americans during World War II. No doubt,
the notion of contingency is particularly significant in the case of
Panama, a nation-state whose sociopolitical system has historically been
volatile and unstable, due in large part to American colonialism. For
Panama, the notion of ruptures seems more appropriate for describing
the process of citizenship than continuity or gradual succession.
Mediation, the third feature of diasporic citizenship, underscores the
role of culture and cultural processes in mediating global forces and local
phenomena, geopolitics and local interactions in the politics of belonging.
These mediating processes include everyday discourse, performance, representation, and cultural production. These are the cultural sites in which
constructions of difference and identification along axes of race, ethnicity, gender, and class are contested, reworked, and made socially meaningful. They are the sites where different interest groups (diasporic subjects, Panamanian nationalists, state representatives, etc.) assert, debate,
and negotiate the parameters of national belonging. As an example of
cultural mediation at work, consider the article and political cartoon
cited at the outset of this Introduction that uses caricatures of national
difference to make sense of the particular historical conjuncture where
American demilitarization meets the arrival of Chinese capital. The cartoon renders visible and legible both the geopolitical triangulation between Panama, the United States, and China as well as its effects on diasporic Chinese belonging in Panama. The cartoon and the debates of
Chinese belonging become the critical sites of meaning production, and it
is in these sites that global issues become locally interpreted and interpolated. Conversely, the newspaper cartoon and article also travel and facilitate the circulation of local events in the global arena, where meaning
is transmitted and rearticulated. Mediation, then, suggests that the realm
of the culturaldiscourse, representation, memory, performance, artifacts, and everyday practiceoffers an important arena to examine how
the global and the local interact, intersect, and whose collisions are rendered socially meaningful.



An Ethnography of Social Rupture: Organization of the Book

This book examines diasporic citizenshipthe meanings and practices of
belongingas experienced by the Chinese in Panama. I have found that
diasporic belonging is articulated most clearly and vividly at points where
it is tested, when there is conflict and disagreement about who belongs
and why. It makes sense, then, that each of the following chapters examines a different type or moment of social rupture, when the social order implodes and the boundaries of what counts as belonging are actively
debated, negotiated, and redrawn.18 These moments provide openings to
examine the shifting circumstances, the players and their relative positions, and the various outcomes that result from this complex web of interactions. It is in these scenarios that diasporic un/belonging is articulated most clearly, crystallized, and made lucid for a short while. It is also
in these scenarios that diasporic Chinese are forced to confront questions
of home, belonging, and identity. This approach to studying diasporic belonging through social ruptures is informed by my understanding of communitybe it ethnic, national, or regionalas a contested and continual
process that attempts to produce coherence and unity out of difference
and instability (Martin 1986; Mohanty 1987; Pratt 1984; Rich 1986;
Rouse 1991).19 Social ruptures are precisely those points when community is suspended, when consensus is not possible, and/or when everyday
life has been disrupted so radically that change is necessary.
Another reason for organizing the chapters around social ruptures is
to work against narratives of development. What I want to stress with diasporic citizenship is that the politics of belonging does not follow an assumed, unidirectional, and inevitable path from nonbelonging to full belonging. Instead, I underscore contingency. When diasporic Chinese are
affiliated, by choice or conjecture, with several geopolitical entities at
once, their national belonging becomes vulnerable to the status of relations between these entities. Given the multiple factors and parties involved, it is impossible to chart a predictable course. Diasporic citizenship, then, points to the ongoing and always incomplete process of
creating a home, a community, and a sense of belonging amid shifting
geopolitical conditions and power relations.
In spanning the period between 1940 and 2000, then, this ethnography focuses on several specific incidents of social rupture, each of which
is addressed in a separate chapter. Together, the chapters explore the challenges and conflicts, as well as the creativity and resourcefulness, of dias-



poric Chinese as they negotiate and transform their sense of belonging at

the intersection of and in relation to multiple cultural-political entities.
Part of the challenge in writing about a largely unknown population
involves the question of how to make comprehensible the particularities
of their experience and the specific conditions they face. While there is a
great deal of resonance among diasporic Chinese populations globally,
there is also tremendous difference. National context plays a key role in
shaping their subject and community formation. I therefore caution readers against using wholesale their assumptions about Chinese Americans
to understand Panamanian Chinese. While the tendency to do so is inevitable, my hope is that, by providing enough background information,
readers will have a better grasp of the particular cultural and political milieu in which Panamanian Chinese live and help constitute. Chapter 1,
then, provides historical background on Panama and outlines the general
social history of the Chinese there. It discusses Chinese migration patterns and their social institutions, religious affiliations, and linguistic diversity, as well as their occupational pursuits and national and transnational political participation. My treatment of each of these categories is
necessarily brief, as the chapter is meant to offer a general overview of
both Panama and Panamanian Chinese.
Chapter 2 situates Panamanian Chinese in the larger Chinese diaspora
of Central America and explores the politics of belonging among this
group. When controversy erupted over who should win in the 1996
beauty contest hosted by the Convention of Chinese Associations in Central America and Panama, I quickly realized that relations among diasporic Chinese in this region were not without tension or struggle. In this
chapter, I use gender as an analytical lens to explore how debates of who
should be queen illustrate the shared goals as well as the differences and
power asymmetries among diasporic Chinese of this region. I argue that
the beauty contest is a microcosm of the larger diaspora. As such, debates
about ethnicity, nationality, and racial difference that took place in that
context reflect the ongoing discussions and concerns of belonging among
diasporic Chinese in this region more generally.
Early in my research, serial migrationthe process of migrating to a
series of places over an extended period of time or generationsemerged
as an important theme in my interviews with diasporic Chinese in
Panama. Chapter 3 focuses on four migration stories of Panamanian Chinese and explores the theme of serial migrationboth as social experience and as a narrative strategy of normalizing rupturesin their ar-



ticulation of identity, home, and belonging. While each migration story

maps a different itinerary between China and Panama and across different sites in the Americas, all four stories show the significance of serial
migration in shaping notions of home and cultural identity. By connecting the various sites where they and their ancestors have migrated, diasporic Chinese affirm their ties to these places, allowing their identification to emerge not only with China and Panama but also with the
Americas in general. Moreover, to the extent that their stories recall
repeated uprootings across generations, I suggest that their narratives of
serial migration help transform these disruptions into common events.
Through reiteration, the narratives help normalize serial migration, making it into an ordinary aspect of living in diaspora.
Chapter 4, inspired by several interviews I conducted with older diasporic Chinese, revisits a particular historical juncture in the 1940s during
which the lives and worldviews of diasporic Chinese took a sudden dramatic turn. While Panamas nationalist policy of prohibited roots disenfranchised diasporic Chinese, and the Chinese communist revolution
closed the possibility of return to China, the expansion of U.S. military
bases in Panama provided a place of refuge for the doubly displaced Chinese. This chapter conveys the precarious situation that confronted this
generation of diasporic Chinese, who had been multiply displaced and
excluded and whose ideas of belonging and home were now necessarily
suspended somewhere between Panama, China, and the United States.
The 1940s ushered in a dramatic transformation not only in the ways
that diasporic Chinese saw themselves and imagined their futures in relation to these places but also in the practices and institutions they implemented to cope with this new environment. In chapter 5, I discuss the
new migration of Chinese to Panama in the 1980s, a trend that doubled
the Chinese population in less than five years and sparked fresh debates
about Chinese belonging in Panama. In looking at the challenges faced by
diasporic Chinese in post-U.S.-invasion Panama, this chapter examines
not only the cultural and social factors that divided the new immigrants
and the established Panamanian Chinese, but also the political imperatives that brought them together. It argues that debates of belonging
among diasporic Chinese are intertwined with their collective struggle for
national belonging.
Chapter 6 examines a dramatic shift in popular constructions of Chineseness in 1997 and situates it at the convergence of several geopolitical
events: U.S. demilitarization and return of the Canal, the Hong Kong



handover, and Panamas privatization efforts. Linking these events together, I show how they jointly produced the circumstances for an unexpected increase of Chinese economic and political presencefrom both
mainland China and Taiwanin Panama. This, in turn, ignited not only
national curiosity about all things Chinese but also a reevaluation of Chinese belonging in the nation. Meanwhile, diasporic Chinese themselves
were concerned with another set of discussions; for them, the unfolding
of the China-Taiwan conflict in Panama renewed old antagonisms and inspired divergent formulations of what it means to be Chinese in diaspora.
This chapter, then, examines more closely the shifting representations of
Chineseness as well as diasporic Chinese interpretations of and responses
to this geopolitical conjuncture.
Finally, the conclusion underscores the key contributions of this book
and addresses the question of area studies by proposing a preliminary
framework for the study of Asians in the Americas. Outlining some possible directions for comparative research, I propose a hemispheric approach to studying Asian America. This framework is meant to invite dialogue and to begin systematic discussion about the shared themes and
divergences among the different Asian populations across the Americas.
Closing the book is the epilogue, which discusses the Millennium Fair
of 2000 in Panama and presents the newly emerging relationship between
diasporic Chinese and the Panamanian nation-state. Showcasing Chinese
cultural performances and commodities, this national fair brought together Panamanians of various backgrounds to celebrate the cultural
uniqueness of diasporic Chinese and their potential significance to the future of Panama.

 Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens

The Social History and Background of the
Chinese in Panama

Anyone visiting Panama today will immediately notice the extensive presence of the Chinese community.1 With an estimated 175,000 Chinese living in the Republic,2 they make up about 6.5 percent of the total population of 2.7 million. Their roots run deep, reaching back more than 150
years, and they are to be found everywhere in the country. The majority
of Panamanian Chinese now live in Panama City and the surrounding
suburb of Chorrera. Meanwhile, Coln and Bocas del Torowhich used
to be two major centers for the Chinesehave been affected by out-migration. Today, the Chinese in Panama could not be more diverse. They
range in generational, class, religious, occupational, linguistic, and regional backgrounds, not to mention their extremely diverse racial-ethnic
makeup and cultural identifications, attitudes, and behaviors. Despite
this diversity, they maintain a collective identification with being culturally Chinese, broadly defined, and at the same time, they feel deeply connected to Panama. This, no doubt, informs the kinds of social institutions
they build, and, in fact, makes possible their distinct cultural formation.
From constructing the transisthmian railroad to developing commercial distribution networks to forming Chinatowns, diasporic Chinese
have played a key role in Panamas economic, sociopolitical, and cultural
development. Chinese labor and entrepreneurship have extended the
reach of the global market into all parts of the country. Chinese social institutions have expanded the nations civil society, and Chinese culture,
food, and art have contributed to the cultural diversity of Panama. In
fact, certain Chinese items and practices have become so integral to Panamanian everyday life that they have lost their ethnic association and are
considered simply to be Panamanian. Ma fa, a dessert made of sugarcoated fried dough, is a case in point; and apa, the shopkeepers practice
of giving candy in place of monetary change or as a token of apprecia-


Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens

tion, is another example. Conversely, some institutions have become so

commonly identified with ethnic Chinese that they are automatically associated with them, such as tiendas, or family-run convenience stores. Indeed, throughout Panama, in cities and towns and along the highways,
virtually all tiendas are run by Chinese families.
In Panama City, the Chinese presence is particularly pronounced. In
many cities throughout the world, Chinese distinctiveness is manifest in
Chinatowns, and Panama City has two: Barrio Chino is located in the old
part of Panama City and a new Chinatown is thriving in the neighborhood of El Dorado. Moreover, Chinese have been active in mainstream
Panamanian politics. A number of them have been elected to legislative
office, and the posts of minister of public works, minister of immigration,
and mayor of Panama City have been held by Chinese Panamanians.
Despite their vivid and inescapable presence in everyday Panamanian
society, diasporic Chinese remain glaringly absent in most peoples
knowledge of Panama and Latin America more broadly. In essence, a gap
exists between dominant perceptions of Panamanian nationhood and the
reality of Panamanian society. This chapterand the book overallattempts to address this gap by offering an overview of the history and current situation of diasporic Chinese in Panama. With a discussion of migration practices, transnational family formation, religion, language and
education, and community organizations, this chapter also explores the
ways in which Chinese Panamanian cultural and social life reflect their
evolving engagement with not only Panama and mainland China/Taiwan
but also the United States and the larger diaspora.

Bridge of the World, Heart of the Universe:

Panama as Global Nexus
Strategically located between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, and connecting North and Central America with South America, Panama has
played a critical role in global capitalism. Indeed, it has been one of the
most important transit points in international trade for the past 500
years. Given its strategic location and with the thinnest strip of land separating the two oceans, it was destined to become a main transit point for
people and goods traveling east and west, as well as north and south. As
early as the 1500s and for almost 300 years (with minor interruptions),
Panama served as Spains sole official Pacific terminal and transfer point
of all shipment to and from the Crown for all territories south of Mex-

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ico.3 It also attracted a number of contenders seeking partnership in, if

not control of, its geographical advantage. Meanwhile, the Manila-Acapulco galleon trade linked China and Japan to Europe via the Philippines
and Mexico, exchanging New World silver for Oriental luxury goods
such as porcelain, textiles, tea, and spices.4 With these flows of exchange
came people as well.
While a canal across the Isthmus had been of interest since the 1500s,
the first transisthmian project was the railroad. Constructed during the
California Gold Rush in response to the demand for safer and faster
transportation, the transisthmian railroad served as the most popular
route for people traveling between the East Coast of the United States
and California. With the success of the railroad, the dream of a water
passageway was revitalized. The French made the first attempt at building the canal, and after its failure, the United States took over the task,
but not before first helping Panama gain its independence from Colombia. Under the watchful eye of the American navy, only one cannon was
fired by the Colombian ship Bogot in this effort, killing a Chinaman
and a donkey near the old market of Panama City.5
The Republic of Panama was formed in 1903, and to the resentment
of isthmian patriots, it was a Frenchman, Philippe Bunau-Varilla, chief
engineer of the sea-level canal project, who signed the canal treaty with
the United States, wrote the Panamanian declaration of independence
and constitution, and designed the Panamanian flag. To add insult to injury, the signed treaty gave the United States sovereignty in perpetuity of
the use, occupation, and control of a sixteen-kilometer-wide strip of
land for the canal and three nautical miles into the sea from each terminal. Within this designated canal area, the United States would possess all
the rights, powers, and authority as if it were the sovereign of the territory within which said lands and waters are located to the entire exclusion of the exercise by the Republic of Panama.6 In essence, Panama became a virtual protectorate of the United States through two provisions
whereby the United States guaranteed the independence of Panama and
received in return the right to intervene in its domestic affairs.7 Panamanians, left with no apparent alternative, had no choice but to ratify the
treaty and the constitution. These terms, as history has shown, became a
major source of contention between Panama and the United States
throughout the twentieth century.8 A cursory glance at the major events
shaping Panamanian history and consciousness shows the centrality of
American intervention: the student protests against American colonialism


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in the 1960s that led to American use of military force and the deaths of
several people; the momentous signing of the Carter-Torrijos Treaty in
1977 that initiated the gradual handover of the Canal Zone, U.S. military
bases, and the Canal itself to Panama; the U.S. invasion of Panama in
1989; and the final return of the Canal in 1999.
Not unlike many of its Central American neighbors, Panama has had
a sordid and complicated political history. In addition to American colonialism, dueling interests between the different classes and racial groups,
and between the urban and rural segments produced tremendous instability throughout the twentieth century. Many exceptional studies have
elaborated on Panamas political history,9 and I shall simply highlight a
few points here to illustrate the kind of domestic conditions faced by
Panamanians. In its short history of just over 100 years, the Republic of
Panama has had four different constitutions; one president (Arnulfo
Arias) was elected three separate times and was removed from office
within two years all three times. Between 1940 and 1949, seven different
people were elected to the presidency. From 1968 to 1989, Panama was
ruled by two different military regimes; the second ended with the U.S.
invasion and the arrest of its dictator, Manuel Noriega. Clearly, Panamas
governance has not been the most stable, and this has produced much
cynicism among Panamanians.
With the completion of the canal in 1914, Panama solidified its position as a major global transit hub in the modern world. Today, the canal
remains one of the most important routes for transporting cargo across
the oceans. In the latter half of the twentieth century, other developments
in Panama helped bolster the nations importance in international commerce and finance. In 1953, Panama opened the Coln Free Trade Zone,
where products from all over the world are processed and distributed
throughout the Americas. Today, the Coln Free Trade Zone has grown
to be the largest in the Western Hemisphere, with China and Hong Kong
producing the highest volume of goods passing through the zone. In international finance, Panama is widely recognized as an offshore banking
haven. With its bank secrecy and tax-exempt laws passed in 1959 and
1970, respectively, Panama has attracted many international financiers
and traders.10 Moreover, since Panama uses the U.S. dollar as its unit of
exchange, there is little risk of currency devaluation. In 1997, one hundred and sixteen banks had branches in Panama City.11 Another noteworthy contribution to Panamas economy is made by its corporation
and ship registries. In the late 1980s, approximately 100,000 companies

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had been incorporated in Panama,12 and in terms of ship registration,

Panama is ranked number one in the worlds merchant fleet, with more
than 13,600 ships registered under the Panamanian flag. All these developments have reinforced Panamas centrality in the global economy.
Panama, Bridge of the World, Heart of the Universe(Puente del
Mundo, Corazn del Universo), has always prided itself on being a passageway that connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.13 By stressing
constant movement, flow, and circulation, Panama has represented itself
more as a path or a route and less as a destination, a place where people
settle and create community. But one of Panamas most noteworthy, if often overlooked, aspects is its ethnic and cultural diversity, enhanced by
centuries of immigration from all over the world. In addition to its mestizo, white, West Indian,14 and indigenous15 populations, Panama is home
to Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, Jews, Arabs, and Indians from India (referred to there as Hindus).16 While their exact numbers are difficult to
gauge (since national censuses conducted after 1940 do not record racial
and ethnic categories), the numerous temples, mosques, ethnic shops and
restaurants attest to these ever-growing communities, each of which has
left its mark on Panamanian society.
At the end of the twentieth century, Panama entered another phase of
rapid transformation. On December 31, 1999, the United States returned
the Canal and its surrounding areas to Panama and ended its military occupation. In response to globalization pressures to open its borders and
neoliberal pressures to privatize, Panama began offering many of its previously U.S.-administered properties for international investment and privatized some of its major state-run services. With the diversification of
foreign investments and the expected decrease of U.S. influence on the
nations domestic and foreign policies, the Panamanian state is taking a
bolder and more decisive stance. One prime example of this is Panamas
newly established (albeit unofficial) relations with the Peoples Republic
of China (PRC). As a longtime ally of Taiwan (ROC), and in keeping
with U.S. Cold War containment policies, Panama did not have formal
interstate relations with the PRC until recently. Panamas move on the eve
of the U.S. demilitarization to negotiate commercial relations and establish mutual commercial offices with the PRC in 1996, while maintaining
official diplomatic relations with Taiwan, was the nations first significant
foreign relations step. Simultaneously having relations with both of the
two Chinas was hard to achieve, and they may be even more challenging
to maintain. Another example of Panamas determination to distance it-


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self from U.S. control occurred in March 1997, when the Panamanian
government uncharacteristically rejected a contract proposal from the
U.S. corporate giant Bechtel to lease Panamas Balboa and Cristbal
ports. Despite pressure from the U.S. ambassador, William Hughes, to
deal with the U.S. investors complaints [against the Panamanian government for impeding their investment and trade],17 Panama remained
firm in its decision to give Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Port Holdings
the leasing rights to the ports. As reflected in both these instances,
Panama is clearly projecting a more confident image as it repositions itself with its newfound independence and responds to the changing conditions of the global political economy. Instead of looking primarily to
the north, it has now turned its attention to the east.18

Routes and Roots: Migration and Settlement

To get a sense of the scope and duration of the Chinese presence in
Panama, one must first have a sense of Chinese migration within the
larger framework of Latin America. As mentioned above, by the sixteenth century, Spain had established the Manila galleon trade, linking
China and Japan, via the Philippines and Mexico, to Europe, which
lasted for almost three centuries without a break and undoubtedly facilitated the circulation of people as well as goods along the galleons
transcontinental routes. As early as 1635, we find evidence of a burgeoning Chinese settlement in Mexico City, when a group of Spanish barbers
filed a complaint against Chinese barbers for excessive competition.19
Then, it was not until 1802, when the British began experimenting with
the exportation of Chinese contract labor to its overseas colonies,20 that
192 Chinese male workers landed in Trinidad, becoming the first organized Chinese settlement in the Americas (Lai 2004).
The earliest documentation of Chinese migration to Panama (then part
of the Spanish colony of New Granada) was in 1854,21 when a group of
705 Chinese came as contract laborers for the construction of the transisthmian Panama Railroad, a project organized by a group of New York
financiers known as the Panama Railway Company.22 These laborers,
along with several hundred others who followed shortly thereafter, came
as part of the mid-1800s Asian labor migration to the Americas. To speak
in terms of push-and-pull migration factors, the end of the African slave
trade created a critical labor demand throughout the Americas. This pull
coincided with the push for Asian emigration, primarily from China and

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India, followed by Japan and Korea. Chinas defeat in the Opium Wars in
the mid 1800s, along with a series of environmental disasters, had left the
country economically weak, and large numbers of Chinese men resorted
to signing labor contracts to work in the New World. Between 1847 and
1874, over 250,000 Chinese were sent to Peru and Cuba alone, with
thousands more sent to Panama, Costa Rica, and the British West Indies.
When the first group of 705 Chinese laborers arrived in Panama, they
were confronted with unimaginable challenges.23 The environmental and
working conditions were so unbearable that within six months, over 500
laborers had died and the remainder were sent to Jamaica in exchange for
West Indian workers. Unlike in Peru and Cuba, then, indentured Chinese
labor was short-lived in Panama, and it was not until the late 1800s, at
the height of banana production and the construction work on the
French Canal, followed by the building of the American Canal, that signs
of Chinese cultural and commercial life began to flourish there. The Chinese who migrated during this period came not as contract laborers but
as independent workers and merchants.24 They went into all sorts of industries, including farming, retail and wholesale vending of household
goods, textiles, restaurants, bars, bakeries, and laundry services. Notably,
they were most successful in the small retail market, and as early as the
mid 1880s, they already had become a formidable force in this sector. It
was during this period that sizable Chinese communities emerged in
Panama City and Coln, the Canals two terminal cities, as well as Bocas
del Toro, home to the United Fruit Company. To a large extent, Chinese
commerce spread alongside American expansion: Chinese entrepreneurial efforts sustained and fulfilled the needs of the labor force working on
American projects. This mutually beneficial economic relationship between the Chinese and the Americans would come to nurture their sociopolitical ties. Throughout the twentieth century, Panamanian Chinese
and the U.S. Canal Administration maintained a rather friendly relationship. This alliance is underscored by the fact that the American administration, upon the request of the Chinese government, provided consular
representation for diasporic Chinese in Panama during the early 1900s.
Before 1903, immigration laws in Panama were quite lax. Upon becoming a republic, however, Panama adopted many of the same laws as
the United States, thereby inheriting its restrictive immigration laws
against the Chinese.25 This is not to say that Panama adopted these laws
blindly. In fact, since the 1880s, substantial public pressure against Chinese immigration and commercial competition had been mounting. The


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institutionalization of Chinese exclusion laws was thus not unexpected.

Despite official policy, however, the Chinese population continued to
grow, and Panamanians soon realized that they had little control over the
enforcement of immigration policy, since the United States had sovereignty over the sea terminals. In essence, immigration to Panama was left
in the hands of the U.S. authorities, and the Americans had little interest
in enforcing Panamanian immigration laws. With time, the Chinese community grew, their businesses expanded, and they began inserting themselves culturally and politically into Panamanian society.
Meanwhile, anti-Chinese sentiment continued to grow. At the turn of
the twentieth century, the Sociedad Anti-China (Anti-Chinese Society)
had been established, rousing popular support and waging campaigns
against Chinese immigration. With the formation in 1923 of Accin
Communal (Community Action),26 an organization consisting mostly of
urban professionals, nationalist, racialist, and xenophobic sentiments
were articulated into political discourse, which in turn quickly became incorporated into political platforms. This nationalist movement culminated in 1940, when Arnulfo Arias Madrid was elected president and a
new constitution was ratified, redefining Panamanian nationhood in
terms of mestizaje and Hispanic culture, while disenfranchising Chinese
and non-Hispanic blacks, among others. A popular movement against
these groups was then fully unleashed. Now backed by official decree,
many local Panamanians took the law into their own hands, and many
Chinese lost their properties and livelihoods as a result of threats and violence by Panamanian civilians. These kinds of anti-Chinese movements
were not uncommon in Latin America and the Caribbean. They occurred
in Mexico, Trinidad, and Jamaica at different times throughout the twentieth century and often coincided with nationalist movements that inspired heightened nativist sentiment paired with racism and xenophobia.27
In the aftermath of these catastrophic events, local Chinese leaders in
Panama reorganized the communitys governing structure and developed
a new agenda of integration. Their aim was to strengthen their sense of
political and cultural belonging in Panama. In light of Chinas closing of
its borders after the communist revolution in 1949, any dreams of returning to the homeland had evaporated, and the reality of creating a
home in Panama had gained new urgency. In the next few decades, the
Chinese leadership focused on building cohesion among the Chinese in
Panama, asserting a Chinese presence in national politics, and extending

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transnational networks throughout the Americas. A number of local and

transnational organizations were formed during the 1960s and 1970s
(see below), and the first Panamanian of Chinese descent was elected to
the Electoral Tribunal in 1964. Since then, a number of Panamanian Chinese have been elected to public office and have served in government
cabinets (see below).
Chinese immigration between the 1950s and the early 1980s was considerably slower than in previous periods. After the early 1950s, when
Panama received a wave of Chinese fleeing the communist regime, Chinese immigration from mainland China decreased tremendously. During
the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of Chinese immigrants came primarily from Hong Kong and Taiwan. It was not until the mid 1980s that
Chinese immigration rose dramatically again. During the Noriega
regime, thousands of Chinese from mainland China arrived in Panama.
Some came to settle, but the majority used Panama as a point of transit
into the United States. During this period, Panama was only one node
within the global network of Chinese human trafficking. The Golden
Venture, which ran aground off New York City in June 1993, was among
the many ships that carried hundreds of mainland Chinese to the United
States, Europe, Canada, and Latin America.28
The majority of the Chinese who arrived in Panama during this period
were primarily Hakkas from the Canton (Guangdong) region, and they
can be divided roughly into two groups: those who paid their passage in
full and those who came with three-year work contracts. Also, for the
first time in Panamanian history, a large number of single Chinese
women were among this group of immigrants. It is important that these
immigrants to Panama not be confused with the Hong Kong elites who
immigrated directly to the United States and Canada during this same period.29 Indeed, while Hong Kong elites used investment visas to immigrate, those who came to Panama had less capital and had to resort to using so-called snakeheads, or Chinese human trafficking agents.
After the American invasion and the ousting of Noriega in 1989, it
was estimated that the Chinese population had doubled during the Noriega regime. No doubt, the invasion momentarily disrupted the communication and business-as-usual practices of trafficking networks, which in
turn caused many unintended migrants to be stranded in Panama without legal documentation. Demonization of recent immigrants as criminals and accusations that they had used illegal means to enter Panama
quickly led to demands for official investigations. Within a few months


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of the new government being established, a surprise police raid of Chinese homes and businesses was ordered. Hundreds of Chinese throughout Panama were arrested, and the Chinese community at large was outraged. Thanks to the efforts of community leaders, however, the situation
was resolved, and the recent immigrants were redocumented and allowed
to remain in Panama. With the doubling of the population in less than
five years, the social dynamics of the Chinese community changed radically in a very short time, producing intense friction between local Chinese and the newcomers. Further exacerbating these tensions were the
cultural, class, and ideological differences that persisted well after the
process of redocumentation.
Since their first arrival at least 150 years ago, then, Chinese in Panama
have been met with prevailing sentiments of restriction, confinement, and
even prohibition. From the 1904 constitution to Arnulfo Ariass policy of
prohibition to the 1980s police raids, the sense of belonging of diasporic
Chinese in Panama has been challenged continually. This is not to say
that ethnic Chinese were in no way accepted by or integrated into Panamanian society. They were, with varying degrees of success. However,
these experiences were often punctuated by violent reminders of their
marginality and exclusion, and acceptance was not the attitude espoused
by most official documents.
It was not until 1997, with changes in Panama-China relations, that
perceptions of Chinese belonging improved significantly. For the first
time in Panamanian history, ethnic Chinese began to be hailed as ideal
citizens of Panama. Indeed, shifts in the global political economy had
transformed China into an important economic ally of the Panamanian
nation-state, and ethnic Chinese saw their status shift from that of tolerated foreigners to that of valued cultural-economic bridge builders of
globalization. Today, the perception of ethnic Chinese could not be any
more different from what it was in earlier decades. And Chineseness
those cultural characteristics associated with being Chinesehas acquired special status. Panamanians are not only realizing the importance
of learning Mandarin but are also taking an interest in feng shui (Chinese
geomancy), Chinese medicine, and kung fu. (While this drastic transformation is one of the underlying currents motivating this book, I want to
underscore that my intention is not to depict a process in which gaining
acceptance into Panamanian society is the end point, but rather to illustrate that each critical moment of transformation is generated by a combination of local-transnational circumstances and that ethnic Chinese

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have developed certain strategies and created a variety of cultural forms

and practices in the process of living through these moments.)
Although the 1990s were a slow decade for Chinese immigration, the
increasing economic and political presence of both the Republic of China
and the Peoples Republic of China would seem to point to increased immigration from both nations in the years ahead.
F a m i l i e s S p a n n i n g t h e Pa c i f i c
and the Americas
One of the most notable aspects of the nineteenth and early twentieth
century Chinese migratory movements to Panama is that while some immigrants came directly from China, a large number migrated from different parts of the Americas and the Caribbean, including Peru, Jamaica,
British Guiana, and Nicaragua. To be sure, many migrated from other
parts of the world as well. However, what is significant about their movements within the Americas and between China and Panama is that they
were often circular and continuous migrations.30 These ongoing travels
and movements created a fluid and complex web of activities and networks that reflect characteristics of what some scholars have called migrant circuits, transnational migrant communities, and diasporas.31 More
important, they gave rise to family ties spanning the Pacific and throughout the Americas, laying the basis for other networks. While Chinese migration and transnational family formation engendered diasporic sentiments and institutions that linked the collectivity more closely together,
these same processesembedded in structures of gender, sexuality, class,
race, and ethnicityalso produced new cultural and social hierarchies in
Given the harsh frontier conditions of Panama in the late 1800s and
early 1900s, Chinese immigrants of that time were chiefly young men
who considered their move temporary. To them, the rugged, undeveloped, and disease-infested environment made Panama inappropriate,
even dangerous, for women and children. Under these conditions,
transnational split households emerged. Most immigrants who came directly from China adopted this type of transnational family formation in
which the men came alone to Panama while their families remained in
China.32 The Chinese who migrated to Panama from other parts of the
Americas, on the other hand, were more likely to bring along their families, who were presumably already in the Americas.
Over time, the men began to set down roots in their adopted home.


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Those who were able to earn enough to do so had the choice of bringing
their wives and other family members to Panama. Those without the
means either maintained this split-household arrangement indefinitely or
formed new families locally. However, even with this tendency toward establishing a home in the new country, transnational split households did
not go away; rather, what had formerly been a matter of necessity became a matter of choice. Families that achieved a certain economic status
began to send their children to China to obtain a Chinese education and
learn Chinese practices, behavior, and discipline. In such cases, the
mother and children would be sent to the Chinese home village, and once
the children reached a certain age, they would return to Panama. In
short, the transnational split household facilitated and enabled the reproduction of Chinese cultural knowledge and became a practice of
choice among wealthy Chinese. It evolved into a strategy of cultural capital accumulation. This endeavor, as might be expected, was not inexpensive. Indeed, it was very much a class-based phenomenon, which also
mapped loosely onto racialized differences among diasporic Chinese.
With the lack of single Chinese women in Panama during the early migration periods, only those with capital had the option of sending for
brides from China (which many did), while others with less capital married local Panamanians. Hence, class not only determined the possibility
of gaining Chinese cultural capital but also correlated with marriage partners and the reproduction of (supposed) Chinese racial purity.
To a large extent, then, transnational family formations helped convert
economic capital into sociocultural capital in Chinese Panama, thereby
producing a new cultural and social hierarchy among diasporic Chinese.
To summarize this point succinctly: economic class determined (1) who
had the option of marrying a Chinese woman and (2) who was able to establish and maintain a transnational split household. And through these
practices, particular families were able to accrue Chinese cultural capital
in the form of racial purity, language, education, and everyday knowledge, which, in turn, reproduced and sustained sociocultural status and
divisions within the Chinese community. Chinese women, in many ways,
embodied and performed a certain class status as cultural and biological
reproducers of Chinese purity. And the racial delineation between pure
Chinese and mixed Chinese served as a general marker of social class
difference. Indeed, these forms of Chinese cultural capital remained the
most significant markers of sociocultural status until the 1940s. After the
Chinese communist government closed its borders in 1949, however,

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transnational family formations between mainland China and Panama

were made virtually impossible, disrupting their racial and cultural correlation with class.
Today, while the tendency to assert Chinese purity as idealized diasporic Chineseness still existsmost notably expressed in parents preferences as regards their childrens marriage partnersthe correlation between race, cultural competence, and class no longer adheres so well.
Moreover, the desire for Chinese cultural capital shifted in the 1940s
when ethnic Chinese began to look toward the United States, the rising
global superpower, and toward American culture as both a vehicle for social mobility and the preferred marker of cultural distinction. Transnational family formations continued, but members were now split between
the United States and Panama. This time, mostly young men and women
were sent abroad for education and work opportunities. Many returned
after a period of time, but some chose to stay, thereby further extending
their family networks.
The United States remained the central source of cultural and economic aspiration for Panamanian Chinese until the 1990s, when China
entered the global imagination as a major contender for economic hegemony. Today, while the United States remains the main emigration choice
for Panamanian Chinese, China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong are becoming
more popular as alternative destinations. Whether they will be temporary
locations or permanent homes is yet to be determined.
Transnational family formations facilitate a constant flow of remittances, the exchange of cultural ideas and practices, and continuous migratory movements and travel. While this discussion has focused primarily on the China-Panama corridor, other routes within the Americas and
the Caribbean have also been significant, particularly since the Chinese
communist revolution, when transnational relations shifted away from
Asia and toward the Americas. Although these ties with the Americas
have been less systematic and predictable, they are no less impressive, not
just generating a set of intercontinental social institutions and kinship
networks but also inspiring a cultural imaginary and shared consciousness connected to various locales. Places like Peru, Jamaica, Brazil, British
Guiana, and Nicaragua often emerged in the stories and memories of
people I talked to in the course of my research. To be sure, neither their
conception nor experience of community is confined to the borders of the
Panamanian nation-state.


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L o c a l a n d Tr a n s n a t i o n a l O r g a n i z a t i o n s
Two of the earliest Chinese organizations in Panama, formed during the
1880s, were the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, whose primary goal
was to protect Chinese business and commercial interests, and the Way
On Association, whose main objectives were to care for elderly Chinese,
to arrange for funerals and the transportation of bones and ashes back to
China, and to maintain the Chinese cemetery. With increasing immigration, native place associations emerged in the 1890s, and they continue to
exert substantial influence today. With the exception of a few hundred
Taiwanese Chinese, the majority of Chinese in Panama (even those who
immigrated via Hong Kong) can trace their ancestral lineage to the Canton (Guangdong) region of China, and the five largest native place associations in Panama are the Fa Yin, Gou Kong Chow (Say Yap), Chung
San, Sam Yap, and Hok San.33 While the latter four associations represented most of the population until the 1980s, the recent influx of immigrants has tipped the scale, making Fa Yin the largest group in Panama.
In general, native place association meetings are conducted in their specific dialects and are dominated by men, since native place affiliations are
traced through patrilineal descent. As in most diasporic locations, the immigrant generation is the most active in these organizations, while Panamanian-born Chinese tend to participate in other organizations that are
more bicultural and bilingual.
Among the larger and more significant organizations formed by Panamanian-born Chinese are the Asociacin de Profesionales China-Panamea (Chinese Panamanian Professionals Association), or APROCHIPA,
which offers lectures, workshops, and network-building opportunities; a
sociocultural organization called Agrupacin, or Agrupa, which sponsors
activities like the Panamanian Chinese Debutantes Ball, the Friendship
Dance, and the Mothers Day Cultural Performance; and the Asociacin
de Jvenes Chinos (Chinese Youth Association), which primarily hosts
social activities like field trips, karaoke nights, and dances. While there is
a slight overlap in the constituencies of these groups, their leaders come
from different segments of the community and have developed distinct
profiles for each organization. Religious organizations also exist, though
they have not been as active as the abovementioned organizations. The
Yan Wo Association is in charge of caring for the Yan Wo Buddhist Temple, and the Asociacin Catlica China de Panam (Chinese Catholic Association of Panama) was formed recently.
These local organizations form the basic units of the national organization, the Asociacin China de Panam (Chinese Association of Pana-

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ma), and their elected officials serve as its voting members. Formed after
Arnulfo Ariass presidency, the Chinese Association of Panama was established in order to develop a more efficient process of decision making
and community mobilization. Today, it is recognized as the central governing structure of the Chinese community in Panama, and it represents
the community not only in national affairs but also in the transnational
politics of the larger diaspora.
Since the mid 1960s, Panamanian Chinese have extended their reach
on various transnational levels. While the abovementioned native place
associations form one kind of transnational organization, which ties diasporic Chinese to both their native place and to one another via their affiliation with the same native place, the transnational organizations established in the 1960s have a different emphasis. The Federacin de
Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam (Federation of Chinese
Associations of Central America and Panama) was established after a series of joint meetings held by the presidents of Chinese associations in
Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
Their common ground as diasporic Chinese was based less on where they
were from than on where they had ended up. The 1950s and 1960s were
decades of tremendous turmoil in Central America and Panama, and diasporic Chinese already had reason to feel vulnerable, having lost their
state with the closing of mainland Chinas borders in 1949. Sharing
similar conditions of uncertainty, then, the Chinese of Central America
and Panama purposefully formed a regional organization to pool their resources to deal with any political and/or economic emergencies. In short,
the federation was established in place of a fully functioning Chinese
state that could protect the interests of diasporic Chinese. While at first
the organization was not affiliated with either of the two Chinese governments, it soon established ties with the Republic of China in Taiwan,
the Chinese government that is still officially recognized by countries in
this region. With financial support from Taiwan, the federation hosts a
rotating annual convention, though its headquarters are based permanently in Panama City.
Soon after the founding of this federation, two other transnational organizations were formed. The Federation of Chinese Associations in the
Americas established a network among Chinese throughout the American continent, and the Global Association of Cantonese further extended
these networks. Both of these were initiated with the endorsement and
support of the Republic of China in Taiwan, and meetings are held regularly on an annual and biennial basis, respectively.


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Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, and Chinese folk religion are the
four major religions practiced by Chinese in Panama. While most immigrants from mainland China arrive in Panama practicing a combination
of Buddhism and Chinese folk religion (often consisting of a mix of Taoism and Confucianism), those who came in the nineteenth and early
twentieth centuries often converted to Catholicism, and some did so
without relinquishing their Buddhist and Chinese folk religious beliefs. In
addition, many children of immigrants from the mid to late twentieth
century have also converted to Catholicism. More than just being the
dominant religion of Panama, Catholicism is woven into the social fabric
of Panamanian society. For many of the early immigrants, embracing
Catholicism meant not only religious conversion but also social integration and access to important resources. As many interviewees commented, marrying non-Chinese Panamanians and attending Catholic
schools required religious conversion. Moreover, several mentioned the
significance of the institution of compadrazgo (ritual kinship that involves children and their godparents),34 which helped broaden and solidify kinship, social, and economic ties with non-Chinese Panamanians.
This was particularly important for business owners seeking the patronage of non-Chinese. Their parents being Catholic, the following generations of Panamanian-born Chinese were baptized Catholic by default.
Hence, while degrees of religious belief and practice vary, most of the descendents of the early immigrants tend to be Catholic. Among Chinese in
Panama, then, Catholicism is perhaps the most widespread of the four religions.
The first Buddhist temple was built in Bocas del Toro as early as 1886.
It was destroyed by a storm in the 1990s, and the only remaining temples
are located in Coln and Panama City. Buddhism and Chinese folk religion are today practiced mostly among the immigrant generation from
mainland China and Taiwan. With the recent influx of new immigrants
from both places, they are experiencing a period of revitalization.
Finally, Protestantism is practiced mostly by Chinese immigrants from
Taiwan, and since the Chinese Taiwanese population is relatively small,
numbering in the low hundreds, and since some of those are Buddhists,
its constituency is quite few in number.
Since Spanish is the official language of Panama, most of the Chinese
there speak at least some Spanish. Naturally, too, the immigrants and

Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens


some of their descendants speak Cantonese and/or Mandarin, and English is also widely spoken, as we have seen. A breakdown of the different combinations of language use is quite complex, since immigrant generation, place of emigration, place of settlement in Panama, and
education are all important determinants.
Most Chinese are bilingual in Spanish and English or Spanish and
Cantonese or Mandarin. A small trilingual minority tend to be either immigrants from Hong Kong who arrived with English and Cantonese skills
and acquired Spanish in Panama or mainland Chinese immigrants who
lived in the U.S. Canal Zone or cities on the Atlantic coast (areas where
English predominates) before moving to Panama City. Panamanian-born
and -raised children of pre-1980s immigrants tend to be Spanish-speaking monoglots or bilingual in Spanish and English. A few may be able to
speak some Cantonese and/or their village dialect. Differentiation among
this group depends primarily on two factors: the kind of educational institution they attended and whether they were raised on the Atlantic (English-speaking) or Pacific (Spanish-speaking) coast. Among the Panamanian-born children of the 1980s immigrants who are now in their late
teens or early twenties, most tend to be bilingual in Spanish and Cantonese (and/or a village dialect), although some have also learned English
at school. Chinese from Taiwan generally speak Mandarin and Spanish
or Mandarin and English, depending on how long they have been in
Panama and what kind of educational backgrounds they had before immigration.
Education and Occupation
For Chinese in Panama, education is the key to social mobility. Panama
offers a number of public and private schools, and Panama City has several universities. As mentioned above, before the 1940s, it was common
practice for the children of wealthy families to go to China to acquire language and cultural skills before returning to Panama. For those who did
not go abroad, an after-school Cantonese program operated during the
1930s and 1940s in the heart of Panama Citys Chinatown. After it
closed, it wasnt until the early 1980s that the Instituto Sun Yat-Sen (Sun
Yat-Sen Institute) opened, offering state-approved curricula for grades
kindergarten through twelve. What distinguishes the institute from other
private schools is its list of offerings in Chinese language, Chinese dance,
and kung fu. Cantonese was first offered as the Chinese language course,
but soon thereafter, the school decided to teach Mandarin instead. The
switch occurred not without controversy and was opposed by most of the


Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens

community, because Cantonese is not only their native language but also
what many immigrant families speak at home. To their dismay, however,
Taiwanese officials insisted that since Mandarin is the official language of
both Taiwan and the PRC, Mandarin is the language of choice. Here is a
clear example of the homeland state asserting influence on the cultural
development of the diaspora.
After the 1940s, the pattern of sending children to China shifted to
one of young adults going to the United States to pursue university degrees. While the former strategy helps reproduce family businesses, the
latter enables access to job opportunities in the Canal Administration and
in multinational companies. This shift facilitated the expansion of the
professional class and perpetuated the class differentiation between those
who worked in the Canal Zone (receiving U.S.-equivalent salaries) and
those who worked in Panama (receiving a lower Panamanian salary). In
general, studying abroad was and still is a practice of the middle class and
elite in Panama, and although China and the United States, at different
periods, have been the two main destinations, other countries in Europe
and Latin America have also been popular. Those who wish to study in
Panama can attend a variety of schools. The two most popular are the
public University of Panama, opened in 1935, and the private University
of Santa Mara la Antigua, established in 1965. Today, receiving an
American university degree remains a key route to social mobility. More
and more, however, these sojourns are becoming migrations. With limited opportunities in Panama and the increasing demand for skilled labor
in the United States, graduates are likely to stay in the United States if
they can find employment.
As any Panamanian will note, the most visible occupation among ethnic Chinese is small (family) business ownership. Particular businesses
associated with Chinese include convenience stores, produce markets,
electronics stores, laundries, and restaurants. In fact, virtually every convenience store in Panama is owned and run by ethnic Chinese. It is also
worth noting that these businesses are supported by wider networks of
Chinese farmers, distributors, wholesalers, and importers/exporters.
Most often, the small businesses were founded by early immigrants and
either passed down to the next generation or sold to newcomers. Panamanian-born Chinese who do not operate family businesses most often
go into engineering, medicine, accounting, law, or architecture. Most are
employees of larger firms, but sometimes a family of doctors will form a
private medical practice together, or families of engineers and architects
will establish their own integrated companies.

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For recently arrived immigrants, employment can always be found in

the many established Chinese businesses, and women often find jobs as
domestic workers and caretakers in Panamanian Chinese homes. Some of
the more educated immigrants go into teaching or administrative work at
the Sun Yat-Sen Institute, or into news reporting for the Chinese newspapers, El Expresso and El Diario Chino, or the Chinese radio station.
With a combination of hard work, business know-how, and luck, a few
have been able to accumulate enough capital to start their own entrepreneurial ventures.
P o l i t i c a l I n vo lv e m e n t i n t h e Nat i o n a l
and Diasporic Spheres
Chinese in Panama have engaged in national and transnational politics
since the late nineteenth century, mostly in response to measures aimed at
restricting their immigration and commercial competitiveness. Throughout the twentieth century, laws were passed to contain these or, after it
became clear that it was futile to attempt to do so, to regulate them. In response, the Chinese have organized themselves, recruited support from
both the Taiwanese and U.S. consulates, and mobilized for collective action. Indeed, this sustained struggle between the state and the Chinese
population over immigration and commercial freedom is the backdrop
against which the issue of Chinese belonging in Panama has played out.
Compared with diasporic Chinese communities elsewhere in the Americas, the Chinese in Panama have been able to acquire significant political
influence, which, in turn, has helped sustain their gradual growth as a
community.35 This can be attributed not only to their ability to obtain
American and Chinese state support throughout most of the twentieth
century, but, more important, to their strategic planning and political organization. Chapters 4 and 5 elaborate on the nuances of these points.
Despite their continual struggle with the state, ethnic Chinese have not
shied away from participating in national politics. In fact, since 1964, at
least nine Panamanian Chinese have been elected or appointed to government posts. They have served in a variety of capacities, including as
legislators, deputy of the national assembly, minister of government and
justice, director of the Coln Free Trade Zone, minister of public works,
director of customs, vice mayor of Panama City, minister of immigration,
and vice minister of commerce and industry.36 In addition to these official
forms of political involvement, certain leaders of the Chinese community
have served on various occasions as informal advisors to top government


Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens

officials. In the national political sphere of Panama, then, ethnic Chinese

have been extremely visible and active. Yet this has not translated into
full citizenship.
In terms of their political involvement in the global Chinese diaspora,
it is worth noting again that Panama houses the headquarters of the Federation of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama. Chinese
Panamanians role as custodians of this regional organization reflects
their relative power within the larger diaspora. Moreover, among the
twenty-eight countries with which Taiwan has official relations, Panama
is arguably its strongest and perhaps also most significant ally. As a result, the Taiwanese government has placed tremendous emphasis on bolstering relations not only with the Panamanian state but also with the diasporic Chinese living there. Through community development projects
like the Sun Yat-Sen Institute, the Panamanian Chinese Cultural Center,
Friendship Park, and co-sponsorship of various national and transnational conventions, the Taiwanese government has been able to maintain
strong ties with diasporic Chinese. In turn, the Chinese in Panama have
been among the most vocal supporters of the Taiwan government.

In sum, over the past 150 years, diasporic Chinese have developed a form
of belonging in Panama that is thoroughly embedded within webs of
transnational relations. For them, local integration goes hand in hand
with maintaining transnational links with mainland China/Taiwan, the
United States, and other Chinese communities dispersed elsewhere in the
Americas. In fact, these dual processes are intimately woven together in
their everyday lives. Not only do they actively practice transnationalism
through migration, kinship, and social organization, but the transnational has always been present locally in Panama, in the sense that the
United States had sovereignty over the Canal Zone for almost a century
and the Chinese governments have maintained relations with the diaspora. Indeed, as reflected in all aspects of their cultural and social life, diasporic Chinese identity and ways of belonging are thoroughly informed
by their ongoing relationships with Panamanian, Chinese, and American
cultural forms and social institutions. Their multiplicity of expressions in
cultural mixedness and political maneuvers, both coextensive and over
time, illustrate their divergent and shifting modes of relating to this constellation of cultural and political reference points. What comes across
clearly is that diasporic Chinese integration into Panamanian society has

Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens


always involved an active process of engaging and drawing upon transnational links as alternative resources. Faced with uncertain conditions of
belonging in Panama, diasporic Chinese cultivated strategies, including
the accumulation of different forms of cultural capital and the formation
of transnational networks, to expand the parameters of what is possible,
both in terms of their effort to create a home in Panama and, if this becomes untenable, the ability to create a home elsewhere. Of course, what
sometimes works in their favor also at times works against them. Diasporic Chinese citizenship, then, reflects and articulates this particular
form of belonging that emerges from the cultural and political crosscurrents emanating from their dual process of local integration and transnational engagement.
The following chapters of this book are organized around various moments of rupture in which the tensions between local formulations and
transnational forces are clearly revealed and the exercise of diasporic citizenship can be identified. Chapter 2 situates Chinese in Panama within
the larger context of Chinese in Central America. Using gender as the primary lens of analysis, I examine the beauty contest of the Convencin de
Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam (Convention of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama) to tease out the critical issues confronting diasporic Chinese of this region. The involvement
of Panamanian Chinese in this regional organization marks one important transnational component that informs their diasporic citizenship.
My intent is to show how gender performance, racial and cultural embodiment, and national difference all become key elements in debates of
diasporic Chinese identity and belonging within this region network. The
remaining chapters focus on other instances of social ruptures and include analyses of migration stories, Arnulfo Ariass prohibited roots
policy and its effects on diasporic Chinese, the massive influx of Chinese
immigration during the Noriega years and the criminalization of diasporic Chinese, and the dramatic refashioning of diasporic Chinese from
tolerated foreigners into Panamas ideal citizens in the late 1990s. How
have diasporic Chinese managed these vastly different yet equally powerful social ruptures that have constantly shifted their parameters of belonging, redefined notions of identity and community, and destroyed or
opened possibilities of making a home in diaspora? How, in short,
have the Chinese in Panama engaged diasporic citizenship and made it

 The Queen of the Chinese Colony

Contesting Nationalism, En-Gendering

All the beauty contestants had performed their roles brilliantlyparading gracefully across the stage several times, modeling their national
dresses and variations of traditional Chinese gowns, and performing their
respective national dances.1 They had introduced themselves in Spanish
and sometimes in Cantonese and/or Mandarin. Finally, they had offered
their eloquent responses to the questions asked by the master of ceremonies. The audience of diasporic Chinese from Central America and
Panama anxiously waited to hear the final decision of the judges.
Half an hour went by, then an hour, then two. The banquet hall was
by now only half full, with about a hundred restless people energized by
gossip and suspicion. Why were they taking so long? What was the problem? Finally, the MC took the podium and proclaimed Miss Honduras
1996s Reina de la Colonia China (Queen of the Chinese Colony).2 But
before Miss Honduras could reach the stage, the vice president of the
Convencin de Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam (Convention of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama) interjected and announced that there had been a mistakethat, in fact, Miss
Costa Rica was the winner, not Miss Honduras.
The audience was confused. They looked around at one another, not
knowing how to react, wondering what to make of what had just happened. Judging from the looks on their faces, I could see this was not a
common outcome, that something had clearly gone wrong.
Then, suddenly, out of this confused silence, a man in his sixties
marched onto the stage. The contrast of his angrily flushed face with his
graying hair and formal dark gray suit attracted the crowds rapt attention. Without a moments hesitation, his body rose as if preparing for
battle, and he unleashed a passionate tirade denouncing what had just
happened: This event is supposed to be a joyous celebration for all those

Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y


attending this convention. Why do you newcomers insist on betraying the

spirit of this convention and break the community in this way?

As reflected in this scene, the annual contest for the Queen of the Chinese Colony is not just about beauty, femininity, or friendly competition. The fact that the contest evokes such passionate interest suggests
that other issues are at stake. As the anthropologists Colleen Ballerino
Cohen, Richard Wilk, and Beverly Stoeltje have argued, Beauty contests
are places where cultural meanings are produced, consumed, and rejected, where local and global, ethnic and national, national and international cultures, and structures of power are engaged in their most trivial
but vital aspects (Cohen et al. 1996, 8). Wilk proposes that, as sites
where multiple struggles for power and representation are publicly debated, beauty contests mediate difference in order to produce a structure
of common difference and suggests that the process of judging beauty
is always a process of negotiation, a process of reconciling difference or
at least accepting the terms of the disagreement (Wilk 1996a, 117).
I want to extend Wilks argument further by asserting that not only
can this structure of common difference be created through beauty
contests but, more important here, diasporic communities contest, forge,
and reaffirm their identities through gender itself. Moreover, I argue that
the contest over who is to be the Queen of the Chinese Colony is a microcosm of broader issues at play among diasporic Chinese in Central
America and Panama. Indeed, what is at stake in this beauty contest is
the struggle for diasporic citizenship, or for full belonging within the diaspora. By mediating debates about diasporic Chinese femininity, the
contest seeks to establish the criteria for idealized diasporic subjectivity,
criteria against which belonging in the diaspora is measured. With the
beauty contestants embodying and performing specific ways of being diasporic Chinese, their divergent representations not only reflect the wide
spectrum of diasporic Chinese in this region but also reveal and disrupt
hegemonic constructions of what it means to be Chinese and Central
American or Panamanian. Furthermore, the contest provides a window onto the regional differences among diasporic Chinese communities,
thereby disrupting the simple binary formula of nation of residence
and homeland in understanding diaspora. The contestants varied presentations and performances reflect the tension not only between their
emplacement in specific local contexts and their ongoing engagement


Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y

with Chineseness but also between their national difference and shared
regional affiliation. Overall, their performance helps mediate debates of
belonging and cultural identity, and the elected queen is supposed to become the symbol and representative of the Chinese diaspora.
But what happens when there is no agreement, or even acceptance of
the terms of disagreement, as in the case I describe above? What does this
rupture, or disputed result of the beauty contest, tell us about the tensions
and contradictions within the diaspora, and the cultural politics of diaspora? Furthermore, what does it tell us about the nature of diaspora that
makes diasporic identifications so contingent and tenuous, yet so
provocative and powerful? The ensuing debates about who should be
queen and why reveal not only the politics of belonging within the diaspora, but also the shifts in identifications among diasporic Chinese. The
question of belonging in diaspora is highly contested and, as we shall see,
contingent on local-transnational dynamics.
In the discussion that follows, I briefly outline the historical context of
the Federation of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama,
the organization that sponsors the beauty contest and the annual convention, before returning to a more detailed discussion of the 1996 convention and its controversial beauty contest. The final section turns
specifically to Panamanian Chinese and examines their interpretations
and responses to these debates. By using gender as a category of analysis
(Scott 1999) and taking the beauty contest as a focus, I examine how
racial-cultural purity, migration, and homeland politics intersect in setting the terms of diasporic citizenship.

Transnational Networks and Diasporic Identifications

The Queen of the Chinese Colony beauty contest takes place at the annual Convention of Chinese Associations of Central America and
Panama, which is hosted by the Federation of Chinese Associations of
this region. Its participants include Chinese from Panama, Costa Rica,
Nicaragua, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This transnational
organization was founded in 1965, amid intensifying regional instability,
by the presidents of the six national Chinese associations of this region.
Shortly after its founding, the association leaders requested financial help
from the Republic of China (ROC) embassies in order to make the organization a permanent institution of the diaspora. Since then, the organi-

Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y


zation has become a joint venture between diasporic Chinese and the
ROC government, solidifying both their sociopolitical ties and their symbolic ones.3
According to the Chinese Panamanian Associations president, Alberto
Lee, the Federation of Chinese Associations of Central America and
Panama decided to host an annual convention that would bring together
representatives of the six nation-based associations to discuss economic
and political issues confronting their respective communities. The
founders intended this organization to provide additional resources and
support for diasporic Chinese beyond what was available within the borders of their nation-states. For instance, during the Sandinista Revolution
in Nicaragua, when diasporic Chinese who had supported the Somoza
regime were being systematically captured and imprisoned, the organization raised funds and lobbied government officials on their behalf. As a
result, a number of Chinese were able to escape to other parts of Central
America. The organization has also provided relief funds for victims of
natural disasters and scholarships for underprivileged Chinese.
Given that these Central American countries have been relatively poor
anduntil recentlypolitically volatile, it was understandable that diasporic Chinese of the region would pool their resources on a transnational
scale to form a safety net for themselves. The fact that diasporic Chinese
have experienced long histories of persecution in Central America (and
throughout the world), and the realization that they could not rely on
China for protection, further motivated the formation of the organization
to help ensure their safety and survival.4
It is also important to remember that there is not a simple binary relationship between the nation-state and the diaspora. On the contrary, diasporas are not only embedded in the system of nation-states but also
partially constituted by the conditions within those nation-states. In other
words, the marginalization of diasporic Chinese, manifested in their lack
of cultural and legal-political acceptance in Central America and
Panama, has everything to do with their desire to maintain ties with a distant homeland and to form transnational organizations that create
safe spaces and a sense of community. Indeed, their inability to participate as full citizens of the nation-state has inspired many to participate
in diasporic politics, where their voice is heard and their presence matters.


Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y

G e n d e r , Pa t r i l i n e a l i t y, a n d
the Reproduction of the Diaspora
Six years after the founding of the Convention, its annual gatherings were
expanded to include women and youth, and new activities were initiated,
one of which was the beauty contest. As Alberto Lee frankly explained to
me, [We] started these activities because the second generation was marrying out. [I] want my kids to meet other Chinese people and since my
wife and I were working so hard, [we] never had time to do things with
[our] children. By bringing his family to these conventions, he had
hoped his children and, later, his grandchildren would meet other likeminded Chinese. Lee continued, In order to convince the kids that
these conventions are not just a bunch of old men talking about boring
business, I thought a beauty contest would attract both young men and
women to participate, to mingle, and you know, to build friendships.
He then proceeded to list several marriages that have resulted from these
conventions: so-and-sos daughter from Panama had married so-and-sos
son in Guatemala, and so on and so forth. He stopped in the middle of
his narrative and abruptly turned to me, asking, Are you married?
When I answered No, he paused and smiled mischievously, as if to say
that his scheme works and perhaps it could also work for me.
Lees emphasis on encouraging diasporic Chinese youth to meet and
mingle reflects the dominant sentiment favoring endogamy, or marrying
within ones ethnic group. Parents often stated that ideally they want
their children to marry Chinese, claiming that such unions promise a
greater possibility of both spouses speaking the same language (Cantonese) and sharing the same cultural values, such as respect for elders,
honesty, a strong work ethic, and commitment to family. What is suggested is not merely their preference for maintaining racial-cultural purity
but, more important, a desire for shared cultural expectations that leads
to familial intimacy rather than division. While this preference for marrying within has historical roots that link reproduction of racial-cultural
purity with class distinction (chapter 1), Chinese parents are primarily
expressing their profound anxiety over the possibility of losing their
children through exogamy. They assume that marrying Chinese will reinforce familial bonds, while marrying out will lead to their deterioration.
In fact, it is rather telling that their preference for marrying Chinese overrides their concern about geographical separation.
The emphasis on endogamy is less consistent among diasporic youth.
In fact, the question of marriage in general is less a concern for them than

Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y


for their parents. The youth attend the convention because they want to
travel, to meet new friends, or to have a good time. Amelia, the
beauty contestant from Panama, asserted, I came because I wanted the
opportunity to meet people outside of Panama. I thought it would be fun
to see how different their experience [of being diasporic Chinese] is from
mine. Besides, I wanted to visit Costa Rica. Many of the youth, including the contestants, offered similar answers, and for most, finding a marriage partner was not a priority.
Getting to know one another is precisely what the youth did while attending the convention. Local Costa Rican Chinese youth organized trips
to shopping malls, movies, and dance halls. I often went with them. During the day, we would explore the city, window-shop in malls, walk
around tourist sites, and relax over a meal or a cup of coffee and snacks.
Our conversations concerned family, experiences of discrimination,
things we wanted to do, and the futures we imagined. We returned to the
convention only to have dinner, and then off we went to the dance halls.
By the end of the convention, we had made promises to one another to
keep in touch via e-mail and phone, to continue attending these conventions, and to visit one another whenever possible. The intensive interaction we shared over the course of three days created strong bonds; most
of us made meaningful friendships, and a few romances also developed.
The purpose of the beauty contest, quite explicitly described by Alberto Lee, is to encourage youth participation and interaction. In fact, the
contest has become the highlight of the convention, with the contestants
embodying idealized qualities of diasporic subjectivity, qualities that are
to be reaffirmed, emulated, and reproduced. In essence, the contestants
represent both the source of encouraging youth participation and the medium through which the diaspora is reproduced. The trope of women as
social and cultural reproducers of the nation is here reconfigured into the
trope of women as reproducers of the diaspora (Cohen et al. 1996; Yuval-Davis and Anthias 1989). And constitutive of this gendered discourse
of reproduction is the assumption and reification of heterosexuality.
Diasporas have been described as masculinist projects of transnational
community formation (Helmrich 1992; Brown 1998). Extending this, I
suggest that patrilineality structures diasporic organizations from local to
transnational contexts. Benedict Andersons idea of the nation as a horizontal comradeship between menin the sense that the nation is imagined not as a hierarchical structure but as one in which men see one another as equals within the nationis likewise useful as a way of thinking


Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y

about the Chinese diaspora. In moving from nation to diaspora, however,

this horizontal comradeship becomes what I would call a brotherhood of patrilineagesa nonhierarchical relationship among men of the
same generation and among their respective generations of ancestors and
descendants who reach beyond the temporal and territorial space of the
nation. In other words, men are to nation as patrilineages are to diaspora. We can see this phenomenon at work in the relationships between
this regional organization, the national Chinese associations, and the various native place associations that link together the diaspora.
As I mentioned earlier, this umbrella organization is comprised of the
various Chinese associations in Central America and Panama, and its
voting members are representatives of each of the national Chinese associations. In Panama, and I suspect in the Central American countries as
well, members of the Chinese Association are elected representatives of
the various native place associations, which are the most basic unit of
formal organization of the ethnic Chinese community.5 In fact, native
place is arguably the most significant form of identification, aside from
clan and family groupings, among ethnic Chinese in Panama.
Historically, Chinese immigration to Panama has been disproportionately male, and native place associations were formed as a kind of fraternity that aimed to provide mutual aid and protection for immigrant men.
Like other native place associations that have developed throughout the
Chinese diaspora, these organizations serve as support networks, minigovernments, and mechanisms of control and discipline (Lai 1998; King
1994).6 In Panama, native place associations serve two major functions.
They help immigrants maintain a sense of connection to and relations
with their native places in China and give them access to kinship networks in Panama that provide them with support. In short, the associations link immigrants to their native villages in China and regroup them
into quasi-kinship networks in Panama based on that linkage.
Moreover, native place identifications and kinship networks are traced
patrilineally. Each generation identifies with the fathers native place and
kin group. Hence, these kinship networks are sustained and reproduced
through male descent, thereby making men their nodes and primary
guardians. For example, people who are from Chungsan (Zhongshan)7
Province or whose patrilineal ancestry can be traced to that province are
presumed to belong to the same kinship network and are therefore related. Those who share the same surname can claim even closer relations.
In this manner, native place associations extend the geographically de-

Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y


fined kinship networks beyond the territorial space of China, replicating

patrilineality and kinship relations in the diaspora.
Over time, however, as people create their own family and social networks in Panama, these native place associations become less and less important. Also, peoples connections to their native places tend to weaken
over generations. For instance, native place identifications do not conjure
up the same nostalgic memories or feelings of attachment for Panamanian-born Chinese as they do for immigrants. Indeed, these associations
were created for and are mostly nurtured by immigrants, and their existence, therefore, depends on immigration flows from their respective regions in China. It is not surprising, then, that the founding members of
the Chinese Association in Panama were all men and that the association
remains an all-male organization to this day. In addition, meetings are
conducted in Cantonese, which further limits participation. For these reasons, the membership of the Chinese Association consists mostly of immigrant men and is extremely vulnerable to changes in patterns of immigration. Up until the 1980s, the Chinese Association, along with native
place associations, had been diminishing in importance and power because of the low rate of Chinese immigration to Panama. Organizations
headed by Panamanian-born Chinese were slowly eclipsing the Chinese
Association in providing leadership. However, the sudden and dramatic
influx of immigrants in the 1980s revitalized both the Chinese Association and the native place associations. In fact, these organizations are
now wracked by struggles for control between the early immigrants and
the recent immigrants.
Patrilineality, then, structures gender bias into these various diasporic
organizations. It ensures an (almost) all-male membership, which gives
men control of these organizations and thereby also of the formal politics
of the diaspora. In Panama, with the exception of two organizations that
were founded and are run by women, all the organizations are dominated
by men. It is important to note that the expansion of the Convention to
include women and youth by no means opened the official meetings to
them. On the contrary, it reinscribed and reenforced the division between
the masculinized space of the official meetings and the feminized arena
of the beauty contest and other recreational activities. For example,
while men attended their two-day-long meetings, women were taken on
tour buses around the city for sightseeing and shopping. Although there
was no formal or explicit rule excluding women from these official meetings, there was no encouragement for them to participate either. When I


Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y

sought permission to attend these meetings, I encountered mostly surprised looks and some resistance. Out of thirty attendees at these official
meetings, only five were women (not counting myself); and out of these
five women, three were translators and note takers. Only two were voting members. The stark gender imbalance clearly indicates male dominance in these official meetings. Indeed, since this regional organization
ultimately draws its members from native place associations, it directly
inherits its androcentric premises of belonging.
Tourism and the beauty contest are the two arenas within the convention where women are the key participants. Tourism, the shared experience of exploration, facilitates the formation of social ties among women.
Spending all day together, women build affective bonds through conversation, exchange knowledge about one another, and create shared memories of their experience. Often, the ties they create in these informal arenas are stronger and longer lasting than those formed between the male
participants. In fact, these feminized arenas of sociality serve an important role in generating and reaffirming the social bonds among diasporic
Chinese. Several women I interviewed commented on their lasting friendships with one another. While some had met each other outside this context, their participation in the convention over the years has sustained
their relationship. Luana, who is now in her sixties, explained, Carmen
and I have been friends since we were teenagers in Nicaragua. However,
since I moved to Guatemala twenty years ago, the annual conventions are
the only chance we get to see each other. And every time we meet, it is
like it was just yesterday that we were together.
The beauty contest is another arena where young women bond with
one another, their mothers, and other women relatives. The contestants
often draw on their female kinship networks for advice and support.
Most are accompanied by their mothers and at least one other female relative, who work behind the scenes to make sure the contestants appear
their best. Their intimate and honest interactions, their emotional reliance on one another, and their overall shared experience all engender
strong social bonds. One contestant commented, I have never felt so
close to my mother. She was so proud of me and so supportive throughout the whole process. I never saw that side of her until then. Another
contestant claimed that she and her cousin have become closer because of
this experience, stating that without [her] cousins constant support and
attention to detail, she would have never been able to compete or have
the strength to go through the contest. The beauty contest, then, provides

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an important site where intergenerational and lateral relations among

women are affirmed and strengthened.
The beauty contest is also the only arena where women are expected
to assert their identities publicly. Certainly, the structure of the beauty
contest limits the kind of agency they are allowed. Nonetheless, the contestants have creative license to shift established norms, offer new versions of what it means to be diasporic Chinese, and provoke discussion
about their performances. In fact, the beauty contest itself offers an intersubjective space where the interaction between the contestants performances and the audiences reception makes possible certain interventions. I shall return to this discussion shortly. For now, I underscore that
the gendering of arenas, such as the masculinization of formal diasporic
politics and the feminization of informal interactions and the beauty contest, have reproduced gendered practices and ways of belonging to this
diasporic organization.
Negotiating Homeland State
and Diaspora Relations
To grasp the full significance of the Chinese Association, one has to see it
in its global context and examine its role in Chinese diasporic politics. As
discussed in the Introduction, the Republic of China (ROC) and the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) have debated the right to claim Chinese
state legitimacy since 1949, and the issue is far from having been resolved
today. While the PRC continues to insist that Taiwan is a province under
its jurisdiction, the ROC argues that Taiwan should have sovereignty. 8
Panama has been a strong supporter of the ROC and continues to be
part of the small minority of nation-states that maintain diplomatic relations with it. 9 Critical to maintaining the good relations between Panama
and the ROC has been the work of Chinese Panamanians, who have fostered a mutually beneficial relationship with the ROC embassy. Part of
the ROCs strategy in garnering international support has been to increase the awareness and involvement of diasporic Chinese in the
PRCROC conflict. Historically, the Chinese diaspora has played a significant role in Chinese political, economic, and cultural developments,
and it continues to do so today (Duara 1997). By institutionalizing diasporic networks such as the Federation of Chinese Associations of Central
America and Panama, the ROC has demonstrated its commitment to sustaining relations with diasporic Chinese. In fact, this organization is part
of a much larger structure of networks that tie the diaspora to the ROC.


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These networks include the Chinese associations on the national level,

this organization on the regional level, the Federation of Chinese Associations in the Americas on the continental level, and, finally, the Global
Association of Cantonese. Through this sophisticated structure of organizations, the ROC seeks to nurture a well-informed, highly connected,
and politicized Chinese diaspora that can lobby on its behalf in both the
national and the international arenas.
A closer examination of the discussions that take place in the business meetings of the Convention reveals the complex relationship between diasporic Chinese and the ROC government. One Panamanian
representative described a typical meeting as follows:
We discussed two major topics: each countrys political and social matters,
and our [collective] relationship with Taiwan. Basically, each country reports
their annual activities and discusses their communitys needs. This year, we
talked about the budget for [Chinese school] teachers and eventually passed a
joint resolution to increase the allocation. In terms of our relationship with
Taiwan, well . . . this year, the Taiwanese wanted us to support, morally
mostly, a KMT (Kuomintang) member and his political position. We agreed to
support a political framework but not a particular member of the KMT. The
Taiwanese often ask the six countries for political support; in exchange, they
give us support, whether it is economic or moral or whatever.

This only hints at the intricate symbiotic relationship between the diasporic Chinese of this region and the ROC government. It clearly shows
the influential role of diasporic Chinese in negotiating geopolitical relations between the ROC and the PRC. In exchange for the ROCs financial support, diasporic Chinese lend moral-political affirmation. Anthropologists Linda Basch, Nina Glick Schiller, and Cristina Szanton Blanc
(1994) have coined the term deterritorialized nation-state to underscore the manner in which a state can exert influence over people living
both within and outside its national territory. More recently, Glick
Schiller and Georges Fouron (2001) have extended Benedict Andersons
notion of long-distance nationalism (1992) to describe the process by
which transnational migrants continue to participate in homeland politics. The difference between long-distance nationalism and diasporic ChineseROC relations is that the latter are based less on nationalism or nationalist sentiment than on mutual exchange. In fact, diasporic Chinese
are concerned with Chinese politics only to the extent that it affects or
benefits their local situation in the diaspora. The promise of funding to
hire local Chinese schoolteachers in exchange for moral-political support
is only one example. Given the ROCs economic wealth in comparison to

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the collective wealth of diasporic Chinese in this region, what it has done
via co-sponsorship of this transnational organization is to translate economic capital into political capital. Clearly, the ROC co-sponsors this organization and its annual convention in order to sustain relations with diasporic Chinese, to reinforce diasporic identifications and relations
among Chinese in this region, and to recruit their political support. The
ROC understands that this organization helps generate a collective consciousness among diasporic Chinese, which in turn helps build a community base from which to mobilize political support. The stronger and
more organized the community, the more influence and power diasporic
Chinese can wield in national and international politics. And it is precisely the dual relations that diasporic Chinese maintain with their place
of residence and the ROC that can help its cause in the international
arena. Hence, it is in the interest of the ROC both to nurture the economic, social, and political growth of diasporic Chinese in their local
contexts and to maintain strong ties with them. Similarly, it is also in the
best interest of diasporic Chinese to maintain relations with the ROC embassy, which provides significant material support for the development of
the community. For both parties, then, the emphasis is on strengthening
local development in the diaspora and not direct intervention in Chinese/Taiwanese national politics. This is what differentiates diasporic citizenship from long-distance nationalism.
The Convention provides a transnational venue for the ROC and the
leadership of the Chinese communities to reinforce their mutual support.
While it draws diasporic Chinese into the sphere of PRCROC politics,
it simultaneously provides a structure to reproduce a collective consciousness and continued alliance with the ROC. Furthermore, by making its annual gathering a family-friendly event, it engages multiple generations of diasporic Chinese and ensures the continuation of the
organization by grooming the next generation of participants. For instance, the cohort of friends I met during the 1996 convention continues
to maintain social relations through periodic visits, e-mail, and telephone
calls. Moreover, the annual convention provides both a venue and a purpose for reunions. Hence, while these conventions help forge social networks among ethnic Chinese, those networks in turn increase participation in them.
The Convencin de Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam
is thus clearly and unabashedly a diaspora-building project. By providing
a transnational structure that meets annually and pools their resources,


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the Convention builds alliances among the different Chinese communities

and enables the formation of social networks and a sense of collective
identity among diasporic Chinese. It also engages diasporic Chinese in
the PRCROC struggle and reinforces the relationship between the diaspora and the ROC. Finally, it helps recruit and socially reproduce convention participants and ROC supporters by reaching to several generations of diasporic Chinese, thereby also ensuring the effectiveness of the
organization in the diaspora.

The 1996 Convention

In August 1996, I traveled with eighty-four Chinese Panamanians by
plane to San Jos, the capital of Costa Rica. Miss Costa Rica and a few
leaders of the Chinese Costa Rican community greeted our delegation as
we deplaned and boarded the tour buses that would take us to the convention. With approximately two hundred participants in total, the Panamanian group was by far the largest, reflecting the relative size of
Panamas Chinese population with respect to the other countries. It may
be useful to note that Costa Rica has the second largest Chinese population, estimated at 47,000, followed by El Salvador with 18,000 and
Guatemala at 16,800 (Commission on Overseas Chinese Affairs, ROC
1997). With less than 5,000 Chinese, exact figures for Nicaragua and
Honduras are not available (Ibid.). Overall, the participants were mostly
men and women between the ages of forty and eighty. Most of the men
came as representatives of their Chinese associations and were accompanied by their wives. A few brought their children who were in their teens
and twenties; there were no more than thirty of these young people, and
they were evenly divided by gender. Generally speaking, the participants
belonged to either the petite bourgeoisie or the professional class. Most
people of the older generation were small business owners, while the
younger generation consisted primarily of college-educated professionals.
With the exception of the Nicaraguan and Honduran delegations, the
majority of the representatives were from the immigrant generation and
were bilingual in Spanish and Cantonese, with some also speaking Mandarin and/or English. Latin Americanborn participants, especially the
younger generation, tended to be fluent in Spanish and at least proficient
in English and sometimes Cantonese. In addition to the Chinese Latin
Americans, about thirty ROC officials from the Overseas Chinese Affairs
Office in Taiwan and in Central America and Panama also attended the

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convention. Most of these officials were men between the ages of forty
and sixty; all of them spoke Mandarin, and some also spoke English.
Very few spoke Spanish.
The convention hotel was spacious enough to host several small conventions at once. There were at least two large banquet rooms for hosting our lunches and dinners. After registration, there was no set schedule
for our first day there, so we disbanded. While the more senior groups of
men and women went shopping around the city, the twenty-something
participants met and relaxed in the hotel. We introduced ourselves and
discussed our different backgrounds and experiences. People were
friendly and accepting, and we soon established rapport with one another. By the afternoon, we were ready to explore the city, and we all
packed into several cars and headed towards the mall, where we window-shopped, ate, and took pictures.
The convention officially convened the following day, and for the next
two days, the delegates of each country met in the mornings and the afternoons, while most women participants shopped and toured the city,
and the youth were free to do whatever they pleased. The last day of the
convention was reserved for recreation. A group trip was organized to Mi
Pueblo (my town), a tourist attraction where important scenes from the
history of Costa Rica are reenacted. The group spent the remainder of the
afternoon at an amusement park, which was open only to our private
party. Each night after the dinner banquets, the younger participants
gathered and planned their excursions to nightclubs and dance parties.
Within those few days of the convention, we became good friends and
promised to keep in contact in the years to come. In fact, during my thirteen months of field research in Panama from 1996 to 1997, we were
able to meet twice as a group, once in Guatemala and another time in
The costs of attending these annual conventions were kept to a minimum, with travel and hotel expenses subsidized by the respective Chinese
associations and the ROC Overseas Affairs Office. A few participants informed me that the delegates from each country attend these conventions
at no cost to them. All other participants paid only airfare and hotel expenses. The dinners were Chinese-style banquets and were sponsored by
different organizations. For instance, the Chinese Association of Costa
Rica hosted the inauguration dinner, while the ROC embassy in Costa
Rica sponsored the second dinner banquet. The following day, it was the
ROC Ministry of Overseas Chinese Affairs that sponsored the dinner,


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and the Kuomintang Chinese Affairs Commission hosted the closing banquet. At each of the dinner banquets, entertainment was provided. The
first dinner banquet featured mostly student performances of Chinese
and Latin American dance forms. The second night showcased mostly
Chinese folk dance and music, and the beauty contest was the scheduled
entertainment for the concluding banquet.
These dinner banquets were formal affairs, and everyone was elegantly
dressed in semi-formal or formal attire. In fact, before departing for this
trip, I was explicitly told that I should bring my best outfits. The Chinese
travel agent with whom I registered for this convention made it a point to
warn me: I know Americans tend to be casual. But here in Latin America, we are more formal, and in these banquets, we really do it up. Indeed, every evening, men showed up in dark suits and women wore
evening gowns. People of all ages took time to plan their outfits, and they
looked simply spectacular. For most participants, these conventions provide one of the few occasions on which they can dress up, catch up with
friends and family, and have a grand time. A look around the banquet
hall shows new friendships forming, romances developing, and old
friends reuniting. Whether through migration, marriage, kinship networks, or social relations formed at these conventions, people had strong
transnational ties that made this regional convention seem almost neighborly. Indeed, looking around the room, I recognized a few people whom
I had met in Nicaragua a few years ago. I walked over to reintroduce myself and was greeted with welcoming smiles and open arms. In that moment, I glimpsed why it was that people kept returning to these conventions.
Th e B e a u t y C o n t e s t : P e r f o r m i n g
Nation/Performing Diaspora
Throughout the four days of the convention, the beauty contestants were
at their best. They knew all too well that their performance began the
moment they arrived and that they were judged not only on their onstage presence but also on their overall demeanor and comportment
throughout the convention. Since the beauty contest took place during
the last dinner banquet, people were by then already familiar with the
contestants, and many had chosen their favorite. What follows is a discussion of the various categories of the beauty context, with a particular
focus on the two contested queens, Miss Costa Rica and Miss Honduras,

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1996 Chinese of Central America and Panama Beauty Pageant. From left, reigning queen and contestants in the following country order: Panama, Guatemala,
Costa Rica, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras. Photograph by author.

and their different strengths in the national dance and self-introduction categories. As the contestants performed, not only did they present
hegemonic constructions of Central American / Panamanianness and
Chineseness, they also disrupted them by revealing the tensions and
contradictions inherent in diasporic subjectivities. Moreover, their very
embodiment of difference within the diaspora also incited discussions of
idealized diasporic subjectivity, unveiling in public debate competing notions of diasporic citizenship.
The beauty contest was divided into four categories. The contest began
with the contestants adorned in their respective national dresses.10 Carrying their respective national flags and marching to their national anthems, the contestants slowly entered the banquet room and walked onto
the stage. The reigning queen, who also happened to be my cousin from
Guatemala, marched with the contestants; but instead of wearing her national dress, she wore the traditional Chinese cheongsam and marched to
the ROC national anthem. The symbolism of her Chinese dress in contrast to the national dresses worn by the contestants encapsulates the


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process by which the winner of the beauty contest shifts from representing the nation to representing the Chinese diaspora (and its connection to
the Chinese homeland). The beauty contest in this sense serves to abstract
the differences between the national communities and reconstitutes them
into a queen whose image emphasizes a shared Chinese identity. Once all
the contestants and the queen were on stage, the audience applauded, and
the two masters of ceremony briefly introduced the contestants in Mandarin and Cantonese. 11
Following this segment, the contestants took turns performing their respective national dances. While a couple of the national dances used indigenous dance forms popularized as official representations of national
culture, the others were drawn from colonial contexts. This category of
performance underscored diasporic identification with the nation of residence. Yet, even as the contestants performed these dances, they inherently disrupted the very message they sought to conveythat of homogenizing the nation. Their embodiment of racialized difference articulated
their disidentification with the nation. Jos Muoz defines disidentification as the process of recycling and rethinking encoded meaning, stating
that disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of
a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded messages universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to
account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications (1999, 31). As the contestants performed their national dances,
they not only made visible the exclusionary practices that continually denied their right to full citizenship but also simultaneously inserted themselves and insisted on their belonging.
In this category, Miss Honduras definitely outperformed her competitors. In general, the dance routines tended to be rather repetitive, but
Miss Honduras displayed extraordinary originality and poise. Carrying a
basket of roses, she sang along with the music and danced with ease and
grace, prancing around the stage, rippling her dress and tossing roses into
the audience. Her supporters responded happily, clapping, chanting her
name, and catching the roses she threw to them. Without any sign of exhaustion or tentativeness, she exhibited a playfulness and ease with the
dance steps that projected a sense of complete at-home-ness.
Miss Costa Rica was less adept. With her eyes fixed on her feet, she
seemed overly concerned with the dance steps, reflecting a lack of skill
and confidence. Her steps seemed more prepared, more tentative, as if
she were performing them by rote. Focusing on her dance steps, she was

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unable to engage the audience, and near the end of her performance, one
could see the exhaustion in her face and her relief as the music came to an
end. The two juxtaposed performances illustrated the contestants contrasting degrees of expertise and comfort. As one audience member commented, Miss Honduras looked comfortable as if she owned [the
dance] Miss Costa, on the other hand, needed more practice. If this
category were meant to establish ones relationship with the nation, Miss
Honduras seemed to embody Honduran-ness, whereas Miss Costa Rica
showed far less familiarity with her national identity.
The third category, the self-introductions, featured the contestants
in cheongsams. With Chinese music playing in the background, the contestants glided elegantly across the stage and introduced themselves in
whatever languages they chose. Coming after the national dance category, this segment showcased performances of Chineseness. Overall, the
rhythm and pace were slower; the contestants assumed a more reserved
and more subtly coquettish demeanor. In contrast to the dance category,
this one focused on overall comportment, gestures, and speech. It was in
the stylized movements (the tilt of ones head, the swaying of hips and
arms, the poses one strikes) and ways of presenting oneself (dress, hair,
make-up, intonations, content and pattern of speech) that people discussed and judged their Chineseness. The seemingly simple act of walking across the stage took on immense meaning. According to my cousin,
the reigning queen, the walk itself required arduous practice. She explained, I watched videos of Hong Kong pageants to see how the
women moved, walked with books on my head to check my balance.
And once I learned the actual movements, I had to learn to be natural doing it. The subtle movements of the arms, hips, hands, and face, along
with particular ways of looking and smiling all played a role in presenting a particular style of feminine sexuality. In their introductions, most of
the contestants spoke in Spanish and Cantonese, but a couple of them
also spoke in Mandarin. The use of different languages and the information they included and excluded all reflected their strategies of self-representation (cf. Besnier 2002).
Miss Costa Rica, dressed in a classic cheongsam, presented an archetypical image of idealized Chinese femininity. Slender, tall, with her hair
tied in a bun and a few loose strands playing around her cheeks, she displayed an elegant, classic, and reserved femininity that clearly captivated
the immigrant Chinese in the audience. Miss Honduras, with more
voluptuous curves and wearing a less popular variation of the cheong-


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sam, was less able to reproduce the conventional ideal of Chinese femininity. Despite this disadvantage, her performance was no less powerful.
Most contestants introduced themselves in Spanish and spoke at least
a few words in Cantonese. Not surprisingly, since most were Latin Americanborn and/or raised, all of them spoke perfect Spanish. In the area of
Chinese-language competency, Miss Costa Rica had an advantage. She
spoke fluent Cantonese and Mandarin, while it was clear that the others
had learned specific phrases for the purpose of the contest. When introducing herself, Miss Costa Rica spoke in Spanish, then repeated herself in
both Cantonese and Mandarin. She had firm control of all three languages, coming across as truly multilingual. Miss Honduras, who clearly
did not speak any Chinese, used her fan as a prop from which she read
phonically a few words in Mandarin. As she struggled with pronunciation, audience members reacted with either mocking smiles or enthusiastic applause. A number of her supporters whistled, clapped, and shouted
her name in support. To most Chinese speakers, her attempt was almost
indecipherable. To monolingual Spanish speakers, her performance was
courageous and commendable. In the intersubjective process between
performance and reception, her sincere attempt to speak Chinese was interpreted as either mimicry or parody, as either trying to be but not
quite succeeding or as criticizing and subverting the absurd notion that
equated being Chinese with speaking Chinese. In my conversations with
various audience members, I learned that most Chinese of the immigrant
generation interpreted her attempt as an honest but failed effort, while
most Panamanian-born Chinese saw it as a courageous act of subtle critique. In speaking with Miss Honduras after the contest, she commented,
I did what I could, what I was expected to do, but I am who I am, and
there is nothing I can do to change that. People will judge me accordingly. Keenly aware of the judges expectations, Miss Honduras understood both the possibilities and limits of performance. She knew all too
well that ones socialization and embodiment also play a role in the contest.
Miss Hondurass performance highlighted the long-standing divide between immigrant Chinese speakers and Latin Americanborn Spanish
speakers and enabled the latter to express openly their collective rejection
of marginalization based on linguistic ability. As one audience member
resentfully remarked, Immigrant Chinese-speaking men dominate the
leadership of this organization. They are the gatekeepers of the Chinese
colony and determine the agendas and set the criteria of belonging in the

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diaspora. It is time to change that. Clearly, Miss Hondurass insistence

on speaking Chinese, however distorted it was, disrupted the dominant
expectation that all contestants (and more generally, all diasporic Chinese) should speak Chinese with some degree of mastery. Her performance articulated disidentification. It created a break, a rupture, in
representations of diasporic Chineseness, thereby allowing non-Chinesespeaking diasporic subjects to vocalize and confront the unspoken and
unacknowledged marginalizing practices of the diasporic leadership. Indeed, diasporic formations are in part produced in response to the exclusionary practices of nation-states. Yet, in practice, diasporas often generate their own set of exclusions. In this particular case, the close
relationship between diasporic Chinese and the ROC government undoubtedly shapes the manner in which idealized diasporic subjectivity is
formulated and reproduced. Remarkably present throughout the contest,
and the convention more generally, is the insistence on strong Chinese
identifications, the ability to speak Chinese being the most significant of
these. Speaking Chinese is also crucial for relations with the ROC, whose
representatives are primarily monolingual Chinese speakers. The fact that
business meetings in the annual conventions are conducted only in Mandarin and Cantonese further substantiates the importance of Chinese in
sustaining diasporic communication and relations with the ROC.
The final segment of the pageant featured the contestants in Westernstyle evening gowns, and they were asked one question each, to which
they gave impromptu answers. The questions varied: Who is your female
role model? What would you say to your fellow contestants if you were
to win the contest? Which of the threeintelligence, wealth, beautyis
the most important to you, and why? Most of the contestants answered
in Spanish only. In 1996, the two exceptions were Miss Costa Rica, who
answered first in Cantonese and then in Spanish, and Miss Honduras,
who answered in Spanish and then in English. By displaying their ability
to speak at least two languages, they performed and simultaneously affirmed the value of biculturalism. Miss Costa Rica reemphasized her ability to speak Cantonese and Spanish, and Miss Honduras surprised the
audience with English. When I asked her later why she had answered in
English, she responded, I really wanted the judges to hear what I have
to say. I know that some of them, especially the Taiwanese representatives, dont speak Spanish,12 so I thought it would be a good idea for me
to answer in English. I know most of them speak at least some English.
Also, I wanted to show the judges that I can speak a language other than


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Spanish. I dont speak Chinese, but English has to count for something. I
mean, just because I dont speak Chinese doesnt mean that I am closedminded or provincial. While knowing that speaking Chinese is a quality
valued in this competition, Miss Honduras also understood the significance of communication, and her strategic performance of English questioned the qualities associated with diasporic Chineseness.
In play here were the complexities of geopolitics. By speaking English,
Miss Honduras subtly called attention to the role of American imperialism as the basis for relations between the ROC and Central America and
Panama. Americas Cold War campaign from the 1950s to the 1980s not
only made impossible a mainland Chinese presence in this region but, in
fact, encouraged and nurtured ROC relations with it and also with the
diasporic Chinese there. While it may be difficult to assess Miss Hondurass intentions, her comment at the end of the contest reflects her understanding of politics in culture: We [the beauty contestants] are mere
pawns in their game of politics. It does not matter who we are or what
we do. Its all about them and their political agendas. Succinctly, she unveils the beauty contest as a platform for political posturing and maneuvering.
Embodied Difference: Miss Costa Rica
and Miss Honduras
The contestants contrasting strengths in the beauty contest, conveying
their degrees of cultural identification with the nation and Chineseness,
were reinforced by their identity construction. Miss Costa Rica and Miss
Honduras exemplified very different ways of being diasporic Chinese.
Miss Costa Rica was born in mainland China and immigrated to Costa
Rica about ten years ago. Both her parents are Chinese from the Peoples
Republic. She speaks fluent Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish. Given
these characteristics, she was considered the most Chinese, both in
racial and cultural terms. Light-skinned, svelte, and the tallest of all the
contestants, she reminded me of a Hong Kong movie star. Her appearance, gestures, and mannerisms epitomized Chinese cosmopolitanism:
her speech pattern and language abilities reflected a sense of worldliness,
her choice of contemporary classic styles of dress marked her fashion
consciousness, and her subtle yet effective make-up replicated contemporary Hong Kong aesthetics. She projected a reserved, slightly aloof aura
of refinement and elegance. By way of gossip, I was told that her father
has strong ties with the Taiwanese in Costa Rica, and a few people com-

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plained that she seemed arrogant because she did not mingle or hang
out with the other participants in the convention. In her defense, however, another person responded that she has very protective, traditional
parents and that she is not allowed to go out at night.
Miss Honduras is almost the polar opposite of Miss Costa Rica on the
spectrum of Chinese Central Americans. She was born in Honduras and
is racially mixed, her father being Chinese and her mother mestiza Honduran. Her facial features are unmistakably mestiza, and her shoulderlength brown hair is slightly wavy. Her style of dress was distinctively
Latin American. Her outfits were vibrant in color and snug-fitting, so
that they accentuated her feminine curves. She exuded a certain sensuality, confidence, and maturity that the other contestants had not yet developed. There was a quality of openness, warmth, and sincerity about
her. She spoke neither Cantonese nor Mandarin but was fluent in Spanish and had a firm grasp of English. Furthermore, she was eloquent,
thoughtful, and reflexive, qualities that came across not only in casual
conversation but also throughout the beauty contest. She was very popular among her peers, who generally described her as friendly, warm, outgoing, and witty.
With the two women projecting such contrasting identities, one may
ask how the winner could possibly have been in dispute? Unless, of
course, there was little consensus to begin with, and, as a result, the votes
were extremely polarized, with one group in favor of Miss Costa Rica
and the other in support of Miss Honduras.
What is at stake in the beauty contest involves not only who gets to
represent the Chinese diaspora, but also what qualities are deemed to be
idealized characteristics of that diaspora. Which of the women best embodies Chinese Central American beauty, femininity, and community?
What characteristics, standards, and values are being projected, affirmed,
and reinforced? That the two winners occupy two extremes of the Chinese diasporic spectrum is hardly accidental. Chineseness, after all, is a
homogenizing label whose meanings are multiple and constantly shifting
(Ang 1994, 5). To understand the concerns negotiated on stage, I suggest
we examine the larger debates among diasporic Chinese in this region.
First, however, I want to highlight the tensions and contradictions inherent in diasporic formations and, more specifically, in the Chinese diaspora, in hopes that this may help clarify the persistence of certain irreconcilable struggles for diasporic citizenship.


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Between Here and There:

Irreconcilable Tensions in Diaspora
In its simplest formulation, diaspora refers to the condition of a people
who share a common homeland, real or imagined, and who are dispersed throughout the world, either by force or by choice. Diaspora most
commonly refers to the doubled relationship or dual loyalty . . . to two
placestheir connections to the space they currently occupy and their
continuing involvement with back home (Lavie and Swedenburg
1996, 15). It is precisely this dual relationship, this tension between
where you are at versus where you are from (Gilroy 1990; Hall
1990; Ang 2001) that constitutes the condition and the idea of diaspora
and gives diasporic identifications the potential to be empowering as well
as disempowering. In a sense, diaspora embodies a third space where the
here and there, now and back then coexist and engage in constant
negotiation, and it is within this time-space continuum that diasporic
subjects interpret their history, position themselves, and construct their
The Chinese diaspora has its distinct set of histories and complex relations with the Chinese homeland. Three particular factorsChinas
immense presence in the global political economy, Chinas image as the
Other in the Western imagination, and the symbolic construction of
China as the cultural and geographical core of Chinese identitytogether exercise an extraordinary pull on diasporic Chinese to always look
to China for identity and a sense of belonging (Ang 1994). While such
identification can provide a sense of pride and serve as a tool for empowerment, it also reconfirms the impurity, the lack, and/or the inauthenticity of diasporic Chinese. Measuring Chineseness by ones
imagination and romanticization of China and at the same time recognizing the cultural difference that is informed by ones current location
fuels the debates over what constitutes Chineseness in the diaspora.
Furthermore, the situation for diasporic Chinese is rendered more complicated by the existence of two political entitiesthe PRC and the
ROCespousing two different official narratives and imaginaries of the
Chinese nation-state and homeland. (The conflict between the PRC
and Taiwan, not explicitly apparent in this chapter, became much more
significant after 1996 [see chapter 5].)
Most diaspora literature has focused on the predicament of trying to
maintain dual relations with the nation of residence and the homeland

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(Louie 2004; Axel 2001; Raj 2003), with few exceptions.13 In the case of
diasporic Chinese, while it is certainly true that both the Chinese homeland and the nation of residence exert tremendous cultural-political influence, it is also important to recognize the interactions and relations
among diasporic communities. Moreover, diasporic Chinese are not a homogenous group; distinctions in status and influence are evident within
the diaspora (Tu 1994). As nation-based collectivities, each groups place
of residence tends to determine its relative power in the diaspora. For instance, diasporic Chinese in the United States wield more influence and
have higher status than those in Ecuador or Kenya simply because the
United States is a wealthier and more powerful nation, which in turn
lends diasporic Chinese living there more weight within the larger diaspora. As shown in this chapter, nationality serves as a primary identifier
of difference among diasporic Chinese, because people are associated
with their countries of residence. Nowhere is this clearer than in the
beauty contest, where contestants represent and perform their national
differences. As mentioned earlier, the convention of Chinese Associations
in Central America and Panama facilitates social ties and intimate relations that the Chinese across this region sustain and actively seek to reproduce. In recognizing these lateral relationships between diasporic
communities, however, I also want to underscore their unequal power relations vis--vis one another. Heterogeneity and unevenness within diasporas have not received sufficient attention; those of us engaged in diaspora studies would do well to shift our analysis to include conversations
and interactions among diasporic subjects across nationalas well as
class, racial, gender, and generationgroupings.
National Differences and Inequalities
Within the Diaspora
Despite their common colonial histories and geographical proximity,
Panama and these Central American countries each confront very different political-economic conditions. Consequently, in spite of their common ethnic status in this region, the Chinese communities have developed
in contrasting ways. To a large extent, the beauty contestants reflected
certain national differences. Just as Miss Honduras, Miss Nicaragua, and
Miss Guatemala were Central Americanborn, racially mixed, and limited in their Chinese-speaking abilities, so are the majority of Chinese
youth in these countries. Chinese immigration to El Salvador, Honduras,
Nicaragua, and Guatemala has not been significant in the past few


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decades due to these countries volatile political and economic situations.

Therefore, the Chinese population in these countries has dwindled, with
more emigration from than immigration to these countries. Furthermore,
Chinese cultural practices and institutions such as Chinese-language
schools, Buddhist temples, and native place associations have become almost obsolete. The leadership of the Chinese associations of Honduras
and Nicaragua is now composed mostly of Spanish-speaking, Central
Americanborn Chinese. In contrast, Chinese immigration to Panama
and Costa Rica has increased tremendously in recent decades. While the
influx of Chinese immigrants to Costa Rica has largely been from Taiwan, most of Panamas immigrants are from the southern region of mainland China.
These differences are not free of power asymmetries. For one thing, all
the formal meetings at the convention are held in Mandarin and Cantonese. This is so largely because the Taiwanese delegates from the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office do not speak Spanish. Also, members of the
immigrant generation often feel more comfortable speaking Cantonese or
Mandarin than Spanish. Hence, while these meetings can be empowering
experiences for Chinese immigrants, they often exclude the non-Chinesespeaking population from participating. Let me draw on one ethnographic example to illustrate this point.
The official meetings of the Convention I attended were held in the following manner. The presiding officer would read an item of discussion in
Mandarin, followed by open discussion in either Mandarin or Cantonese.
After these discussions, the membership would vote. Throughout the
meeting, the most outspoken members were from Panama, Costa Rica,
and Guatemala. The Nicaraguan delegation sat there restlessly, looking
around the room as representatives from different countries stood up and
offered their opinions. It became clear that none of the Chinese
Nicaraguans could understand the discussion. They were completely lost,
unable to participate in any real way. The presiding officers, who had
known about this problem, chose not to address it. Instead, a trilingual
Chinese Panamanian, noticing the situation, walked over to the Chinese
Nicaraguans and began translating for them.
Language has always been a central problematic in the politics of diaspora.14 Ien Ang argues that her inability to speak Chinese has become
an existential condition that goes beyond the particularities of an arbitrary personal history. It is a condition that has been hegemonically constructed as a lack, a sign of loss of authenticity (Ang 1994, 11). The

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privileging of Chinese languages in the official meetings of the Convention clearly reinscribes certain characteristics and even certain peoples as
more Chinese and therefore more legitimate as participants than others. The Chinese Nicaraguan predicament also reminds us to be attentive
to unequal power relations between the different Chinese communities in
Central America and Panama vis--vis the larger diasporic organization.
Although Chinese Nicaraguans are part of this network, they by no
means participate to the same extent, with as much influence, as Chinese
Panamanians or Chinese Costa Ricans, who are often bilingual. Similarly,
the beauty contestants confront these same criteria for being diasporic
Chinese. It is not surprising, then, that all the contestants attempted to
say at least a few words in Chinese, with, of course, varying degrees of
success. Clearly, the ability to speak Chinese is a salient factor in determining the level of participation in this diasporic organization, and more
specifically, in gaining more leverage in the politics of diaspora.
Immigration and Competing Claims
of Belonging
Aside from national differences, one of the most pronounced divisions
within these communities, especially in Costa Rica and Panama, is between the recent immigrants, on the one hand, and the earlier immigrants
and their descendants, on the other. It is important, moreover, to note
that the category of recent immigrants is different in Costa Rica than
in Panama. The controversy over the crowning of the queen brings these
overlapping debates to the surface, as an examination of the Panamanian
response to the pageants outcome makes clear.
Ricardo, a Panamanian-born Chinese in his forties who had been attending these conventions for the past twenty years, offered this analysis
of the 1996 beauty contest:
Everyone wanted Miss Honduras to win. That was the talk around town the
next morning. Its not that they felt pity [for her for what had happened], but
it was the right thing to do. It has always been that a full Chinese, a Chinesespeaking girl, has the preference. In this case, that was Miss Costa Rica. Further[more], the vice president of the Costa Rican association, the one who organized the event, is Taiwanese. He leaned toward a more traditional Chinese
outlook, so to speak. Behind all this, there is an old infight between the old
[immigrants] and the new [immigrants] in Costa Rica, as usual in all [of] Central America. The new are the Taiwanese and the old, well, are the old established [Cantonese] folks. In Panama, the story is different. The new are the
newcomers from mainland China, who consist mostly of people who work in
the tienditas [little stores], while the old are the established old-timers and


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their Central Americanborn descendants, who are not interested in this kind
of infighting. [The old immigrants and their children] are the ones who
wanted Miss Honduras to win.

Ricardo was careful to point out that in Costa Rica, the recent immigrants are mostly Taiwanese, while in Panama, they are mainland Chinese who work in or own small stores. However, in the context of this
Convention, both the Taiwanese and the store-owning mainland Chinese
are categorized together as recent immigrants and are defined in opposition to the old immigrants and their Central Americanborn descendants.
A recent wave of Chinese immigrants to Panama in the 1980s has dramatically changed the demography of the Chinese population there, such
that the recent immigrants now constitute about half of the total Chinese
population in Panama. The two groups are characterized as complete opposites. While the old Chinese Colony (which includes the well-established Chinese immigrants and their descendants) are characterized as respectable, educated, and law-abiding citizens of Panama, the recent
immigrants are portrayed as poor, uneducated, dirty, untrustworthy, and
sometimes even criminal.
These negative images of recent Chinese immigrants are constructed
alongside several other discourses, which may help elucidate how these
images come into being and how the divisions between the immigrants
and the Chinese colony are actualized and solidified. First, this group of
newer arrivals is criminalized by being characterized as illegal immigrants. Shortly after the arrest of Manuel Noriega in 1990, the incoming
government publicly announced that Noriegas military regime had sold
Panamanian travel visas and passports to these immigrants. This information was then used to criminalize the immigrants, who quickly became
scapegoats of Panamanian nationalism after the U.S. invasion. Second,
the narrative of the immigrant-as-victim was set against the image of the
established-Chinese-as-victimizer. A series of sensational newspaper articles showed that many recent immigrants came as either short-term contract laborers or as wage workers who took on low-paying jobs as maids,
caretakers, and cooks for established Chinese. Immigrants and established Chinese were thus pitted against one another as victims and victimizers respectively. Finally, recent immigrants were distinguished from
the Chinese Colony along explicitly ideological lines, such that these
immigrants were described as communist Chinese, as if their undesirable behaviors were somehow inherently communist. These communist

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Chinese were deemed a different breed of Chinese altogether, I was

told repeatedly. The fact that many of the earlier immigrants and their
families had been persecuted during the communist revolution in China
partially contributes to their deep antagonism toward the recent immigrants, whom they associate with the communist regime. Another factor
has to do with U.S. imperialism and its use of Cold War anticommunist
rhetoric to justify its military presence and political repression throughout this region. Although communism and the Cold War may not
exist in those same terms today, in this age of so-called globalization,
ideological residues of the Cold War discourse are still firmly planted in
peoples memories and imaginations. Together, the three discursive constructionsthe immigrant as criminal, as victim, and as ideological deviantall feed into the formulation of the Chinese immigrant as an undesirable and dangerous subject.
Underlying these distinctions lies a certain fear that these new immigrants are transforming the old Chinese Colony. According to Ricardo,
the leadership of the Chinese Association in Panama is undergoing dramatic transformation. The representatives elected to office by the community are now reflecting the demographic changes in the Chinese population. More important, notions of Chineseness are changing faster
than ever before. Since the 1980s, a number of new Chinese restaurants
have opened, Chinese video rental stores have popped up in several
places, cable television has given people easy access to Hong Kong media
as well as American media, and Chinese karaoke performances are now
being held regularly. In fact, at one of the Chinese Youth Association parties I attended, Chinese karaoke has now replaced salsa dancing, and a
growing number of youth are speaking Cantonese with as much ease as
Spanish. The members of the Youth Association convey their need to express their cultural pride and to affirm their difference. Salsa dancing no
longer serves as a legitimate means of asserting their Chinese identity;
rather, karaoke is their medium of choice to claim and reaffirm their Chineseness. It does not matter what language they sing inCantonese,
Mandarin, Spanish, or English; what is significant is the act of singing
karaoke and their participation in these performances. Karaoke has become the signifier of their Chineseness; it is the medium through which
their diverse backgrounds and multiple identifications are enunciated. To
be sure, this newfound Chinese confidence enacted by the recent immigrants threatens the established habitus of Panamanian Chinese who
have survived culturally and economically by assuming a much more re-


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served and cautious comportment. The Chinese Colony, overwhelmed

by these changes and challenges to their prescribed notions of Chineseness, feel as though they are losing control, losing their way of life, losing what was once an intimate community where everyone knew everybody else. To the extent that they are able to recreate their social
networks and imaginings of a community that is connected by no more
than two degrees of separation, the Chinese Colony has maintained its
distinctive identity. However, even these boundaries are quickly eroding.
The debate over who should be the beauty queen embodied these anxieties and tensions, articulating not only divisions within the existing diaspora but also contrasting visions of what the diaspora should be. Discussions of standards of beauty are imbued with discourses of
racial-cultural purity versus hybridity, discussions that express two divergent notions of Chineseness in the diaspora. I draw again from a conversation with Ricardo:
This year [1998], Miss Nicaragua was the winner, and she was certainly the
best fit for the job. . . . It is fair to say that she fits the Western standard of
beauty, body, intelligence, and grace. Chinese standards are totally different.
She has to speak [Chinese], look Chinese, her body doesnt matter, and above
all [she] should and must be of Chinese [descent]. Costa Rica has always, to
the best of my memory, chosen girls who met the Chinese standard. The Taiwanese are almost pure in Costa Rica, or at least . . . they consider themselves
as pure.

Ricardo claims that the recent immigrants prefer an aesthetic that is

considered racially and culturally pure Chinese, suggesting that other
Central American Chinese do not share this preference, but rather one
that fits Western standards of beauty. By Western, he means the
Central American standard of beautythat of a racially and culturally
mixed woman (not the Western or European / North American idealized
beauty). By preferring the Western, Central American standard of
beauty himself, he is in a sense reaffirming his own positioning in Central
America and Panama. His location in Panama, hence, is what informs his
notions of Chineseness in the diaspora. In contrast, he would assert that
the standards of beauty used by the recent immigrants are drawn from
China, from what he considers to be the repository of pure Chineseness. Their notions are informed, he suggests, by their strong ties to the
homeland, whether it is Taiwan or mainland China, not to Central
America. Hence, Ricardos preference for the Central American aesthetic
is more than just a subjective reading of beauty. What he makes explicit

Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y


is the politics of aesthetics in determining what it means to be Chinese in

the diaspora. In stating his preference, he is asserting an ideological position as well as his resistance against hegemonic constructions of Chineseness.
In diaspora, notions of Chineseness change and evolve differently from
those that are generated in China. Moreover, the play of difference within
the diaspora also ranges tremendously. In the case of Chinese in Central
America and Panama, these debates and contestations over Chineseness
arise from the shifting power relations within the diaspora and the need
for each community to assert belonging in relation to one another, to
their nation of residence, and to the Chinese homeland. Indeed, at the
center of the beauty contest controversy lies the struggle to determine
what and who gets to represent diasporic Chineseness, at a time when the
diaspora itself is undergoing rapid transformation.

At the end of a very long evening, after most of the audience had retired
to their hotel rooms, Miss Costa Rica was formally named queen of the
Chinese Colony. In an almost empty banquet hall, the officials awkwardly presented her with the prize of U.S.$1,000 and a vacation package for two to Taiwan. The entire scene was somewhat surreal. The stage
lights shone brightly on Miss Costa Rica, but there were only a few people left in the audience to witness her victory. Some people clapped, while
others simple shuffled out of the banquet hall. With an awkward smile,
Miss Costa Rica accepted her prize as if fulfilling an obligation.
Shortly after my return to Panama, I was told that the leadership of
the Convention had decided to disqualify the 1996 competition altogether. Perhaps it was an admission of wrongdoing, but ultimately it was
the only way to address the pain and hurt that had been inflicted on all
those involved. The following year, Miss Costa Rica of 1996 did not attend the convention, and my cousin from Guatemala, the 1995 queen,
crowned the incoming queen. It was as if the 1996 competition had never
happenedbut of course it had, and the tensions that erupted that night
still persist within the diaspora today.

Initially established as a political and economic organization, the Federacin de Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam quickly in-


Th e Q u e e n o f t h e C h i n e s e C o l o n y

corporated an annual beauty contest to encourage multigenerational attendance at its annual convention and sociocultural interaction across the
region. In doing so, the leadership transformed the convention into a project of diasporic reproduction in political, social, and cultural terms. Using gender as a category of analysis, I have shown that both the organization and the convention are highly gendered. Building on established
diasporic associations whose membership is determined by patrilineal descent, this organization reinforces androcentric biases toward male participation and male dominance in formal spheres of diasporic politics.
The beauty contest, however, offers an opportunity for women to articulate and negotiate the tensions and contradictions within the diaspora.
Disguised as a seemingly harmless competition of beauty and femininity,
the beauty contest in actuality incites and facilitates passionate and highly
politicized debates about belonging and the meaning of diasporic Chineseness. Though working within the framework of the contest, the contestants not only reveal and disrupt dominant expectations of diasporic subjectivity but insist on difference and belonging in the diaspora by
embodying and performing divergent ideals of diasporic femininity. For
while the contest seeks to convey the shared triadic identification with the
nation of residence, the homeland, and the larger diasporaidentifications that create the parameters of diasporic belonging and citizenship
it also unveils the differences and inequalities within the diaspora. Although it attempts to generate a structure of common difference, the
indeterminacy of the 1996 beauty contest reflects the enduring tensions
within the diasporatensions that arise from a struggle for relatedness
based simultaneously on shared identification with the Chinese homeland
and the region of Central America / Panama and on difference along the
lines of national context and racial and generational backgrounds. The
idealism of diasporic egalitarianism is fractured by the realism of unequal
access to material and cultural resources, both in terms of national economic development and of relations with the homeland and homeland
state. Indeed, their emplacement in specific geopolitical entities matters in
the diaspora, and recognizing this illuminates the complexities of diasporic belonging beyond the homeland / nation-of-residence binary.
Diasporic citizenship points to this dynamic and contested process of
subject formation. To examine its nuances requires a temporary crystallization in historical time, as if putting a film in slow motion or freezing
a frame just long enough to analyze its details. Indeed, while diasporic
citizenship addresses relations across cultural-geographical terrain, it also

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insists on historical specificity. To understand the significance of the

beauty contest controversy fully, one must situate it in the context of recent migrations to Central America and Panama. With the new influx of
Chinese immigrants and the new technologies of transnationalism enabling different diasporic subjectivities to emerge, notions of Chineseness
in diaspora along with the conditions of living in diaspora are being reconfigured. In the past twenty years, Hong Kong movie videos and
karaoke discs have found their special niche market in diasporic Chinese
communities all over the world, including those in Panama and Central
America. Unlike the earlier generations of Chinese immigrants and Panamanian-born Chinese, who did not have easy access to such media, the
children of recent immigrants today are conversant with Hong Kong
popular music and culture. These rapid changes in transnational media
distribution have expanded the resources of diasporic identification as
well as complicated the process of identity formation. Hence, what one
sees in the Chinese diaspora of Central America and Panama today is not
a structure of common difference, but rather, a debate, an ongoing argument about what the structure of common difference is or should be. Furthermore, membership in the Chinese diaspora is not defined by agreeing
with this structure, but rather by participating in these debates and feeling that one has a stake in the argument.
Finally, while studies of diaspora have emphasized the popular mobilization of diasporic cultural productions (Gilroy 1987, 1993), they have
not, for the most part, focused on the role of the homeland state in constructing diaspora. In the case of diasporic Chinese, the involvement of
the Taiwanese state in transnational organizations such as the one discussed here underscores the states influence in diasporic community formation. It not only shows the entrenched entanglement between the Taiwanese state and diasporic Chinese of this region but illustrates Taiwans
profound investment in ensuring the reproduction of both the diaspora
and its identification with Taiwan via Chineseness. For diasporic Chinese
serve as one vehicle through which Taiwan legitimates itself as a sovereign nation-state. Hence, as long as the ROC continues to struggle for
state status and the Peoples Republic maintains its claims that Taiwan is
a renegade province of the mainland, Taiwan will continue to seek to
influence the diaspora.

 Migration Stories
Serial Migration and the Production of
Home and Identity in Diaspora

It is not surprising that migration should be a recurring theme in the life

narratives of diasporic Chinese, but what is striking is the manner in
which their migration stories convey a distinctive approach to migration,
home, and belonging. One by one, my interviewees recounted what I
have termed narratives of serial migration, a circuitous and open-ended
process that entails crossing multiple national borders over an extended
period of time and often over generations as well. Many diasporic Chinese locate themselves in a long trajectory of migration, starting with the
first family member to arrive in the Americas. In these stories, they trace
their ancestors border crossings and speak of their own experience of migration to different places. Sometimes, they even include their childrens
migrations. Often, they traverse the same places, though many initiate
new paths. With each interview, the pattern became more evident, and I
began to understand these narratives to be origin stories of sorts: they reconstructed ones diasporic genealogy through time and across space. By
connecting the dots between the different places where they and their ancestors have traveled and lived, these narratives create a spatial-temporal
map of geographically dispersed homes and, at the same time, affirm
diasporic Chinese connection to those places via a genealogy of migration. In a sense, these narratives perform the dual roles of describing/reflecting and reinscribing/constituting a distinct collective experience of
being diasporic Chinese.
This chapter takes an intimate look at diasporic Chinese subject formation by examining four narratives of migration. Here, the theme of social rupture is manifest in border crossings; but rather than being seen as
anomalous disruptions, these movements are revealed, through the narratives, to be something more like normalized ruptures that persist

Migration Stories


through generations. While each narrative tells a different story and maps
a different itinerary, together they show the significance of migration,
constructed as an ordinary aspect of diasporic life, in shaping Panamanian Chinese subjectivity and ideas of home and belonging. Through the
narratives, we also come to understand that serial migration, in both empirical and narrative form, is a dynamic process of self-realization and of
locating home in diaspora. As such, it must be examined on two registers,
both as a social phenomenon that involves the physical act of crossing
borders and as a cultural process of meaning production.
By serial migration, I mean the process of migrating to a series of
placessometimes returning repeatedly to the same placeover an extended period of time.1 While it resonates with James Cliffords notion of
a travel itinerary (1997), serial migration describes a more profound
engagement with dwelling places. If traveling connotes a transitory mode
of moving across space, migration represents a more prolonged and
meaningful interaction with place. Serial migration is also different from
the concept of cosmopolitanism (Hannerz 1996; Cheah and Robbins
1992; Clifford 1997), which evokes a particular class of worldly subjects
for whom travel is facilitated by free and unlimited choice. While this
may account for some experiences of travel among diasporic Chinese, it
does not account for the full range of their migration experience. Rather,
serial migration is partly an effect of geopolitical circumstance, partly a
strategy of social mobility, and partly caused by accidents of history. Serial migration is not restricted to any one mode of border crossing. It
broadly describes the process of migrating more than once and having a
meaningful engagement with the different places of settlement. Moreover,
serial migration is not unique to diasporic Chinese and is practiced also
by diasporic Indians, Koreans, and Filipinos, among others (Joseph 1999;
Shukla 2003; Raj 2003; Park 2002; Parreas 2001).
Scholars have used terms such as step migration,2 remigration,
and secondary or tertiary migration to describe one specific movement within the phenomenon of serial migrations (Wang 1998; Park
2002). While each of these terms refers to a singular act of border crossing, serial migration describes the overall cumulative process of engaging in multiple migrations across different nation-states. In some ways,
serial migration is similar to a transnational migrant circuit, a phrase
used by Roger Rouse to describe the formation of a single community
across a variety of geographic sites (1991). But rather than taking a syn-


Migration Stories

chronic analysis of this circuit, serial migration is concerned with how the
cumulative experience of multiple migrations across time and space informs and shapes diasporic subject formation.
This chapter is inspired in part by Paul Gilroys discussion, in his 1993
book The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness, of the
emergence of a black diasporic consciousness through the circulation of
diasporic blacks and their cultural productions. Instead of thinking about
diaspora through the metaphor of a tree, which locates the roots in the
homeland with branches stretching into the diaspora, he suggests we
use the metaphor of the rhizome, a resilient and environmentally responsive underground plant stem with networks of multiple nodes (see also
Deleuze and Guattari 1987). This analytical shift from tree to rhizome
calls attention to a set of dispersed locations of power rather than one
singular all-powerful center. Shifting the focus away from the homeland, he decisively highlights the interaction among diasporic blacks in
Britain, the United States, and the Caribbean and the expressive culture
generated by that interaction. Following his lead, I set out to find a
cultural form through which diasporic Chinese articulate their shared
consciousness. What Gilroy locates in black music, I encounter in migration stories. I discovered that migration stories not only provide a form
of diasporic articulation but also embody the substancethe shared
memories and experiences of migrationthat informs diasporic Chinese
consciousness. Indeed, narratives of migration provide a common framework through which diasporic Chinese come to understand their relationship to particular places, as well as to one another. My aim in discussing these migration stories, then, is to bring into relief not only the
significance of migration in the lives of diasporic Chinese and their
remapping of home and community, but also how these narratives actually constitute and reproduce a collective understanding of diasporic Chinese citizenship, a form of belonging that is contingent on a combination
of constraints and choices. Tracing their serial migration, these narratives
do not fixate on the relationship between the Chinese homeland and
Panama. Instead, they map diasporic belonging across different locales,
allowing the Americas, and the United States in particular, to emerge as a
significant site informing diasporic subject formation. Moreover, as
cultural scripts that articulate what it means to live with contingent
belonging, these narratives both reflect and transmit a distinct cultural
knowledge that is simultaneously personal and collective, illustrative and

Migration Stories


The history of Chinese migration to the Americas is well documented,

and to a certain extent, the circular transpacific migrations of Chinese between China and their new place of settlement in the Americas is widely
recognized (Chan 1991; Takaki 1989; Hsu 2000; McKeown 2001). What
is now necessary to underscore is the transcontinental migrations that
have also taken place within the Americas. Indeed, as soon as the Chinese
arrived in the Americas, as early as the 1600s, they began traveling and
migrating throughout the New World. Some were indentured laborers
who were sent from one country to another; some escaped from indentured servitude and migrated to other places; others were free men and
women who sought better work opportunities and more welcoming environments (Tchen 2001; Hu-Dehart 1998a; Okihiro 1994; Lucy Cohen
1971). One of the most striking features of these early migrants in
Panama (and I suspect it is not unique to Panama) is that they came, not
just from Greater China,3 but also from different parts of the Caribbean
and the Americas.4 These migratory movements between Panama and
Asia and within the New World were often circular and part of a series of
migrations. Panama was only one node in the larger network of diasporic
Chinese settlements. And from these migratory movements emerged not
only intricate webs of kinship and social networks that link diasporic
Chinese to China and across the Americas but also a diasporic consciousness of being Chinese in and of the Americas.
As I mentioned earlier, this chapter approaches serial migration not
simply as a social phenomenon but as a cultural process of meaning production. I suggest that diasporic Chinese practice and narrate serial migration as a strategy for dealing with the contingencies of national belonging. While the physical act of crossing borders works as a process of
self-realization and of finding the most suitable home in diaspora, the
narratives of serial migration illustrate the processes of normalizing ruptures and remapping home and community. This chapter highlights three
important aspects of serial migration.
First, a combination of social circumstances, geopolitical contingencies, and individual choice frame the practice of serial migration. Second,
I suggest that by narrating their stories of repeated migrations, Panamanian Chinese are in fact transforming them into common aspects of diasporic life. Narratives allow people to construct meaning in the act of
organizing and connecting disparate events, making them into a coherent
whole. They enable people to develop creative ways of interpreting disruptions to reestablish a sense of continuity (Becker 1997). The frequency


Migration Stories

of migration and the ease with which diasporic Chinese tell their stories
offer a view of serial migration as an ordinary, mundane, and even expected characteristic of diasporic life. In contrast to the dominant perceptions of migration as an experience of traumatic breaks and ruptures,
diasporic Chinese transform the disjunctures of migration into continuities by weaving disparate tales of border crossings into a broader, more
encompassing history. In so doing, narratives of serial migration not only
normalize and organize spatial-temporal disjunctures into a continuum
of migration experiences but also articulate an emergent tradition of
Finally, the four narratives, taken together, reveal a mapping of the
Americas and China as a connected terrain. In so doing, they articulate a
diasporic consciousness of being part of the Americas. As Anthropologist
Keith Basso has noted, geographical landscapes are never culturally vacant. Filled to brimming with past and present significance, the trick is to
try to fathom what it is that a particular landscape [or place] may be
called upon to say, and what, through saying, it may be called upon to
do (Basso 1988, 102). Although Basso is concerned with the cultural
significance of landscape for Native Americans, I am interested in exploring what it is that Panamanian Chinese are saying and doing
when they recall specific places and string them together into a collective
itinerary of serial migrations. What, in fact, are they evoking with these
stories? By situating their own experiences within a history of migration
spanning several generations, diasporic Chinese construct narratives that
link together not only the people involved and the multiple places of destination but, more important, the people with these places. In doing so,
my interviewees affirm and reinscribe a diasporic sensibility of being connected to multiple locations, including China, Panama, and various other
past and possible future homes in the Americas. In short, they are generating a cultural map of home and community.
I selected the narratives for this chapter to demonstrate a range of experience across immigrant generations. I also tried to account for differences in race, gender, and class background, although my sample was
limited by the focus of this chapter. Indeed, women and working class
Chinese did not practice serial migration as much as middle-class men.
Also worth noting is that these migration stories, like all narratives, are
partial, both in the sense of being constructed subjectively and of being
incomplete. They by no means represent the experience of all Panamanian Chinese. Instead, the four narratives presented here attest to both the

Migration Stories


history and the contemporary continuation of serial migration, a practice

that is as much about locating home as it is about expanding the possible
places one can call home. Moreover, through these narratives, diasporic
Chinese simultaneously articulate the cultural meaning of belonging in
diaspora and construct their geography of home and community.

Fernando: The Adventures of Bob Montenegro

Bob Montenegro. . . . Hello, my name is Bob Montenegro. Fernando,
who is in his sixties, enunciates these words slowly, pauses dramatically,
then continues. I just thought it was a cool name to use sometimes. It
sounds so suave and cosmopolitan. I used to introduce myself that way
at jazz clubs, when I was in college in Chicago. It was just for fun . . . the
ladies liked it. He winks, and I chuckle in response, prodding him to
continue his story.
I met Fernando through his son, a good friend of mine, who graciously
helped set up the initial interview. We met for the first time at his home in
a quiet, middle-class neighborhood of Panama City. Being part Chinese,
part white, part black, and part indigenous, Fernando claims that he
does not emphasize any one racial identity over the others. When asked,
How do you see yourself fitting into these different communities? he
responds, Is there a category for mongrels? If so, thats the category I fit
into. With brown skin and wavy black hair, he does not possess obvious
Chinese features. Even his name, Fernando Jackson, gives no hint of his
Chinese background. Despite his mixed racial identity and refusal to define his ethnic identity as exclusively Chinese, both his active participation in Chinese social networks and leadership in a prominent Chinese
organization effectively demonstrate his affinity and identification with
that community. Belonging in the Chinese diaspora, as demonstrated by
Fernando, does not depend on essential definitions of race or ethnicity
(Hall 1990). Rather, it is determined by self-identification and participation in diasporic activities. In other words, one belongs because one
chooses to participate and take part in the community.
It may be important to note from the outset that one important difference between Asians in Latin America and those in the United States
(with the exception of Hawaii) is the historically high rate of interracial
unions and family formation (McKeown 2001; Lesser 1999). Anti-miscegenation laws did not exist in Panama (and Latin American more generally), as they did in certain parts of the United States at one time. On


Migration Stories

the contrary, the dominant ideology in most of Latin America of mestizaje, or racial and cultural mixing, encourages interracial unions.5 Another factor in this cultural trend was the extreme imbalance in gender
migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For many
of the early Chinese bachelors, marrying or cohabiting with Panamanian
women was the only available form of heterosexual relationship in
Panama. Nevertheless, despite the prevalence of interracial relationships
in Panama, discrimination persists on the part of Chinese and non-Chinese alike. Among the Chinese community, there is a certain level of bias
against non-Chinese speakers and racially mixed Chinese. Meanwhile, in
certain circles of non-Chinese Panamanians, being Chinese is not considered a positive characteristic. In a sense, it may be easier for racially
mixed Chinese not to assert any particular identity. Fernandos identification as racially mixed reflects both the dominant ideology of mestizaje
and his ambivalence about being Chinese.
In the context of Latin America, Fernandos biography is not extraordinary in any way. What is particularly interesting is his prominence in
Chinese social networks. In particular, he has been extremely active in the
Panamanian Chinese organization Agrupacin, or Agrupa, as many
members call it, which promotes cultural and social events for Panamanian Chinese (see chapter 1). His participation in this organization has less
to do with his sense of being Chinese, however, than with his desire for
social interaction:
I have no trouble identifying with the Chinese community. However, its not so
much because of my Chinese heritage but that most of [the people in] my social circle are Chinese in varying degrees. Almost all the active members of
Agrupa are my friends from years ago. Setting up the organization was merely
a way of providing an occasion for all of us to get together. People bring their
friends, and they bring their friends, and thats how we deal with our membership. Many of the people in Agrupa went to school with me in Coln [the
main city on the Caribbean coast of Panama]. We basically grew up together.
In fact, we all got married at around the same time, and our kids were born
within years of each other.

Fernando walks into his library and returns with an old black-and-white
fourth-grade class photo in his hand. He begins naming all the faces on
the picture, and sure enough, they are people I have met through Agrupa.
Creating community, for Fernando, depends more on affiliation, a sense
of connection based on social relations, than on filiation, a sense of connection based on kinship relations.6 His practice of community and understanding of identity closely follow Stuart Halls notion that identity is

Migration Stories


not a stable, essential self but a positioning, a politics of identification

(1990). As such, identity is a process and is created through memory,
imagination, and narration. Fernandos migration story, as represented
below, further illustrates how memory and experience generate diasporic
identification. Our conversation about serial migration begins three generations back. My paternal grandfather was Chinese and first immigrated to Jamaica before coming to Coln, Panama, in the late 1800s,
Fernando explained. He had owned a store in Jamaica, and it was there
that he married my grandmother, who was a black Jamaican. After he
married, he changed his surname from Cheng to Jackson in order to obtain a Jamaican passport. Thats why my last name is Jackson, not
The politics of naming is also noteworthy. For a Panamanian to have
a surname like Jackson automatically indicates a familial itinerary
through the anglophone Caribbean. Purchasing another persons documents and assuming his or her identity in order to immigrate was quite
common in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and to a large extent
it remains a common practice today. In fact, many of my interviewees
have two different names: an official name on legal documents and a
birth name. The combinations vary. Some have Anglo and Chinese names
(e.g., Jackson/Lee, Wilson/Chan), while others have two Chinese names
(e.g., Chu/Wang, Chen/Lee). Rarely have I encountered people who have
used Hispanic names for immigration purposes. (Of course, this practice
is not exclusive to Latin America, as the paper son phenomenon in the
United States indicates.)7 Fernando continued:
I am not sure why [my grandparents] decided to move to Coln. That was
common back then, because my other grandparents also moved to Coln from
Guyana. My [maternal] grandfather was Portuguese, and he married my
grandmother who was a mixture of different backgrounds, including Chinese
and Caucasian. I dont have many memories of them. I only remember that my
Chinese grandfather used to own a shop, and, from time to time, I could get a
nickel from him. And my black grandmother, she was a nice fat lady who took
care of us kids. My other grandmother was a good, caring person too, and my
Portuguese grandfather . . . he left when I was very young. My father was born
in Coln, and at a young age, he was sent to Jamaica for school. He didnt return until after high school, and when he did he worked in the shipping division of the United Fruit Company.

Fernando was born in Coln and attended the only private boys
school in the area. It was there that he met most of his lifelong friends.
After the fifth grade, Fernando was sent to a boarding school in Jamaica


Migration Stories

that his father had attended; and after high school, he went to Chicago
for his university degree.
At first I was attending a public school in Coln, but because I was getting
into so many fights with other kids, my father decided to put me into a private
school. From there, I went to Jamaica. My father wanted me to learn English
well, so he sent me to Jamaica. I guess he knew that knowing English is important. Afterwards, I applied for college in the United States, and I was accepted. So, I left and spent the next four years in Chicago. So, in a sense, I
spent much of my childhood and young adult life outside of Panama.

The practice of sending children, especially sons, to school abroad is

popular among diasporic Chinese for the purpose of accruing cultural
capital, including language abilities and cultural values and practices. In
Fernandos generation, many sent their children to China to get a Chinese education, while others like Fernando and his father were sent elsewhere in the Americas to learn English, a skill that would facilitate
employment by American companies or the U.S. Canal Zone administration. Although this practice was an ideal for all diasporic Chinese, only
those families of means could actually afford to pursue it.
When Fernando returned to Panama after college, he moved to
Panama City instead of returning to Coln. He and his wife, who is also
part Chinese, met through a social function sponsored by a Panamanian
Chinese organization. When I asked why he had returned to Panama after graduating from the university rather than staying in the United
States, Fernando sighed and said: I was offered a job [in the United
States] upon graduation; but, after spending six years in boarding school
and four years in college, I just did not feel like being away from home
anymore. In reality my ties to home were not strong, because [in] four
years of college I had been home just once. Nevertheless, I did not want
to stay in the United States any longer. Perhaps there was an unconscious
desire to reestablish roots in Panama.
Upon his return, Fernando became an English teacher in Canal Zone
schools for Latin American communities, where the majority of students came from black families working in the Canal Zone. Fernandos
return to Panama disrupts the dominant assumption in migration studies
that people migrate unidirectionally from less developed nations to more
developed ones, such as the United States, the countries of western Europe, and Canada. This perception is tied largely to our assumption that
voluntary migrations are consistently motivated by economic interests.

Migration Stories


Fernandos return to Panama shows, rather, how affective ties to home

also play a role in determining migration.
Clearly, the theme of serial migration is central to Fernandos narrative. Not only does he trace his migration from Panama to Jamaica to the
United States and back to Panama, but he also includes his fathers and
grandparents migration trajectories from China to British Guiana and
Jamaica to Panama as part of his own history. Moreover, with a continual return to Panama, Fernandos migration story illustrates Panamas
overriding significance for his whole family. Even as he traces their passage through different locations in the Americas, their returns mark
Panama as home and their place of belonging.
A few months after our interview, Fernando became involved in his
annual production of Neil Simons play The Odd Couple. Since his retirement, he has been directing this same play every year, varying the
script ever so slightly. It seems noteworthy that Fernando would choose
to direct an American play, not a Panamanian one. While Panama may
be home, the United States, as a cultural force, clearly remains a significant part of his life.

Marco: Discovering Chineseness Abroad

In his mid twenties, Marco is the youngest of four children and comes
from a family that is quite well established and respected in the Chinese
Panamanian community. As a fourth-generation Panamanian-born Chinese, he has an extensive family network in Panama. His father and all
his siblings are in the medical field. Following in his mothers footsteps,
Marco handles the financial and management aspects of the family business. Like most people of his social standing, Marco received his degree
in the United States and speaks flawless English. He not only went to
school in the United States but also studied Mandarin in Taiwan. In his
extended family, he is the only one who is fluent in all three languages
Spanish, English, and Mandarinand is fascinated with Chinese culture
and history. What makes Marco unique is not, however, his ability to
speak three languages but rather his unusual mix of talents and aspirations.
I met Marco for the first time at the annual inauguration dinner of the
Asociacin de Profesionales Chino-Panameos (Chinese Panamanian Professionals Association), or APROCHIPA. His cousin, my good friend Lau-


Migration Stories

ra, introduced us, and we immediately launched into a discussion of Chinese politics in Panama and the ins and outs of the Chinese community.
Within minutes, we were like old friends who had known each other for
years. A few months later, he invited me to join his family for Sunday dinner. I was honored, as I knew Sunday dinner was reserved for family, and
I was grateful that he had reserved some time for me to speak with his father and maternal grandmother.
Marco Wongs family is considered one of the founding Chinese families in Panama City. His maternal great-grandfather immigrated to
Panama in the 1890s and established both wholesale and retail businesses
in Panama Citys Chinatown. As proprietor of one of the three largest
Chinese-owned operations of that time, he was one of the earliest and
most successful Chinese entrepreneurs in Panama. In the 1910s, he married Marcos great-grandmother, a Chinese woman who had immigrated
to Panama around that time. According to Marcos grandmother, this
great-grandmother was called Maria Cheng. She laughed, explaining:
Back then, almost all the ladies were called Maria. They each had different Chinese names, but their Spanish names were always Maria. What
happened was that they had to use the same passport to come to Panama.
Chinese immigration was not allowed then. So, to get the women here,
they would use the same Maria Cheng passport. The immigration officers couldnt tell who was who. So thats how they all ended up here and
being called Maria.
As I mentioned earlier in discussing Fernandos narrative, it is not uncommon for diasporic Chinese to have two different names, and, in fact,
this seemingly mundane issue of naming actually reflects the complicated
history of Chinese immigration to the Americas. Confronted with restrictive immigration policies, diasporic Chinese invented various strategies, such as the sharing of identification cards, to subvert practices of exclusion. As Marcos grandmothers account illustrates, it was not only
men who had to adopt other names for immigration purposes.
On Marcos paternal side, his great-grandfather and two greatgranduncles came to Panama around the 1850s. Marco recalled:
They first landed in California in search of gold, but with little success; [then]
they came to Panama to work on the railroads, and after the completion of the
railroad, they migrated to Peru. My great grandfather eventually came back to
Panama, and he started a shoe store in Chinatown. He married a Chinese
woman and had seven children. I am not sure what happened with his brothers. Rumors suggest that I have lots of cousins in Peru. I havent met any of
them, but thats what people say. My grandfather was born in Panama City,

Migration Stories


and through an arranged marriage, he was sent to China to marry my grandmother. They came back to Panama together, had two sons, and were separated shortly afterwards. Is that right, Pa?

His father interjected:

Yes. My father remained in Panama City, but my mother took my brother and
me to Coln. There, she opened a small cantina [bar] to get some income. My
older brother was sent to China, as was common practice, and he was there
until the 1950s. Needless to say, we didnt spend a lot of time together. I, on
the other hand, grew up in Coln, and when I decided to study medicine, I
first went to Panama City, but after a short time, I decided to go to Germany
to study. Germany is a very different place. Once I finished school, I came
right back to Panama.

Having been in Panama for more than four generations, Marcos family has a very extensive kinship network. On his paternal side, Marcos
great-grandfather had five children. On his maternal side, Marcos grandmother comes from a family of seven, and his grandfather came from a
family of five. With each generation, his extended family grows exponentially. From what Marco tells me, the extended family gathers only on
holidays and special occasions. Most of the time, they see one another
only at association meetings and other community activities.
Prompted by my interview, Marco set out to assemble a genealogy of
his extended family in Panama, and once he had completed it, he decided
to reconnect with relatives in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Peru, and the United
States. Shortly after I left Panama, he and one of his brothers traveled to
Taiwan and Hong Kong to visit a couple of their uncles there. On that
same trip, they also visited Los Angeles, where another uncle and aunt reside. More than any other Panamanian Chinese I have met, Marco actively situates himself within a global diasporic family network. The fact
that he is trilingual in Spanish, English, and Mandarin facilitates his efforts to maintain ties with family dispersed throughout the world.
In contrast to his peers of similar class and social background, Marco
has been extremely enthusiastic about learning Chinese history, culture,
and politics, and he is always equipped with the latest Taiwanese and
Hong Kong CDs. I was thus surprised to learn that he has not always
been this way. Ironically, he acquired his Chinese consciousness while living in the United States.
As a teenager, I never liked the fact that I was Chinese. . . . But as I grew older,
well, after I went to college in Miami and met some Chinese Americans, I
came back to Panama with a new attitude. I wanted to learn Chinese and get
in touch with my Chinese side. I guess my Chinese American friends were


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so proud of their ancestry that they made me think about my own background. So, when I came back to Panama, I decided to go on this intensive
language program sponsored by the Chinese Cultural Center. . . . I was determined to learn Mandarin. Living in Taiwan was the most amazing experience.
It was tough in the beginning. I couldnt communicate with anyone, but that
just made me work harder, and in a few months, I was talking to people and
making friends. It was a great experience. I loved it . . . and I learned Mandarin.

Since returning to Panama, Marco has tried to keep up his Mandarin by

listening to language tapes and Taiwanese-produced music CDs. And
whenever he encounters other Mandarin speakers, he lights up and enthusiastically engages them in conversation.
Marcos narrative illustrates the many different locations he and his
family have traversed. California, Peru, Miami, Germany, Taiwan, and
Panama are only some of the places that make up a larger mapping of
home and family. His narrative also conveys how serial migration has
shaped his sense of identity and redrawn the boundaries of community.
Much like the intellectuals in Gilroys Black Atlantic, though in a more
mundane fashion, Marcos migration to the United States and subsequent
interaction with Chinese Americans helped raise his diasporic Chinese
consciousness, leading him to go to Taiwan and, later, to reconnect with
his globally dispersed family. For Marco, migration is as much about selfdiscovery (Wolffe 1995) as it is about remapping and extending the possibilities of home and belonging. Indeed, it is through this process of serial migration that Marco firmly locates himself in the larger Chinese

Pedro: Not Belonging Anywhere

After spending all morning wandering around Chinatown, I was ready to
leave the area. But then my attention was caught by the Chinese character Ko on the exterior of a building. Ko is my mothers maiden name, and
I suspected that the owner of the store must share that same surname.
Speaking in Cantonese, I asked the man behind the counter where I
could find Mr. Ko, presumably the owner of the store. In response, the
clerk asked for my name, then walked toward the back of the store.
When he returned, he led me to a small office where a solemn-looking
man was writing at his desk. As I entered, I extended my hand and
greeted him in Cantonese: How are you, Mr. Ko? I quickly introduced
myself as a doctoral student doing research on the Chinese in Panama

Migration Stories


and presented him with my business card. He examined the card, then
asked in fluent English, So, what can I do for you, Ms. Siu?
When I began my research, I had naively expected that Panamanian
Chinese would speak either Spanish or Cantonese. These two languages
made logical sense, given that Spanish is the dominant and official language of Panama, and Cantonese is the most common dialect spoken by
diasporic Chinese in this region. Yet, over and over again, my interviewees spoke fluent English. I quickly learned, through the process of interviewing, how profoundly the American presence in their country had
influenced the Panamanian Chinese. Speaking English was no coincidence but a result of colonialism and a strategy for upward social mobility.
I proceeded to give Mr. Ko more details about my work. After we had
covered the usual formalities of exchanging brief family histories, he
warmly invited me back for a longer conversation and dinner with his
family. Certainly the fact that my mother and he shared the same last
name and that our families were from the same region of China helped
establish an immediate sense of connection. Happily, I accepted his invitation.
Pedro Ko comes from another well-known Chinese family in Panama.
His familys store has become something of a historical landmark in old
Chinatown. His fathers entrepreneurial success and his familys longstanding presence in Chinatown have made Ko a household name among
the larger community. Moreover, the family also makes donations to various organizations and community events. Its name and logo can be
found in pamphlets and posters. Pedro, who was in his late fifties, appeared serious and pensive. Although he seemed at first to be a man of
few words, he was quite intent on telling his story.
My father left China when he was sixteen years old. After the family rice fields
in China were flooded in 1922, my father was sent to Latin America to help
generate income for the family. He was originally on board a cargo ship heading toward Cuba. People in his village were raving about the opportunities on
that island of abundance. But, en route to Cuba, he was detained at the quarantine station in Panama,8 where he met a Chinese Panamanian who convinced him to stay. In the beginning, my father worked at the public market,
selling vegetables in carts. Later he advanced to working in a shop across the
street from the market. He worked hard and saved every penny, so that he
eventually was able to send for my uncles.

In the early 1930s, Pedros father moved to the interior of Panama and
married his mother, a Panamanian-born Chinese. By the time Pedro and


Migration Stories

his brothers were old enough for school, the family had relocated to
Panama Citys Chinatown, now popularly known as Sal Si Puedes, which
literally means leave if you can. (There are different stories about how
Chinatown acquired this somewhat unfortunate nickname. One version
claims that the area is so crowded with merchants and their outdoor
stands that visitors can barely find their way out once they have entered
it. Another version suggests that Chinatown is so dangerous that visitors
may not survive the sly Chinese merchants tricks and booby traps. These
orientalist portrayals of Chinatown as an immoral, dangerous place resonate with portrayals of Chinatowns elsewhere in the Americas [Tchen
2001; Lui 2005].)
The old Chinatown in Panama City stretches no more than two city
blocks, and, as in other older neighborhoods, the streets are narrow and
the buildings are densely packed. During the day, the area is full of life.
The fruit and vegetable stands are crowded with shoppers. American and
European tourists busy themselves in the specialty stores, amused by the
abundance of exotic goods. All around them, Chinese old-timers hurry to
get their errands done. Despite its vibrant energy, however, the buildings
in old Chinatown appear run-down and the general area seems neglected.
Of course, Chinatown was not always like this. Nostalgically, Pedro commented:
Sal Si Puedes was very nice before. It was clean, and it was a two-way street.
Children played on the streets. It was safe, and everyone looked after one another. [My family] used to live right across from our restaurant. My father
started it when we moved to Panama City. It was one of the nicest restaurants
back then. Presidents used to dine there . . . and the Chinese school was close
to the sea. It offered classes in Cantonese.9 We were here until 1947. For some
unknown reason, my father just decided to go back to China. We sold everything, and the entire family moved into a very exclusive area of Canton
(Guangdong). We started a textile company that made exercise outfits like Tshirts and sweats. Then, when the communists were approaching, our family
sold everything again and came back to Panama. My oldest brother left first,
followed by my father and another brother. My mother and I were the last
ones to leave in 1950. We came back to Chinatown and bought back our old
house and restaurant. Business was good in the 1950s; we even had to expand
the restaurant, adding two more floors.
Then the government decided to block the traffic around this area, and
shacks began to appear. And by the late 1950s, most of the Chinese had
moved away from Chinatown. Only some of the shops remained. We continued working at the restaurant until 1969, but the family started to go into the
shrimping business. We invested in shrimp trawlers. At that time, shrimping
was one of the biggest industries. . . .

Migration Stories


From the late 1950s to mid 1960s, I went to school in Northern California
and studied architecture. Three out of the four brothers went to California for
college. I was in California from 1957 to 1966. After I graduated and worked
for a little while in San Diego, I was called back home to help with the family
business. By this time, my father had gone into business with another Chinese
and had started building shrimp-processing plants in Guatemala and
Mazatln. In Panama, we would send the shrimp to a packing company and
export it to the United States. In Guatemala, we had our own packing company. To make a long story short, a big storm in 1968 badly affected the conditions for shrimping in Guatemala. . . . We eventually came back to Panama
in the late 1970s. When we returned, we came back to Chinatown again, and
I started to look after the family store. . . . Well, I have been here ever since. I
met my wife right here in Chinatown.

I asked, Youve lived in so many places, where do you feel most comfortable? Where do you feel you most belong?
Nowhere, really, he responded. I dont feel like I belong anywhere,
not even in Panama. Sometimes I get very sad about that. Well, anyway,
what matters is that I have my family here in Panama. My children bring
me happiness. For Pedro, home does not necessarily mean a sense of full
belonging to a particular place; instead, Panama has become home because it is where his family lives. Belonging, for Pedro, is much more tied
to family than to place.
Despite the prominence and visibility of his family name and business,
Pedro almost never attends any community or social event. In contrast,
Pedros oldest brother is extremely active and visible in the Chinese community. In fact, his brother is on the board of the Chinese Association,
and he and his wife attend almost all the activities sponsored by the different Chinese organizations. (He is alsoand this is an indication of
how small and interconnected this community ismarried to a distant
aunt of Marcos.)
Pedros narrative elaborates a range of reasons for serial migration.
For his father, immigrating to Panama was a way of sustaining his family
in China, and once he had achieved a level of economic success there, he
brought his brothers over as well. Pedros own multiple migrations were
determined by different factors. The familys return to China from
Panama, I suspect, may have been part of the mass exodus of Chinese out
of Panama when then-President Arnulfo Arias disenfranchised large
numbers of Chinese immigrants and prohibited them from owning retail
businesses. Many people I interviewed were faced with the same predicament of returning to China, immigrating to other parts of Latin America


Migration Stories

or relocating to the Canal Zone. Many of the wealthier families, like Pedros, left for China, only to migrate back to Panama when the communists took over. These back-and-forth migrations, then, were caused by
political persecution. Finally, Pedros migrations to the United States,
Guatemala, and Nicaragua were efforts to accumulate cultural capital
and to expand the family business.
Of the four narratives in this chapter, Pedros migration story most
strongly resonates with Aihwa Ongs discussion of flexible citizenship,
which she defines as strategies and effects of [transnational elites] to
both circumvent and benefit from different nation-state regimes by selecting different sites for investment, work, and family relocation (1999,
112). In her study of Hong Kong elites in California, Ong argues that
flexible citizenship is a response to globalization and that it is a strategy
to minimize political danger while maximizing economic accumulation.
To do this, Hong Kong elites send their families to the politically safe
United States while the patriarch remains in Asia to mind the family business. Given the class status of Pedros family, they were well positioned to
exercise this kind of flexible citizenship. Pedro and his brothers were sent
to different parts of Central America to expand their familys shrimping
business, for example, while the rest of the family remained in Panama.
Yet Pedros circular migrations between Panama and China were not financially motivated but were caused primarily by political unrest in these
countries. Also, the family remained together as much as possible during
these relocations. The notion of flexible citizenship, then, does not explain the full range of Pedros migrations.

Thus far, the narratives have focused on middle-class Panamanian-born
men. This class and gender bias, not surprisingly, correlates to some extent with the phenomenon of serial migration, which specifically references multiple border crossings over time. Historically, migration among
diasporic Chinese was primarily a male endeavor, in that the majority of
migrants were men and migration was encouraged, even expected, of
men to fulfill their role as providers for the family and as the means to
achieve upward social mobility. This is not to say that women did not migrate; they did, but not in the same numbers. Moreover, their migration
did not have the same cultural connotations. They were not masculine
adventurers seeking to build family fortunes; instead, they were the behind-the-scene caretakers responsible for the biological-cultural repro-

Migration Stories


duction of the diaspora. During the early decades of the twentieth century, many of the women who migrated to Panama for marriage eventually returned to China. They often accompanied their children who went
to China for education, but while many of the children returned to
Panama once they reached adolescence, the women often remained in
China. Since the 1960s, however, like their male counterparts, more and
more women have been seeking a university education in the United
States and other foreign countries.
While the gender ratio of migration has become more balanced, class
bias remains strong. The fourth narrative offers a different example of
both of these variables. As an immigrant woman whose family fled from
political persecution in China and experienced downward social mobility
after arriving in Panama, Victoria grew up in a household that struggled
to make ends meet. Her narrative shows that while she has engaged in serial migration, her reasons for doing so were distinctly different from
those of the others, and she went to Brazil rather than the United States
for her education.

Victoria: I can do what a man can do

Victoria and I met during the summer of 1994, when her close friend and
colleague Roberto Tang introduced us at a dinner party. She has a warm
personality and a great sense of humor, and she was immediately approachable and easy to engage. Within the first hour of our meeting, I
had learned that she had migrated from China, grown up in Coln, studied medicine in Brazil, lived in the interior of Panama, and finally moved
to Panama City.
Victoria does not consider herself a typical Chinese Panamanian
woman. She made this very clear to me from the outset by stating that
she is neither a member of any Chinese organization nor participates in
the activities sponsored by the various Chinese Panamanian associations
or clubs, as she calls them. Essentially, she considers herself an outsider
to these social networks. Since I had met most of my informants through
such networks, I thought she could offer a distinctively different perspective on what it means to be Chinese in Panama.
Our time together was filled with food, stories, music, more stories,
and always laughter. And despite her busy schedule, she was always generous with her time and energy. She shared memories and stories with
me, introduced me to her family, and took me with her on weekend vis-


Migration Stories

its to her mothers house in La Chorrera.10 As a doctor, Victoria made it

clear that she treated our conversations as both interview and self-therapy: I narrate my past in order to confront my own fears and, in a sense,
to heal and remake myself. By explicitly stating her own agenda in this
project, Victoria made certain that I was aware of her sense of complicity
and control in the interviewing process.
Victorias parents and brother fled China at the time of the communist
takeover and arrived in Panama around 1949. Victoria and her sister
were left behind in China for a few years. During that period, the girls
went into hiding, while some of their close relatives looked after them as
much as they could. Victorias family had belonged to the landed class in
China and was therefore persecuted by the communists. She had watched
her grandparents execution at the towns center, and one of her aunts
was imprisoned for almost two decades. Once released, this same aunt
immigrated to Panama to reunite with her husband and family. In one of
my visits to Chorrera, I met this woman. She was quiet and removed. In
her sixties by this point, she was a small woman, no taller than about
four feet. Physically, she looked frail. Her back was hunched over, and
she hardly moved or made any unnecessary gestures. I never had the
chance to talk with her, for fear of disturbing her or interrupting her
peace. Victoria later told me that this aunt had been imprisoned in place
of her husband, who had fled to Panama. Before the end of my field research in 1997, I learned that she had committed suicide. The aunts history exemplifies the extent to which the communist revolution affected
people like Victoria and her family. Even after four decades, conversations about their lives in China brought tears to their eyes, and strong
emotions of pain and rage kept resurfacing.
While most of the literature on diasporic Chinese has emphasized labor and economic reasons for migration, Victorias story forcefully illustrates the salience of politics and political persecution in motivating migration. Fleeing China was not a choice for Victorias family; it was the
only way they could have survived. Most of the immigrants who fled
China in the late 1940s came without any savings. They basically had to
start all over. Victorias family was fortunate to have relatives already in
Panama who were able to help them set up a small business. By the time
Victoria (aged 9) and her sister (aged 11) reached Panama, their parents
had opened a small, simple cafeteria in Coln City, serving breakfast to
workers in the Canal Zone and on the American military bases. The cafeteria opened at six in the morning and closed at noon. Victoria and her

Migration Stories


mother woke up at two or three in the morning to start preparing the tortillas, empanadas, and plantains for breakfast. After finishing her tasks at
the cafeteria, Victoria would go to school, and by the time she returned
home at four in the afternoon, the family would start preparations for the
following day. It was hard, Victoria remarked, My brothers and father never did much to help. I was tired most of the time, [but] I never felt
sad or depressed. . . . I guess I was just glad that at least I was here and
not back in China.
The first time I visited Victorias mother in Chorrera, I was struck by
the decor of her home. From the outside, there was nothing remarkable
about her house, but when I walked through the front door, I felt as
though I had magically traveled thousands of miles and suddenly stepped
into a home in a Chinese village. The interior of the house was decorated
in such a way that it appeared almost identical to the homes I had visited
in southern China. Colors of red and gold were all around the room, and
an altar of the Chinese warrior saint Guan Gong sat by the entrance to
the living room. Victorias mother had been in Panama for over four
decades, but judging by the interior decoration of her home, it seemed as
though she had never left China, or at least had never left it behind. Her
house powerfully conveyed a sense of diasporic nostalgia.
Nothing in their interaction with one another suggested that Victoria
and her mother had been through difficult times. However, during one of
our trips, Victoria confessed that throughout high school, she had fought
constantly with her parents, usually over issues of gender discrimination.
She recognized that she and her sister were treated differently from her
brothers, and she resented the fact that her parents favored the boys.
My mother and I used to get in fights all the time. Once, [my mother] beat me
with a fish in her hand, and I was very, very angry. I screamed at her, I never
told you to bring me into this world. Now, I know it was very tough for her
because she had to work, to care for us children. My father was drunk often,
so she had to work alone, and she tried to get us to help her. . . . I was the only
one who helped, and I couldnt understand why she never liked me. I tried to
please her, but at the time, she was awful to me. . . . Many times when [our
fights got out of hand], my father would shut me and my sister out of the
house . . . the craziness of being immigrants. Well, right now, I can understand
what happened psychologically. It was my mother projecting her devaluation
onto us. From what she has told me about her life, I know she wasnt treated
well as a child. Knowing that now helps me understand why she treated me
the way she did, but at the time, when I was growing up, it was hard. My
older brother was never around, and my father was often drunk. I remember
he used to play records of Chinese operas, and he would just sit there listen-


Migration Stories

ing, with tears flowing down his face. He was depressed a lot. I guess my
mother was under a lot of pressure to keep everything together.
During the summer of my junior year in high school, my mother and I got
into a fight, and my father told my sister and me to pack our suitcases. Then,
he took us to the school where the nuns were and paid for our last year of high
school. He just left us there, just like that. I promised myself then that I would
not return anymore to my family. Instead, I studied a lot. I repressed my sadness, my fears, and my sense of powerlessness. I channeled all my energy into
doing well in school, and I graduated first in my class.
After high school graduation, my sister and I lived with our [non-Chinese
Panamanian] teachers. They are like family to me. The teachers have always
been there for me. They have taken me in every time. They fed me, encouraged
me, and gave me so much. To me, they are family. We were so poor then. My
sister and I made money by crocheting and selling small items like doilies,
baby socks, and clothes. And with the help of my teachers, I eventually won a
scholarship to study at the University of Santa Mara Antigua [USMA]. But
when I decided to study medicine, I had to transfer to the University of

Like many women who face hostility and rejection by their biological
families, Victoria has redefined her understanding of family as relations
based not on biology but on enduring ties and support (Weston 1991).
Having been thrown out of the house by her father, Victoria clearly understands that biological ties do not automatically translate into familial
support. Rather, she insists that because her teachers provided her with a
home, gave her emotional and financial support, and have been there for
her throughout the years, they are her family.
My goal was to be somebody. I was going to study . . . and this drive . . . the
feeling of rage pushed me. It was the challenge to prove to [my parents] that
even though Im a woman, I can do what a man can do. . . . I started studying
medicine in the University of Panama . . . but then, in 1968, the military had
taken power, and it was a bad time in Panama and democracy was suspended,
and the military government closed the university. At the time, my godmother
was working at the Brazilian embassy, and she told me about the embassys
scholarship. So I applied, and I got the scholarship. It was the only way I could
pursue medicine at that time. After three years of not seeing my father, I decided to go to Coln to ask my father for help. And he was very happy to see
me. When it came to education, he was always extremely supportive. I remember one time when he was on his knees begging my older brother to finish high school. I think he has always been proud of me in that sense. He gave
me $500 [to help with my education]. In 1969, it was plenty of money.
Brazil was a good period in my life. I got more autonomy, I met more people, and my professors appreciated me. I was the only Chinese in the class.
Some of my patients would call me japa, thinking I was Japanese. Well,

Migration Stories


Brazil is different from Panama in that way. There are more Japanese there
than Chinese. So, instead of calling [Asians] china or chino, they call us

Chino and china are terms that non-Asian Panamanians (and others
throughout Central America) use to refer to anyone with an East Asian
phenotype. The terms Asian and Asian American as they are used in
the United States to refer to the different ethnic groups in and from Asia
have no cultural currency in Latin America.11
While studying in Brazil, Victoria met her first husband, who is also
from Panama, and as soon as she graduated from medical school, she
remigrated back to Panama to join her husband in the interior. There, she
did her internship and had her two children.
Those years were difficult. When my ex-husband came back to his hometown,
he changed a lot. Things between him and me got worse and worse and worse.
So I talked to my sister, who was married by then, and she lent me the money
to move back to Panama City. I left my first husband and brought my children
with me. It was such a crazy period then. I was still doing my internship at the
hospital, and my children were so young. My daughter was about three years
old, and my son was just a toddler. Again, my teachers came through for me.
They took care of my children while I worked at the hospital.

Victoria and her sister Ana have maintained a very close relationship.
Theyve always supported one another. Ana married a Panamanian Chinese whose family has been in Panama for several generations. With her
husbands business and family networks, Anas family actively participates in Chinese community activities. In fact, I frequently saw Ana and
her family at the Chinese banquets and functions. Victoria, on the other
hand, is less inclined to participate in these activities. Part of her hesitation has to do with her sense of nonbelonging in the community and her
sense of non-acceptance by them. I dont participate in these Chinese activities because, well, I didnt marry a Chinese man, and my children are
racially mixed and dont speak Chinese. The old Chinese cant accept
that, so I dont go to these activities very often. Once in a while, I will attend a dinner banquet sponsored by my village association. But I dont go
to them regularly.
Her statement highlights the communitys intense bias against exogamy. Yet, unlike Fernando, who is racially mixed but nonetheless actively partakes in community activities, Victoria, who married a non-Chinese, has chosen not to participate at all. Fernandos long-standing ties
with fellow Panamanian Chinese and his gender role as patriarch enable


Migration Stories

him to assert belonging with confidence. As a single mother, Victoria has

been faced with extraordinary demands and has had little leisure time to
socialize. Moreover, being a divorced single mother carries a social stigma
that hinders full participation and acceptance. These factors contribute to
their different relationships to the Panamanian Chinese community.
Moving from one place to another has never been a matter of
choice for Victoria, at least not in the sense that she had other comparable alternatives. The communist revolution forced her to emigrate from
China to Panama. The military governments shutting down of the university compelled her to move from Panama to Brazil. And her migrations within Panama were consequences of gender discrimination. Also,
in contrast to the other three interviewees, Victoria went to Brazil instead
of the United States for her education. While receiving an American university degree may be the ideal for most Panamanian Chinese, it is not always an option for the less privilegedwhich was the case for Victoria
and neither is it the favored choice for everyone. In fact, Mexico is
another popular destination for college students. There are a number of
reasons for taking these alternative routes. Economic class certainly plays
a role, since the cost of living and education in the United States is much
higher than it is in Latin America. Fluency in English may be another factor. Victorias narrative thus runs counter to the dominant emphasis in
migration studies on movements between the global South, or developing
world, and the global North (i.e., between the Third and First Worlds).
Her migrations within the global South exemplify a set of conversations
and relationships that are equally important but that have not received
adequate attention in our study of global migrations.

The differences presented in these life narratives disrupt any fixed notion
of what it means to be Chinese in diaspora. Whereas Marco strives to explore all the potential facets of his identity and extensive travel actually
enhances his sense of diasporic belonging, Pedros high-profile family and
his own set of migrations have left him feeling alienated. Also, whereas
Fernando asserts his belonging by actively participating in community activities, Victoria holds herself aloof from the Chinese community because
she feels it does not accept her. Juxtaposing their migration stories offsets
reductionist tropes that homogenize the Chinese experience in diaspora.
Indeed, even though they have all partaken in serial migration, each of

Migration Stories


their experiences has led to varying formulations of what it means to be

Chinese and to belong in the diaspora.
Despite their differences, however, serial migration emerges as a strategy of self-realization and of seeking the most suitable home amid the
constraints and contingencies of national belonging. On one level, the actual practice of crossing borders occurs under a variety of circumstances
and for a number of reasons. I shall highlight the three most salient
themes. First, state violence and political persecution are recurrent issues
in Chinese migration. Both Victoria and Pedro were forced to migrate because of the political situations in China and Panama. In China, it was
communist persecution of the landed class. In Panama, it was Ariass exclusionist and nationalist agenda that denied the Chinese (and other nonwhite immigrant groups) the right to Panamanian citizenship. Disenfranchisement, persecution, and forced migration have thus been important
factors not only in shaping diasporic Chinese subjectivity but also in propelling serial migration. Under these circumstances, migration has served
as a strategy of survival.
Second, serial migration is also a method of accumulating cultural capital. Aihwa Ongs work with Hong Kong elites (1999) and Donald Noninis study of Malaysian Chinese (1997) offer two instances of how differently positioned diasporic Chinese use migration to accrue cultural
capital. Beyond the four interviewees presented in this chapter, I encountered significant numbers of diasporic Chinese who had attended college
or university abroad. The Georgia Institute of Technology, University of
Notre Dame, University of Chicago, and University of Florida are a few
of the universities that they have attended. For most middle-class and upper-middle-class Panamanian Chinese, studying abroad is both a vehicle
for social mobility and an emblem of social status. While some choose to
stay abroad after graduation, many return to Panama either to pursue careers in their fields of study or, like Pedro and Marco, to manage their
family businesses. The fact that not everyone who studied abroad did so
for reasons of social mobility suggests that something more is at work,
and when I situate this practice in relation to their contingent national belonging, I wonder if this could be a form of preparing for the worst-case
scenario. In times of crisis, when one is forced to relocate at short notice,
ones educational degree may be the only thing that is transportable
across national borders.
Third, I suggest that serial migration is the process by which my interviewees have come to realize where home is or located where they


Migration Stories

wanted to commit to making a home in the diaspora. All four of the interviewees discussed in this chapter chose to return to Panama for one
reason or another. Victoria came back with the intention of creating a
family with her husband; Fernando left the United States in order to
reestablish his roots in Panama. Marco and Pedro came back to be with
their families and to participate in their respective family businesses. Indeed, my interviewees both symbolically and physically identified
Panama as home. This is not to say that their detours did not affect their
subject formation. Whether it is the United States for Fernando (as reflected in his play production), Brazil for Victoria (in gaining a sense of
independence), or Taiwan for Marco (deepening his connection to Chinese culture), these stopovers have informed their sense of who they are.
More important, in telling their stories, the interviewees implicitly and
explicitly show how their respective migration experiences led each of
them to make Panama their home. It was through migration that they
came to realize where home was.
On another level, these narratives of serial migration both perform the
cultural work of normalizing the ruptures associated with migration and
sketch an emergent diasporic identity of Chinese of the Americas. They
do so in three ways. What struck me most about these narratives were,
first, the frequency of my interviewees migrations; second, the ease with
which they described them; and, third, their connections to multiple
places across the Americas. The narratives not only mark a clear departure from the conventional understanding of migration as a singular and
unidirectional movement, they also convey their multiple migrations as if
they were ordinary and normal aspects of life. Over and over again, my
interviewees narrated the history of their families migrations. By tracing
serial migration through several generations, the narratives not only reorganize spatial-temporal disjunctures into a continuum but also illustrate how memories of migration influence the way people construct geographies of home, belonging, and community. The mapping of
genealogies onto dispersed locales help transform unfamiliar places into
familiar, homely ones. For Marco, weaving together generations of travel
and migration not only mapped the various places to which members of
his family had migrated but also connected those disparate locations with
genealogies and kinship networks. Binding unfamiliar places with kinship
ties, he incorporated them into his geography of family and community,
thereby bringing them closer to home and making them into possible
places of belonging.

Migration Stories


Moreover, as I listened closely to their migration stories, I realized that

most of my interviewees did not convey the expected feelings of uprootedness or traumatic displacement from an estranged home. Even for
Victoria, who had to leave China in order to survive, migration was portrayed as something necessary, and her idea of home and belonging was
never romanticized or fixed. For most, the repeated relocations entailed
in serial migration appeared more like normal changes than the traumatic
disjunctures often associated with migration. Ironically, even as these narratives show the salience of constant movement and relocation, they simultaneously reveal their ordinariness in the lives of diasporic Chinese.
Perhaps the narrative repetition of displacement helps transform it into
something seemingly more common. In a sense, my interviewees described their serial migrations as open-ended journeys, in which ruptures
were normal, expected, and accepted. It was as if once they had left
China, migration became the means of self-realization and of finding the
most suitable home, wherever that might be. Consistently, the narratives
of serial migration record and retell not only the various circumstances
that compel migration but also how migration is used as a strategy of survival and of accumulating cultural capital. As such, I have come to interpret these narratives as oral histories that serve as both a collective script
and a reminder of what it means to live in diaspora. On one hand,
through reiteration, these narratives remind Panamanian Chinese that, as
people who historically have lacked full national belonging and citizenship, migration and the disruptions associated with relocation are common aspects of diasporic life. On the other hand, they serve as a collective script that enables diasporic Chinese to live within contingent forms
of belonging. By showing the resilience of diasporic Chinese as they move
from place to place, these narratives help transmit cultural knowledge
and instill a sense of confidence about migration. Serial migration, hence,
is not simply a social phenomenon of crossing multiple borders; it is also
a distinct cultural logic that emerges from the experience of living in diaspora.
Lastly, by tracing continuous routes between Panama and the United
States, and across different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean,
these narratives illustrate their collective identification with the Americas.
While all my interviewees have made Panama their home, each of their
stories traces a web of connected sites across the continent. For Fernando, the key nodes include Chicago and Jamaica, whereas Marco will
always find important Miami and Peru. Meanwhile, Guatemala, Man-


Migration Stories

agua, and California remain significant places for Pedro, and Victoria
will always remember Brazil. In all four cases, not only have their respective migrations revised their understanding of where home was, is,
and can be, but their narratives also convey that even as they live in
Panama, they remember and imagine themselves as part of the Americas.

 Home at the Intersection of Nations

Between Panama, China, and the
United States

Whereas the previous chapter discussed migration stories as one strategy

of diasporic Chinese to normalize social ruptures more generally, this
chapter examines the particular social ruptures of the 1940s to show the
underlying circumstances that propel the cultural logic of serial migration
and that ultimately form the bases of diasporic citizenship. To understand
contingent belonging as it pertains to diasporic Chinese citizenship in
Panama, we must examine how the national trajectories of Panama,
China, and the United States converge and collide to set the parameters
of what is possible. In this chapter, I follow Stuart Halls suggestion to
think our problems in a Gramscian way by focusing on a specific historical conjuncture: how different forces come together, conjunctively,
to create the new terrain on which a different politics must form up
(1988, 16263). While Hall was concerned primarily with the local-national context of Britain, I extend his methodological suggestion into the
transnational arena in order to examine how different geopolitical forces
come together to create the terrain on which Panamanian Chinese must
negotiate and construct home in the diaspora. This chapter focuses on
one particular decade, the 1940s, to explore how the convergence of
three processesthe nationalist Panameista movement, the communist
revolution in China, and the expansion of U.S. military bases in
Panamaframed the conditions of belonging for diasporic Chinese. It
also shows how Panamanian Chinese made sense of and responded to the
constraints and possibilities created by this confluence. Emerging from
three national contexts, these processes not only reconfigured the circumstances of diasporic belonging but also compelled Panamanian Chinese to shift their conception of home and to reexamine their strategies of
cultural and political incorporation. Situated at the intersection of three
national forces, diasporic Chinese have had no choice but to negotiate
their combined effects as best they can.


Home at the Intersection of Nations

What first called my attention to this particular historical conjuncture

were the persistent and passionate testimonies of senior members of the
Chinese community. Without solicitation, this cohort of Chinese, who at
the time of my research (199497) were between the ages of sixty and
ninety, consistently singled out Arnulfo Arias Madrid, who was elected
president of Panama three times in 1940, 1949, and 1968 but never
served a full term, as the cause of their worst suffering in Panama. In contrast to their usual calm and collected manner, they never hesitated to
speak in an impassioned way about Arias, recalling the violence and persecution they had experienced under his regime. When I started my research, in 1994, more than fifty years had passed since Arias was first
elected to the presidency, but the senior members of the community remembered it as if it had happened just yesterday. In my interviews with
them, each made an explicit effort to discuss this important episode. Several even insisted that I include a discussion of it in my book. This chapter, then, commemorates the incredible hardship these people and their
compatriots experienced at that time and documents their struggles to
create a home in diaspora. The excerpts I include here, while representing only a handful of the narratives I collected, illustrate the range of
their experiences during this period of displacement and intense discrimination. Working against the grain of Panamanian history, in which Arias
continues to be seen as a heroic figure and powerful symbol of Panamanian nationalism, the memories of the diasporic Chinese also serve as
an important counternarrative, reminding us of the dangers of exclusion
inherent in all nationalisms.
With the enactment of the 1941 constitution and Ariass races prohibidas (prohibited roots) policy, Panamanian Chinese, among other nonHispanic groups, lost their right to citizenship and to own certain kinds
of businesses. Faced with disenfranchisement and dispossession, they had
few options. For many, the immediate response was to go back to China,
which most diasporic Chinese still considered their homeland and place
of eventual return. But China was also undergoing tremendous political
turmoil at this point. After the communist takeover, not only were the
countrys borders closed, but diasporic Chinese, whose relatively more
privileged class status was seen as antithetical to communist ideology,
were the objects of state suspicion and sometimes even persecution.
These two factors effectively ended, for most, the possibility of returning
to the Chinese homeland. Coincidentally, these constraints were met by
American World War II efforts to expand military bases throughout

Home at the Intersection of Nations


Panama, a development that opened an unexpected opportunity for diasporic Chinese to work and live within the geographical territory of
Panama but, at the same time, be under the protection of U.S. sovereignty. With China no longer providing state representation or protection, diasporic Chinese began to perceive the United States, which was
quickly gaining hegemonic dominance globally, as an even more important ally, whose increasing presence in Panama would provide them with
alternative opportunities.
What follows is a two-part discussion. First, I explore in greater detail
how the compounded effects of these three factorsthe nationalist
Panameista movement, the communist takeover in China, and the expansion of U.S. military bases in Panamaredefined the future of Panamanian Chinese by closing some traditional avenues while making other
new ones available. Second, I examine how diasporic Chinese responded
to these conditions by adopting new strategies of national incorporation,
both individually and collectively, and reworking the meaning of diasporic belonging. My intention is to show not only how their sense of belonging forms at the intersection of these nations but also how certain
cultural attitudes, practices, and social relations take shape amid the
shifting confluence of these national trajectories. For diasporic subjects
like these, the politics of belonging clearly engages more than one nationstate and operates not only within the national context but in the
transnational arena as well.

Arnulfo Arias Madrid and the 1941 Constitution

In 1940, Arnulfo Arias Madrid was elected to the Panamanian presidency on his Panameista platform, which called for a government of
Panamanians for the benefit of the Panamanian people [my emphasis]
(American University 1962, 51). Ariass highly nationalistic agenda reflected and expressed the popular sentiments of the time. Indeed, after
more than a decade of economic recession, Panamanians had grown increasingly resentful of both American imperialism and the labor competition posed by immigrants. Ariass platform drew on the frustrations of
Panamanians at large by articulating a nationalism that affirmed the mestizo population and Hispanic culture while at the same time embracing
an anti-imperialist and anti-immigrant stance.1 Prompted by nationalistic
experiments in Europe, Arias was the first in Panamas history to combine race with culture in setting the criteria for national citizenship


Home at the Intersection of Nations

(American University 1962). Arias identified the mestizo race (a term that
was used exclusively to refer to people of mixed white and indigenous
origins),2 the Hispanic tradition, and the Spanish language as the defining characteristics of Panamanians. Moreover, by formalizing his nationalist politics through the implementation of a new Panamanian constitution (put in place between 1941 and 1945), Arias formally ostracized and
disenfranchised his non-mestizo constituents. The new constitution of
1941 had enormous implications for non-mestizo othersincluding
the Chinese, West Indians, Arabs, Jews and Hindusbecause it not only
diminished their political participation by retroactively stripping them of
citizenship and prohibiting their future immigration altogether but also
severely restricted their economic opportunities.3 What proved to be even
more damaging than these legal changes, however, was the ideological
foundation that underlay them: a race-based nationalism that depended
on the exclusion of certain racial others. For although Arias was removed from office in 1941, and the constitution of 1941 was nullified in
1945, the ideological remnants of his policies lingered long after. In fact,
his Panameista platform motivated the formation of the Arnulfista political party, which remains active today.
The constitution of 1941 established a number of laws against prohibited immigrants (races prohibidas), a category that included Panamanian Chinese.4 Of particular relevance to the Chinese were two important amendments. First, Chinese immigration was banned by an
amendment that prohibited the immigration of the black race whose native tongue was not Spanish, the yellow race and other races originating
in India, Asia Minor, and North Africa (Picardi de Ilueca 1995, 10).
Even more drastic, another amendment denied citizenship to the children
of prohibited immigrants born in Panama after 1928. Those born before 1928 would be considered naturalized, but those born after 1928
would automatically lose their citizenship (American University 1962;
Conniff 1985). In essence, the goal of these two laws was not only to immediately reduce the political participation of the prohibited immigrants
and their descendants but also eventually to drive them from Panama altogether. Under these new laws, those Chinese who were qualified for
Panamanian citizenship made up only a small minority, consisting primarily of two groups: those who had come before the founding of the republic and who were granted citizenship by virtue of being in Panama at
the time of independence, and those who had been born in Panama before 1928.

Home at the Intersection of Nations


In addition to these changes, two other laws were passed with the intention of crippling diasporic Chinese economically. The Naturalization
of Commerce and Commercial Carnet Laws (number 24 of March 24,
1941, and the Decree-Law of July 28, 1941), specifically targeted Chinese merchants by stipulating that only Panamanian citizens could own
retail businesses. Since it is the Chinese who have historically dominated
the small-retail-market sector and since most of them were not naturalized citizens, these laws were clearly aimed at curtailing their economic
success and, in fact, cost many of them their livelihoods. Race-based citizenship was thus used by the Panamanian state not only to define political membership in the nation but also to determine economic access.
In Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics, Lisa Lowe
observes that the U.S. state has significantly shaped the life conditions,
choices, and expressions of Asian Americansthrough the apparatus of
immigration laws and policies, through the enfranchisement denied or
extended to immigrant individuals and communities, and through the
processes of naturalization and citizenship (Lowe 1996, 7). Her observation about the states use of immigration and citizenship laws to regulate and determine the overall formation of Asian Americans also applies
to the case of Arias and Panamanian Chinese. What should be underscored is the extent to which these laws affected not just the political status of the Chinese but also the parameters of their economic development
and the social conditions of their everyday life. By reinforcing the identification of the Chinese as a racial-cultural other, against whom the
Panamanian nation could be constructed, Arias both transformed the
Chinese into perpetual foreigners-within and reshaped Panamas raceclass order along the lines he favored.5
This attempt at restraining Chinese economic activity should not be
misconstrued as anomalous in Panamanian history. Even before the independence of Panama in 1903, Chinese dominance in the small-retail-business sector had posed a threat to Panamas race-class order. In fact, the
Republic of Panama and, before that, the Panamanian state government
of Colombia both tried on numerous occasions to curtail the economic
competitiveness of their Chinese residents through legislation. A letter
from the U.S. consul to the prefect of Coln dated March 2, 1889, describes the restrictions imposed on Chinese merchants.
A Committee made up of 125 Chinese merchants . . . [asked] me to help them
obtain relief from prejudice. They say that they had been notified [by Panamanian officials] that they could not from here on sell rice, beans, peas, salt


Home at the Intersection of Nations

and salted meat; that is, what is classified under the name of Foodstuff, and
this word includes every food that is sold by retail, and that if they did so, they
would be under penalty of paying a fine of ten pesos and imprisonment. Better said: they cannot sell any kind of foodstuff by retail outside of the Public
Market. . . [This] would be the ruin not only of small businesses in this city,
but would also result in many [Chinese] business establishments to close their
doors and this would be a fatal blow to the city [emphasis added].6

The U.S. consul intervened on behalf of the Chinese because, at the request of the Qing government in China, the United States had undertaken
in 1885 to provide political representation and protection for diasporic
Chinese in Panama, which it continued to do until 1912 (Mon 1992).7
This official diplomatic connection between the U.S. government and diasporic Chinese may, I suspect, have strengthened the alliance between
the two and also contributed to the historical coupling of anti-American
and anti-Chinese sentiments among non-Chinese Panamanians later in
the twentieth century.
While the above excerpt shows the states effort to contain Chinese
economic competition, it also indicates the profound effect that these restrictions would have on not just the Chinese merchants but also, by extension, the city in general. It reflects the extent to which the city relied
on Chinese trade. The sizable number of Chinese merchants referenced in
the letter documents the already high concentration of Chinese in the retail-market sector at the close of the nineteenth century. Contrary to popular assumption, most of the Chinese who immigrated to Panama during
the 1880s were not laborers on the French Canal. Most, in fact, came
with some capital and went into the agricultural and service industries,
including laundries, restaurants, and the sale of produce, food items, and
imports from Asia (Mon 1992). In this sense, the pattern of Chinese immigration to Panama was more similar to that of Mexico, which consisted primarily of free men in search of work opportunities, than to
those of Cuba and Peru, which consisted primarily of indentured laborers.
The growth of Chinese retail businesses in Panama depended on continued immigration, and the process unfolded as follows. Established
Chinese merchants often sent for relatives in China to work as their employees. Their familial ties, bound by cultural expectations and disciplinary codes, helped reinforce their business relations and mutual support.
The recent immigrants were often sent to new territories to help expand
the merchants distribution. Once the immigrants had accumulated
enough capital of their own, they would set up their own kiosks, and

Home at the Intersection of Nations


later small shops, in these new areas. Chinese business practices were
learned and passed on as a cultural tradition through informal apprenticeship, and as the recent immigrants became retailers, the original retailers became wholesalers. As a strategy of capital accumulation and
market expansion, newly arrived immigrants and already established
Chinese merchants thus forged symbiotic, if unequal, relations. They depended on one another for the growth of their businesses. It is not surprising, then, that despite repeated attempts to restrict Chinese immigration, the population kept growing. Chinese merchants actively
encouraged immigration and were willing to pay the costs and potential
What proved to be even more harmful than the actual implementation
of the discriminatory laws was the encouragement of violent demonstrations against the Chinese. By giving Panamanians a sense of political
righteousness and entitlement, Arias unleashed a popular movement
against the Chinese in Panama. Feeling themselves to have the state on
their side, some Panamanians took matters into their own hands and expropriated Chinese property.
This episode of national exclusion and violence against diasporic Chinese is only one instance of many throughout the history of Chinese in
the Americas (and beyond). Anti-Chinese movements in late nineteenthcentury California and in early twentieth-century Mexico and Jamaica, to
name two examples, led to pogroms and mass exodus.8 In fact, the case
of Chinese in Mexico presents an uncanny parallel. Evelyn Hu-Dehart, in
her historical study of Chinese in northern Mexico, examines the various
factors leading to their expulsion at the height of Mexicos post-revolutionary nationalist period from the 1910s to the early 1930s. There are
several similarities between their experience and that of the Chinese in
Panama. First, both communities dominated the small-retail-market sector in the cities where they congregated. Second, both had strong economic ties with Americans and depended on the U.S. government for
consular representation. Third, both were persecuted during nationalist
movements that were anti-imperialist and xenophobic in nature. Besides
arousing resentment by their own activities, the Chinese [in Mexico]
might well have suffered a guilt by association with the much-hated
Americans, Hu-Dehart comments (1980, 285). In a way, the Chinese
might very well have served as scapegoats in these nationalist and antiimperialist insurgencies. Lacking any real political recourse of their own,
both in terms of political rights and of state protection, diasporic Chinese


Home at the Intersection of Nations

in Mexico and in Panama occupied an extraordinarily vulnerable position. They were, in a sense, stateless persons.
Diasporic Chinese responded in several ways. Some went back to
China, some sold their properties and took jobs in the U.S. Canal Zone,
and others took bold steps to subvert the laws. Of the third group, many
transferred their properties to trusted Panamanian neighbors, and a few
even married citizens in order to save their businesses. (These arrangements were risky, however, and often ended in loss of property.) Several
senior men I interviewed unabashedly admitted that they had married
their wives in order to keep their businesses. Chu Wai, an 86-year-old
man from Bocas del Toro, was one of them.
When I arrived at Chu Wais house, a young Panamanian woman
(who I gathered was the maid) opened the door and led me upstairs to
the terrace. Chu Wai was listening intently to a talk show on the Chinese
radio station, with the Panamanian Chinese newspaper El Espresso
spread in front of him. On the other side of the terrace sat a petite
woman with brown skin and graying hair who appeared to be in her late
seventies or early eighties. Resting quietly in her lounge chair, she paid no
attention to me and remained silent throughout my visit. As I greeted
Chu Wai and took a seat next to him, he politely reached toward his old
tabletop radio and turned it off.
Being from Bocas del Toro, a city located on the Caribbean coast, Chu
Wai spoke to me mostly in English and Cantonese. He began the interview by recalling his familys migration history. At first, he said very little
about the Arias period. But when I asked him specifically how he was
able to keep his business despite Ariass policies, he answered, switching
to Cantonese and pointing to the woman resting on the lounge chair, I
married my wife because of Arnulfo Arias. I married her in order to keep
my business. She is half-Panamanian; her father was Chinese. She doesnt
speak Cantonese. [In other words: Dont worry, she cant understand
what were saying.] He shrugged and switched back to English. But no
matter, we had five children together. Without elaborating further, he
moved onto another topic. Stunned by his frankness and unemotional response, I was a bit taken aback. On one hand, he had expressed a strong
sense of resentment for having had to marry his wife to save his business;
but, on the other, by telling me that they had had five children together,
he was clearly conveying their intimacy and lifelong partnership. The latter statement seemed to be his way of counterbalancing the openness

Home at the Intersection of Nations


with which he had admitted to what had beeninitially at leasta marriage of convenience. His switching from English to Cantonese and back
to English also suggests an attempt to safeguard his sentiments from his
wife. While I do not know him well enough to say for sure, I would guess
that part of his resentment comes from the fact that he had had to marry
someone not necessarily of his own choosing but out of convenience.
Also, the fact that he regularly listens to the Chinese radio station and
reads the Chinese newspaper indicates how culturally embedded he is in
the Chinese cultural world, and his inability to share this with his wife
might have caused some frustration and sadness. Whatever his feelings
about it, Chu Wais decision to marry his wife in order to keep my business, as he put it, exemplifies an emotionally, if not economically, costly
route taken by a number of diasporic Chinese.

The Impossibility of Return and the End

of the Transpacific Family
Felipe, who immigrated to Panama in 1927, is one of the oldest and better-known senior members of the Chinese community in Panama. He
served as the president of the Chinese Association for a number of years.
At the mature age of eighty-seven, he remains active and vocal in community meetings. With the help of his sister, we met for the first time over
dim sum at a Chinese restaurant in Panama City. A week later, I called to
request an interview, and he graciously invited me to his home. Felipe
lives in an upper-middle-class neighborhood of Panama City. The view
from his tenth-floor condominium is stunning, with the living room facing the Pacific Ocean. With the windows open, the ocean breeze filled the
room. His sizable flat was furnished with beautiful replicas of antique
Chinese furniture made of dark cherry wood, and all the houseplants
were in large decorative ceramic Chinese pots. On his living room wall
hung large portraits of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the father of the Chinese Republic, and General Chiang Kai-shek, former leader of the Kuomintang
(KMT) party, who resettled his military and the Chinese republican government in Taiwan after being defeated by the communist army. Felipe
was answering a question about citizenship when he began to talk about
the 1940s:
My heart is with China . . . but the Chinese in China dont accept me because
I have Panamanian citizenship. They consider me an Overseas Chinese. Im


Home at the Intersection of Nations

Chinese by blood. It is in my blood, and my heart is with China. I had to get

citizenship in Panama in order to do business. . . . In 1940, the Chinese could
only enter into certain businesses. Arias, the president at that time, established
the races prohibidas policy, which affected the Arabs, the Hindus,9 the Jews,
the West Indians, and the Chinese. I almost left in 1940. In fact, lots of people
left. They went back to China because the laws in Panama restricted the Chinese from doing retail business. Many left . . . in [the] hundreds. After World
War II, some returned to Panama. Before 1940, I used to own a sewing factory, which employed over 150 people, but when Arias came into power, the
Chinese were not allowed to work in this industry. So, I had to sell it. Sold it
at a loss. I was ready to go back to China then, but [for] the war. . . . In the
end, my wife [who was born in Panama before 1928 and therefore not affected by the new laws] bought back the business, again at a loss, and we
started all over again. At that time, so many Chinese were arrested because
they didnt want to sell their businesses. The Chinese lost a lot in 1940. We
suffered because of Arias.

Felipes voice conveyed a deep sense of pain and betrayal. Judging

from his strong Chinese nationalist sentiments and the republican iconography in his home, I suspect he would have obeyed his first impulse and
returned to China in response to Ariass policies had it not been for the
Japanese invasion of China between 1937 and 1945.
For those individuals and families with sufficient capital but no citizenship, returning to China presented a better alternative than suffering
the consequences in Panamaat least for a time. But China was involved
in its own political struggles, first with battles against Japan and later
with internal warfare between the communists and republicans. As a result of the communist revolution, many of the Chinese who returned to
China were subsequently forced to leave again and return to Panama.
Jos, who is Panamanian-born and in his early sixties, told me that his father, like so many Chinese, had fled to China in 1940, leaving Jos and
his Colombian mother in Panama. Fortunately, he said, [my father]
returned to Panama just before the communists took over. Otherwise, I
might have never seen him again. Regardless of their actual economic
status, to the Chinese communist regime, diasporic Chinese represented a
class of wealthy merchants whose capitalist engagements were antithetical to communist ideology. They and their families, who received regular
remittances from them, were considered subversive elements in communist China, and they were therefore subject to state persecution. Recall
from the previous chapter, for instance, the migration stories of Victoria,
whose family was subjected to violent persecution in China, and Pedro,
whose family went back to China only to return to Panama a few years

Home at the Intersection of Nations


later. Mario, another Panamanian-born Chinese, recounted a similar experience:

It was a crazy time for us Chinese. Like so many people, we had to sell our
restaurant. We had no choice. Before that time, our business was doing quite
well. It was a very popular place for Chinese and [non-Chinese] Panamanians.
But we had to sell it. We packed our bags and the whole family went back to
China. When we arrived, we moved into a nice part of town. We tried to start
all over again, but when the fighting between the communists and the [republicans] intensified, we decided to leave. It was too dangerous. We had to leave,
so we came back to Panama. By that time, Arias was gone. We moved back
into Chinatown and bought back the restaurant.

As these testimonies indicate, even as late as the 1940s, diasporic Chinese considered China both their cultural center and place of belonging.
This was most clearly reflected in their continued migrations there and
the sustained practice of transpacific family formation, with members living in both China and Panama.10 In fact, the migrations and transpacific
family formation enabled not only the continuation of close ties between
diasporic Chinese and China but also the fashioning of a distinct bicultural and binational diasporic subjectivity, which in turn further perpetuated the reproduction of transnational ties and movements. It wasnt until 1949, when the new communist regime closed Chinas borders and
turned hostile toward diasporic Chinese and their families, that this practice came to an end and the diasporic dream of a happy homecoming
That the practice of transpacific family formation was crucial in keeping China in the minds and hearts of diasporic Chinese is not surprising
(see Yanagisako 1995). What is worth underscoring, however, is that it
also helped produce a particular form of diasporic subjectivity. Family
bondseven those that stretched across vast distancesfacilitated and
encouraged communication, the sending of remittances, and transnational travels between Panama and China. They facilitated ongoing relations and interactions between people in different locations and a sense
of belonging to a distant place. In Panama, as elsewhere in the Americas
during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, transpacific families
were common. Initially a consequence of a shortage of women (this period of migration being disproportionately male), transpacific family formation slowly transformed into a diasporic cultural ideal when it became
the common practice of the wealthy. Given the disproportionate ratio of
Chinese men to women in Panama, immigrant men often had to travel
back to China if they wanted to marry a Chinese woman. And since


Home at the Intersection of Nations

travel between Panama and China was quite costly, only the wealthy
could afford it. Marriage with Chinese women thus became a class-based
phenomenon and acquired a certain cultural value.
Once children were born, it was desirable to send at least the oldest
male child back to China in order for him to acquire a culturally Chinese education. When asked what that entailed, my interviewees named
a variety of skills and qualities, including a knowledge of spoken and
written Chinese (Cantonese); Chinese values such as respect for elders
and a focus on family; characteristics such as modesty, humility, and generosity; and certain business practices. Either accompanied by their mothers or entrusted to close family in China, the children would live in China
until they reached their mid-teens, at which point they would return to
Panama to join the family business, allowing the patriarch eventually to
retire in China.
Chu Wai, whom I mentioned earlier, followed such a path. Chu Wais
grandfather had immigrated to Panama in the 1880s. After setting up his
general store, he returned to China, married his wife, and brought her
over to Panama. When Chu Wais father was a young boy, he was sent to
China. There, he eventually married his wife and fathered Chu Wai. Although his father never returned to Panama, Chu Wai was sent there to
relieve his grandfather shortly after he turned fifteen. In Panama, he assisted his grandfather, and eventually, he took over the management of
the store, enabling his grandfather to return to China.
In some instances, not just the eldest son but all the children and the
mother would return to China, leaving the patriarch behind in Panama.
While the children were more likely to remigrate to Panama once they
reached adulthood, especially the male children, the mothers rarely did
so, for reasons that are not entirely clear. One possibility may be that during their time apart, their husbands might have become involved with
other women in Panama. This was not uncommon. Often, then, instead
of returning to Panama, the women chose to remain in China.
Armandos family history illustrates a typical example of this form of
transpacific family formation. After meeting him at a Chinese celebration
banquet, I decided to stop by his general store in Chinatown to pay him
a visit. The store was small, but it was packed with all kinds of items imported from Hong Kong and China. Spices and dried goods were stacked
in shelves along one wall, while decorative Chinese vases, porcelain
plates, and bowls were displayed on another wall. Near the door were
baskets full of lentils, beans, and rice; and hanging from the ceiling were

Home at the Intersection of Nations


kites, lanterns, and other trinkets. With the exception of the narrow path
for people to walk through the store, there was no floor to be seen. Sitting near the front of the store, we conversed in between his interactions
with customers.
My father was sixteen years old when he came to Panama in 1906, after the
independence of Panama. He came to work with my uncle, who at that time
was working in a restaurant near the Canal Zone. . . . In 1913 or 1914, my father and a few business partners started a wholesale business . . . but eventually, they broke up the partnership, and my father started his own business. In
1920, he went back to China to get married. By then, he had accumulated
some money. My mother came to Panama through Jamaica. Leaving from
Hong Kong, it was easier for her to go to Jamaica first, since [Hong Kong and
Jamaica] were both British colonies. Then she found her way into Panama. I
was born here, and so were my other three siblings. In 1929, ten years after
she arrived in Panama, my mother took all of us children back to Hong Kong
so that we would learn the Chinese language and culture. We basically grew
up there. All my brothers and sister got married and remained in Hong Kong.
I am the youngest, and I decided to take my chances here. I came back when I
was twenty-four years old, in 1952. My mother never came back to Panama
. . . because, after she left, my father married a Panamanian.

Although Hong Kong was politically separate from the mainland at this
time, Chinese nonetheless considered it to be culturally part of China.
The practice of this particular version of transpacific family formation
reflects the sustained movements and social ties between Panama and
China up until the mid twentieth century. It also conveys the significance
of China and Chinese culture in the lives of diasporic Chinese. Sending
ones children to China for their education was a purposeful means of
cultivating a distinct Chinese subjectivity and continuing a certain way of
being, thinking, and living. It was an intentional effort to maintain connections to China, as well as to accrue Chinese cultural capital in the
form of language skills, values, practices, and behaviors. And people did
this, I suspect, in the belief that these were meaningful and useful attributes for diasporic lifethat is, a life that straddled two cultures and nations at once. In their eyes, Chinese cultural ideas, values, and practices
were not irrelevant items of a past they had left behind but important
tools for living in diaspora. In 1949, however, this chapter of Panamanian Chinese history came to a close. China was no longer an alternate
home to which one could return or from which one could draw moral
strength and resources. Without China, diasporic Chinese now turned
their attention more solidly to Panama and the United States.


Home at the Intersection of Nations

U.S. Military Expansion in Panama during World War II

In the early 1940s, faced with the likelihood of a war in the Pacific, the
United States and Panama temporarily set aside their differences. Over
100 new U.S. military facilities were opened in Panama, with contracts
that were negotiated from 1939 through 1942, bringing the total number
to more than 130 (Barry 1990; American University 1962; LaFeber
1989). In desperate need of labor to build and run these bases, the U.S.
administration in Panama quickly absorbed the newly displaced Chinese,
who had been not only disenfranchised but also dispossessed by Ariass
new policies.
I met Adriana at a small social gathering hosted by Victoria, whose
story was told in chapter 3. Adriana has known Victoria ever since Victorias family arrived in Panama in the late 1940s. They lived in Coln together, and Adrianas granddaughter is one of Victorias best friends.
Adriana is also the grandmother of a close friend of mine who is now living in the United States. (These overlapping relations enabled me to insert
myself into the labyrinth of Chinese social networks rather effortlessly.
Being within a few degrees of separation, I was treated more like distant
kin than a total stranger. Furthermore, she had already heard about me,
so when I approached her, she politely insisted that I sit with them.)
At seventy-six, Adriana appeared healthy, strong, and alert. Her skin
was tanned by the tropical sun, and her graying, shoulder-length hair was
pulled back behind her ears. A slightly plump woman, she wore a loosefitting floral dress that gave her a nurturing, grandmotherly appearance,
and she was welcoming and attentive to my inquiries. In Panamanian
style, we sat on the patio of Victorias apartment as we conversed, enjoying the soothing breezes that alleviate the tropical humidity of the city.
We began with the usual formalities. I introduced myself by providing
some autobiographical information such as my birthplace, my family
background, and how I had become interested in my research. I spoke
about my impressions of Panama and the people I had met so far, topics
that slowly led me to ask her about her experiences there. As our conversation continued, we slipped comfortably into a casual give-and-take.
Using mostly Creole English, interspersed with Spanish, Cantonese,
and Hakka (a Chinese dialect), Adriana spoke matter-of-factly about the
events in her life. Her use of several different languages isnt uncommon
among people her age who grew up in China, lived in Coln (where Creole English is the dominant spoken language),11 then relocated to Panama

Home at the Intersection of Nations


City (where people speak mostly Spanish) and worked for Americans in
the Canal Zone. But unlike others, who switched from one language to
another according to context, she tended to use all four at once, so that
her sentences were interspersed with words from different languages.
Even though I speak Cantonese, Spanish, and English, it took a great deal
of concentration to keep up with her linguistic acrobatics. And not speaking any Hakka, I relied on Victoria to translate it for me.
Adriana immigrated to Panama in 1927 as a picture bride and settled with her husband in Coln, where they owned and ran small businesses.12 With nine children to raise, they worked day and night to make
ends meet. When the 1941 constitution was implemented, they lost all of
their property, leaving them no option but to seek employment in the
Canal Zone. She recalled:
Before, there were lots of Chinese in Coln. We used to own a small grocery
store and a cantina [bar]. The American soldiers used to visit there every night.
They never give me no trouble. But Arias forced us to sell our store and the
cantina. So we closed shop. We sold it so cheap, we lost a lot of money. We
had to sell it, and the Panamanians knew that they could pay almost nothing
for it. We had something like two days to sell everything, or else we would be
arrested. They knew that either I get a little money or they take it from me for
nothing. They would come into my store and threaten to burn our building.
They would just walk in and take our things and leave. They did that to everyone, all the Chinese. . . . Me and my husband moved to Panama [City] to
make some money. We heard from other paisanos [a word used to refer to fellow Chinese] that we could get jobs in La Zona [the Canal Zone]. We didnt
have any skills, but we spoke some English, so the Americans gave us jobs.

She sighed as she shook her head and continued, We had nine kids to
support. . . . Life was hard. My husband had to do hard labor at the
Canal Zone. I asked her what she did, and she hesitantly replied, I
cleaned for them, cleaned and cooked . . . like a janitor. We worked so
much, but there was so little money. . . . Anyhow, we had jobs, we had
enough to eat. We just had to start all over. The Americans dont treat us
bad, so we stayed working for them. . . . We didnt really have any choice.
We never saved enough to open another store.
Adrianas testimony powerfully conveys the material effects that the
constitutional changes had on some diasporic Chinese. Her description
characterizes the typical experience of the owners of small family-operated businesses who were forced to sell their properties and had little option but to remain in Panama. And although the actual laws were repealed a few years later, their effects were not reversible. Adriana and her


Home at the Intersection of Nations

family, like so many others, were never able to recover what they had
lost. Other people I interviewed related similar experiences.
Adrianas story is also illustrative of the emerging importance of the
United States for diasporic Chinese in the wake of Arias and the political
turmoil in China. Although it was labor needs and not altruism that led
the U.S. administration to hire the Chinese, the Chinese felt a sense of
gratitude toward the Americans. For them, the Canal Zone was a place
of refuge in their moment of crisis. Furthermore, in comparison to the
open hostility expressed by some of their Panamanian neighbors, the
Americans readiness to hire Chinese workers appeared benevolent. As
Chu Wai commented, I got along well with the American soldiers. In
World War II, there were many soldiers based in Bocas del Toro.13 At that
time, I used to supply bread to the army and navy. And they treated me
very well and with respect, not like the Panamanians who go around calling me chino. Panamas violent rejection of them and the Americans
welcoming attitude contrasted sharply for the diasporic Chinese, who associated the Arias government with chaos and injustice, and the U.S.
Canal Zone administration with order and fairness.
Seeking work outside the retail-market sector, young Chinese professionals soon realized that their fellow Panamanians had an advantage
when it came to Panamanian companies. Ricardo, a Panamanian-born
Chinese who was an employee of the U.S. Panama Canal Administration
for almost thirty years, explained why so many Panamanian Chinese had
sought jobs working for the Americans:
In Panama, everything works around contacts. The Panamanians, that is, the
mestizo Panamanians, have their own set of networks. They do favors for
their relatives and friends. Thats how they are able to get jobs with no problem. The Chinese dont have those contacts in high places, so we have to do
things differently, find contacts elsewhere. The Americans also dont work like
the Panamanians; they dont hire people just because they are so-and-sos
nephew or whatever. . . . Thats why the Chinese went to the Americans.
There, we actually had a fair chance of getting the job.

That the Americans had had experience employing Chinese in the previous decades also enhanced the World War II generations chances of employment. In a sense, the earlier generations of Chinese had paved the
way for them. Moreover, the pay and benefits offered by the Americans
were generally better than those offered by Panamanian companies and
included not only retirement pensions but also the opportunity of gaining
U.S. citizenship.

Home at the Intersection of Nations


Historically, the Americans and the Panamanian Chinese have enjoyed

a relationship based primarily on economic exchange. The Chinese often
provided the necessary labor for U.S. companies (such as constructing the
railroad and doing agricultural work for the United Fruit Company) or
for the U.S. Canal Zone administration (such as servicing the military
bases and maintaining the Canal). Chinese merchants like Chu Wai also
did business with the Americans. And, as mentioned earlier, the United
States also offered political representation for diasporic Chinese for a
short period. In these ways, the two parties have always maintained a
certain degree of contact and alliance. The political rupture of 1940 with
the Panamanian state, then, only helped reinforce and solidify Chinese
affinity for and reliance on the Americans.
The testimonies in this chapter convey the variety of ways in which diasporic Chinese responded to and were personally affected by Ariass
policies against prohibited immigrants. Repeatedly, they described the
tremendous political violence and the economic losses they had suffered.
While some people, like Felipe and Mario, were able to repurchase their
properties, others, like Adriana, never managed to recover their losses.
And for all of them, the political vulnerability they experienced, the emotional hardship they endured, and their sense of contingent belonging in
Panama was forever imprinted in their own and their childrens memories, engendering a collective consciousness that would shape their future
practices of home-making.

Strengthening Roots in Panama While Looking Northward

After China closed its doors to the outside world, Panamanian Chinese
began to shift their attention away from China and toward the Americas.
They began, in short, to strengthen their foundations of home and belonging in this part of the world. On a collective level, they did this by institutionalizing a new community apparatus and devising strategies to
gain more effective political influence and cultural integration. On an individual level, they began diversifying their professional occupations and
accumulating American cultural capital.
Almost immediately after Ariass policy changes, Chinese community
leaders began mobilizing and founded the Asociacin China de Panam,
or Chinese Association of Panama, to bring together the geographically
dispersed Chinese in one coherent organization, serve as a governing entity for the Chinese community, and represent and advance its political


Home at the Intersection of Nations

interests.14 Recently touted by Taiwans Overseas Chinese Affairs Office

as one of the most sophisticated and politically effective organizations of
any Chinese community in Latin America, the association serves multiple
purposes and has had wide-reaching effects. Functioning as a community
government, it consists of an elected group of representatives and a president. This governing body assumes leadership authority in making decisions on behalf of the community and oversees more than thirty different
bodies in Panama, ranging from regional-linguistic organizations to religious groups to professional societies. Over the decades, it has become
one of the strongest and most politically involved ethnic organizations in
Under the leadership of the association, the community has devised a
number of strategies to improve cultural and political integration. First,
active participation in public events has helped increase the visibility of
Chinese and foster cultural understanding. For example, the association
organizes an annual Chinese Carnival Queen Pageant in order to send
a Chinese queen and her entourage to participate in the national Carnival parade. This kind of public visibility is supplemented by newspaper
articles that discuss the history and culture of Chinese in Panama. Second, by making donations to specific community projects, such as the
building of hospitals and schools, the association builds goodwill and improves relations between locals and diasporic Chinese. As one member of
the association put it, Its a way of showing that we are part of the community, that we dont just take from the communitywhich is what we
are often accused ofbut that we give back to the community as well.
Third, the association also provides financial and moral support to specific political candidates, and whenever possible, promotes candidates
from within the Chinese community. Well aware that political influence
necessitates personal and social connections, diasporic Chinese have
made extensive efforts to forge relations with public officials and to run
for office themselves. The first Panamanian Chinese was elected to the
national Panamanian legislation in 1964,15 and since then, at least eight
others have held national office.
The associations effectiveness as a political apparatus was testedand
significantly provenin 1990, when the Panamanian government, led by
the legislator Ral Ossa de la Cruz, initiated a mass arrest of undocumented Chinese immigrants. Within twenty-four hours of the arrests,
community leaders met and developed a protest strategy (see chapter 5).

Home at the Intersection of Nations


As a result of their efforts, 3,000 immigrants were redocumented and allowed to stay in Panama.
Since its founding, the association also has worked closely with the
Embassy of the Republic of China (Taiwan) and its Overseas Chinese Affairs office. In 1980, after years of collaboration, the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center was built, which includes the associations administrative offices and the kindergarten-through-grade-12 Sun Yat-Sen
School. In the 1990s, the Friendship Park was added. As a major hub of
the Chinese community, the area surrounding the Cultural Center has attracted many new Chinese businesses, leading it to be called the new
Chinatown. In addition, a group of Panamanian Chinese has initiated
the project of revitalizing the old Chinatown. A new Chinese gate has
been erected at the entrance of the Barrio Chino, and there are plans to
renovate and clean up the much-neglected area. As symbolic anchors of
the community, these developments convey a sense of permanence and
renewed commitment to Panama.
With support from the Taiwanese government, the association has also
formed transnational networks with diasporic Chinese in other countries.
Sponsored by the Taiwanese government, three transnational organizations have been instituted to facilitate communication and mutual support among diasporic Chinese globally. As we have seen, the Federacin
de Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam (Federation of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama) meets annually and
includes participants from this region. The Federation of Chinese Associations in the Americas also meets annually and includes all Chinese associations in North, Central, and South America. And finally, the Global
Association of Cantonese, which meets every other year, is a network of
Chinese associations throughout the world. By participating in these organizations, Panamanian Chinese have expanded their social and political support base. They also are taking part in building a global diasporic
Aside from these institutional efforts, Panamanian Chinese have also
made personal adjustments to strengthen their sense of belonging and security. One noticeable change has been in the occupational pursuits of the
post-1940s generations. Instead of going into retail businesses, many
have chosen to pursue higher degrees in professional fields. This shift resulted partly from the impulse to integrate more thoroughly into Panamanian society and partly from an experience of intense discrimination


Home at the Intersection of Nations

as ethnic shopkeepers. The emergence of the first Panamanian Chinese

professionals association in 1967 suggests that a critical mass of Chinese
professionals came of age around that period.
As more Panamanian-born Chinese began pursuing university degrees
and moving into professional fields, migration between Panama and the
United States also gradually increased. The earlier practice of sending
children to China to pursue a Chinese education has now been largely replaced with the practice of sending them to the United States to acquire
American cultural capital. As the United States rose in global importance,
diasporic Chinese began wanting their children to gain fluency in English,
to earn an American university degree, and sometimes even to acquire
U.S. citizenship. Moreover, as American and other international companies moved steadily into Panama during the 1970s and 1980s, the demand for bilingual and bicultural workers increased. The way of the future, as diasporic Chinese now see it, is to become biculturally conversant
in both the American and Panamanian milieus.
On their sojourns in the United States, most diasporic Chinese pursue
what they considered to be practical degrees in engineering, business,
and medicine in order to maximize their employment opportunities in
both the United States and Panama. Luis, who received his degree in the
United States and then returned to Panama explained, I studied engineering because it allows me to work in either place. It gives me freedom
to move around. And since I really didnt know where I was going to end
up, I just felt more secure knowing that I can get a job wherever I decide
to live. I mean, if I went for an anthropology degree [as you did], I would
never be able to find a job here. Its more limiting. Unlike the earlier
transpacific families who sent sons more often than daughters to China,
families since the 1970s have been sending their sons and daughters in
more equal numbers.
Among middle-class and elite diasporic Chinese, studying abroad in
American universities is now a common practice of accumulating cultural
capital (Nonini 1997; Ong 1999). In fact, I was surprised to learn of the
large number of Panamanian Chinese who attended or are attending
American universities, ranging from Stanford University to the University
of Central Florida, from Northwestern University to the University of
California, and from the University of Chicago to the University of
Louisiana. Although many diasporic Chinese return to Panama after finishing their degrees, either becoming employed in their fields of expertise

Home at the Intersection of Nations


or deciding to work in their family businesses, a significant number remain in the United States. During the Christmas holidays, planeloads of
Panamanian Chinese who have settled in different parts of the United
States return to visit family in Panama. Some of the key places of settlement include Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York, Houston, and Miami.
At Christmas parties, extended families with members both living in
Panama and visiting from abroad congregate to catch up with one another and to share stories and good cheer. Multiple generations of diasporic Chinese dance salsa and meringue to the tunes of Juan Luis Guerra
and Ruben Blades. Sometimes, they even karaoke to songs by the Beatles,
Frank Sinatra, and Julio Iglesias. Speaking English and Spanish, they chat
about the various Panamanian food specialties they have craved so much
while living abroad: platanos en tentacin, tres leches, sancocho, and
carimaolas. Some even claim to miss the year-round warm, humid
weather of Panama. Francisco, a Panamanian Chinese living in the San
Francisco Bay Area, was visiting his family when I met him. His family
history is a typical example of this immigration trajectory.
Born in Panama in 1973, Francisco moved to Atlanta, Georgia, after
graduating from high school to pursue a university degree in electrical engineering. After graduation, he moved to California to get his masters
degree. Now in his late twenties, he describes his own trajectory in these
Going to school in the States is not a big deal in my family. My mom attended
the University of Texas. Almost all my uncles on my dads side of the family
studied in the U.S. In fact, one of them stayed here after he graduated. He got
married and had three kids there. And one of my aunts also got married to an
American and is living in New York. And . . . almost all my cousins either finished or are getting degrees in the U.S. Most of them are staying, I think. As
for me, I will probably come back once Im done, but who knows? There are
things I miss about Panama, like my family, the warmth of the people, and the
laid-back culture. I really like the feeling of closeness here, in the sense that
wherever you go, you are bound to run into people who you know, and you
dont have to explain yourself. But . . . I also like the U.S. a lot. There are more
work opportunities, and there is so much to explore.

Just as earlier generations of diasporic Chinese formed transpacific families between Panama and China, this new version of transnational family
formation between Panama and the United States has become commonplace. Francisco is the second generation of Panamanian Chinese in his


Home at the Intersection of Nations

family to travel to the United States for education. The question for him,
and for many others in his position, remains: Will he stay in the United
States or return to Panama after graduation? Where will he make his

The complexity of diasporic Chinese citizenship lies in the communitys
intersectional positioning within and between three separate national trajectories. Though significantly shaped by Panamanian nationalism, diasporic Chinese formation was also greatly influenced by U.S. colonialism
and Chinas political history. While Ariass policies in the 1940s stripped
the Chinese of their right to citizenship and removed their means of livelihood, American military expansion in Panama provided them with a set
of alternative opportunities. The fate of diasporic Chinese was further
determined by the communist victory in China, which put an end to their
dreams of return. During this period of incredible change, the Chinese
were forcefully made aware of their vulnerability within Panama and of
the impossibility of their returning to China. For them, the idea of
home was forever changed. It was no longer safeguarded in a distant
place and neither could they simply assume automatic belonging in
Panama. Home became more an open-ended question than an assumption. Its contingency inspired a variety of responses. Diasporic Chinese
began reworking their ideas of where home is and will be, developing
new strategies of sociopolitical integration in Panama, and turning toward the United States to acquire what they perceive to be the necessary
cultural capital to ensure security and mobility.
As I hope this close look at the triangulation of three national forces
that of the homeland, the nation of residence, and the colonial administrationduring one particular decade makes clear, the conventional
binaristic homeland/nation-of-residence approach to understanding diasporic formations is insufficient. The study of diaspora must look beyond
this dual relationship of where one is from and where one lives to explore
other vectors and forces that coalesce in shaping diasporic subjectivity
and belonging. By situating our analysis in a transnational context, we
can also see that Panamanian Chinese do not define diasporic citizenship
in the restricted context of legal citizenship within a single nation-state;
rather, they construct belonging in a broader cultural-political sense that
involves locating home in a complexly interconnected world.

Home at the Intersection of Nations


The 1940s were clearly a cataclysmic decade for the Chinese in Panama, putting in motion a set of social trajectories that would change the
diasporic landscape: a highly organized community structure, a racially
conscious Chinese identity, and a remapping of home in the diaspora.
And it was this social landscape that the immigrants of the 1980s would
encounter and from which a different set of social dynamics and politics
would evolve. The next chapter addresses this changed world.
But before we turn to more recent events, I want to close with one
final historical footnote. Without question, the Arias administration
caused tremendous turmoil for the Chinese, and in fact, as Juan conveyed, his ideology lasted longer than his reign. To this day, diasporic
Chinese who lived through Ariass persecution still harbor strong resentments against him, the mere mention of his name igniting expressions of
contempt and hatred.
Despite Ariass determined efforts to remove the Chinese and restrict
their economic activities, however, he was successful only in temporarily
stalling their integration into Panama. In the past sixty years, the Chinese
have recovered, perhaps even surpassed, their pre-1940s social, political,
and economic position in Panama. With astute leadership, the community was able to seize this moment of crisis to reorganize, restructure, and
further consolidate its networks and resources. Not only have the Chinese regained their virtual monopoly in the small-retail market, but Panamanian-born Chinese now also figure prominently as some of the most
talented professionals in their fields. And despite continuing restrictions
on Chinese immigration, the community has grown rather than diminished.
The distance the Chinese have come is perhaps most strikingly measured by an incident from the end of Ariass own life. One afternoon, as
I sat eating fried yucca with Joyce in her study, she patiently recalled
pieces of history, weaving them together into a coherent whole. Wrapping
up her discussion of Arnulfo Arias, she paused, looking directly into my
eyes before proceeding again, this time speaking more slowly than before.
Near the end of his life, when [Arias] was desperately searching for the
most capable doctor to perform surgery on him, she said, of all the
doctors in Panama . . . he ended up choosing Ernesto Chu . . . a Panamanian Chinese. . . . He just couldnt trust anybody else with his life.
She smiled, shaking her head slowly and knowingly. Isnt life just so

 Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

Remaking Community Amid
New Migrations

My first encounter with Panama was also when I learned, through firsthand experience, about the Chinese immigration problem there. In
June 1994, I embarked on a preliminary research trip and took the infamous milk run (el lechero) flown by Central-American-based airlines
from Los Angeles to Panama. The flight takes its name from its stopovers
at the capitals of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica to
drop off passengers, conjuring up the image of a close-knit community.
As soon as the plane landed in Panama, I rushed to the immigration
area as quickly as I could and handed the officer my PRC passport. (At
the time, I was not a naturalized U.S. citizen.) She inspected it, flipping
through each of the pages methodically and looking up at me once in a
while to make sure I was the face that appeared on the document. After
a couple of minutes of careful examination, she passed my passport to
another immigration officer, who quickly led me into a small windowless
room next to the immigration stalls.
Patiently I waited alone without knowing why I had been brought
there. The second officer returned, and I asked him what the problem
was. He ignored me and led me to another room. I was slightly relieved
to see a woman officer sitting behind the desk. The fear of traveling alone
as a single woman is always present, but the fact that I was traveling in
Central America, where disappearances and political repression had been
common in the not-so-very-distant past, made it that much worse. At
that moment in the detention room, I was acutely aware that anything
could happen. The presence of another woman in the room did not guarantee anything, but somehow it gave me a bit of comfort.
I had not anticipated any problems with my passport or visa. Before
boarding the plane, I had made certain that every document was in order.
Because Panama (like all the other Central American countries) has no

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


formal relations with the Peoples Republic of China, I was required to

file a special application through the Panamanian consulate in San Francisco. In four years of dealing with similar bureaucratic procedures with
other Central American countries, I had never had any problems before.
Scrutiny, yesbut being detained was something altogether new.
I asked again for an explanation, this time directing my request to the
woman officer. She seemed hesitant, replying that they could not locate
their copy of my visa approval. In response, I assured her that everything
was in order, but she would not budge and simply told me to sit down
and wait while they looked for the misplaced document. An hour passed,
then two. I began to get impatient and frustrated. I asked if I could do
something to speed up the process. I pulled out my list of contacts and
flipped through my stack of business cards of people I knew in Panama.
I asked if they wanted to call the Panamanian consulate in San Francisco.
Out of nervousness, I even began to tell them about my research project
and my scheduled presentation at the University of Santa Mara La Antigua.
Luckily, something I said must have changed their minds, because after more than two hours of being detained in the immigration office, I
was finally escorted out to the waiting area. While I at first naively assumed that what I had just gone through must be standard practice for all
visa-holding travelers, my friend who was waiting at the airport soon informed me that, because of the increase in illegal Chinese immigration to
Panama in the late 1980s, anyone coming in with a Chinese passport was
likely to be inspected with the utmost care. And in the same breath, he
asked, Did you give them any money? Did they ask? Unaware of what
he was implying, I answered, No, to which he responded, Oh. You
probably would have gotten out faster if you gave them some money.
And he let out a sarcastic chuckle. As I thought back over exactly what
had transpired in that office, I realized the officers never did find my
visa approval, and I began to wonder if it had ever existed.
Despite speaking American-accented Spanish, having intentionally
dressed in the typical American khaki-and-denim attire, and carrying a
travel backpack that can only signify a Western traveler, I had nonetheless been mistaken for a fresh-off-the-plane Chinese immigrant trying
to enter Panama illegally. My being Chinese American had little currency
there. I had been detained because I was Chinese and I was carrying a
PRC passport. In sharing this first encounter with Panamas immigration
office, I want to underscore the varying privileges and liabilities associ-


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

ated with different passports. Indeed, passports and passport holders are
not treated equally everywhere. For people carrying European and North
American passports, traveling across borders is often simply a matter of
showing proof of identification. For others, however, the passport they
carry determines whether they can enter their countries of destination.1
(Certainly the significance we place on technologies of identification has
become increasingly clear since the events of September 11, 2001.) This
incident not only provided personal insight into the intense scrutiny to
which Chinese passport holders were subjected but also called my attention to the problem of Chinese immigration.
In the months that followed, I was told by Panamanians of Chinese
and non-Chinese descent alike that there are at least two different groups
of Chinese in Panama: the recent Chinese immigrants and the Panamanian Chinese. When I asked who these groups consisted of, the typical response was that the recent immigrants are those who immigrated to
Panama during Manuel Noriegas military regime in the 1980s, whereas
Panamanian Chinese are those who immigrated before the 1980s and
their Panamanian-born descendants.
My first inclination was to interpret these categories as ways of representing degrees of cultural assimilation. With further probing, however, I
began to realize that these categories reflected more than just the length
of time that people have lived in Panama or the acquisition of certain cultural knowledge and attitudes. It became clear to me that specific sets of
cultural characteristics were attributed to these two groups, differentiating and separating them into two distinct entities. I would ask, Do you
mean that the recent immigrants are different because they have just recently arrived and have not yet learned the language, the customs, the
way of life here? To my surprise, Panamanian Chinese often responded,
These immigrants are a different kind of Chinese altogether, implying
that it was not a matter of learning certain cultural behaviors and practices, and that the newer immigrants could never become like them, that
their difference was much more profound, perhaps even unchangeable.
In my encounters with non-Chinese Panamanians, I noticed that they
often expressed respect and admiration for the Panamanian Chinese, describing them as polite, educated, respectful, well-groomed, honest, hardworking, and smart. In contrast, they regarded recent Chinese immigrants as rude, ignorant, dirty, disrespectful, and dishonest. On several
occasions they complained about recent immigrants inappropriate appearance, claiming that they walk around with their boxers and slippers

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


in public. To a large extent, Panamanian Chinese echoed these descriptions and sentiments. In fact, many unabashedly expressed a strong antagonism against the recent immigrants, blaming them for giving the Chinese a bad image and accusing them of bringing crime and the Chinese
mafia into Panama. Even the most sympathetic Panamanian Chinese
would comment that the recent immigrants go a little too far, that they
need to be a little more cautious about public appearance and social manners.
Roberto Him was born in Panama and had lived in China for a few
years before returning to Panama just before 1949. His immigration history situates him in the category of Panamanian Chinese. However, his
ability to speak Spanish, Cantonese, and English gives him access to different sets of conversations within the community. He understands the
different worldviews of the early immigrant generation and the Panamanian-born generations, and he sees himself as someone who bridges
the two groups and who tries to resolve differences between them. He
and his wife, who was also born in Panama, both come from well-established and well-known Chinese families in Panama. They grew up in the
Barrio Chino (Chinatown) together, and after they got married, they
moved into a middle-class neighborhood on the outskirts of Panama City.
Now in their mid sixties, Roberto and his wife remain extremely active in
community activities.
In one conversation, Roberto told me that they had recently sold one
of their businesses and that he is now only managing their hardware store
in Panama City. It prompted him to recall this incident involving a nonChinese Panamanian: Not too long ago, I went to order some supplies
for my store. I didnt have the total amount with me, so I told the owner
I would come back tomorrow to pay him the rest. He looked at me, up
and down, then said, You must be from the earlier generation of Chinese. I can trust you. The new immigrants, they are a different breed of
people. They cant be trusted. Theyll steal and take from you. Thats
what he told me. You see . . . people make these judgments. This was his
even-handed way of stating his concerns about the new immigrants. Even
though Roberto avoided expressing his explicit opinion about them, his
own position was clear. By not questioning this persons opinion of the
new immigrants, he in effect endorsed it and conceded that these distinctions have real consequences for the way people view diasporic Chinese.
When I spoke with recently arrived Chinese immigrants about the dif-


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

ferences between them and the Panamanian Chinese, they presented quite
a different explanation. I met Clarita through a good friend of mine. She
had immigrated to Panama in 1988. I remember even at our first meeting, she was forthcoming with her opinions. She claimed that Panamanian Chinese arent really Chinese: They dont have any sense of being
Chinese. They have no regard for their fellow Chinese; they treat us
badly, disrespectfully. They dont act Chinese; they dont even speak Chinese. They have turned Panamanian. They look down at us because we
are new here, because we dont know the language. They dont help us
. . . they dont want to help us. Clarita, who was in her mid thirties, had
worked as a domestic for several Panamanian Chinese households when
she first arrived at Panama. She is now working as a massage therapist
with her husband, who practices Chinese medicine; together they own a
small doctors office in the financial district of Panama City.
In the summer of 1994, the differentiation between the recent immigrants and the Panamanian Chinese was carefully guarded by those
who claimed to be Panamanian Chinese. By reproducing images of the
recent immigrant as dangerous, deviant, and criminal, they were
defining themselves in opposition to them, boasting of their good citizenship and exceptional character. The recent immigrants, on the other
hand, were contesting the cultural authenticity and allegiance of the
Panamanian Chinese, whom they considered to have become Panamanian and to have lost all concern for their compatriots. Yet as I discovered later, the two groups had come together at a critical moment in 1990
to assert community. In light of what I had observed in 1994, I was quite
surprised to hear about this unexpected alliance. Did these tensions and
conflicts between them develop after 1990, or were they present before
then? If they existed before, what brought them together in 1990, and
what subsequently pulled them apart? What does this tell us about the
nature of community and, more specifically, the formation of ethnic communities?
This chapter focuses on the local politics of belonging among the Chinese in Panama. It is worth emphasizing here that the category of Chinese is culturally mediated, context specific, and embedded in a web of
power relations. As such, the Chinese community is a contested and
evolving collectivity. This chapter elaborates on the process by which recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese, occupying contrasting subject
positions, negotiate difference. It explores the dueling forces that divide
the community and that pull them together into a working coalition.

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


By separating the diasporic Chinese in Panama along the lines of recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese for the sake of analysis, I am
not suggesting that these are altogether coherent and stable groups in and
of themselves. Rather, I intend to show how the distinction between these
two groups is produced and maintained by a number of factors. The Chinese in Panama are heterogeneous and can be divided in numerous ways.
My decision to highlight this distinction therefore reflects less on objective categories than on my consistent encounter with this thematic division as expressed by my interviewees. Indeed, the debates between recent
immigrants and Panamanian Chinese over what constitutes Chineseness in Panama reflect their negotiation of the terms of belonging. At
the same time, these debates do not occur in social isolation and are, in
fact, generated by and contribute to nationwide discussions about Chinese immigration.
My argument here is that debates about belonging within the local
Chinese community are intertwined with their collective struggle to claim
belonging to the national Panamanian community. In other words, differences within the Chinese community are accentuated or deemphasized
depending on the national circumstances confronting ethnic Chinese as a
whole. When the states actions toward one segment of the community
become potentially threatening to the entire community, ethnic Chinese
come together and assert their sense of collectivity. In this respect, notions
of Chineseness and ethnic belonging are always being produced and redefined in relation to claims of national belonging. And the coherence of
this local community of diasporic Chinese is very much linked to their
collective political standing in relation to Panama. As discussed in the Introduction, diasporic citizenship involves the intersectional processes of
negotiating belonging within multiple scales of community. In particular, this chapter examines the interaction between the local-internal struggles within the diasporic Chinese community and the communitys relationship to the Panamanian nation. What comes across clearly is the
continual and interactive negotiation of community on both the local
and national levels.
The following discussion is divided into three sections, the first of
which describes the explosive events of 1990 and details the communitys
response to them.2 The second section examines the various tensions between these recent immigrants and the Panamanian Chinese. Finally, the
third section explores some of the factors that help to define common
ground and that have enabled the emergence of a collective consciousness.


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

Mobilizing Community
Every day, thousands of Chinese come through the Tocumen airport,
and like magic, they disappear as quickly as they appear. Just like that.
Oscar, a second-generation Panamanian Chinese, snapped his fingers and
continued, I dont know where they go . . . maybe to Chinatown, maybe
to Chorrera, but they just keep pouring in and they keep disappearing.
And these are Chinese from the mainland, not Taiwanese or Hong Kongnese. They were definitely mainland Chinese. As difficult as it was to
imagine a constant flow of Chinese immigrants coming into Panama, Oscar was not the only person who described this scenario. Similar stories
were circulating elsewhere; it seemed as though everyone believed some
version of this urban legend.
Shortly after the U.S. invasion of Panama and the subsequent removal
of Manuel Noriegas military regime in December 1989, discussions of
immigrationespecially Chinese immigrationbegan making their way
into Panamanian newspapers and other popular media. In fact, just a few
days after the invasion, it was reported that large numbers of Chinese immigrants had gone to the refugee camp on Albrook Field to request political-refugee visas from the U.S. authorities guarding the camp.3 Later,
in February 1990, Jos Chen Barra, then director of immigration, reported that between the years 19851989, 20,537 Chinese had entered
[Panama], each paying around $5,000 for a tourist or an investor visa
and that half of these had left Panama with false identification cards and
passports for the United States, Canada, Mexico, Guatemala and other
countries, each paying about $10,000, which all made up a big business
with a grand total of $200 million (Mon 1998, 74). The Chinese, however, were not the only culprits. Undocumented Cubans, Dominicans,
and people who were referred to as Hindus were also reported, although concerns over these groups quickly faded, leaving Chinese immigrants as the main targets of public scrutiny. Part of the reason for this, I
suggest, is the long history of anti-Chinese immigration sentiment in
Panama (chapter 4).
At first, these articles explicitly associated Chinese immigration with
Noriegas military regime, attributing the improper use of Panamanian
documents to the corruption and greediness of Noriegas administration.
In time, however, the Chinese themselves were seen to be at fault for the
situation. On April 19, 1990, as details of the international trafficking of
Chinese immigrants emerged, Ral Ossa de la Cruz, president of the Cre-

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


dentials Commission of the Legislative Assembly, filed a formal complaint with the third district attorney of Panama, protesting against the
illegal and lucrative business of selling Panamanian nationality to Chinese nationals. In the formal complaint, he targeted the Chinese and requested a search of the Civil Registry to avoid the destruction of evidence and raids throughout the country in search of Chinese who had
[false] Panamanian identification cards in order to determine how they
obtained such documents (Mon 1998, 74). No one responded to his request, leading Ossa, on July 6, to accuse the government of President
Guillermo Endara of being indifferent to and negligent on this serious
and explosive problem of illegal Chinese immigration.4
By mid-July, Director of Immigration Rubn lvarez was using words
like mafia to describe people involved in the trafficking of immigrants, reminding the public that these mafias that traffic in Arabs,
Dominicans, Chinese, and El Salvadorans were still present in the country.5 The shift from associating Chinese immigration with the improper
distribution of documents by the Noriega regime to seeing it as part of a
mafia scheme channeled public attention away from the Panamanian
state to internationally organized crime. The accountability of the state
and the involvement of government officials in this complicated process
thus quickly disappeared, and media attention shifted toward orientalist
constructions of the Chinese mafia. Public discourse suddenly took on
a much more serious, incriminating tone. While recent immigrants had at
first been described as undocumented or falsely documented, media
representations quickly transformed them into illegal immigrants and
criminals. Subsequently, they became associated with all kinds of
emerging urban problems. For example, one reporter quoted Minister of
Government Ramn Lima as saying, It is certain. . . . Not one, but at
least five Chinese gangs, presumably from Hong Kong, have in the past
few months been extorting from the Chinese community residing in
Panama.6 As these newspaper articles appeared with more frequency,
the public response quickly gained momentum. With little knowledge
about the situation confronting recent immigrants, these characterizations soon seized peoples imaginations.
Then, on July 1820, 1990, Panamas Judicial Technical Police, along
with local Zone Police, raided the homes of more than a hundred Chinese
immigrants in the cities of Panama, Coln, and Chorrera (a suburb just
outside of Panama City). Without warning, the police charged into the
private homes and retail stores of ethnic Chinese who were suspected to


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

be undocumented immigrants or to be hiding undocumented immigrants.

According to the community historian Ramn Mon, Homes were entered into violently, women were arrested, some of whom were nursing
infants, and all kinds of outrages took place (1998, 74). Altogether, the
police arrested over 110 Chinese men and women. One television station
conveniently had cameras at the scene to film the police raids and the
mass arrests in Chorrera, which were aired on the national news later
that evening. The televising of these state-sponsored police raids ignited
the already heated atmosphere and widespread public concern about Chinese immigration.
Public reaction in response to this mass-mediated display of police
force and state power was extremely mixed, as reflected by newspaper articles and editorials. One needs to bear in mind that the U.S. invasion of
Panama was still fresh in peoples minds. Only seven months had passed
since then, and Panama was still in social, economic, and political disarray. The mass arrests of undocumented Chinese served as both a temporary distraction from and a reminder of the social chaos left in the wake
of the invasion.
The timing of this incident, as well as the context in which it arose,
warrants further examination. If the United States had not invaded
Panama and if Manuel Noriega had not been ousted, would these immigrants have been considered illegal in the first place? On what basis
were the visas and passports that were distributed and endorsed by Noriegas regime determined to be false or illegal? I suspect that the problem of Chinese immigration could have been framed very differently.
Under Noriegas regime, the influx of Chinese immigrants could very well
have been accepted as the result of a change in Panamas immigration
policy. My intention here is not to make a legal argument for or against
Chinese immigration but rather to highlight the link between domestic/national politics and geopolitics. The U.S. invasion of Panama, by removing Noriegas regime, certainly had both direct and indirect effects on
the 1990 action against Chinese immigrants. Not only did it change the
political trajectory of the country, it also disrupted the northward flow of
Chinese migration from Panama.
The Chinese immigration situation was, of course, much more complicated than it appeared. Certainly, it involved an international network
of border-crossing facilitators, or snakeheads.7 However, I am told by
a number of informants that these border crossings also required the participation of Panamanian officials, immigration lawyers in Panama, tour

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


agencies, and Panamanian Chinese. While some immigrants had knowingly purchased false documents, many had received valid tourist visas
from the Panamanian consulate in Hong Kong. Additionally, another
group of Chinese had immigrated as contract laborers, and their visas
and travel expenses had been paid for by their future Panamanian Chinese employers. The existence of this group in Panama was not publicly
revealed until 1993 (I shall return to this issue later). The diverse circumstances under which these immigrants had come to Panama, the inability
to determine the validity of their documents, and the extensive networks
of people involved in facilitating Chinese immigration all made the issue
extremely complex and potentially embarrassing for many.
Th e C h i n e s e R e s p o n s e
Given the strong antagonisms I witnessed between the recent immigrants
and Chinese Panamanians in 1994, I was surprised to learn that within
twenty-four hours of the 1990 raids, the Chinese Association called an
emergency meeting. Executive members from all the Chinese organizations in Panama came together to discuss how to respond to this action
by the government.8 Arturo Chu, president of the association at the time,
was infuriated by the unnecessarily harsh treatment of Chinese immigrants. According to him and other senior immigrant men in the association, the raids were yet another ethnically motivated attack. Why, they
asked, were the Chinese targeted when there were so many other undocumented immigrants from Latin America and the Caribbean? According to several newspaper articles in La Prensa, public officials had
acknowledged that the Chinese were only one of many groups involved
in international networks of human trafficking, including Arabs, Dominicans, El Salvadorans, Cubans, and Hindus.9 The associations leaders asked: Why were the Chinese publicly humiliated?
Several others at the meeting drew parallels between these police raids
and the anti-Chinese campaign of 1940 led by Arnulfo Arias (see chapter
4). A senior member of the association recalled saying, They are targeting us again because we are Chinese. They envy us because they see that
we come to Panama, work hard, and prosper. Even though we are different from these new immigrants, we are all still Chinese [emphasis added].
They look down at us. They abuse us and think that we wont react. It is
happening now, it has happened before, and it will continue to happen
unless we do something about it. Their memory of persecution during
the 1940s in Panama served to make the connection between themselves


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

and the recent immigrants. Rather than further disassociating them from
the recent immigrants, historical memory enabled them to establish commonality based on their shared experience of political violence. As with
diasporic Africans for whom the memory of slavery helps reproduce collective identification and consciousness (Gilroy 1993), memories of Chinese persecution also help draw the boundaries of Chinese belonging.
Undoubtedly, the televising of the police raids and arrests brought that
experience closer to home and invoked memories of collective violence
and pain.
Setting aside their differences with the recent immigrants, Chinese
Panamanians realized that they needed to intervene in order to limit the
rise of anti-Chinese sentiment in Panama. There was already talk of deportation, and the long-standing resentment against Chinese domination
of the small-retail-market sector had resurfaced. In time, public debates
would be accompanied by charges that the new immigrants were monopolizing economic opportunities that should rightfully be reserved for
Panamanians. Fearing a repeat of the anti-Chinese eruption of the
1940s, the people present at the meeting decided to proceed in several
ways. They began collecting a petition from members of the ethnic Chinese community in Panama to protest the cruel and inhumane treatment
of the Chinese immigrants. They also proceeded to contact potential political allies within the Panamanian government, such as Jos Chen Barra, who is part Chinese and had served as director of immigration just
before President Endaras administration. The group also requested support from the Embassy of the Republic of China. And lastly, the Chinese
Association directly approached the president of Panama, Guillermo Endara, to propose the formation of a special committee to investigate this
Aside from these official efforts, a number of Chinese shopkeepers organized their own protest. According to Jorge Cheng, an active member
of the Chinese Association, the shopkeepers called one another to organize a nationwide collective strike. [The shopkeepers] did it because they
were afraid of being raided by the police and because they wanted to
show solidarity with the Chinese immigrants. Of course, they also
wanted to show the Panamanian people that the Chinese are not dispensable. They held the power in the small retail market. Throughout
Panama, from small rural areas to the urban centers, Chinese shopkeepers closed their stores for several days, partly out of fear and partly in
protest. Because these small stores are often the only providers of food

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


and basic household items in the rural areas, this forcefully conveyed
their message. Together, these tactics added tremendous momentum to
the mobilization effort.
Th e Ta i w a n e s e E m b a s s y s R e s p o n s e
The Taiwanese embassy could provide only limited assistance to the recent Chinese immigrants, because they were citizens not of the ROC but
of the PRC. Nonetheless, the Taiwanese ambassador, Admiral Soong
Chang-Chih, issued a public statement, reprinted in La Prensa, expressing his hopes that President Endaras government would resolve the Chinese immigration problem with humanitarianism and goodwill.10 Admiral Soong went on to express the need to find a peaceful and positive
solution, because force would not set a good precedent, saying that the
solid and harmonious relations between the government of Panama and
ethnic Chinese, who had been in Panama for over 150 years,11 should not
be overlooked.12 The admiral also pointed out that in addition to those
who used false documentation to enter Panama, there were also those
who came with legal documents issued by the Panamanian consulate in
Hong Kong. He used the fact that the Panamanian government had been
unable to distinguish the legitimate documents from the illegitimate ones
to stress the unfair and incorrect assumption that all recent immigrants
had entered Panama illegally. Finally, Soong appealed to humanitarian
values by calling attention to the repression of dissidents in and around
Tiananmen Square in Beijing in June 1989, which might have contributed
to the large wave of Chinese immigration to Panama. By thus reframing
the terms of the discussion, the ambassador turned attention away from
the criminalization of these immigrants and instead painted the recent immigrants as victims of two bad governments: the Manuel Noriega military regime and the Peoples Republic of China.
Although it was legally unable to do any more for the recent immigrants, the ROC embassy was criticized by many senior members of the
community for not responding more forcefully. The situation illustrated
the limits of the ROC governments ability to protect its Chinese constituents, since in reality it could only legitimately protect its own citizens,
who number in the hundreds in Panama. Some quickly took this opportunity to criticize Panamas lack of formal relations with the PRC, the
Chinese state of which most Chinese immigrants are citizens. They were
quick to point out the futility of the ROC embassy in responding to the
needs of the Chinese community in Panama.


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

Formation of a Special Commission

Under tremendous pressure from all sides, President Endara formed a special commission consisting of government officials (Geomara de Jones,
Ral Ossa de la Cruz, and Mary Troya) and three representatives from
the Chinese Association (Edith Lao de Barahona, Jorge Federico Lee, and
Eduardo Yin). Two of the three Chinese Association representatives had
been political figures at one point or another: Edith Lao de Barahona had
been vice mayor of Panama City, and Jorge Federico Lee had been minister of government and justice as well as director of the Coln Free Trade
Zone. Endaras decision did not go uncriticized, and newspaper caricatures suggested that he had not only shirked confronting the Chinese immigration problem but had sided with the Chinese immigrants and acted
against the interests of the Panamanian people (Mon 1998).
The special commission eventually agreed to redocument the Chinese
immigrants. On October 30, 1990, members of the commission and volunteers helped file official papers for 4,300 immigrants who showed up
for the redocumentation program and census-taking process. The procedure for filing for immigration and naturalization is extremely complicated and lengthy.13 It takes a minimum of five years and three months
residence in Panama before one can apply for citizenship. Even lengthier
is the procedure to apply for a permit to engage in retail businesses.
While one can apply for a permit to operate wholesale businesses and industry-related businesses as soon as one obtains a residence visa, to be eligible to apply for a retail business work permit requires three years of
being a Panamanian citizen. Without considering the usual bureaucratic
delays in the immigration process, it thus takes a minimum of eight years
and three months before one can apply for a work permit in the retail
business sector. In short, these immigration and naturalization procedures
are designed to prohibit, or at least delay, immigrants from entering the
retail sector. Furthermore, these barriers seem to target Chinese immigrants in particular, because they are the ones who historically have been
most likely to go into this sector. As I mentioned in chapter 4, Chinese
Panamanians have dominated the small retail market, especially small
grocery stores and laundries, since the late 1800s. These restrictions on
citizenship and permits to operate retail businesses are the states attempt
to contain the proliferation of Chinese-owned businesses.
Thanks to the mobilization efforts organized by the Chinese Association and Chinese business owners, the Chinese community was able to

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


get thousands of undocumented immigrants redocumented. Notwithstanding this significant act of solidarity, various factors continue to divide the Chinese in Panama. We turn to those next.

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

A good friend of mine who had taught Spanish to recent Chinese immigrants introduced me to several of his former students. With his introduction, I was able to gain their trust from the beginning to some extent;
nevertheless, given the social stigma around undocumented immigration,
neither they nor I wanted to broach this topic right away. After a series of
visits and conversations, however, I finally felt comfortable asking them
about their immigration experience and their relations with the Panamanian Chinese.
I became good friends with one couple in particular, who had immigrated in the late 1980s. Unlike most recent immigrants, Dr. Woo and
Clarita (who was mentioned earlier this chapter) did not work in the
small retail sector. Instead, after several years of hard work, they had
opened a small medical clinic. During the first summer of my field research, I visited them regularly at their medical office and spoke with
them in between their sessions with patients, who were mostly non-Chinese. Clarita was in charge of communicating with the non-Chinesespeaking patients. She had learned enough Spanish to communicate effectively with their clients and seemed quite comfortable using the
language. Dr. Woo, on the other hand, could only understand simple
phrases and was reluctant to speak it. In our conversations, we always
spoke Cantonese.
Although Dr. Woo and Clarita had come to Panama separately, they
had both immigrated in order to pursue dreams of upward social mobility. While Dr. Woo had originally intended to go to the United States
from Panama, the U.S. invasion cut short his plans. Now in his late
fifties, Dr. Woo recalled how he had reached Panama:
The way I found out about this, about coming to Panama, was through a
friend of mine. Through this friend, I met this Chinese from Panama who was
visiting China. He claimed that for $5,000, anyone could come to Panama. I
got my tourist visa paper approved in Hong Kong. The snakehead gave it to
me in China. I then applied to get out of China and into Hong Kong. Once I
got to Hong Kong, I went to the Panamanian consulate and picked up my
tourist visa. The amount I paid him covered a round-trip airline ticket [to


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

Panama], a tourist visa, and one-month room and board in the snakeheads
house while he got my residence card. I arrived in 1989 just before the invasion. And when the U.S. attacked Panama . . . in all that disarray, the snakehead took my money without ever giving me my residence card or passport. I
had intended to go to the United States, but after the invasion, I knew that it
was not going to happen. But I wasnt too worried. Once you get here, theres
really nothing to worry about. I stayed in Barrio Chino for one month and
shared a flat with four to five other people. There was one guy there who was
waiting for his American tourist visa. He was so bored. Hed been waiting for
a few months already. I dont know what happened with him.

Dr. Woos story is consistent with what others have told me. Immigration packages usually included airline tickets, a tourist visa to Panama,
and room and board for the first month. The fees for these packages
ranged between $3,000 and $7,000, depending on when people arrived.
In the mid 1980s, the price was much less than it was by the late 1980s.
Those who used this method of immigration tended to be educated, from
a middle-class background, and from the urban areas of Canton (Guangdong) in southern China. For most, these packages were purchased with
funds collected from the entire family; despite their middle-class backgrounds, many of these immigrantslike Dr. Woo, who had been trained
in Chinese medicine in Chinaexperienced downward social mobility
once they arrived in Panama.
Like her husband, Clarita had come to Panama by purchasing a tourist
visa. She had bought her visa for $3,000, and her family had paid for her
airplane ticket. Her brother had immigrated a few years before her, and
despite his warnings that life in Panama was not easy, she decided to take
her chances. Clarita had been a schoolteacher, a respectable and fairly
well paid position in China. Not understanding why she would want to
give up a seemingly comfortable situation, I asked her why she had chosen to leave China. She responded, In China, no matter how hard you
work, you can never save any money. Your income was always just
enough for your basic expenses. . . . Before, I had the perception that all
Chinese emigrants were wealthy. I thought that maybe if I left China, I
could also become wealthy. All I thought about was that if I worked
hard, saved some money, I could eventually start my own business. I
never expected that it would be this difficult.
When Clarita first arrived in Panama, she worked as a live-in domestic servant for a Chinese Panamanian family who paid her less than $50
a month. Working more than fourteen hours a day, six days a week, she
was always tired and hungry. She described the experience: There was

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


so much work to be done. Every day I had to mop the floors, clean the
windows, do laundry, iron, cook. They kept me busy from morning to
night. The worst thing was that the family ate at the most unusual hours.
Lunch was at 2 p.m. and dinner was at 10 p.m. Of course, being a maid, I
couldnt eat until after they were finished. In less than a month, I was getting these terrible stomach pains, unbearable pains. Thats when I met
him. She pointed to her husband sitting behind his desk and continued,
He was my doctor. Of course, I wasnt allowed to snack during the day
either. Eventually, I just couldnt take it anymore. Through a friend who
had also immigrated in the 1980s, she found another job working as a
domestic servant for another Chinese Panamanian family, who paid her
$100 a month, and she rented a small apartment with another friend,
who had also recently immigrated. Imagine that! I was getting paid
$100 compared to $50 at my first job. I was so happy. I cant believe how
terrible my first employers were. They paid me so little!
When I asked her why she didnt seek help from other Chinese Panamanians or Chinese Panamanian organizations, she shook her head and
said, None of them want to help you. Youll be lucky if they dont eat
you alive. Dr. Woo also shook his head and interjected, They dont
help anyone. All they think about is money and themselves. He pointed
to a framed medical certificate hanging on the wall, and made his point.
See that? Thats how they help you. I have to pay a [Panamanian Chinese] to use his name, his certificate to open this office. . . . It means that
he owns the office, and he is the doctor of this office. If anyone asks, I am
just an employee here. . . . It has not been easy in Panama.
Have you considered returning to China? I asked. Returning?! No!
We cant return to China! People will think we are failures, Dr. Woo explained. In China, people think it is so easy to make money abroad.
They wont believe you if you tell them that life is hard here. They think
that everyone who goes abroad automatically becomes rich, so if you return empty-handed, theyll think you are loser. No . . . we cant return.
Once you leave, you cant really go back, no matter how bad it is here.
Clarita nodded and let out a sigh. For recent immigrants like Dr. Woo
and Clarita who do not have an already established kinship or social network to help them, the first few years are the hardest. I remember asking
another immigrant man whether he was happy in Panama, and he
replied, Thats a bad question. It doesnt matter if I am happy here or
not. I am here and I cant go back to Hong Kong. The ambivalence expressed by Dr. Woo, Clarita, and other recent immigrants reflects their


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

sense of being caught between a rock and a hard place, with nowhere else
to go.
Despite their relative success in Panama at this point, Clarita was full
of curiosity about life in the United States. In exchange for answers to my
questions, she often asked me about life in Los Angeles, San Francisco,
Houston, Boston, and New York. Where had I lived? Which of these did
I like better? What was the cost of living in these cities? Would it be difficult to start a business there? Were there lots of Chinese in these cities?
As I answered her questions, she intermittently turned toward her husband, as if trying to lure him into her dream of immigrating to the United
States. Every once in a while, she facetiously suggested, Lets move
there. In response to her girlish pleas, her husband smiled. When she
nudged him some more with, Come on, husband, lets go while we are
still young and still have the energy to endure, he smiled again and
replied, You think life is easy there? Well have to start all over again. I
am too old for that. For Dr. Woo, who is considerably older than
Clarita, the thought of immigrating to the United States now is not appealing. Once in a while, though, he would remind me that he had a son
in Philadelphia, and that he might visit him soon.
Donald Nonini has argued that what he calls imaginaries of desire
help generate new social practices that aim to transcend [the] delimited
space and localizations of bodies (1997, 205). In his study of both middle- and working-class ethnic Chinese men in Malaysia, Nonini notes
that these imaginaries are rooted in peoples desire for capital and cultural accumulation. He contends that for these ethnic Chinese men, the
practices produced by their imaginaries of desire are highly gendered and
in fact arise from cultural constructs that allow men freedom of movement while positing women and children as locatable objects that support and enable mens mobility. These imaginaries of desire, he contends,
are in tension with cascades of symbolic violence (1997, 222). While
ethnic Chinese men develop new social practices that help them transcend the disciplinary regimes placed upon them, they in turn reproduce
another set of unequal power relations between themselves and the
women and children they leave behind. Following Gilles Deleuze and
Flix Guatarri, Noninis emphasis on desire points to the importance of
collective imaginaries and the production of new social practices based
on those imaginaries. While his analysis illuminates the mobility of ethnic Chinese men who are pursuing goals of capital and cultural accumulation, it opens up at least two new lines of inquiry. First, how do women

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


who travel and share similar desires of movement participate in these

imaginaries of desire? What different social practices do they develop in
response to their imaginaries? Second, what other kinds of imaginaries of
desire may lead to these practices of mobility?
In my interviews with Dr. Woo and Clarita, it seemed that their aspiration to mobility did not necessarily stem only from fantasies of capital
or cultural accumulation. Without question, Claritas interest in hearing
about American cities and their comparative costs of living indicated
both her desire to emigrate again and her evaluation of the viability of
doing so. Moreover, her urge to emigrate stemmed more from her dissatisfaction with the lack of belonging in Panama than from any desire to
make money. She seemed much more interested in leaving Panama than
in going to any particular place in the United States. By comparison, Dr.
Woo was less enthusiastic in general about the idea of a further emigration. For him, seeing and perhaps reuniting with his son seemed to be the
main priority.
The following summer, when I visited Clarita and Dr. Woo at their
clinic, they warmly welcomed me. And when they learned that I was
looking for a place to stay, they invited me to stay with them at their recently purchased condominium located just a few blocks from their
clinic. Clarita insisted, We have a lot of room, and we are hardly there.
We intentionally bought a condo that has two bedrooms so that there
would be space for Dr. Woos son if and when he ever visits. No one is using that now. Its free. So, come, stay with us. I happily accepted, thanking them for their hospitality. After seven years of hard work in Panama,
Clarita and Dr. Woo were finally achieving some degree of economic mobility. Their newly acquired condominium was only one indication of
what they had achieved in Panama. Moreover, they were finally finding
time to meet and socialize with other Chinese immigrants. Just a year before, they had been completely absorbed in work, with no time to do
much else. Now, they regularly met with friends in casinos, restaurants,
and at Chinese karaoke performances.
The social and educational background of Clarita and Dr. Woo reflects
the general pattern of one segment of recent immigrants in Panama.
Worth noting is that the 1980s influx of immigrants included a much
higher number of single women than ever before. Like Clarita, educated
and single women in their twenties and early thirties were immigrating to
pursue their own dreams of mobility. Although there is no official record
of the total number of Chinese women who immigrated to Panama dur-


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

ing the 1980s, I encountered many of them working as waitresses, language teachers, secretaries, and newspaper journalists.
Despite their initial period of suffering and hardship, most of the recent immigrants I interviewed seemed content with their decision to come
to Panama. They told me that at the very least, they felt as though they
could achieve their aspirations through hard workthat in Panama,
there was the possibility of being rewarded for their ambition and perseverance. But they also acknowledged that their daily experiences of discrimination wore them down and demoralized them. They felt they were
treated as second-class citizens by both Chinese and non-Chinese Panamanians. As Clarita put it, The [non-Chinese] Panamanians look down
on us because we dont speak Spanish. They call us chino and china in
the street. They dont have any manners or any respect for us. . . . The
Panamanian-born Chinese are almost the same. They also look down on
us. Despite their sense of nonacceptance, however, they also felt they
could not return to China, at least not until they had saved enough
money. Both Clarita and Dr. Woo agreed that when they first arrived in
Panama, they had been tempted to return, but the thought of humiliation
had kept them from turning back. Instead, in moments of difficulty, they
found refuge in dreams of success and happiness. In Panama, being Chinese is both the reason for their being discriminated against and a
source of strength and pride to them.
Chinese Contract Laborers
Aside from those immigrants who were able to purchase their visas and
airline tickets to Panama, there are Chinese who came as contract laborers for Panamanian Chinese. Stories about this group highlight some of
the key sources of antagonism between recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese. Several informants mentioned that they knew of Panamanian Chinese who had paid for immigrants passage to Panama in exchange for three years labor. Other versions of these stories were found
in newspapers. For example, an article in La Prensa reported that a large
number of Chinese immigrants were brought over by Chinese who
speak Spanish and who go to China to bring people to Panama.14 The
article noted that once the immigrants arrived in Panama, the recruiters
took away their legal papers. Without documentation, the immigrants
had no legal status in Panama and thus were forced to work in small convenience stores until they had paid the equivalent of U.S.$20,000 in labor.15

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


By calling such practices modern-day Chinese slavery, articles like

these underscore the exploitative relationship between the recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese. Clearly, the tension between these two
groups, which has been intensified by the medias portrayal of recent immigrants as criminals and illegal aliens, has an even deeper basis in their
unequal class relations. Given the intense stigma attached to being part of
a contract-labor group, their fear of public exposure, and the vulnerable
position they occupy, I was able only to get third-party narratives about
their situation. Across the board, my interviews revealed that recent immigrants (regardless of whether they had come as contract laborers or
not) experienced harsh working conditions (such as long hours, little pay,
and no respect) imposed by Panamanian Chinese.
Socioeconomic class difference and opposing interests between recent
immigrants and Panamanian Chinese have largely blocked any possibility of establishing mutual trust or friendly relations between the two
groups. The 1980s influx of immigrants was divided into two uneven
groups: those who purchased their immigration packages and those who
came as contract laborers or were coerced into becoming contract laborers. Regardless of their different status, however, relations between all recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese were often determined by their
structural location vis--vis one another, that is, employee-employer
and/or immigrant-snakehead relations. For obvious reasons, these factors
were not likely to emerge in my conversations with Panamanian Chinese.
Some were no doubt implicated in the process, while others may have
been completely ignorant of these issues. What turned out to be the most
common concern among Panamanian Chinese was the increasing rate of
crime and violence committed by Chinese, which they saw as associated
with the recent wave of immigration. Yet for recent immigrants, it was
their experience of abuse and exploitation by Panamanian Chinese that
was foremost in their minds. The gap signaled by these structural relations was further reinforced in another domain: cultural and ethnic difference.
Uncontrollable Crossings
Cultural constructions of recent immigrants as nomadic, rootless, and
without concern for Panama have also generated tremendous tension between the recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese. The urban legend
of several planeloads of Chinese landing daily and vanishing as quickly
as they appeared is one such example. (I put Chinese in quotes because


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

most Panamanians use this term indiscriminately to refer to all people of

East Asian background.) These accounts suggest that the recent immigrants had no intention of staying but were only using Panama as a point
of transit where they could acquire new passports, exit documents, and
plane tickets to North America. Panamanian Chinese claim that the immigrants rootlessness and lack of attachment to Panama actually encourages irresponsible and reckless behavior, that because these immigrants do not think of Panama as their new home, they are more likely
to abuse it. Many people are quick to see the new immigrants reckless
behaviorincluding gambling, extortion, and kidnappingand their
confrontational and disrespectful attitudes as consequences of their nomadism. Without a history or anticipated future in Panama, these immigrants are said to be free of social accountability and to lack the incentive
to form a community.
These descriptions of uncontrollable mobility and unruly behavior
must be considered alongside both the dramatic demographic shift
caused by this influx of recent immigrants and the cultural reconstruction
of their Hakka identity. While both 1980s and pre-1980s immigrants
largely come from the same Canton (Guangdong) region, their cultural
differences and historically tenuous relations in China as distinct ethnic
subgroups (Hakka versus Punti Chinese) are evoked and reproduced in
Panama. While the majority of Panamanian Chinese consider themselves
to be Punti (bendi, literally, native earth) people, most of the recent immigrants come from the Hakka (keijia, literally, guest family) dialect
group. The president of the Chinese Panamanian Association, Horacio
Lee, has estimated that Hakkas now make up about 50 percent of the total Chinese population. This rapid demographic shift undoubtedly has
contributed to the antagonism of Panamanian Chinese toward the newcomers. Historically, Hakkas were from the mountainous region of
northeastern Canton (Guangdong); by the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, however, they began moving into the more prosperous
lowland Chungsan (Zhongshan) county, settling among the Punti people.
Due to their lower economic status, lack of a native place, and distinctive
language and customs, Hakkas have been stigmatized as being culturally
inferior by Punti. These differences were further reinforced by Punti portrayals of themselves as wealthy, civilized lowlanders and of Hakkas as
untrustworthy, backward, mountain people (McKeown 2001, 63). According to the linguist Mary Erbaugh, Hakka is a hostile Cantonese
coinage, as clear an epithet for impoverished wanderers as Gypsy or

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


Okie. . . . Cantonese and Min antagonists have described Hakka as

rootless, poor, barbarian fighters (1996, 197). The name Hakka has
since been reappropriated and used affirmatively by Hakkas to express
cultural pride and group identity. Relational dynamics between the two
groups and the cultural constructions of Hakkas have been recreated in
Panama by many early immigrant Chinese, who continue to identify
closely with their clan and native place associations. For instance, according to one Panamanian Chinese, The recent immigrants are mostly
Hakka speakers. Historically, they are poor and uneducated, and they
come from an area thats not well regarded. Here, they stick to themselves and like to make trouble. They like to separate themselves from the
rest of us. Endowing recent immigrants with these additionally undesirable characteristics, Chinese Panamanians use these constructions to explain the unpleasant behavior of recent immigrants and to justify their
antagonism to them. Furthermore, unquestioned stereotypes of Hakkas
are transposed directly onto recent immigrants, providing evidence for
the groups distinctiveness and separation.
In many ways, the cultural construction of recent Hakka immigrants
to Panama resonates with early portrayals of sojourners and with the
more recent description of Chinese transnationals. Nineteenth-century
Chinese immigrants to the United States are often described as sojourners: people who migrated to another country for work and who would
eventually return to China with their riches. Sojourners are presumed not
to have any personal ties to, or interest in, their adopted lands. Their
sojourn is expected to be temporary, implying that they have no real intention of staying longer than necessary (Paul Siu 1952). Similarly, recent
literature on Chinese transnationals portrays immigrants as being unattached to any specific location and therefore uninterested and not
politically invested in building a community. Rather, their travels and migratory movements are driven by their desire to maximize economic profits.16 Neither sojourners nor transnationals are seen as having much concern for making a home in their new locations. The depiction of Hakkas
in Panama makes them resemble transnationals more than sojourners in
that, whereas the sojourner actually has a final destination (real or imagined) and an anticipated homecoming, the transnational does not seem to
have personal attachments to any place. Accused of being rootless and
lacking a sense of personal accountability to Panama, the Hakkas are
treated with distrust.
For Panamanian Chinese who have been in Panama for generations


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

and who have made Panama their home, the immigration scandal and
the subsequent portrayals of ethnic Chinese are quite disturbing. Some
even resent the defamation of their public image, which they have so
carefully molded through the years. Roberto Him, who was mentioned at
the beginning of this chapter, clearly alluded to feeling this way when he
said, The reputation of the Chinese has been tainted. It used to be that
Chinese people were considered the best candidates for everything, especially employment. Now, the image of the Chinese has been changed. We
are associated with mafias, criminals, etc. People dont trust the Chinese
as much anymore.
Since Arnulfo Ariass persecution of the Chinese in the 1940s, Panamanian Chinese have actively pursued public relations and interactions
with mainstream Panama as a means of showing their ability and willingness to integrate into Panama. As I discussed in the previous chapter,
ethnic Chinese have made strides in breaking their pre-1940s image as
perpetual foreigners and cultural hermits. To a large extent, their strategic integration has earned them acceptance and respect from the dominant Panamanian society. In fact, throughout my fieldwork, I was told by
a number of non-Chinese Panamanians that the Chinese, in comparison
with other ethnic groupsand they point to Jewish Panamanians in particularhave been exceptionally successful in integrating into Panamanian society.17 Many Panamanian Chinese now fear, however, that the negative images of recent immigrants may have unraveled much hard work.
In one of my interviews with the late Arturo Chu, who had been president of the Chinese Association for many years, he expressed concern
about the changing perception of the Chinese in Panama. Chu, who was
then in his eighties and who had immigrated to Panama in the 1920s,
lamented, Weve worked hard and for a long time to build a good image
[of the Chinese] in Panama. Because of our racial and cultural difference,
we have had to make ourselves into exceptional citizens. Its painful to
see all this work undone by these new immigrants in just a few years. Instead of being recognized as honorable, respectable people, we are now
tainted by accusations of criminal behavior, of being untrustworthy and
a disgrace to society. His concern is echoed by many others. The sense
of disappointment and regret that their hard-won reputation is being
damaged seems to be a significant source of their antagonism toward recent immigrants. They feel as though they have to maintain a separate
identity from the newcomers to preserve their image as Panamas harmonious, honest, and hardworking Chinese Colony. In short, not only are

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


they suspicious of the new immigrants, but they also feel they must safeguard their carefully crafted identity. It is not surprising, then, that they
have tried so vehemently to distinguish themselves from the recent immigrants.
Yet despite such tensions and antagonisms, it is important to note that
the Panamanian Chinese did not hesitate to protest the police raids and
the mass arrests of undocumented immigrants in 1990.

Memory and Community

A number of reasons led to the mobilization of the ethnic Chinese community and their protest efforts in 1990. Among these, two central
themes emerged: the memory of marginalization vis--vis the state and
the recognition of their shared immigrant experience. As mentioned earlier, the 1990 police raids reminded many Panamanian Chinese of the
persecution they, their parents, and/or their grandparents had endured
during the 1940s. In my interview with David Lau, a key member of the
Chinese Association, he discussed two main reasons why the Panamanian Chinese had responded so quickly to the situation: It was for humanitarian reasons and also because [Panamanian Chinese] experienced
an awakening [sense] of being Chinese [emphasis added].
It was only fifty years ago that a similar situation had arisen, and
memories of that event were still fresh in the minds of most Panamanian
Chinese. Hence, despite their differences and antagonistic relations, Panamanian Chinese mobilized around ethnic solidarity in order to claim certain rights for the immigrants. Their memory of state persecution was reanimated by the 1990 police raids, and they felt a certain connectedness
with the immigrants based on their shared experience of powerlessness
and social injustice. In short, they identified with the recent immigrants
because they saw themselves occupying a similar position of marginality
within the Panamanian nation-state.
In a way, the 1990 incident gave Panamanian Chinese an opportunity
to vindicate themselves, to finally confront and challenge the discriminatory policies of the state, which had repeatedly targeted (and continues to
target) the Chinese as undesirable immigrants. Whereas they had lacked
the economic clout and political influence in the 1940s to effectively respond to actions injurious to Chinese, they were much more capable and
prepared to confront such situations in 1990. In fifty years, the Panamanian Chinese had amassed much more political and economic influ-


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

ence. For one thing, they now had more experience working within the
Panamanian political system. A number of Panamanian Chinese had held
elected office by this time and had secured access to extensive social networks in the political sphere. Another aspect of their increased power
was their almost-exclusive control of the small-retail-store sector
throughout Panama. Panamanian Chinese knew they presented a formidable force if they could only mobilize the community. More important,
they realized the significance of responding quickly and forcefully in order to prevent similar incidents in the future. This incident forced Panamanian Chinese to exercise their claims to citizenship and belonging by
contesting the unjust practices of the state. As much as they experienced
a reawakening sense of being Chinese, they also reaffirmed their position
as citizens of Panama.
Another link between these two groups that helped prompt Panamanian Chinese mobilization may very simply be the fact that they saw their
own immigration experiences reflected in the immigrants present. From
1904 to 1946, when Chinese immigration was greatly restricted, it was
not uncommon for immigrants, especially women, to use other peoples
identification cards and passports. Through interviews with elderly Chinese, I found that before the 1940s, women who immigrated to Panama
as brides often returned to China after their children were born, and their
Panamanian identification cards and travel documents were sometimes
then reused by another bride or bride-to-be. Hence, it was not unusual to
know three different people with the same Spanish name.
During an interview with a third-generation Panamanian-born Chinese woman who was explaining her complicated family network to me,
I noticed that she mentioned two women in her family with the same
name. I asked if they were related, and she replied, They were related
only by marriage. You see, Mara Tee was the wife of my grandfather. She
returned to China, and gave her identity papers to another woman who
was coming to Panama to marry my grand-uncle. Chinese immigration
[policy] was very strict in those days, so they had to recycle their identities, so to speak. I mean, they used the same identity papers to come to
Panama, but they werent the same person, and neither of their names
was really Mara Tee. Recall, also, Marcos grandmothers comments in
chapter 3.
The identification documents of Panamanian-born children (male and
female) who returned to China were also reused. In fact, many of the earlier Chinese immigrants have two names, a legal surname and a given

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


surname used among friends and family. For example, Jos Chan is
known as Chi-Wei Wong in Cantonese. And while his Chinese-speaking
friends call him Mr. Wong, Spanish-speakers refer to him as Jos Chan.
Under Panamas restrictive official immigration policy, the recycling and
sharing of documents wasand perhaps still remainsa common strategy among Chinese.
These double identities, I should add, are not explicitly discussed or
explained; they are simply considered common knowledge among the
Chinese. They serve as both an uncanny reminder and reinforcement of a
shared and collective immigrant and minoritized status in Panama.
Strangers and non-Chinese speakers do not have easy access to the given
Chinese names or titles of these individuals. Hence, addressing someone
by their given Chinese surname indicates a level of familiarity and connection. It is in a sense a reenactment and assertion of community while
acknowledging a shared history. These double identities are symbols that
convey ones belonging to two separate but overlapping communities.
These names explicitly mark the doubleness of immigrant existence, and
I suggest that they help produce an understanding of oneself as both Chinese and Panamanian at the same time, what W. E. B. Du Bois called
double consciousness. Through the use of these names in their everyday encounters, people are reminded of their movement across different
cultural contexts and their contrasting relationships to them.
The prevalence of these double identities indicates not only that exclusion and subversive strategies of immigration are nothing new but, more
important, that experiences of immigration may be the overriding theme
that unites the community and that is central to diasporic Chinese subject
formation. In fact, the widespread and recurring concern around immigration, with all its contradictions and transfigurations over time, reflects
its ever-changing but persistent presence in diasporic Chinese consciousness. Paul Gilroy has described black expressive culture as the changing
same, to reference the complex process of cultural reproduction that accounts for both the conscious invocation of enduring traditions and the
invention of new ones in response to changing circumstances (Gilroy
1993, 101). In this regard, I suggest that the memories, discourses, and
stories of migration represent the changing same of diasporic Chinese
culture in that they articulate a distinct formulationsensitive to temporal-spatial specificityof a broadly shared experience. As shown in this
chapter, immigration embodies both the rupture that divides diasporic
Chinese and the continuity that binds them together.


Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

In Making Ethnic Choices, Karen Leonard examines the way culture
gets struggled over as cohorts grapple with their differences across time
and generations (1992). Her chapter exploring antagonisms between
post-1965 South Asian immigrants and second-generation Punjabi Mexican Americans offers an interesting comparison to the case of diasporic
Chinese in Panama. While both cases show that, despite sharing the same
place of origin, frictions and tensions arise when new immigrants meet
and coexist with descendants of the same ethnic group, they led to different responses and outcomes. The South Asian newcomers had comparatively more economic power than the Punjabi Mexican Americans in
California. Moreover, as their antagonism intensified, each group took a
different approach to asserting its distinct identity: the newcomers laid
claim to an urban, cosmopolitan Hindu identity, while the Punjabi Mexican Americans emphasized their American identity. The Chinese in
Panama acted out a different scenario.
First, the newcomers were situated in an economically disadvantaged
position relative to the Panamanian Chinese. Second, while the newcomers accused the Panamanian Chinese of not treating them as compatriots,
and thereby claiming that they have become Panamanian, the Panamanian Chinese evoked ethnic constructions of Hakka alterity to separate themselves from the newcomers. Unlike the Punjabi Mexican Americans, who asserted their American identity, Panamanian Chinese did not
actively claim their Panamanian side. Instead, they chose to reclaim Chineseness by asserting that Hakkas are a different kind of Chinese.
Furthermore, these contests of belonging within the local Chinese community are intertwined with a collective struggle to claim belonging to
the national Panamanian community. This is an important dimension of
diasporic citizenship, because it underscores the tension between local
and national negotiations of belonging and illuminates the contrasting
and converging positions of the two cohorts within the Chinese community.
By focusing on the social rupture that inspired the two groups to come
together, I also discovered the link that binds them as diasporic Chinese.
I have argued that Panamanian Chinese did not build alliances with recent immigrants based on some essentialized notion of ethnic identity.
Rather, their identification with recent immigrants stems from their
shared experience and memory of migration and collective positionality

Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares


vis--vis the Panamanian state. By remembering their subjection to state

aggression, Panamanian Chinese narrate their own experience of marginality in order to forge a collective consciousness and concertedly
protest the states discrimination against recent Chinese immigrants. In
getting the recent immigrants redocumented and in challenging the exclusionary practices of the state, Panamanian Chinese asserted claims of
national belonging for all Chinese and thereby redrew the boundaries of
national belonging.
It is worth emphasizing that notions of Chineseness and ideas of belonging to a Chinese community are not universally defined, but locally determined and historically contingent. Being ethnically Chinese
does not give recent immigrants automatic entry into or acceptance by
the Panamanian Chinese community. The tensions between the two
groups reflect their ongoing contest over what constitutes Chineseness
in Panama. Furthermore, I have illustrated how their unequal relations
and antagonistic social class positions work to maintain and reproduce
the divisions between the two groups.
During the course of my field-research period, the differences between
these two groups not only persisted but became much more profound,
and the tension between them intensified rather than dissipated. The
deepening chasm between the recent immigrants and the Panamanian
Chinese cannot be easily summarized here and must be understood in the
context of a chain of events that swept across Panama during 199697.
To this we turn our attention in chapter 6.

 Good-bye, Uncle Sam,

Hello, Uncle Chang
Globalization, Diasporic Allegiance,
and the China-Taiwan Conflict
Bye, to Sam, chou san, (hola) to Chang. O, si no entiende cantons, ni
hau ma? en mandarin.
Good-bye, Uncle Sam, Chou san [Good morning] (hola) [Hello], Uncle
Chang. Or, if he does not understand Cantonese, Ni hau ma? [How are
you?] in Mandarin.
La Prensa, August 3, 1997

As the recent immigrants and Panamanian Chinese continued to negotiate their relationship in Panama, another set of events once again shifted
the terms of diasporic citizenship. This chapter revisits the political cartoon introduced at the beginning of this book to explore in more detail
the various debates that emerged on the eve of the U.S. transfer of the
Panama Canal. In August 1997, after eight months of continuous media
coverage, the Panamanian newspaper La Prensa featured a three-part series entitled De to Sam a to Chang (From Uncle Sam to Uncle
Chang), providing a powerful narrative of the nations shifting geopolitical relations with the United States, Taiwan, and the PRC. The provocative title and its equally provocative images highlighted the nations ambivalence about two converging processes: the return of the Panama
Canal and the departure of the U.S. Canal Zone administration, and the
rapid expansion of Chinese economic and political presence. As the text
of the article suggested, this ambivalence rested on the possibility that
one imperial force was replacing another and that Panama was being
transferred from Americas Uncle Sam to Chinas Uncle Chang. The issue
quickly became more complicated when the question of China was transformed into which China. Panamanians were abruptly reminded that
there was not just one China to contend with but two. With no uncertain
force, the conflict between the PRC and Taiwan exploded in Panama,
compelling the nation to grapple with all kinds of questions concerning

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


China, Chineseness, and, most important to Panamanians, the place of

the Chinese in Panama.
While the departure of the United States and its return of the Panama
Canal (as laid down in the Carter-Torrijos Treaty of 1977) were anticipated, the dramatic influx of Chinese capital and the unfolding of the
PRCROC conflict in Panama were both quite unexpected. What initiated this outpouring of Chinese economic investments into Panama? And
what brought on the PRCROC conflict there? I trace these developments to the confluence of two independent incidents. First, the official
departure of the United States gave Panama the responsibility of reorganizing and redistributing the management of the Canal and the properties
within the formerly U.S.-administered Canal Zone. When Panama,
caught up in the wave of globalization, decided to privatize these properties by opening them up for international investment, a number of
PRCHong Kong investors responded. The most notable and high profile
case was Hutchinson Port Holdings Groups success in obtaining a 25year contract to operate the Balboa and Cristbal ports, located at the
two ends of the Canal. Outbidding such major transnational corporations as Bechtel and Maersk, the success of this Hong Kongbased company attracted tremendous speculation. Soon, rumors were reverberating
across the globe that the Chinese were taking over the Canal.1
Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the British handover of Hong
Kong to the PRC in July 1997 was creating another dilemma for Panama
and the other nations that maintain official relations with Taiwan. After
the Hong Kong handover, the government of the PRC announced that in
order for countries to maintain economic relations with Hong Kong, they
would now have to deal directly with China. In essence, the Chinese government was pressuring countries like Panama to switch diplomatic relations (from Taiwan to the PRC) in order to continue economic interactions with Hong Kong. As port cities, Panama and Hong Kong have
long-standing and entrenched economic ties. Losing this relationship with
Hong Kong would be unthinkable. After all, the Panama Canal is critical
to international trade between Asia and the Americas and Europe, and
Hong Kong is a main point of departure for exports from the PRC to the
rest of the world. With this pressure, combined with the increasing economic presence of PRCHong Kong investors in Panama, the Panamanian government had to seriously consider changing diplomatic relations.
But, of course, Taiwan could not let this happen, and, in response, it began to pour its own economic investments into Panama. Thus began the


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

growing tension between the PRC and Taiwan in Panama. The two Chinese governments used economic investments, promises of technical support, and arguments about national affinity and global political influence
to compete for official relations with Panama. These combined circumstances created an unexpected and rather peculiar situation in which
Chineseness became the central mediating theme through which Panama engaged with postCold War globalization.
While questions about the significance of this increasing Chinese presence in Panama were erupting in the national public sphere, another set
of discussions was taking place among diasporic Chinese. With no delusions about a Chinese takeover in Panama, diasporic Chinese were consumed with their own debates on the merits of celebrating the Hong
Kong handover and the significance of supporting either of the two Chinese states. As these overlapping sets of discussions intensified, cultural
and political constructions of Chineseness took center stage, becoming
the critical site through which PanamaniansChinese and non-Chinese
alikemade sense of these recent changes.
This chapter examines these two sets of separate, though connected,
discussions by analyzing newspaper coverage and the divergent positions
taken by diasporic Chinese. By looking at the different entry points into
this discussion, I argue that Chineseness serves as a critical site of meaning production for Panamanians at large. Moreover, it is through this category of Chineseness that the intersecting relationships among Panama,
the PRC, Taiwan, and diasporic Chinese are articulated and transformed.
Once again, diasporic citizenship is situated at the geopolitical intersection between Panama, China/Taiwan, and the United States. This time,
however, the United States fades into the background, while the PRC and
Taiwan emerge as the key players, foreshadowing the future of Panama
and of diasporic Chinese living there. By examining the relationship between constructions of Chineseness and the repositioning of diasporic
Chinese in relation to Panama and the Chinese states, this chapter affirms
the salience of ethnicity in globalization.2 It also asserts that ethnicity remains a critical site through which states are reconfiguring their strategies
of nation-building in order to adjust to the new political and economic
demands of globalization.
What follows first is an analysis of the tripartite article De To Sam a
To Chang (From Uncle Sam to Uncle Chang). While dozens of articles
preceded and followed this series, it provides a good, representative illustration of how Panamanians generally were interpreting these events. A

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


closer look at this particular set of articles enables us to see both the general concerns permeating the Panamanian public and the popular representation of Chineseness in Panama.

De To Sam a To Chang: Constructing

Chineseness and Chinese Belonging
Recall from the Introduction the juxtaposition of the two political cartoons involving Uncle Sam and Uncle Chang (see figs. 1 and 2). These
cartoons forcefully show that interstate relations and economic capital
are interconnected. By juxtaposing the Americans with the Chinese, the
cartoons suggest that the two powers occupy similar positions vis--vis
Panama, and that the kind of unequal relationship that Panama had with
the United States is likely to continue with the Chinese. Of significance,
however, is the shift in the criteria and style of that relationship. Economic imperatives seem to have replaced military force, and the technologies of globalization have overtaken the machinery of the Cold War.
The ambivalence of Panamanians about the U.S. departure, as suggested by these images, is further reinforced by gendered metaphors in
the articles themselves. In a somewhat nostalgic tone, the authors liken
the departure of the United States to a divorce, saying: It is not possible
to coexist for more than eight decades and not feel some anxiety from
this separation. . . .After all the ceremonies of this harmonious divorce
including the reversion of forts, military installations, and seaportsthe
emptiness that the U.S. has left behind is already being filled, slowly but
persistently, by recent [Chinese] arrivals who are foreign, different, and
simultaneously, very familiar. International relations are rendered as
marriage relations, making geopolitical consequences a personal and affective matter. Like a divorce, the departure of the United States leaves
Panamanians filled with complex feelings of sadness, nostalgia, relief,
and acceptance that the past is irretrievable. And like an anxious romantic suitor, the Chinese are already stepping in to fill the emptiness left behind by the United States.
To make sense of the connection between the U.S. departure and the
arrival of the new Chinese presence, we must consider the sociopolitical
context. As early as 1996, the return of the Panama Canal was being
planned and set in motion. At the same time, the buzz of globalization
was beginning to make its way into Panama. The state already had begun
adopting neoliberal economic policies in an effort to climb on the global-


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

ization bandwagon. The plan was to privatize and allow international

companies to bid on state-run services and formerly U.S.-owned properties, which included military bases, the transisthmian railroad, and the
seaports and their surrounding areas. To everyones surprise, the most
prominent international investors that rose to the occasion were from the
PRC, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. To the Panamanian nation, the sudden
and dramatic manner in which Chinese capital made its presence felt in
Panama aroused much anxiety. It seemed as though the Chinese, with
their immense purchasing power and political presence in the world,
were replacing the United States as the next imperial force in Panama.
Significantly, the articles authors connect the new Chinese presence to
an older more familiar one. Throughout the article, these recent [Chinese] arrivals are described as simultaneously new and old, strange yet
familiar, recently arrived yet having roots from long ago. In broad
strokes, the authors use the two words Chinese presence to bridge the
gap in time and space between the diasporic Chinese who have been in
Panama for more than 150 years and the recent economic and political
players from China and Taiwan. The homogenization of diasporic Chinese with the new arrivals, primarily state representatives and transnational managers, helps smooth this geopolitical shift, making the sudden
eruption of this particular group of Chinese people, politics, and capital
seem less threatening. The connection that is drawn between these new
arrivals with an already existing presence makes them seem more familiar and less strange. That connection enables the Panamanian public to
interpret these new arrivals with their knowledge and understanding of
diasporic Chinese, who are their neighbors, co-workers, corner-store
owners, fellow church members, and friends and family.
While the impulse to connect the new arrivals with the older, established community may be understandable, the fact remains that the former are likely to be quite different from the latter. For one thing, their status as diplomats and transnational managers who are expected to live in
Panama for only a few short years does not allow for the formation of diasporic sensibilities. Moreover, their relationship to the Panamanian nation-state and the Chinese homeland is quite distinct from that of diasporic Chinese. These qualitative differences are critical in distinguishing
diasporic subjects from other categories, such as cosmopolitans and
transnationals,3 that describe contrasting experiences of displacement
and dislocation. This is not to say that this group cannot eventually be-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


come diasporic subjects if they choose to migrate, adopt a more permanent relationship to Panama, and develop a diasporic consciousness. But
it is important to recognize that, at present, the two groups occupy categorically different subject positions.
This homogenizing move also allows the authors to convey an irony of
historical development. Once diasporic Chinese and the recent Chinese
are rendered one and the same, the past and the present of the collective
Chinese presence are made into one seamless historical narrative. Gender is also employed here, for this transference through time is made continuous through male descent. Male contract laborers were formerly
brought to Panama by U.S. companies to work on the transisthmian railway and the Canal; now male investors and male government officials
come with offers of economic exchange and political relations. The situation was made even more ironic when a Taiwanese official announced
that Taiwan would offer job opportunities for Panamanians wanting to
relocate there. The change in circumstances is dramatic, and the narrative
of an underdog turned hero is compelling. These claims are made possible only by strategies of homogenizing and conflating people, race, and
nation. Ideas of national belonging are embedded in these conflations. In
fact, the connections between diasporic Chinese and the new Chinese arrivals are not only dialectically constructed but also double-edged. Just as
the new Chinese are made familiar through their connection to diasporic
Chinese, diasporic Chinese can also be made foreign through the recent
arrivals. As the authors write, Without our taking note of their arrival,
Uncle Chang is already among us. The ambiguity of whom Uncle Chang
represents allows for multiple and strategic interpretations, and different
interpretations will emerge depending on historical circumstance. When
national origin is essentialized and naturalized as the primary determinant of loyalty and belonging, the possibility of imagining full participation and acceptance of Chinese in Panama is rendered virtually impossible.
To bring the narrative full circle, the authors once again evoke a parallel between American and Chinese effects on Panama. They suggest
that just as Panamanians had learned English, adopted American business practices, and got their university degrees from the United States,
they will soon learn to speak Chinese and adopt Chinese cultural practices. They write: With Uncle Chang comes a new way of conducting
business. A new generation of intermediariesthe Castros, Alemans . . .


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

and Torrijos of the worldwill learn quickly how to deal with the new
Taipans and the millennial art of guanxi.4 They will learn to say, chou
san [Good morning] in Cantonese and ni hau ma? [How are you?] in
Th e H a t f i e l d s a n d M c C o y s o f t h e F a r E a s t :
Tw o D i v e r g e n t N o t i o n s o f C h i n e s e M a s c u l i n i t y
The second part of the La Prensa article complicates and builds on what
has been presented in the first. Sitting at the negotiating table are three
people. At one end is Uncle Chang, holding a wad of dollar bills, and at
the other end sits another male figure who, like Uncle Chang, is racially
marked by stereotypical Asian phenotypes. To distinguish him as Chinese, he is wearing a triangular rice-field hat and the traditional Chinese
cheongsam (or qi pao). He is holding some kind of certificate, which presumably has something to do with Hong Kong (as explained in the article). In his other hand, each of these men is holding a wooden hammer,
with which he is bopping the head of the man in the middle. By bopping
his head, the two men are supposedly competing for his attention. The
man in the middle is presumably a Panamanian official, who is literally
depicted as being of two heads about the situation. Wearing sunglasses
and a white shirt, he is turning his head back and forth between the two
Chinese men, and he is moving so vigorously that sweat is flying in the
air. On the table, his fingers are moving rapidly, as if anxious to grab
onto something. This particular gesture has been used in other cartoons
to suggest that the character is engaged in a process of calculation associated with greediness. The two Chinese men secretly extend third arms
toward each other under the table, where each holds a saw to cut off the
legs of the other mans chair. Figuratively, they are attempting to undercut each other.
That the characters are all male reaffirms and reinforces masculinity in
the geopolitical sphere. However, as Cynthia Enloe astutely observes,
Notions of masculinity arent necessarily identical across generations or
across cultural boundaries. The cartoon makes this clear. Each of the
characters is also nationally and racially marked. The way Uncle Chang
and his nemesis reflect divergent constructions of Chinese masculinity is
significant. Examining them in the context of geopolitics can provide insight into the politics of masculinity between countries and between ethnic groups within the same country (Enloe 1990, 13). In this case, it il-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


Uncle Chang, his nemesis, and a Panamanian official. Source: La Prensa.

lustrates the general perception of Taiwan and the PRC and brings to the
foreground various assumptions surrounding the two polities.
As cultural analysts have noted, constructions of national and ethnic
difference have always relied on creating stereotypes, many of which are
conflicting images that nonetheless characterize the same group (Lee
1999). For Asians in the United States, the character of the cunning and
dangerous Fu Manchu, the yellow peril incarnate in one man, reflected
the nations anxiety around Asian immigrants. Since the 1970s, the model
minority image recast Asian Americans as hardworking overachievers.
Depending on historical circumstance, different stereotypes gain salience
at different moments. Indeed, cultural representations not only reflect
popular anxieties but also have political effects.
As shown in this particular cartoon, the two Chinese men are carefully
crafted to depict Taiwan and the PRC. Whereas Uncle Chang is dressed
in a Western suit and hat, his nemesis is wearing a traditional Chinese
cheongsam and a rice-field hat. While the former epitomizes the modern
(and westernized) Taiwan Chinese, the other appears to be an artifact of
the past, stuck in tradition that seems inconsistent with the West. What is
suggested by his ethnically marked clothing is a sense of backwardness;
his immobility through time has resulted in the lack of progress and development. The contradictory personification of these two characters reflect and help construct popular understandings of what Chineseness entails. Being diasporic Chinese, then, implies occupying both these
positions: the presence of Chinese in the West gives them access to being


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

modern, but their otherness, marked by an attachment to Chinese traditions, resituates them at the margins.
As this cartoon clearly illustrates, although Uncle Chang and his
nemesis share a similar phenotype, the two are culturally distinct. Yet the
article that accompanies it shows little interest in the specificity of their
cultural differences. It is concerned primarily with what the two states
have to offer in terms of economic benefits. Whereas Taiwan has a strong
economy and cash flow, the PRC holds the promissory note for economic
ties with Hong Kong. The question arises, then, why not have relations
with both?
The article offers an answer with an analogy: International relations
are like marital relations. When one gets married, one does not marry
just a partner but his or her entire family. So one has to be willing to accept the occasional visits of an irritable in-law or suffer the sight of a
crazy cousin. In a similar vein, then, establishing international relations
with a country is not just a matter of building a relationship with a government but with a nation, a history, a culture, and all their accompanying problems. Once again, the trope of marriage is employed. Taking it
one step further, the authors allude to the feuding families of the Capulets
and Montagues in Verona and the Hatfields and McCoys in the rural
United States, in which having relations with one family makes your relationship with the other more difficult, if not impossible. The trope describes the situation confronting Panama. If the PRC and Taiwan are the
feuding families, into which of these should Panama choose to marry?
In addition to its economic concerns, Panama has yet another factor to
consider. Now that Uncle Sam has removed his military forces from
Panama, the issue of international security arises. As the civil war in
Colombia intensifies, the violence has moved slowly into the border area
between Colombia and Panama. The Darien jungle has already begun to
experience the first signs of guerrilla and paramilitary activity. Without a
military of its own, Panama will need assistance. The article notes that
Taiwan has a particular advantage over China in this area. As one official
remarked, Taiwan has had much experience in political warfare and
counterinsurgency. It has a strong army and it certainly could help
Panama. Irrespective of the economic arguments for relations with one
or the other of the two Chinas, international security is also a serious
The article concludes by returning to the opening question: Is Uncle
Chang replacing Uncle Sam? The author suggests that the answer lies in

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


the question of military presence. If Uncle Chang ever arrives in Darien

in military uniform, that would be a clear sign that Uncle Sam has departed completely. Until then, the question remains unanswered, deferred to a later time. For now, the new Chinese presence is limited to the
economic and cultural realms. In conclusion, the authors quote a Panamanian businessman as saying, I do not want to learn Chinese. To
which they respond: There may not be another alternative, however.
Good-bye, Uncle Sam, Chou san, Uncle Chang. Or, if he doesnt understand Cantonese, Ni hau ma? in Mandarin. Chinese lessons, anyone?
Geopolitics, Racialization, and
Diasporic Citizenship
At this historical moment, Chineseness has become the critical site
through which Panamanians at large make sense of the shifting geopolitical circumstances in Panama. The La Prensa article discussed above
raises several important issues. First, it shows how divergent constructions of Chinese masculinity are used to represent and distinguish the
PRC and Taiwan as two separate political and cultural entities. While
Uncle Chang, who represents Taiwan, appears modern and westernized,
his PRC nemesis embodies Chinese tradition in its most orientalizing
guise. Second, these different representations of Chinese masculinity not
only comment on the differences between the PRC and Taiwan but also
re-ethnicize diasporic Chinese. By using the term the Chinese presence,
the newspaper writers conflate the new Chinese capital and political force
with diasporic Chinese. In so doing, Chinese investments, politics, and
people, be they Panamanian residents or not, are homogenized into one
single group. This conflation presumes a natural relationship between
these groups by virtue of their ethnic sameness, thereby denying diasporic
Chinese the option of claiming Panamanian national affiliation over ethnic homeland identification. Subsequently, the question of diasporic Chinese belonging in the nation is linked to Panamas relationships with the
PRC and Taiwan. It is worth remembering that just as these recent
geopolitical shifts have associated Chineseness with transnational capital
and political dominance, less than ten years ago, Chinese immigrants
were characterized as criminals and illegal immigrants. My point is that
if diasporic Chinese continue to be represented as perpetual foreigners
whose primary allegiance lies with their ethnic homeland, their belonging in Panama will remain vulnerable to changes in geopolitical conditions. This is so because diasporic Chinese are continually relinked to


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

China through processes of racialization and ethnicization, making

Chinese belonging in the nation contingent on Panamas geopolitical relations with the PRC and Taiwan. By considering how race, ethnicity, and
gender mediate notions of belonging within the nation-state and geopolitical relations between nation-states, I show that diasporic citizenship is
situated between the national and transnational arenas.

Multiple Interpretations of Diasporic Chinese

While the general public is grappling with these changes, diasporic Chinese are engaged in their own debates. Their concern is less with economic advantages than with issues of national and ideological affiliation.
Among them, there is little consensus about the future influence of the
PRC and Taiwan on Panama. They engage these discussions from different perspectives, and their viewpoints vary according to their points of
reference, social memory, and future trajectories.
C o m p a r i n g I m p e r i a l i s m s : Th e H o n g K o n g
H a n d ov e r a s a Vi c t o ry f o r A l l C h i n e s e
The phone rang in the middle of our conversation, and Wayne picked it
up immediately. He began speaking in Cantonese to the person on the
other end. I sat there patiently, listening to him saying something about
food, the banquet, and celebration. Then, he launched into an impassioned monologue about the importance of the Hong Kong handover. He
insisted that the Sam Yap Association (the native place organization to
which he belongs) must attend and help celebrate this momentous occasion. Taking a deep breath, he sighed and said, I was there in Hong
Kong when the red beards (British) were shooting everyone . . . children,
grandmothers, innocent people in the street. It didnt matter who they
were. I remember distinctly seeing a grandmother being shot multiple
times while shielding her grandchild from the flying bullets! It was a
nightmare. Absorbed in his storytelling, he continued,
They were shooting in all directions. If one of their people got killed, theyd
shoot hundreds of Chinese. It was so unfair. People suffered when the British
were there. Hong Kongs return to China is a victory, not just for the Chinese
government, but for Chinese people everywhere. It signifies the end of the
[British] presence, their conquest, and their colonial rule over the fate of Chinese people. Of course we Sam Yap folks should buy tickets for the dinner celebration! I dont care if the food is not good. We must celebrate this. Even if I
have to buy tickets for one entire table, I will.

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


The conversation quickly came to an end, and Wayne hung up the phone
with a look of annoyance and frustration. I wanted to ask what that was
all about, but instead I kept quiet and gave him a couple of minutes to recover his composure, hoping he would bring it up himselfand he did.
Wayne was born in 1911 and immigrated to Panama in 1927 at the
age of 16. Following his grandfather, whose unsuccessful gold mining expedition in Bluefields, Nicaragua led him to Jamaica and finally to Bocas
del Toro, where he invested in a small banana plantation, Wayne came to
Panama. He lived most of his life in the city of Bocas del Toro, located on
Isla Coln (also call Isla Bocas) in the Caribbean Sea near the PanamanianCosta Rican border. When he first arrived, he worked for relatives,
and once he acquired sufficient funds, he opened his own general foods
store and a bakery. His business grew during World War II, when American soldiers filled the island and increased the demand for his bread and
other baked goods. He remained in Bocas until the early 1970s, when he
finally relocated to Panama City to join his family. The island did not
provide education beyond middle school, so his children had left one by
one when each went to high school in the capital. His wife had gone with
them. When the time came for his youngest child to leave, Wayne decided
to pack up and move with him.
The province of Bocas del Toro is known for its banana plantations.
Since the turn of the century, the United Fruit Company, now renamed
Chiquita Brands, has controlled most of the plantations in this area and
in most of Central America. The companys first headquarters was located on Isla Bocas. At its height, the island was one of the most vibrant
places in the country and was home to five consuls and three newspapers.5 Since banana production moved entirely to the mainland, however,
the island has been much neglected. Today, it is populated by no more
than a few thousand people and has been transformed into a tourist destination. Whereas natives and United Fruit personnel were the main occupants of the island, Bocas in the past twenty years has turned into a
haven for expatriates from Canada, Europe, and the United States. The
oldest Chinese and Buddhist temple in Panama once stood on this quiet
island, but floods destroyed it a few years ago, obliterating one of the
communitys most significant cultural institutions. Now, only a handful
of Chinese remains. With the exception of a Chinese restaurant, a couple
of convenience stores, and a hardware store owned by Chinese families,
the presence of the Chinese is hardly detectable. Yet in diasporic Chinese
history, the community of Bocas del Toro, Panama is forever memori-


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

alized on a monument in Kwangchou (Guangzhou). The monument is

made of stone blocks, on which the names of cities around the world are
engraved, each block signifying a different community of diasporic Chinese that supported the founding of the Republic of China. Apparently,
the Chinese Association of Bocas sent funds to assist the revolutionaries
efforts to overthrow dynastic rule in China. With the slow and gradual
disappearance of the Chinese community in Bocas, this remains an obscure fact of history. With its glory days long gone, the quiet and understated presence of the remaining Chinese does not reflect the vitality and
dynamism that I can only imagine it once possessed. Waynes story, in
many ways, provides a glimpse into the history of diasporic Chinese in
this province.
Recovering from his phone conversation, Wayne elaborated,
I want to write something in the [Chinese] newspaper about [the Hong Kong
handover]. I want to show the younger generation the importance of this
event. . . . I feel that all are Chinese, no matter if you are from Taiwan or from
China. I was born in China, and everywhere I go, Im still Chinese. I have my
home in China, but I cant return to it. [The situation is the same for people
living in Taiwan.] My intention has always been to go back to China. But the
world situation did not permit it after World War II. In 1949, the communists
took over. I didnt want to take the chance with my children.

Backtracking a bit, he explained, In 1948, I bought a house in China

and everything. I had wanted my children to learn Chinese. I had wanted
to leave them there with my mother and sister. In the end, his children
did not return to China for their education. Instead, with their bilingual
background in Spanish and English, they went to the United States and
Spain. Currently, three out of five of them live in the United States, while
the other two are in Bocas del Toro and Panama City.
Wayne then began to talk about all the places he had traveled, listing
China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Italy, Spain, Korea, Japan, France, Canada,
and the United States. He explained,
Everywhere I went, people would ask me if I am Chinese and why I have a
Panamanian passport. I tell them, Why does it matter? I have money. I can go
wherever I want. Why do you care if I am Chinese? You see, in 1964, I finally
changed my nationality out of convenience. When I had my Chinese passport,
I couldnt go anywhere, and because all my children studied abroad, if I
wanted to see them, I had to change nationality. I held on to my Chinese passport until then. Now, I have a green card [U.S. resident alien identification
card] because most of my children are in the United States.

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


He reaffirmed, I am Chinese and always will be Chinese. [But] we need

a strong government, so people can respect Chinese all over the world.
[We should be able to travel everywhere with a Chinese passport.] The
government doesnt matter. It could be either Taiwan or China. He concluded decisively: They just need to do the right thing: be strong.
Before moving on to another topic, however, he added, Taiwan has
relations with Panama, but most Chinese here are from mainland China.
The ambassador and the embassy cant protect the Chinese from the
mainland. They dont say anything when the Chinese are in trouble. Instead, the Chinese Association takes care of the community. With this
comment, he subtly suggested that the government does matter.
We moved on and spoke a bit more about his family, but the afternoon
was winding down, and we both were quite tired from all the talking and
note taking. As we said good-bye, I thanked him, and he graciously extended an open invitation to return anytime. As I walked away from his
house, I looked up at the second-floor balcony, where we had sat for the
past few hours, and waved good-bye one more time. From there, I could
hear his radio playing, tuned to the local Chinese station as the announcer took calls on health and medical issues.
Waynes strong insistence on celebrating the Hong Kong handover and
his assertion that China, be it the PRC or the ROC, needs to be strong internationally represent the general sentiments of his immigrant generation. Like many others, he suggests that the handover has less to do with
PRCROC politics than with a strong sense of racial-cultural nationalism. As Wayne insisted, It is a matter of pride for all Chinese people
everywhere. Moreover, his extensive experience with international
travel has underscored the salience of both nationality and racial-ethnic
identity when it comes to determining how one is treated and placed in
the international context. This has made him realize the advantage of
having a strong government associated with ones racial-ethnic background. In his view, he cannot choose his race or ethnicity, but he can
hope for, if not help build, a strong government.
My interviews with other people of this cohort generated similar comments. I dont think it is right for the [ROC] embassy to put so much
pressure on the Chinese community not to celebrate the handover,
Raphael, an active member of the Chinese Association in his seventies,
asserted. As a Chinese, one should be proud that a piece of Chinese land
is being returned to Chinese rule. Hong Kong has been under foreign


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

control for so long. Its about time that Chinese people gain back control
of it. We should be celebrating it as a Chinese victory, regardless of which
government is involved. This is a victory for all Chinese.
Among the early immigrant generation, Raphael is known as a scholar
whose knowledge of Buddhism and ceremonial practices, not to mention
Chinese literature and diasporic Chinese history, has made him a cultural
consultant to the community. His short but compact stature gives him an
aura of balance and stability. His words are carefully weighed, spoken
slowly and thoughtfully, and his measured speech is often spiced with
metaphors and allegories. He is a man of seriousness, and his movements,
mannerisms, and gestures all project a groundedness that seems unshakable. When asked what his opinion was regarding the recent PRCROC
debate in Panama, he offered, I am Chinese, an overseas Chinese, and of
course I want one united China. No Chinese want two Chinas to exist. I
do not care which government represents China. I just want a strong government, a unified China. Pausing for a moment, he added, Since
Panama recognizes the ROC and has relations with them, I also have to
recognize the ROC. It is all we have to represent Chinese people here. I
will follow the Panamanian government. If Panama chooses to recognize
the PRC, then I will also recognize the PRC. I respect both [Chinese] governments, and it is their responsibility to straighten out that problem.
His statements seemed evenhanded. We continued in this manner for
a while, and although his formality did not subside with time, his speech
became more relaxed. I dont think the Taiwanese provide enough help
for overseas Chinese here, he said. The fact that they cant help immigrants get passports is a big problem. They also dont provide enough
funds for overseas Chinese. The ROC is able to give large donations to
the Panamanian government, but they dont give the community much.
They dont even provide as much as the soy sauce in which to dip the
chicken. His hand gestured as if holding a pair of chopsticks and, with
one quick and precise move, dipping them in and out of a dish. I chuckled at this colorful analogy, with its exaggerated description of just how
much the ROC was willing to giveor not give, in this case.
Our conversation moved on to a variety of other topics, and he remained composed and poised for the most part. But there was one instance when he broke out of his usual cautiousness. We were talking
about his general experience in Panama: how things had changed in the
years he had been there, and what it was like being Chinese then versus
now. He shook his head and without hesitation said: Oh, it is much bet-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


ter now. The discrimination is not as bad as before. Huh! Before, they
used to call us monkey and accuse us of eating rats. Thats what they
used to say, and they would do it right to your face. This was very common. Sometimes, I would get very angry, and I would fight with them.
He nudged toward the end of his chair and planted his palms firmly on
his knees. His face was beaming with anger by now. He let out a sigh and
shook his head again, I could only take it for so long. They have no
manners, no education, no home teaching. They do not know Chinas
thousands of years of history, its rich culture, its contributions. I just
couldnt endure it. I had to fight . . . to maintain a sense of dignity and
personhood. He let out another long sigh. Those times were tough.
Over and over again, I heard it said that the Hong Kong handover was
a victory for all Chinese, and that there should be one unified China, one
strong government. Furthermore, these pronouncements were often accompanied by descriptions of racial violence. For both Wayne and
Raphael, the handover is not about PRCROC politics but a kind of cultural nationalism that stems from their experience of discrimination and
subordination. To them, the handover represents, first and foremost, a recuperation of dignity, pride, and humanity. Being in diaspora underscores
the effects of transnational perceptions of Chineseness and the treatment
of Chinese. They suggest that these perceptions are directly related to the
positioning of China in the global context. In other words, for Wayne
and Raphael, a strong government and a unified China would project a
positive image of Chineseness, which, in turn, would help garner respect
for Chinese everywhere. This is especially important for diasporic Chinese, whose racial-cultural background often excludes them from full citizenship and belonging in their nation-state of residence and who are
judged and treated according to these images. The Hong Kong handover,
then, represents a move in the direction of achieving respect in the global
Taking a similar position, Arturo offered a different entry point. As we
sat in his small and densely packed general store in old Chinatown, he
used an analogy to make his point: Just as the Canal is being returned
to Panama, Hong Kong is going back to China, not to the communists,
but to China. The analogy has many layers. Drawing a parallel between
these two sets of relationships highlights the single most important,
though unstated, factor that gives meaning to the analogy: imperialism.
For Panama, the return of the Canal marked the end of direct U.S. domination, while for China, the Hong Kong handover concluded the era of


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

British colonialism. The analogy emphasizes the ethical-moral dimension

of global politics, and it appeals to the sentiment that imperialism must
end. The critical focus is on the rightful return of formerly occupied territories, making the PRCROC conflict altogether irrelevant. Arturo emphasized this by saying, Chinese culture is not communist or KMT
[Kuomingtang or the Nationalist Peoples Party of China now based in
Taiwan], it is for everyone. He thus suggested that the handover was beyond ideology. Rather, it was in the realm of the cultural and should be
considered in the broader context of Western imperialism, under which
Chinese peoplein China, Taiwan, and in the diasporahave suffered.
For Arturo, as for Wayne and Raphael, the Hong Kong handover marked
the end of one form of racial-cultural subordination in the global context
and ushered in a new era of reconsolidation, cultural affirmation, and
collective healing.
While most senior immigrants were preoccupied with the Hong Kong
handover, many local-born Chinese were uneasy about the rising tensions
between the PRC and Taiwan. As the two polities competed for Panamas
official relations, they were also rallying support among diasporic Chinese. While tension between PRC and ROC supporters had been mounting for months, the dinner to celebrate the Hong Kong handover somehow concretized the anxieties and the ambivalence of the community.
People understood that despite the immense spatial distance between
them (in Latin America) and Asia, what unfolded between the PRC and
the ROC governments would have enormous implications for Panama as
well as for diasporic Chinese.
Although a vast majority of members of the Chinese Association attended the celebration dinner, there was no consensus on whether this
event was an official function sponsored by the Chinese Association.
Calling it an official event would not only be a direct insult to the
ROC embassy, which had provided the community with generous financial and moral support in the past decades; it would also constitute a political statement as to where the association stood in terms of Chinese
politics. Regardless of how politically charged the event had become, the
banquet hall was full. More than 300 people were present. At the main
table sat the PRC officials, along with the president and a few key members of the Chinese Association. If it had not been for the dense air of discomfort that permeated the room, the celebration would have been like
any other banquet I had attended. Although some people seemed genuinely excited to be there, many appeared ambivalent and even a bit un-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


comfortable about their attendance. I looked around the room and saw
the usual participants. As expected, official representatives of the ROC
embassy were absent, along with a handful of association members.
Their absence spoke volumes.
I was told that this was the first event in the history of the Chinese in
Panama to be celebrated together by the president of the Chinese Association and representatives of the PRC government. In other words, for the
first time ever, the president of the Chinese Association was showing explicit allegiance to the PRC government. Up to this point, the Chinese Association had always taken a definitive stance in support of the ROC.
This was indeed indicative of a dramatic shift in the internal politics of
the Chinese community, not to mention of PRCROC politics in Panama.
The transfer of Hong Kong on July 1, 1997, resulted in as many significant changes within the Chinese Panamanian community, as it did in
Panamas international relations with the PRC. As I have discussed in
previous chapters, prior to this event, the sharp delineation between the
recent immigrants and the early immigrants and their descendents had
dominated the discourse of difference among diasporic Chinese. By July
1997, however, the Hong Kong handover and the escalating PRCROC
struggle for diasporic support had shifted the primary line of division,
drawing supporters of the Hong Kong handover together on one side and
pushing those who were less enthusiastic to the other. Many seem to
think that these groupings map directly onto the existing divide between
the recent immigrants and the Panamanian Chinese, but my sense is that
this is not quite so. The critical difference seems to emerge between the
immigrants, irrespective of when they arrived, and the Panamanian-born
Chinese. Of course, in addition to these two groups, there is a large nonpartisan group that remains indifferent to homeland-diaspora politics.
L o c a l B o n d s B e t w e e n Ta i w a n a n d
the Diasporic Chinese
The central issue for Taiwan supporters is, quite simply, the future of the
ROC in Panama. They were not so interested in the Hong Kong handover, though they were aware that it represented more a step toward
cultural annihilation than cultural nationalism for the Taiwanese. To
them, the handover foreshadowed mainland Chinas eventual takeover of
Taiwan. They anticipated that once Hong Kong had been successfully incorporated into China, Macau would be next, 6 and Taiwan would follow. It is only a matter of time, the more pessimistic ones lamented.


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

Rather than celebrating the transfer as a victory for Chinese everywhere, Taiwan supporters were worried about the uncertain future that
lay ahead. Many expressed a sense of connection with the Taiwanese
government based on memories of their familys experience with communist China. Others feel a deep indebtedness to the Taiwanese for their
many years of support and collaboration. I must emphasize, however,
that their concern lay not in what would happen to Taiwan per se, but
rather in what would happen to Chinese state representation in Panama,
which inevitably would affect their own future. A change in representation would result in major shifts for diasporic Chinese. It would require
a reimagining and retooling of practices and modes of operation in both
local and transnational contexts. Not only might the current architecture
of the community and its institutions be restructured, but a new set of dynamics, leadership, and sociopolitical practices might evolve. In short, a
shift in representation would alter the design as well as the overall texture
and fabric of the community as they know it now and as they have
known it for as long as they can remember. What came across most
strongly, then, was their sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the future
of Chinese Panama.
Esteban and his wife, Sophie, were baby-sitting their grandchildren
when I stopped by their house in the middle of the afternoon. Now in
their mid sixties, they are retired, and their children are taking care of the
family business while Esteban and Sophie look after the kids. Both of
them are descendents of some of the earliest Chinese families in Panama.
Their parents had immigrated in the 1910s and 1920s and started their
businesses in the old Chinatown. With extensive social and kinship networks, they seem to be related to most Panamanian Chinese by no more
than three degrees of separation. Both Esteban and Sophie are active in
the community. He is a member of the Chinese Association, and she is a
co-founder of another association that organizes social activities for
youth. Given their level of involvement, it was no wonder that I saw them
at almost every community event I attended during my stay in Panama.
Both Esteban and Sophie are from the generation of people who went
to American Methodist schools where English was taught. The two speak
Spanish and English, while Esteban also speaks Cantonese because he
had spent a few years in China during his late teens. His fluency in three
languages gives him entry to all sorts of social spaces and conversations
within the diaspora. He moves with equal ease between the different circles of the immigrant and the Panamanian-born generations, though he

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


seems more connected with and sympathetic to the concerns of Panamanian-born Chinese.
The question of Hong Kong never came up in our discussion, unlike in
my conversations with immigrants. Esteban, however, commented on the
China-Taiwan conflict as it relates to diasporic Chinese, saying:
People of my parents generation are anti-communist because many of them
had to flee China under the communist siege. The Chinese who are born here
have their roots in these old Chinese, and they too are anti-communist and
pro-democracy. The ones who are born here, educated here, are not concerned
with Chinese politics in Asia. The immigration issue is what concerns Panamanian-born Chinese [the] most. Our reputation is at stake. There is more
crime. These things directly affect us. . . . In terms of the China-Taiwan conflict, business will go on as usual. Its a political issue. . . . For me, home is
Panama. I feel very uneasy about what is happening here between China and
Taiwan. I have no relations with China, not even in business. . . . Anyway,
there is a saying, Its better to keep the old, the thing you know, than to try
the new, the thing you dont know. Thats how I feel about the Chinese governments in Panama.

To understand this uneasiness about the possible change in Chinese

state representation, one must have some sense of the extent of involvement and the nature of the relationship between diasporic Chinese and
the ROC government. Diasporic Chinese have maintained good relations
with the ROC embassy ever since the beginning of official Chinese representation in Panama. Over the decades, they have formed a symbiotic relationship based on mutual assistance, respect, and cooperation. Theirs is
an extraordinary case of homeland state and diaspora partnership. The
Taiwanese government is well aware of the exceptional character of this
partnership, inasmuch as it has openly proclaimed this relationship to be
its model for building relations with the rest of the diaspora. Stories circulate about the historical give-and-take between the embassy and the
community, weaving a tale of mutual support and friendship between
equals rather than between a state and its subjects. One of my informants
recalled a time when Taiwan was just beginning to rebuild itself, a time
when its resources were limited. Yes, back then, the Taiwanese didnt
have any money. The ambassador didnt even have a car. It was so embarrassing that the community got together and collected funds. We purchased a car for him. The storyteller chuckled, revealing the irony of history and a sense of mutual support. Another story illustrated the
important influence of diasporic Chinese in shaping Panamanian foreign
relations with the ROC. A respected leader of the community remem-


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

bered, In the late 1970s, General Omar Torrijos came to me to ask if

Panama should establish relations with mainland China, and I told him
that the Chinese community are pro-ROC and would not support it. And
in the end, he decided not to switch relations. A more recent example
was the ROC embassys public response to the 1990s anti-Chinese immigrant incident and the police raiding of Chinese homes. The ambassador
issued a statement on behalf of diasporic Chinese urging the Panamanian
government to give fair treatment to the recent immigrants. Aside from
these testimonies and events, a number of structures and institutions attest to the ongoing collaboration between the ROC embassy and the diaspora. The Centro Cultural Chino-Panameo (Chinese Panamanian
Cultural Center) and the Sun Yat-Sen School are two examples of their
long-term partnership.
Throughout my field research, everyone I spoke with at one point or
another directed me to the Centro Cultural Chino-Panameo, which represents the heart of the Chinese community for most Chinese and nonChinese Panamanians alike. It is the place where you can get help, get
information, find people, etc, explained Roberto. He continued, When
people talk about the Chinese community in Panama, they are referring
to el Centro, not the Chinese Association. El Centro holds the leadership
position in the eyes of Panama. Most people are unaware of the Chinese
Roberto, who is in his fifties, comes from a prominent Panamanian
Chinese family. His father, who is recognized as a significant patriarch of
the Chinese community, was an astute businessman and an even more
savvy community leader, whose impeccable reputation garners respect
among not only diasporic Chinese but also the Panamanian elite.
Robertos father was instrumental in designing the cultural-political architecture of the community and shaping the developmental trajectory of
diasporic Chinese in Panama. The familys social and political networks
are vast, and they are connected to some of the most influential politicians and businessmen in Panama. Robertos father immigrated to
Panama in the 1920s and built his business empire around clothing manufacturing. Roberto, who was born in Panama and educated in the
United States, is now running the family business. Continuing the work
that his father started, Roberto is very much involved in community activities. He had served as president of the Chinese Panamanian Professionals Association for many years and is currently on the board of directors of the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center.

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


As discussed in the Introduction, the Chinese Panamanian Cultural

Center houses the administrative headquarters and functions as the cultural and political center of the community. It provides a meeting space
for all the community organizations and hosts educational lectures,
karaoke performances, and lunches and dinners, as well as fund-raising
activities. It also sponsors classes in Chinese dance, kung fu, and Chinese
cooking. The Sun Yat-Sen School is part of the center and operates under
its leadership. Both are located on the same premises in El Dorado, a
neighborhood in Panama City that is now popularly referred to as the
new Chinatown.
Robertos positioning as a second-generation Panamanian Chinese
who plays a leadership role in local affairs illuminates a different perspective on Chinese politics in Panama. I quote him at length here in order to situate his point of view:
El Centro has united the community. The success of el Centro makes people
want to be involved and thereby brings the community together. It promotes
pride in our ancestry. Its prestige in Panama is high, and it is in much demand.
The Sun Yat-Sen School nurtures generations of [Chinese] kids. It provides
opportunities for them to travel to Taiwan, it teaches them Chinese customs
and traditions. It also provides a place for kids with similar ancestry to spend
time together. It helps build relations among the community. We also try to enlist non-Chinese students, but we want to maintain the student body to be
about 70 percent students of Chinese ancestry and 30 percent students of
other backgrounds. We want to create a community in which people know
one another. Overall, the school has united families as well as kids. My hope
is that the children will be proud of their ancestry, like I am. And hopefully,
they will give something back to the community.
As you know, the Chinese community has changed over the past fifteen
years. There are really two different groups of Chinese. You have one group of
people who come from respected families, and you can trace their history in
Panama. Then, you have another group of Chinese who came during the Noriega years. . . . They now make up about half of the Chinese population. . . .
The transition period for these new immigrants has passed. They have been
absorbed, so to speak, into the community. Most of their kids are in el Centro,
and this will help smooth out the differences between the two groups.
The Chinese community had always been pro-Taiwan because most of the
people ran away from the communist regime. Now, with the new influx of immigrants, there are people who play ball with both sides. Among [Panamanian-born Chinese], they also have a split opinion. Mostly there is indifference,
and many of them dont think of the China-Taiwan conflict as their problem.
Those who are involved in el Centro are the ones who have thought about the
situation more and who have analyzed why their parents came to Panama and
how the Taiwanese have helped Panama. . . . The group that ran away from


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

China and the group that works with Taiwan are connected. They would be
ingrates if they did not support Taiwan. Taiwan has done so much for
For me, home is Panama. . . . Basically, I am Panamanian, the only difference is that the Chinese features remain. I have values that are very important
Chinese values, and I am culturally mixed. My responsibility is to Panama,
and I will promote and help the Chinese community as much as I can. My father suffered and fled from communist China. He has dedicated his time,
money, and effort to help build this overseas Chinese community. . . . I dont
feel the same kind of pressure that my father did. That stage of history has
passed. The community has matured. His era was the transition from being secluded to being involved in the Panamanian community . . . the integration of
the community . . . that transition has already been made. My responsibility
now is to help people I know to get involved. Panamanians of Chinese descent
need to be more involved [in El Centro].

Identifying strongly as Panamanian of Chinese descent, Roberto is

committed to Panama and to strengthening the Chinese community
there. Whereas he characterizes national integration as the biggest challenge that faced his fathers generation, Robertos primary concern now
is to nurture an active and self-consciously Chinese-identified community
that is both proud of being culturally Chinese and yet involved in all aspects of Panamanian life. The Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center, as he
has suggested, serves that purpose. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine diasporic Chinese cultural and political life in Panama without the center.
And yet, it would be equally difficult to think of the center without also
acknowledging the involvement of the ROC government in it. The interconnections are so deeply entrenched that the official and institutionalized versions of Chinese Panamanian identity and community cannot be
easily unraveled from the center and thereby also from the influence of
the ROC state.
Th e C h i n e s e Pa n a m a n i a n C u l t u r a l C e n t e r :
I n s t i t u t i o n a l i z i n g Ta i w a n - D i a s p o r a Ti e s
El Centro Cultural Chino-Panameo, por favor, I told the taxi driver
as I slammed the door shut behind me. The driver looked at me in his
rear view mirror and nodded, affirming that he knew where it was, and
we were off.
Two stone lions, one on each side of the door, guard the front entrance. From the outside, the building looks quite new and well maintained. On entering the air-conditioned building, I encountered the bust
of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen that sits in the middle of the foyer, as if greeting visi-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


tors as they enter the school that is named after him. I walked into the reception area and introduced myself. As I was a bit early for my appointment, I was sent with a secretary to get a tour of the entire campus. Class
was still in session, so it was the perfect time to walk around without fear
of being hit by a ball or some other flying object. The building closest to
the road, the one I had just been in, houses the administrative offices and
the library on the first floor and classrooms on the second and third
floors. As we exited the main building, we walked right into the schoolyard, on the other side of which are more classroom buildings. As we
walked from building to building, I noticed that some of the rooms had
names next to them. The secretary explained that they were names of
donors. Farther away, another statue could be seen. This time it was a
full-body statue of Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader exiled to Taiwan in 1949, standing in front of the gymnasium named after him. The
gymnasium is huge, with stadium seating along the sides of the building.
At the end of the gymnasium is a stage, where dance, kung fu, and other
performances take place. We walked back toward the main building, and
the secretary pointed to the empty lot across the street from the campus.
She told me that the center was in the process of building a park, which
would provide additional recreational area for the children and the community. An overhead bridge would connect the school to the park, so students could get across safely. Complete with all the basic facilities and
more, the entire campus looked impressive. The design of the buildings,
accented with Chinese architectural details, is tastefully done. The blueprint of the park reflects the continuation of the Chinese motif, featuring
a pagoda, water fountain, and a Chinese-style gate.
After the tour, I met with Mr. Lee, a highly educated Hong Kong immigrant who speaks English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Dressed in his suit and tie, and wearing thick glasses, with hair neatly
parted on the side and gelled in place, he stood up to shake my hand as I
walked into his office. Wasting no time, he asked, in English, What can
I do for you, Miss Siu? I told him a little bit about my research and
asked for more information about the center. The center was founded in
1980, but the school did not start functioning until 1986, he answered
matter-of-factly. It started with 115 students who were transferred from
the Chinese school in the old Chinatown. Now, there are over 1,500 students, and our enrollment is growing.
How was the school started? Whose idea was it? I asked.
The community wanted to have their children learn basic knowledge


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

about Chinese culture, Chinese roots, he replied. The [Taiwanese]

embassy and government wanted to help them achieve this goal. And the
Center was founded as a result of their collaboration.
He went on to explain that the center had been built with donations
from the community and the Taiwanese embassy and government, which
initiated the project with $2 million. Most of the teachers are locals, although several are recruited from Taiwan to teach Mandarin and Chinese
dance. I asked him how the center worked in conjunction with the community and the embassy, and he elaborated: The center provides all
sorts of services that the community needs, especially cultural services,
such as promoting the image of Chinese in Panama and bettering the social position of Chinese through education and dispersal of information.
The founding members of the center, the donors, and representatives
from the Chinese Association and the [ROC] embassy elect the centers
board of directors every two years. The center communicates with the
community through all the Chinese organizations.
As I had discovered during my field research, the founding of the center represented the conscious effort of diasporic Chinese to develop a cultural-political apparatus for the community. It clearly illustrates the political agency of diasporic Chinese. More important, it illustrates the
particularly transnational manner in which this political agency was exercised. Since its inception, the center has always been conceptualized and
developed as a sustained collaboration between the ROC government
and diasporic Chinese. This homeland state-diaspora relationship is
forged out of mutual support and understanding of each others specific
predicaments. At the very least, the popular perception of their assumed
relations has bound them closer together. Although Panamanian-born
Chinese have achieved a certain level of acceptance in Panama, dominant
constructions of national belonging continue to associate ethnic groups
with their place of origin, thus preventing them from attaining full citizenship in Panama. The newspaper articles discussed in this chapter are
examples of this marginalizing process at work. No matter how many
generations they have been in Panama, diasporic Chinese are nonetheless
associated with the Chinese homeland. It is not surprising, then, that diasporic Chinese continue to stress the need for a positive and strong representation of the Chinese state in Panama and that they have worked
closely with the ROC government toward that end. Aside from this explicit political agenda, diasporic Chinese also have looked to the ROC
government for cultural resources and knowledge of Chineseness. For ex-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


ample, Chinese language and dance teachers are recruited from Taiwan,
and the embassy also organizes regular visits and performances by Taiwan-based dance and opera troops. In this manner, the ROC government
has played an active role in shaping notions of Chinese tradition, history,
and culture. The ROC government, on the other hand, appreciates the
support of diasporic Chinese, who both directly and indirectly mediate its
relationship with the Panamanian nation-state. Understanding the significance of diasporic Chinese allegiance, the ROC government actively
nurtures the continuation of good relations and the reproduction of
homeland-diaspora ties. The two parties are, hence, wedded together by
their mutual need of cultural-political support, the conflation of ethnicity
and national belonging, and the shared effort to create and reproduce a
diasporic Chinese consciousness.
As a joint project of both diasporic Chinese and the ROC government,
the center is perhaps the single most important local apparatus that productively sustains their transnational relationship through time and
across geographical space. While the center represents the heart of the
community, the school helps socialize generations of children who will
maintain a sense of Chineseness and an affiliation with the ROC government. By sponsoring language and arts classes, cultural performances,
community activities, and youth programs to Taiwan, the center and its
Sun Yat-Sen School inspire both the formation of a dual consciousness
of being Chinese and Panamanian simultaneouslyand a dual connection with both Taiwan and Panama. It is this emphasis on sustaining a binational and bicultural identification that forms the basis for their
continued relations.
Part of the question of what will happen with Chinese state representation concerns the future of collaborative ROC-diaspora projects such
as the center. Indeed, so many of the communitys programs, activities,
and celebrations are co-sponsored by the ROC embassy, and so much of
their identification with Chineseness is tied to these cultural practices and
social engagements. Hence, the change in Chinese state representation is
not merely a question of ideological difference, but one that is closely
linked to established ways of being diasporic Chinese, both in terms of
the social organization of the diaspora and the meanings and practices of
Chineseness. It is not surprising, then, that many diasporic Chinese
would agree with Esteban: It is better to keep the old, the thing you
know, than to try the new, the thing you dont know.


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

Cultural, Not Political, Identification

Among another group of Panamanian-born Chinese, the China-Taiwan
question seemed irrelevant. It was Wednesday night, and a group of seven
professionals in their thirties were getting together for dinner at Lung
Fung Restaurant. A good friend of mine had organized this gathering to
provide me with an opportunity to get to know this generation a little
better. I knew most of them already, so we began our conversation with
a quick survey of family histories. With the exception of one Euro-American male who was married to a Panamanian Chinese woman, all of them
were second- and third-generation Panamanian-born Chinese. There
were three married couples and one single male. All spoke English and
Spanish fluently, and only one of them spoke Cantonese.
The six Panamanian Chinese grew up together. They went to the same
schools, and many of their parents were friends. They noted that most of
their friends now were Panamanian Chinese. They attended activities
sponsored by Agrupacin, or Agrupa, an association that organizes social
activities primarily for Panamanian-born Chinese, including community
plays, Mothers Day celebrations, semi-formal dances, and debutante
balls. They said that attending these activities helped them maintain their
circle of friends and also provided opportunities for their children to intermingle. When asked about their sense of identity, they all agreed that
they felt very Chinese . . . actually very Panamanian Chinese. Juliana
elaborated, More than in any other place, I feel most Chinese in
Panama. Most of my friends in Panama are Chinese. It was not that way
in the [United] States. There, my friends were more heterogeneous. Here,
I tend to be around Chinese people more. I feel more Chinese, and yet
when I travel to China and Hong Kong, I dont feel like I belong there. I
feel like an overseas Chinese, a Panamanian Chinese. . . . I really dont
practice Chinese traditions, except for eating Chinese food, giving and receiving lai see (red envelopes of money), and worshipping ancestors with
my parents. Keeping Chinese values is what makes me feel Chinese.
The group nodded in agreement.
What kind of values? I asked.
Values like family closeness, respect for elders, working hard, honesty, things like that . . .
All of them nodded again in agreement, repeating, Yes, its these values that make us feel Chinese.
Yet what seemed more significant in shaping their sense of Chinese-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


ness were their interactions with other Panamanian Chinese and their
continuation of various Chinese practices. As Juliana herself had pointed
out, I feel most Chinese in Panama. . . . Most of my friends in Panama
are Chinese. . . . Here I tend to be around Chinese people more. And
without recognizing it, the simple acts of eating Chinese food, giving and
receiving lai see, and ancestor worship all provide them with a set of
shared cultural practices and knowledge that distinguish them from nonChinese. In fact, these are the very living traditions they perform in their
everyday lives that reproduce their sense of Chineseness.
I shifted the topic of discussion and asked about their opinion of the
China-Taiwan debate that is unfolding in Panama. There was a pause,
and they looked at one other curiously, as if waiting for someone to say
something. Juliana began, We should support Taiwan because it is a democratic and capitalist country. China is communist. Carolina jumped
in, But China is more open than before. It has developed quite a bit. It
is not as bad as you think it is. To me, the Taiwan-China dilemma is like
the Chiriqui-Panama issue. Chiriqui wants to secede from Panama. How
ridiculous is that? Its a province of Panama, and it wants to secede. Taiwan wants to do the same thing. Rodolfo, Julianas husband, interjected, But actually, Taiwan is the original China. It is the real China.
A few of them shifted in their seats, looking around once again, and Luis,
Carolinas husband, asserted, The bottom line is . . . we dont care. No
matter what happens, it is business as usual. They chuckled and smiled
at his comment. Nodding in agreement, they seemed relieved.
I was uncertain if the conversation ended here because they did not
have anything further to add or whether they did not want to offend anyone with their different viewpoints. The abrupt ending of this discussion
suggested that there was little consensus on this issue, even among this
group, whose members had little, if any, personal experience with China
and Taiwan politics. They had few attachments to either the PRC or the
ROC, and their support for one or the other was evidently informed by
other ideological sources. Some statements resonated with U.S.-biased
Cold War rhetoric, as exemplified by the strict delineation between
democracy/capitalism and communism. Unlike the previous two groups
of people mentioned earlier in this chapter, this cohort seemed less affected by the geopolitical events of the time and less invested in the
China-Taiwan debate. Without any meaningful connection to either
China or Taiwan, most of them appear unaware and uncertain about the
histories of the two Chinas. The distance and non-involvement expressed


Good-bye, Uncle Sam

by this cohort suggest not only their sense of disconnection from Chinese
homeland politics but also their deep rootedness in defining home and
belonging in Panama.

By the end of 1997, Panama had struck a perfect compromise: it would
maintain official relations with Taiwan while allowing the PRC to establish a commercial office in Panama. Though this decision settles the issue
temporarily, the struggle is far from being over, for as long as the ChinaTaiwan conflict continues, so will the struggle for official relations with
I end this chapter with a truncated scenario, for its outcome is yet to
be determined. In early January 1997, I was at the airport, saying goodbye to some friends who had visited for the holidays. There, I noticed a
group of Chinese families standing around. From afar I recognized a few
people, so I walked over to say hello.
Pedro (whose migration story is discussed in chapter 3) noticed me as
I approached the group. With his usual soft-spoken voice, he greeted me,
What a surprise to see you here.
Yes. I was just dropping off a friend. Are you taking a trip?
No . . . me . . . no. I am dropping off my son who is going to spend a
few months in Taiwan. He pointed to a youth of apparently about fifteen, dressed in a white polo shirt and shorts, who was surrounded by
about ten similarly dressed youngsters.
Wow. How exciting. What is he going to do in Taiwan? From previous interviews, I knew that Pedro did not have family in Taiwan, so I
eliminated a family visit as a possibility.
Oh, well, he won a scholarship in Panama through El Centro, and
the Taiwanese government is sponsoring this program for him and the
others to learn Chinese. Its sort of a cultural exchange program. Hell be
there for about two months.
Thats wonderful. Congratulations! Im sure hell enjoy it very
Yes, thank you. I am very proud of him.
Noticing that the leader of the group was motioning them toward the
gate, I quickly said good-bye so as to give them more time to bid each
other farewell.
This conversation marked the first time I had heard about this pro-

Good-bye, Uncle Sam


gram for diasporic Chinese youth in Panama. I knew that the Taiwanese
government offered a couple of individual scholarships per year for study
abroad in Taiwan, but this group language-cultural program for youth
was something new. It sounded similar to the Chinese American version
of the youth program, popularly known as the love boat, that is also
sponsored by the Taiwanese government. As I reflected on this, I wondered what would become of this new generation of youth who are rediscovering Chineseness through Taiwanese lenses. I suspect that the
Taiwanese government will continue to nurture close ties with diasporic
Chinese through the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center and programs
such as these, and I would be curious to learn about the long-term effects
of these efforts for the emerging generations of diasporic Chinese youth.
As fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-generation Panamanian-born Chinese, how
will they construct and practice Chineseness? How will they define home
and belonging?

Toward a Framework for the Study
of Asians in the Americas

Since my first visit to Panama, now over ten years ago, I have been captivated by the dynamism of the Chinese community there. In this book, I
offer a glimpse into the social world of Panamanian Chinese, conveying
what I had learned, seen, and heard, and what I had come to understand
about this incredibly diverse and vibrant community. The question that
motivated my research concerned a seemingly basic concept, that of belonging. But as we know, the things we consider to be the most basic are
often also the most difficult to unravel. As I discovered, the question of
belonging for diasporic Chinese in Panama is no simple matter. My aim
in this book, then, has been to illustrate the various dimensions that
shape the context of their belonging, the sociocultural practices they
adopted in building a home in diaspora, and their entangled sentiments as they engage in the process of homemaking and the struggle for
full belonging.
As I have suggested in the introduction, the concept of diasporic citizenship offers a useful device to understand the politics of belonging in a
diasporic context. While the concept itself emerged from my work with
Panamanian Chinese, it also helped push me toward greater clarity. I
used diasporic citizenship to illuminate the epistemology of Panamanian
Chinese and to map the shifting context of their belonging. As I came to
realize, belonging for Panamanian Chinese is about inhabiting the cultural-political intersection of Panama, China/Taiwan, and the United
States. It is about how they position themselves in relation to all these
places, negotiate the cultural flows that emanate from them, and deal
with the political frictions that emerge between them. It is also about
how they create new social practices and cultural expressions that reflect
the complexities of living at that intersectional space or, put more simply,
living in diaspora. In studying the diasporic citizenship of Chinese in



Panama, I raise several key issues that current discussions of diaspora

have not addressed adequately. I draw from their experience new theoretical insights that extend and deepen our understanding of what it
means not just to live in diaspora but to construct a specific way of belonging to it.
First, although geopolitics was not the research question I started with,
I soon realized in the course of conducting fieldwork that it was impossible to ignore. Its presence permeated all aspects of Panamanian Chinese
life. By geopolitics, I am referring to the cultural and political-economic
conditions generated by relations between nation-states. The crucial
point I want to underscore here is that geopolitical relationsespecially
those involving Panama, China/Taiwan, and the United Stateshave direct effect on debates of Chinese belonging in Panama. Although the general phenomenon is not a new observation1 (Enloe 1989), the ethnographic material provided here offers a situated and nuanced look at how
this particular configuration of geopolitical links have shaped the citizenship experience of Panamanian Chinese. Recall, for instance, how the
U.S. invasion of Panama and the removal of Noriegas regime opened the
possibility for accusations of human trafficking and the mass arrest of
undocumented Chinese. Also, notice how constructions of Chinese belonging shifted in the late 1990s when China and Taiwan became
Panamas major economic and political allies: diasporic Chinese were refashioned into cultural bridge builders. These shifting notions of Chinese
belonging in Panama not only point to the contingent nature of their national incorporation but also highlight the ongoing link between definitions of Chinese citizenship in Panama and the larger geopolitical context
in which Chinese subjects are continually remade. Moreover, while the
triangulation between Panama, China/Taiwan, and the United States contributes to the contingent nature of Chinese belonging, it paradoxically
also generates the cultural resources for diasporic identity formation and
expands their possibilities of belonging beyond the parameters of a single
nation-state. Capturing this double-edged process, diasporic citizenship
demonstrates how the intersection of these three entities forms the terrain
on which Panamanian Chinese interpret their past, construct their present, and imagine their future, bound by historical interdependencies, social networks, and cultural memory.
Second, for Panamanian Chinese, the question of Chinese homeland
cannot be separated from the China-Taiwan conflict. There is not one but
two competing homeland states claiming allegiance from diasporic Chi-



nese, and nowhere is this made more vividly clear than in countries that
maintain formal relations with Taiwan. As mentioned earlier, Taiwans
struggle for sovereignty is directly related to its effort to strengthen ties
with the diaspora. In Panama, it is impossible to speak about the diasporic Chinese without discussing the role of the Taiwanese government.
From social institutions such as the Sun Yat-Sen Institute to transnational
networks like the Federation of Chinese Associations of Central America
and Panama, the Taiwanese state is deeply embedded in the cultural and
social life of diasporic Chinese. Since the late 1990s, with increased
PRCHong Kong investments and escalating pressure from the PRC government to end official relations with Taiwan, the China-Taiwan conflict
has erupted in Panama with full force. On one level, this has challenged
Panamanians at large to rework their conceptions of China, Taiwan, and
the Chinese, both in Asia and abroad. On another level, it has engendered heated debate among diasporic Chinese about who they are, where
their allegiances lie, and where they belong. Indeed, the case of Panamanian Chinese has made explicitly clear that the China-Taiwan conflict
is still very much alive, and its power reaches beyond the Taiwan Straits
into the intimate realm of diasporic Chinese identity and community formation.
Third, American colonialism has also left its mark on the cultural and
social formation of Panamanian Chinese. The American Canal Zone not
only provided an alternative route for Chinese integration in Panama but
also offered alternative cultural resources for imagining and practicing
belonging in diaspora. Through their colonial ties and economic relationship, diasporic Chinese found an ally in the American administration
in Panama, and slowly that relationship led to a more profound incorporation of America into the lives and imaginaries of diasporic Chinese.
We see the actualization of these imaginaries in their pursuit of American
cultural capital. Their acquisition of English, sojourns at American universities, and sometimes even migration to the United States all indicate
the extent to which American culture and the United States have become
a part of diasporic Chinese reality.
Fourth, far from treating diasporic citizenship as a homogenizing
process, my research has shown that Chinese belonging is shot through
with difference and disjuncture. Differences in immigration cohort, class,
nationality, racial mixture, and gender all result in divergent experiences
and conceptions of what it means to be Chinese in the diaspora. By focusing on how these differences inform the struggles of belonging on var-



ious scales of community formation, I have underscored not only peoples

variousand sometimes contradictorycommitments, but also the contingency of community formation. The mobilization of Panamanian Chinese to challenge the mass arrest of recent Chinese immigrants, hence,
must be considered alongside the antagonism between them caused by
their unequal class position and contrasting expectations of one another.
On the regional level, the tension between difference and samenessrecast along the lines of nation, ethnicity, and raceis actively performed
and contested in the beauty contest of Chinese in Central America and
Panama. In these scenarios, Stuart Halls evocation of the dual vectors of
continuity/sameness and rupture/difference appropriately captures the
tensions and the ongoing negotiations within diasporic Chinese (1990).
Fifth, my research has underscored the role of migration in constructing cultural identity and notions of home. Diasporic Chinese identity, as
I have shown, cannot be reduced to the influences of a single nation or
ethnicity but is very much shaped by memories and the continued practice of border crossing. Rather than treating migration as a backdrop to
cultural change, I suggest we approach it as both a process of meaning
production and a key element to cultural syncretism. Doing so emphasizes the generative and transformative nature of migration and highlights the role of place in the production of identity. This approach resonates with James Cliffords suggestion that we study more closely the
various forms of travel (a term he prefers over migration) undertaken by
differently positioned subjects in order to examine the array of experiences produced in that process (1997). Indeed, my interviews with Panamanian Chinese have shown that not only have past migrations played a
significant role in their subject formation but their understanding of who
they are reflects the intermingling of those cultural encounters.
Migrationin fact, serial migrationhas been and will continue to be
an important aspect of diasporic Chinese life. I point to the next generation of serial migrants, such as the Chinese Panamanians now living in
the United States, as a case in point. How do these Chinese Panamanian
Americans articulate their identity? Do they experience a process of sinification or hispanicization once they have arrived in the United States?
Alternatively, do they hold on to their Chinese Panamanian identity or
simply become American? Parallel questions could be asked of Indian
Tanzanians who fled from Africa to Britain and Canada, as well as Japanese Brazilians and Korean Argentines who have settled in the United
States (Park 2002; Joseph 1999; Ropp 2000). Their identifications may



not be based solely on ethnic origin, racial identity, and/or national citizenship. How, in fact, do multiple migrations shape their construction of
identity and community?

The Question of Area Studies

On a different level, this book contributes to the ongoing debate over
Area Studies. At the time I began this project, in the mid 1990s, the field
of Anthropology was already embroiled in discussions about the future
of Area Studies. In many ways, diasporas intrinsically challenge the conflation of race with nation or region that Area Studies often took for
granted. Indeed, not only did the experiences of Panamanian Chinese
(and Asians in Latin America more generally) refused to be contained in
any one area of study, but to interpret their experience, I had to draw
upon several areas of study, namely Latin American and Asian American
studies. In effect, the nature of my project necessitated that I think outside of the Area Studies box. It seems appropriate, then, to revisit this
question of Area Studies at the end of this project.
Over the years, I have come to realize that the silence of Asians in
Latin America as a subject of analysis is symptomatic of how Area Studies, in general, has constructed its object of study. Here, I refer to both the
manner in which Area Studies carved up the world into bounded units of
specialized research and its creation of theoretical metonyms that attached gatekeeping concepts to specific areassuch as hierarchy in India,
filial piety in China, and lineage and segment in Africa (Guyer 2004; Appadurai 1986). While the former elided the interconnections between regions and the global history of imperialism, the latter restricted the possibility of research topics to a handful of themes that were taken to
represent an entire area.
In Latin American studies, the dominant themes have formed around
political economic concerns, state/capital interventions, indigenous struggles, and identity-based political movements (Warren 1998; Tausssig
1980; Hale 1997). Recently, however, heightened interest in race and ethnicity has led to new research on Afro-Latin Americans, and Asians in
this region are slowly gaining more attention (Gordon 1998; Wade 1997;
Torres and Whitten 1998; Lesser 1999; Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo 2004; Rustomji-Kerns 1999). Indeed, one only needs to point to
former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, the Mexican legend of La
China Poblana, and the vibrant barrios chinos throughout Latin America



to illustrate the disjunction between the extensive presence of Asians and

the lack of general knowledge about them. If there is any doubt that
Asians will continue to be part of Latin America, let me call attention to
the New York Times article (November 25, 2004) summarizing Chinese
President Hu Jintaos visit to the region which suggests otherwise: Hu announced more than $30 billion in new Chinese investments and signed a
number of long-term supply contracts to fuel Beijings expanding economy. This growing relationship between China and various countries in
Latin America will most certainly not be confined to the economic
sphere. History has shown that when there is international trade, people
follow, and so does cultural exchange and social transformation. Given
this current context, it seems timely to develop more research on Asians
in Latin America.
In Asian American studies, early efforts to claim America have focused
the fields attention on migration, exclusion, and cultural assimilation
(Yanagisako 1995; Takaki 1989; Chan 1991). Since the 1990s, however,
the field has expanded in various directions, taking on more critical approaches to address gender, sexuality, media, and diaspora (Parreas
2001; Eng 2001; Manalansan 2003; Shimakawa 2001; Feng 2002). Not
immune to the intellectual concerns of the time, the fieldalong with
American and other Ethnic studiesalso became enmeshed in internal
debate about its nation-bound, U.S.-centric approach. While some American studies scholars have argued for more engaged scholarship on the
question of American imperialism (Kaplan and Pease 1993; Shukla and
Tinsman 2004), Asian American and Latino studies have debated the
pros and cons of adopting a more transnational and diasporic approach.
Within Asian American studies, Sau-Ling Wong has alerted us to the political implications in shifting from a cross-ethnic and nation-specific approach to a cross-national and ethnic-specific focus (1995). While the
former constructs politics based on place, the latter formulates politics
based on ethnicity. Wong is concerned that the panethnic consciousness
that has been so critical to Asian American political struggles and fundamental to Asian American studies would be lost in the move toward denationalization and the assertion of ethnic distinction over panethnicity
(see also Dirlik 1999). Yet, as Sylvia Yanagisako has pointed out, the nation-based Asian American studies framework also has its faults: it has
foreclosed gender analysis by ignoring the transnational dimensions of
Asian American family formation (1995). Together, these critiques remind us that there are always gains and limits in every approach.



Responding to these critiques, scholars have proposed at least two

ways of extending the purview of Asian American studies. The most obvious has been to examine the AsiaAsian America connection, but I caution, along with a number of other scholars, that we not lose sight of the
hemispheric Asians in the Americas perspective.2 Aside from offering a
transnational and comparative analysis of Asian diasporas in the Americas, pursuing this line of inquiry actually leads to a fundamental and radical re-vision of Asian American history and culture. In expanding our
scope of analysis in this direction, we begin to realize that Asians have
been in the Americas since at least the 1600s. And as soon as they arrived, they circulated throughout different parts of the Americas and
maintained transnational ties with one another. Indeed, Asians continue
to migrate between Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and North
America. Exploring these links and movements will lead us to a very different picture and understanding of Asian American life, past and present. Chinese Cubans in New York and Miami, Chinese Jamaicans and
Indian Trinidadians in New York and Toronto, and Korean Argentines in
Los Angeles are contemporary examples of these multiple migrations and
their complex relationship to the Americas. Once we recognize the constraints of the nation-based framework, nothing short of a new hemispheric historiography of Asian America will do.
By broadening our analysis into these realms and expanding our vision
of who and what is Asian America, we in fact are practicing and developing a politics of inclusion and a framework of transnational intersectionality. Inevitably, these extensions will bring Asian American studies
into dialogue with Latino and Latin American studies (as they already
have begun to do). And from these conversations, we can begin to explore the entwined histories and experiences of the different populations
in the Americas. Only through this active process of exchange and dialogue can we begin to envision and build a truly cross-ethnic, cross-racial,
and transnational politics.3

A Hemispheric Approach to the Study of

Asians in the Americas
I end this conclusion with some preliminary though concrete notes toward a framework to study Asians in the Americas. Incorporating an
analysis of Asians in other parts of the Americas into the existing field of
Asian American studies is not a simple process of adding case studies to



the mix, although that is a necessary step. To take seriously the task of reframing, we must fundamentally revise our current U.S.-centric approach
and begin to develop a different set of analytical questions and methods
that can lead us toward reformulating Asian American studies from the
standpoint of the Americas. Here I outline four broad organizing
themes, or lines of inquiry, to establish a transnational and comparative
approach to the study of Asians in the Americas.
Th e P o l i t i c s o f N a t i o n a l I n t e g r a t i o n
The cultural politics of national integration is critical to understanding
the uneven and divergent ways in which different ethnic Asian groups
have become part of the nation-state. As national ideologies (such as multiculturalism, mestizaje, and creolization) vary throughout the region, it
may be useful to explore how Asians become differently constructed as
racial, ethnic, gender, and class subjects in different contexts. For instance, while the term Asian American represents a panethnic collective identity encompassing all the different ethnic groups from Asia in the
United States (Espiritu 1992), it is not well known, much less used, elsewhere in the Americas. The term derived from the history of the 1960s
grassroots Asian American movement, and because no similar social
movement took place elsewhere in the Americas, ethnicity remains the
most salient form of self-identification (besides national identity) among
Asians in Latin America. Nevertheless, the tendency for panethnic racialization by the dominant society still exists. In many Latin American
countries, with the exception of Brazil, the terms chino and china are often used broadly by non-Asians to refer to all people with an East Asian
phenotype. For instance, when the former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori was running for reelection, he was commonly called El Chino,
even though it was well known that he is of Japanese, not Chinese, descent. El Chino, in this sense, references a racial category rather than
the specific ethnic Chinese identity.
Historically, debates around immigration have been the central site
where racial and ethnic arguments about Asians were launched. In many
cases, class played an important role. It is important to recall that most
early Asian migration to Latin America was based on labor demands,
and in fact, Asian labor was used to replace the labor of enslaved
Africans after the end of the slave trade. Indeed, the coolie status of Chinese migrants made them more akin to enslaved blacks, and racial arguments regarding their inferiority vis--vis whites were used to restrict



their immigration. One example is the reaction by abolitionists to the

proposal to import Chinese coolies into Brazil in 1879. Joaquim
Nabuco, the leading abolitionist politician of the day, vigorously opposed
the coolie proposal on the grounds that Brazil already had enough trouble balancing off its African Blood without importing Asian Blood
(Skidmore 1990, 9). Blacks remained an unwanted element in Brazil as
late as 1923, Thomas Skidmore notes, and Asians were regarded as almost as great a menace because their alleged failure to assimilate would
guarantee the presence of yellow cysts in the national organism (ibid.,
24). Invoking the language of blood, degeneracy, and the inability to assimilate, these parallels drawn between blacks and Asians along racial
difference vis--vis the idealized white nation were used to justify Asian
exclusion, just as it was for blacks. These types of discourses existed
throughout Latin America from the mid nineteenth to the early twentieth
century, as many of the countries faced the conflict between increasing
labor needs, to which Asians provided the solution, and heightened nationalist efforts to homogenize and whiten the nation.
Certainly, while similarities in the reception of ethnic Asians can be
drawn, there are also differences in their national integration. For instance, the case of Asian Indians in the Caribbean underscores the role of
religion (Khan 2004). Other questions might explore the extent to which
cultural stereotypes, such as the model minority, translate across the
Americas. Overall, it would be fruitful to examine cross-nationally and
over time how Asians have integrated into the Americas.
D i a s p o r a - H o m e l a n d Ti e s
The evolving relationship between diasporic Asians and their respective
homelands or homeland states is also an important comparative dimension. For instance, the Japanese government played an active role in facilitating and regulating Japanese migration to Latin America. Japanese
migrations were organized by international agreements, and Japanese immigrants were granted certain amounts of land and various resources to
help jumpstart their settlement. Also, Japanese diplomats in Latin America served as legal representatives of diasporic Japanese and were often
called upon to resolve interethnic and intraethnic disputes. The Chinese
government, on the other hand, was less involved, especially in the early
periods of Chinese migration.
Moreover, homeland states often provide cultural and economic resources for developing communitywide projects in the nation of resi-



dence. In the case of Chinese in Panama and Central America, the ROC
embassy not only sponsors various cultural activities, such as national
holiday celebrations, but also provides material support for developing
cultural and educational institutions. Also, the ROC government cosponsors transnational conventions that bring together diasporic Chinese on
the regional, hemispheric, and global levels. Similar transnational organizations exist for diasporic Japanese as well. The Pan-American Nikkei
Association consists of Nikkei (people of Japanese descent) living in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Columbia, the U.S., Mexico,
Paraguay, Peru, the Dominican Republic, and Uruguay. With co-sponsorship from the Japanese embassy and civic and private organizations,
they convene biennially in different cities throughout the Americas to discuss collective concerns and to celebrate their shared cultural heritage
(Hirabayshi and Kikumura-Yano 2002).
In the past few decades, the PRC, ROC, Japan, and India have increased their efforts in reaching out to the diaspora. India, for instance,
has established a special legal category of non-resident Indians, or
NRI, to encourage economic remittances and diasporic investments in India (Raj 2003; Shukla 2001). Since the late 1980s, Japan has recruited
thousands of Japanese Latin Americans to fill the labor needs of its growing economy (Roth 2002; Tsuda 2003, Linger 2001). Meanwhile, the
PRC looks to diasporic Chinese for economic investments in homeland
projects such as schools and hospitals, and Taiwan is seeking their political support in gaining sovereignty. With the push toward globalization,
Asian states are using discourses of ethnicity, cultural connectedness, and
belonging to mobilize their overseas diasporas to fulfill domestic needs
for labor, capital, and political influence. In most Asian communities
throughout Latin America, the role of the homeland state is noticeable,
and in many cases, the two have established strong social and cultural
American Imperialism and Hegemony
Since the establishment of the Monroe doctrine in 1823, the United States
has made itself the policeman of the New World. It seems important,
then, to examine the varying degrees to which American imperialism and
hegemony has influenced the experiences of Asians throughout the Americas. While U.S. political influence in Latin America and, by extension,
among Asians in this region has varied widely, it has certainly been a
force to be reckoned with. For the Chinese in Panama, the role of the
United States in the countrys overall cultural, economic, and political



formation has been critical. Another notable example is the American

policy of Japanese internment during World War II, which had varying
degrees of influence on Japanese communities throughout the Americas.4
In Latin America, thirteen countriesincluding Bolivia, Colombia, Costa
Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti,
Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, and Perudeported a total of
2,264 Japanese Latin Americans in 1945 and sent them to internment
camps in the United States (Hagihara and Shimizu 2002). Japanese Peruvians, consisting of 1,800 persons, were among the largest group deported. While these numbers were quite small in comparison to the
American and Canadian cases, they nonetheless illustrate the extent to
which American hegemony influenced the treatment of diasporic Japanese in Latin America.
The United States also looms large in another way. It has become the
primary destination for Asian remigrants from Latin America. Certainly,
this is the case for diasporic Chinese from Panama, Cuba, and Peru, as
well as for diasporic Koreans from Brazil and Argentina (Park 2002).
Difference Within and Between Diasporas
Lastly, the question of links and differences within and between diasporic
Asian communities deserves close analysis. By this, I mean the internal
differences within a local community (such as the recent immigrants and
Panamanian Chinese), the links and differences among dispersed communities of one ethnic group (such as the Chinese in Central America and
Panama), and the links and differences between different diasporic
groups (such as Japanese and Chinese in Peru), especially those outside
the United States.
In contrast to early U.S. policies of anti-miscegenation, Latin Americas dominant ideology of mestizaje has encouraged interracial mixing.
Differentiation along notions of purity and mixedness has generated internal tensions and hierarchies among various Asian communities across
this region. Hence, not only do ideas of what it means to be Chinese,
Japanese, Korean, or Hindu vary from place to place but they
also are subject to intense debate and contest. Varying flows of migration
have also contributed to shifting dynamics within the community. As in
the case of Chinese in Panama, contrasting ideas of what it means to be
Chinese racially and how to behave culturally have generated enormous
internal conflict between recently arrived immigrants and Panamanianborn Chinese.
Also, like the Convention of Chinese Associations in Central America



and Panama, the Pan-American Nikkei Convention may serve as an excellent site to examine the links, continuities, and disruptions among diasporic Japanese in the Americas. Finally, given the coexistence of multiple ethnic Asian groups in various countries throughout the hemisphere,
it would be tremendously productive to explore their interactions and
fractures, as well as to compare their experiences within and across local
contexts. For instance, how are Japanese Peruvians constructed differently from Chinese Peruvians, and how does this difference allow one
ethnic subject to be elected to the presidency while the other is an impossible scenario? Certainly, a number of studies have begun to explore some
of these issues (Rustomji-Kerns 1999; Park 2002; Leonard 1992; Lesser
2003; Hirabayashi et al. 2002). What we need now is more historical and
ethnographic research in this area, and more importantly, a sustained
critical discussion that examines their overlaps, intersections, and disjunctures.

The four themes I have outlined above suggest some possible directions for future research. This is by no means a definitive statement but a
work-in-progress that inevitably grows and transforms with time and
new information. In proposing this preliminary framework, my main
goal is to establish some common ground from which we can begin to
think more systematically about the connective tissuesthe linkages, tensions, and dissonancethat allow for an imagining of Asians in the
Americas. Indeed, what would this revised history of Asian America
look like? And how would this hemispheric approach rework our understanding of Asian American culture, racialization, migration, and community?
The concept of diasporic citizenship, the main contribution of this
book, is intended to provide a way of understanding transnational
processes in community and subject formation. If the patterns of the last
few decades are any indication, international migration will continue to
increase, and advancing technologies will make transnational interactions
and communication faster and easier. Old assumptions that ones country
of residence is ones only site of affiliation and allegiance may not hold
true anymore. For some people, this may come as a harsh awakening; for
a number of migrants and their descendants, however, it is simply an intensification or modification of how things have been for generations.
The fact that citizenship, belonging, and transnational migration have



become central concerns of our time suggests that these issues no longer
pertain to a select group of people. Rather, they reflect a more profound
and widespread transformation that is redefining our ideas and relationships to place, home, and community. Indeed, we live in a time when
what we call home, our cultural-ethnic affiliation(s), and our political
commitments may not be congruently located all in one place. And conventional understandings of how migrants integrate into nation-states,
such as concepts of assimilation and cultural succession, actually obscure
more than they clarify. Our increasingly interconnected world is changing the way we think, feel, act, and imagine ourselves in relation to home
and community: diasporic citizenship offers one approach to understanding this new reality.

The Chinese Century: Redefining
Panamanian National Identity

In April 2000, two Panamanian Chinese friends contacted me about the

Gran Feria de la China Milenaria (Chinese Millennium Fair) that would
take place in Panama City in July that same year. They urged me to visit
and document the event, stressing that this is the first Chinese fair ever.
One wrote in an e-mail, Its a big deal for the Chinese community. There
are lots of sponsors, and it is going to take place at the Convention Center. You should try to come down if you can. Almost three years had
passed since I left Panama; I was curious to see what had changed.
Arriving in Panama in July 2000, just a week before the Chinese Millennium Fair, I immediately noticed the enormous media coverage surrounding the event. Announcements were aired frequently on the radio
and television throughout the days preceding the fair. And plenty of peopleChinese and non-Chinese alikeshowed genuine interest in attending the event. In fact, on my way over to the opening ceremony, my nonChinese taxi driver, looking at me in his rear view mirror, commented,
The fair should be a lot of fun. I hear there will be lots of performancesChinese acrobatics, dragon dances, and kung fu. This Sunday,
when I am off from work, I am going to bring my son there. I want him
to see this Chinese fair. I want him to learn about Chinese culture, Chinese ways. He paused and continued, The Chinese are incredible. I admire you. You people work hard, very hard. I see the shopkeepers. They
work fourteen hours a day, every day of the week. And they dont complain. They just keep on working. Now, thats a work ethic. It must be
the Chinese culture, Chinese values. I admire that. I really do. Having
been away from Panama since 1997, I was surprised to hear his comments. I remembered so clearly my experiences of being disdainfully
called chinita or china as I walked down the streets of Panama City.
There was something in the voices back then that bore traces of contempt



and hatred. By July 2000, however, a drastic shift had clearly taken place.
My conversation with the taxi driver was only one example indexing that
The fair was organized by the Chinese Association and the Chinese
Panamanian Cultural Center with support from the Taiwanese embassy
and the International Commercial Bank of China (headquartered in Taiwan), and, indeed, their combined cultural, political, and commercial
interests were present throughout the room. Near the entrance of the
convention center, three brightly lit glass cabinets showcased Chinese
dynastic clothing, as if announcing the grandeur of Chinese cultural history. These replicas of delicately woven silk robes not only conveyed an
image of China as an ancient civilization that had once amassed tremendous power and wealth, but, more subtly, they also suggested that that
glorious past, preserved with meticulous care, might also be its destiny.
Just behind the showcases, aisles of small booths lined the room.
These booths had been rented by different interest groups and served a
variety of purposes. Some were being used to sell off-the-rack Chinese
gowns and robes, others served merely as advertisements, and one particular booth showcased a photographic reconstruction of various Chinese Panamanian genealogies. Its uniqueness set it apart from all the others. It was the only one dedicated to presenting the history of Chinese in
Organized by the Asociacin China de Mujeres Ejecutivas y de Negocias de Panama (Chinese Association of Executive and Business Women
of Panama), the booth provided an intimate portrayal of the Panamanian
Chinese community throughout the twentieth century. Displaying enlarged reproductions of rare photos from personal collections, the booth
captivated the attention of its visitors. Community members were eager
to examine the photos, pointing out the individuals they recognized and
verifying them by reading the captions. Histories of particular families
were documented with pictures from beauty contests, carnival parades,
and family gatherings. By presenting the faces, names, and stories of diasporic Chinese, the booth added an important human element to the fair
and made concrete and tangible the history of Chinese in Panama. Together, the photos depicted the communitys development through time
and its ongoing engagement with Panamanian society. In short, the exhibit claimed diasporic Chinese belonging in Panama. At the present historical moment, when recently arrived transnational Chinese were dominating the sociopolitical scene, this booth offered a strong reminder that



diasporic Chinese have been an integral part of Panama for over 150
years. The booths representation of historical continuity provided an alternative narrative to the reductive construction of diasporic Chinese as
new agents of global economic power.
In addition to these booths, lectures and workshops on Chinese medicine, Chinese cooking, and feng shui were offered to the public. To my
surprise, the people teaching these courses were not necessarily Panamanian Chinese or Chinese at all, and the participants came from various
ethnic backgrounds. Clearly, one did not have to be Chinese to be an expert in, much less a practitioner of, these Chinese practices.
Throughout the three-day event, performances of all kinds were scheduled around the clock. The opening night featured a spectacular combination that included a variety of Chinese folk dances and kung fu performances. Quite appropriately, the concluding act featured a 120-foot-long
dragon dance that swirled around the room, incorporating various performative acts as it spiraled around the audience. Growing bigger and
bigger, the dragon dance finally came to an end when Panamanian carnival music and dance were added for the last stretch of the grand finale.
Indeed, this spectacular blending of Chinese and Panamanian cultural elements conveyed the ultimate consummation of the two cultures, nations,
and peoples. As I watched intently, mesmerized by the beauty and agility
of the dragon spinning around the room, I was struck again by the incredible diversity of the audience.
This was the first national event celebrating Chinese culture, arts, and
commerce in Panama. Given the current circumstances, it was rather
telling that it had been called the Chinese Millennium Fair. Was this a
sign that Panamanians were embracing the next millennium as the Chinese millennium? Had Panama finally come to accept Chineseness as its
own? If so, will diasporic Chinese finally achieve full citizenship?
Without question, the Chinese Millennium Fair marked a sharp departure in how dominant Panamanian society perceived Chineseness,
interacted with the Chinese community, and understood the place of diasporic Chinese in Panama. The Fair was not only a celebration of Chineseness but clearly an effort to bring Chineseness into Panamanian cultural and social life. Indeed, the day before I left Panama, when I went to
bid farewell to friends at the Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center, I came
across a young mestizo boy and his father in the lobby. In my effort to
start a friendly conversation, I asked, What brings you here to the cultural center? The proud father tapped his son on the head, and re-



sponded: My boy is going to enroll in [the Sun Yat-Sen] school. Hes going to learn Mandarin and Chinese culture. The next century is the Chinese century. That is the future of Panama and of the world, and I want
him to be well prepared for it. As his father, I just want what is best for
my child, to give him the skills and education he needs for his future.
Learning Mandarin, learning the Chinese way. . . . that will be his key to
I nodded, thinking how drastically the perception of Chineseness had
changed in such a short period of time. Was this indeed the beginning of
a new relationship or was it a temporary romance fated to turn sour?
Mainland Chinas recent promise of $30 billion in new investments in
Latin America reflects the general trend of increasing economic interaction. As long as these relations persist, I suspect that Panamanians, along
with other Latin Americans, may well continue to turn their attention toward China, and Chineseness may become a more central and valued
part of Latin America.



1. Senate Majority leader Trent Lott was one of the most outspoken of those
who called for an investigation. At the behest of six senators, the Federal Maritime Commission reviewed the bidding process for the two seaports, Balboa and
Cristbal, and found no procedural irregularities or discrimination against U.S.
2. Feminist and critical race scholars have shown that claims to universalism
have masked unequal power relations and that, in fact, citizenship has never been
granted universally nor been instituted in the same way for everyone. For more
detail, see Lister 1998; Young 1990; Yuval-Davis 1995; Williams 1991.
3. Other writers whose work explores the relationship between culture and
citizenship include Will Kymlicka, who suggests that the formal institutionalization of multiculturalism can resolve the tensions between minority rights and nation-building (Kymlicka 1995), and Toby Miller, who examines the process by
which cultural policies shape citizens (Miller 1993).
4. I thank Nira Yuval-Davis for bringing this to my attention at the Gender
and Cultural Citizenship Working Group Conference at UCSC.
5. This is so because their aggressions abroad often did not have an immediate impact on domestic citizenship. In contrast, it is impossible for formerly colonized nations to ignore the manner in which colonizers have dictated their domestic affairs.
6. Diaspora has been criticized for its tendency to homogenize groups of people based on ethnicity, thereby deemphasizing differences of location, class, and
generation. See, e.g., Dirlik 1993.
7. While the two concepts of immigrant and diasporic are not mutually
exclusive and may, in fact, point to different kinds of coexisting relations, they
nonetheless carry vastly different assumptions and invoke distinct characterizations and trajectories. The trope of the immigrant in the United States goes something like this: the immigrant arrives in the newly adopted country, loses her cultural identity by acquiring the behaviors, practices, and values of the dominant
culture, and gradually assimilates into society. This trope is problematic on many
levels. It assumes the disappearance of ones cultural identity, the severing of ties
with the place of origin, and a smooth unidirectional movement from foreigner



to assimilated citizen. The notion of being diasporic contradicts all these points:
cultural identity does not disappear, ties to the homeland are sustained, and experiences of both foreignness and familiarity coexist simultaneously.
8. The concept of diaspora has been elaborated in a number of ways by different scholars. For a stricter definition, see Safran 1991. Clifford 1997; Lavie
and Swedenburg 1996; Tlyan 1991; Hall 1990; and Gilroy 1993 provide more
expansive definitions, and Cohen 1997 offers a typology of diasporas.
9. I agree with Diane Nelsons suggestion that jokes reveal peoples fantasies
and anxieties (Nelson 1999). In this case, Panamanian police jokes index peoples
anxiety about illegitimate law enforcement.
10. Mestizaje has been a central site of debate in Latin America. It has also
served as the primary discourse and ideology through which many Latin American nations are formed. Jos Vasconceloss La raza csmica: Misin de la raza
iberoamericana (1925) provides a brilliant example of this nationalist ideology.
For critiques of mestizaje, see Cadena 2000; Gould 1998; Torres and Whitten
11. Though indigenous groups do not fit into the Mestizaje framework, their
assertion as the original occupants of Panama makes them undeniably part of
the Panamanian nation-state.
12. For Mary Louise Pratt, a contact zone is both a location and a theory of
thinking about power asymmetries in colonized/colonizer spaces. It is a hybridized space in which subjects are constituted in and by their relations to one
another. It treats relations among colonizer/colonized or travelers/dwellers in
terms of constant interaction, exchange, and coexistence within a web of asymmetrical power relations (1992).
13. Since 1949, the Peoples Republic of China has controlled mainland
China while the Republic of China has ruled on the island of Taiwan. The two
states compete in claiming sovereignty over territorial China, which includes both
the mainland and Taiwan. In the past ten years, the Taiwan-based government
has shifted its strategy away from reclaiming power over the mainland and toward establishing sovereignty of the island. Mainland China, however, still claims
Taiwan to be a renegade province of China, thereby rejecting Taiwans gestures
toward independence. The two are still contesting the nature of their relationship,
the governance of Taiwan, and claims over the Chinese nation, including the diaspora. While their conflict is considered to be a domestic national affair, its
struggle is played out in the international arena, both within the global community of diasporic Chinese and in the realm of interstate relations.
14. In Spanish, the name of the association is Asociacin de Profesionales
Chino-Panameos (APROCHIPA).
15. This number does not include the Vatican City and Taiwan.
16. This commercial office functions much like an embassy. While the title
is different, the responsibilities of this office resemble those of other embassies. It
issues travel visas, passports, and other official documents, as well as managing
relations between Panama and the PRC.
17. My discussion builds on the work done by scholars of cultural citizenship, who have made similar arguments against assimilation. For more details, see
Flores and Benmayor 1997.



18. This idea of social rupture is informed by E. P. Thompsons notion of

historical conjuncture (1966) and Laura Naders discussion of aperture (lecture 1990).
19. Community is not some romanticized notion of a stable, harmonious, and
homogenous unit of people bound by geographical space or by some list of common traits and characteristics. Rather, it is embedded in a web of power relations
where inequalities, differences, and tensions are constantly negotiated, debated,
and transformed.

1. Prohibited Race / Ideal Citizens

1. I use the terms Panamanian Chinese, ethnic Chinese, Chinese, and
diasporic Chinese interchangeably in this book. While these terms connote different ways of identifying and positioning oneself, they are not exclusive of one
another. They represent more the range of identifications that the Chinese in
Panama take up than objective categories of identity.
2. This is a conservative estimate provided by the Chinese Association of
Panama. On the other hand, the Commission of Overseas Chinese Affairs estimated 103,500 Chinese in Panama (1997). Population estimates range depending
on how Chinese ethnicity is defined, and numbers can span anywhere between
100,000 and 250,000. The Chinese Association estimated 175,000 based on information collected by native place associations. It does not include those who
fall outside of these associations, including many racially mixed Chinese and
some recent immigrants. Moreover, the category of ethnic Chinese is a contested
one, and estimates of the Chinese population vary depending on how ethnic
Chineseness is defined. In the recent years, with changing constructions of Chinese ethnicity, more and more racially mixed Chinese who previously did not
identify Chinese are beginning to reclaim their ethnic roots. If ethnicity is based
on self-identification, the numbers surely will fluctuate over time and depend on
social context.
3. American University 1962.
4. Wolf 1982.
5. Wong Kong Yee, who was killed in his sleep by the shell, was the only human casualty of Panamas Independence war. McCullough 1977.
6. U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Hearings on the Panama
Canal Treaties, 95th Cong., 1st sess., September 1977, pt. 1, p. 588.
7. Barry 1990, 23.
8. For more details on Panamanian political history, see Ropp 1982.
9. See ibid.; Priestley 1986; and LaFeber 1989 for excellent discussions of
Panamanian political history.
10. Barry 1990, 49.
11. For list of banks, see Jones 1997, 15258.
12. Many of them are paper companies that do not operate their businesses in Panama. The nations lax incorporation laws allow these companies to
avoid taxation in their countries of operation.
13. The trope of Panama as bridge and passageway also rings true in its academic area studies location. One of the questions I confront over and over



again is: where does Panama belong? Is it part of Central America, South America, or the Caribbean? It occupies an ambiguous position, for while Panama was
part of Colombia (South America) until 1903, the countrys history of American
colonialism makes it more akin to Central American countries. Still, with its
strong connections with the Caribbean, it also shares many similarities with the
islands. Perhaps it is telling that one can locate more materials on Panama in the
library section of U.S. government documents than anywhere else, further substantiating Panamas ambiguity as neither being an official U.S. protectorate nor
having full control over its national destiny. So, the question of where Panama belongs, both geographically and conceptually, remains open-ended. It may be most
accurate to call it a central node where all these regions intersect. For Panama, as
it is for diasporic Chinese living there, intersectionality is a key theme in its formation.
14. For a more detailed discussion of the West Indian population in Panama,
please see Laporte (1998) and Conniff (1983), Barrow (2001).
15. The four major populations of Native Americans are largely distributed
in three geographical regions of Panama. The Ember and the Waunaan, formerly
grouped together as Choc Indians, occupy Darin Province (Kane 1994). The
Ngob-Bugl, formerly called the Guaym, live in the northeastern region of
Panama, in the provinces of Chiriqu, Veraguas, and Bocas del Toro (Gjording
1991; Bourgois 1989). The Kuna, considered to be the most politically organized
indigenous group in Panama, occupy the San Blas Islands (Tice 1995; Salvador
1988; Howe 1986).
16. For instance, please see Stanley Heckadon-Moreno 1994.
17. The U.S. ambassador, William Hughes, had written a letter to Panamas
minister of commerce and industry, Ral Gasteazoro Arango, urging him to address these complaints filed by U.S. investors, which was published in La Prensa
on March 8, 1997.
18. Contrary to some recent literature that suggests globalization has diminished the role of the state, the Panamanian government has in fact been extremely
involved in setting its own course. I therefore join scholars like Saskia Sassen
(1995) and Aihwa Ong (1999), among others, in recognizing the critical role of
the state in facilitating globalization. It seems that with increased economic competition on the global scale, states are taking more active roles in fostering interstate relations and participating in global policymaking.
19. Hu-Dehart 1998a.
20. When abolitionists in Britain gained momentum in the late 1700s, plantation owners searched for other forms of cheap labor. Their solution was the
coolie trade, which involved the importation of Asian laborers from primarily
India and China. The 1802 Trinidad experiment with Chinese labor was one of
the earliest efforts in establishing this trade.
21. While this is the earliest documentation of Chinese immigration to
Panama, some of my interviewees suspect that their Chinese ancestors already
were in Panama before then.
22. See Cohen 1971; Mon 1981; Chong Ruiz 1992.
23. See Lucy Cohen 1971 for further details on this group of laborers.



24. The local historian Ramn Mon suspects that many of these immigrants
came to Panama after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act in the
United States.
25. In the U.S., these policies included the Page Act of 1875 and the series of
Chinese exclusion acts in 1882.
26. Accin Communal was formed by a class of urban professionals whose
nationalism, though focused primarily on an expanded job base, had strong racial
and cultural undertones. In particular, it perceived foreign groups in Panama as
denying native Panamanians their rightful opportunities and economic status. For
more detail, see Ropp 1982.
27. See, e.g., Hu-Dehart 1989 and Lai 1993.
28. For further details, see Kwong 1999.
29. See Ong 1999; Mitchell 2004.
30. While much scholarship has documented the circular migrations between
China and the United States (for instance, Hsu 2000), migrations within the
Americas and the Caribbean are less known (with the exception of works by Evelyn Hu-Dehart and Walter Look Lai). For Chinese in Panama, both sets of movements and relations have been common and equally important in shaping their
sense of identity and community.
31. Rouse 1991; Gilroy 1993; Basch et al. 1994.
32. Maintaining transnational split households was common practice throughout the Americas. See, e.g., Hsu 2000; Nakano-Glenn 1988.
33. The names of these native place associations are translated from Cantonese, the dominant Chinese dialect spoken by Chinese in Panama.
34. Several Chinese families were able to establish compadrazgo ties with important Panamanian political figures and have benefited from these relationships
in times of adversity.
35. Mexico offers a comparable example. Most Chinese in northern Mexico
in the early twentieth century were merchants. When the anti-Chinese movement
led to mass riots, neither China nor the United States was able to intervene, and
the Chinese had no protection. A number of them were killed, their properties
were destroyed, and many of the survivors fled from Mexico. Today, very few
traces of this early Chinese settlement remain. For more details, see Hu-Dehart
36. Luis Chen, deputy of the National Assembly; Jorge Federico Lee, minister of government and justice and director of the Colon Free Trade Zone; Julio
Mock, minister of public works; Zialena Lee, minister of public works; Bertha
Alicia Chen, director of customs; Edith Loa de Barahona, vice mayor of Panama
City; Jos Chen Barra, minister of immigration; Gloria Young, legislator; Dorothy de Sing, vice minister of commerce and industry.

2. The Queen of the Chinese Colony

1. The national dresses that the contestants wore and the national
dances that they performed are often drawn from indigenous dress and dance
forms that have been popularized as representative of the nation. For instance,



Miss Guatemala would perform her nationality through Mayan dress and dance
2. The term Colonia China, employed not only in Panama but throughout
Central America since the late nineteenth century, gives the connotation that diasporic Chinese are a satellite community of China, rather than being part of
Panamanian society. It remains widely used today.
3. To a large extent, the ROC relies on diasporic Chinese to legitimate its
claims to being the Chinese state. Conversely, the Chinese in Central America and
Panama benefit from the financial and moral support of the ROC.
4. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese communities
in the diaspora have been subjected to varying degrees of persecution. Anti-Chinese movements have at one time or another been rampant in the United States,
Mexico, Jamaica, Panama, Philippines, Indonesia, and Australia. Many of these
movements led not only to mass destruction of property but also to intense physical violence and death. In some of these countries, communities of Chinese have
emigrated, leaving few traces of their historical presence.
5. Different types of Chinese organizations are present in diasporic communities. The most prevalent ones include: surname or clan associations, locality or
native place associations, dialect group associations, consolidated benevolent associations, chambers of commerce, secret societies, and religious associations. For
a more detailed discussion of this subject, see Lai 1998; Sinn 1998; Wickberg
1998; King 1994.
6. This subject has been well documented by Chinese diaspora scholars. In
this chapter, I restrict my discussion of locality associations to gender and kinship.
7. I am translating native place-names from Cantonese.
8. Their long-standing differences have been further complicated by current
political struggles within Taiwan over whether it should continue to seek reunification with the mainland or work toward independence. In the past ten years, the
Beijing government has issued numerous warnings against Taiwanese independence. It has made official statements and even fired missiles across the straits as
a show of non-tolerance. On Taiwans side, internal debates indicate that some
support the one China principle (the idea that the two territories will reunify in
the future), advocating for status quo or not changing the islands geopolitical
status, while others support total independence from the PRC and official recognition as a nation. Despite their differences in strategy, most Taiwanese agree that
neither China nor Taiwan is ready for reunification. The China-Taiwan issue is
also debated among diasporic Chinese. For Chinese in Panama, the eventual reunification of the PRC and ROC has been a central impetus for their participation in specific diasporic organizations and their support of the ROC is premised
on that principle. With intensification of the China-Taiwan conflict, the ROC is
more anxious than ever to recruit the support of diasporic Chinese, and this has
aroused even more active and vocal participation among diasporic Chinese.
9. After losing relations with South Africa, the ROC has placed its priority on
maintaining relations with Panama, its most important and influential supporter
at the moment.
10. Panamas national dress is distinctly different from the other countries



national dresses because it is heavily influenced by Spanish colonial style. All the
other Central American countries use indigenous dress forms to represent the nation.
11. At first, the masters of ceremony appeared uncertain about which languages to use, and after a few tries, they finally settled on speaking Spanish and
Mandarin, with occasional interjections in Cantonese.
12. About twelve judges are selected every year. Some are local representatives of diasporic Chinese communities, some are local embassy people, and some
are diplomatic visitors from the ROC.
13. The exceptions include Paul Gilroy and Jacqueline Brown, who explore
connections amongst diasporic communities.
14. Manalansan 2003 explores the role of language among diasporic Filipinos in New York City. Besnier 2002 examines language use in beauty contests.

3. Migration Stories
1. My definition and use of the term serial migration developed out of my
research with Chinese in Panama. See Siu 2004b. While it is similar to Susan Ossmans definition, I had actually developed this concept before reading her article
Emergent Research: Studies in Serial Migration (2004).
2. Movement from less developed countries to more developed ones is inherent in the concept of step migration, but not in that of serial migration.
3. The term Greater China signifies a social formation and geographical
area that includes China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macao.
4. The key places my interviewees indicated included Jamaica, British
Guiana, Nicaragua, Peru, and the United States.
5. While mestizaje refers generally to racial-cultural mixing, it is also associated with the ideology of racial whitening. For detailed discussion of mestizaje,
see Cadena 2000; Torres and Whitten 1998.
6. For a more detailed discussion, see Said 1983; Kaplan 1996.
7. Paper Sons came to the United States bearing papers documenting them
as sons of Chinese who had returned to China to marry and produce children.
The Great Earthquake of 1906 in San Francisco had destroyed immigration
records, along with other official records of the U.S. government. In the process
of redocumentation, some Chinese immigrants falsely reported the number of
children they had in China in order to get papers for others to immigrate.
8. It was my uncle Armando in Nicaragua who had first mentioned this quarantine station in Panama. He called it the wooden house in Cantonese and
compared it to the immigration station on Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, California. When Pedro mentioned the quarantine station again, I decided to go look
for it. After a thorough search in the former U.S. Canal Zone, I was unable to locate the actual structure of the station or find any documentation connecting it to
Chinese immigration to Latin America. Nonetheless, several of my interviewees
who immigrated to Latin American before World War II vividly remember this
wooden house, the quarantine station that served as an immigration processing point for Chinese going to various destinations in Latin America.



9. Pedro refers here to the first Chinese school that was established in the
1930s, which has since been destroyed. It was a primary school that taught Cantonese in addition to the regular Panamanian curriculum and was attended
mostly by children of Chinese descent living in the Chinatown area.
10. La Chorrera is a suburb West of Panama City, across the Bridge of the
Americas. Since the 1980s, La Chorrera has become the city with the largest percentage of Chinese immigrants in Panama. Most of the Chinese there are Hakka
speakers from Canton and immigrated to Panama during the Manuel Noriega
military regime. The Chinese living in La Chorrera are primarily involved in distribution, small retail businesses, and restaurants. As the next largest city west of
Panama City, it serves as a major transit point between the capital and the smaller
towns in the interior of Panama (the provinces of Cocl, Herrera, Los Santos, and
Veraguas). Due to its central location, La Chorrera has become a central distribution center for produce and commercial products to both Panama City and the
11. The term Asian American emerged during the 1960s in order to mobilize a political coalition of the different ethnic Asian groups in the United States.
By asserting a collective identity, it helped articulate shared experiences of racial
oppression. Since such a movement did not take place in Panama, a collective
Asian Panamanian consciousness was never achieved. Indeed, ethnicity and nationality remain the central frameworks in which Panamanians categorize difference.

4. Home at the Intersection of Nations

1. While scholars have studied how the ideology of mestizaje has excluded
blacks and indigenous populations from becoming full citizens (legal and cultural) of Latin American countries, there has not been substantial research examining the relationship between mestizaje and Asians in this region. One objective
of this chapter is to draw connections between the mestizaje ideology, which
forms the basis of Panamas nationalist movement, and the exclusionary practices
against the ethnic Chinese in Panama.
2. In Panama, the term mestizo is traditionally used to refer to people of
mixed white and indigenous origins. As the dominant ideology of Latin America,
mestizaje is not an inclusive term that embraces people of all racial and cultural
backgrounds. Instead, mestizos are defined against indgenas (indigenous people),
negros (blacks), Chinos (Chinese), Hindus (East Indians), etc. For further discussion of mestizaje, see Torres and Whitten 1998; Pitt-Rivers 1967; Stutzman 1981.
3. For an excellent discussion of its effects on the West Indian community, see
Conniff 1985.
4. For more details on the 1941 Constitution, see Picardi de Illueca 1995.
5. Generally speaking, Arias was mostly concerned with the growing population of non-Hispanic minorities such as the Chinese and West Indian blacks, who
were quickly rising to the middle class via employment by the American administration or their own entrepreneurship. He wanted to empower Hispanic Panamanians, and he believed that, with limited resources and job opportunities in



Panama, these immigrants were taking away what should be rightfully reserved
for Panamanians.
6. Quoted in Mon 1992, 16. National Archives, Documents of the Colombian Period 18081903, Panama.
7. U.S. protection of Chinese in Panama was first established in 1885 and renewed in 1902 (Foreign Relations of the United States 1903, Document Number
262, 31819). A Chinese consulate was finally established in 1912. I thank Adam
McKeown for sharing his notes with me.
8. In California, violence against the Chinese surfaced as early as the 1850s.
Though accurate numbers of total injured and killed have not been well documented, we know that in 1862, a list of eighty-eight Chinese murders were presented to the California State legislature. Riots against the Chinese began to intensify in the late 1800s. A riot in Los Angeles killed nineteen Chinese in 1871;
another in Chico, California in 1877 killed four Chinese and burned several of
their properties. In 1885, the violence spread to Rock Springs, Wyoming, and
Seattle, Washington (Chan 1990, 4562). For more detailed historical analysis of
anti-Chinese movements in the United States, see Coolidge 1909; Sanmeyer 1939;
Saxton 1971. For discussion of anti-Chinese riots in Jamaica, see Johnson 1983.
9. The term Hindu is used in Panama to refer to all people from the Indian
10. See Nakano-Glenn 1986 and Liu 1992 for more in-depth discussion of
the transpacific family.
11. Coln, the terminal city of the Panama Canal on the Caribbean side, was
once the cosmopolitan center of Panama, although now economically impoverished and much neglected. Colns Chinatown used to be the biggest and most
vibrant in Panama, but since the 1940s, it has gradually deteriorated, and many
ethnic Chinese have relocated to Panama City.
12. The term picture bride refers to the process by which she and her husband arranged their marriage. Basically, given the distance and the lack of easy,
inexpensive modes of transportation between China and Panama, the men residing in Panama were shown pictures of potential marriage partners. Based on
these pictures, a man chose his bride-to-be, who then came to Panama to marry
him. In most cases, the women met their husbands for the first time when they arrived in Panama. This was a common practice among Chinese (as well as other
Asian) immigrants during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
13. Bocas del Toro is the capital city of the province by the same name. It is
located on Isla Colon, also known as Isla Bocas, located off the northwestern
coast of Panama.
14. This organization had specific names in Spanish, English and Chinese. In
referring to the association here, I use its official English name, Chinese Association in Panama.
15. As the first Panamanian Chinese to receive a law degree in Panama, Luis
Chen served as an alternate to the principal legislator from 1960 to 1964. In
1964, he ran for the office of principal legislator and won. He was reelected in
1968, but Arnulfo Arias came into power once again, so he was never officially
recognized as legislator following this election. Interviews, 199697.



5. Immigrant Dreams and Nightmares

1. I would also add that passports alone do not fully determine the final
judgment of ones national belonging or the right to travel freely. Racial phenotype plays a significant role. For example, the following year when I traveled to
Panama with my U.S. passport, I was neither questioned nor detained. However,
while waiting in the airport at San Jos, Costa Rica, in transit to Panama, I was
the only one approached by an immigration officer to show proof of identity. My
point here is that while passports often serve as proof of national citizenship, race
informs perceptions of national belonging via the logic of ethnic origins. While legal citizenship gives one certain entitlements and rights, one of which is the moral
claim to national belonging, constructions of nationhood based on race determine ones relative success not only in making these claims but, more important,
in having them accepted as true and legitimate. Depending on context, it is not always certain which of the two, if they point in different directions, would win in
establishing one to be a legitimate citizen of a particular nation-state.
2. See also Mon 1998.
3. The refugee camp at Albrook Field was set up for people whose homes
were destroyed during the U.S. invasion of Panama.
4. Jos Quintero de Leon, La Prensa, July 6, 1990: 28A.
5. Manuel lvarez Cedeo, La Prensa, July 12, 1990: 24A.
6. Manuel lvarez Cedeo, La Prensa, July 9 1990: 1.
7. Snakeheads is a literal translation that refers to those directly involved
in setting up clandestine border crossings at both ends of Chinese immigration.
8. These organizations included the Asociacin de Jvenes Chinos (Chinese
Youth Association), Agrupacin (a social organization), the Asociacin de Profesionales Chinos Panameos (Chinese Panamanian Professionals Association), and
all the native place organizations.
9. Manuel lvarez Cedeo, La Prensa, July 12, 1990, 24A; Vilma Figueroa,
ibid., July 28, 1990, 12A.
10. Jos Quintero de Leon, ibid., July 17, 1990, 1.
11. Admiral Soong referred to the community as la Colonia China, the
Chinese colony.
12. Jos Quintero de Leon, La Prensa, July 17, 1990, 1.
13. Immigrants must first apply for white cards, which are 30-day tourist
visas that need to be renewed every month for up to three months. After three
months and with proof of a clean criminal record, they can then apply for a yellow card, which allows one to reside in Panama for up to one year. As yellow
card holders, people must apply separately for a work permit that gives them access to either an A license, which allows them to engage in wholesale business,
or an I license, which is for industry-related businesses. They are altogether
prohibited from applying for a B license, which allows them to establish a retail business. Only after five years of reapplication for the yellow card can they
apply for citizenship, and then only after three years of being a lawful citizen can
they apply for a new ID, which finally allows them to get access to a B license
and to own a retail business. The naturalization process can be shortened if one
marries a Panamanian citizen, which would cut the yellow residence card pe-



riod to three years instead of five years before being eligible to apply for Panamanian citizenship.
14. Vilma Figueroa, La Prensa, April 15, 1993, 6A.
15. Ibid. When he learned this, John Hoger, the medical director of San
Miguelito, a suburb of Panama City, denounced the Chinese slavery situations
in Panama and called for an end to the violation of the human rights of Chinese
16. Aihwa Ongs work on Hong Kong elites captures this portrayal of people
who use migration and citizenship for the purpose of maximizing economic accumulation while minimizing political risk (1999). See also Ong 1992, 1993.
17. A thorough analysis of this comparison is beyond the scope of this book.
Religious differences and economic tensions play important roles in shaping this
perception of Jewish Panamanians, who are reputed to be extremely wealthy, culturally reclusive, and socially exclusive with their networks. Collectively, they also
control a large sector of the retail economy, especially in the area of La Central in
Panama City. They are also accused of not mixing, both socially and in terms
of intermarriage, with non-Jewish Panamanians. I mention this comparison in order to show the significance of mixing in determining acceptability into Panamanian society. See also Heckadon-Moreno 1994.

6. Good-bye, Uncle Sam, Hello, Uncle Chang

1. This notion that the Chinese were taking over the Canal became so
widespread that even John Boormans 2001 film The Tailor of Panama included
a brief mention of it. U.S. Senator Trent Lott alleged that the Hutchinson Port
Holdings Group posed as a security threat to the canal because of its connections
to Communist China.
2. See also Gupta and Ferguson 1992; Hall 1991.
3. Butler 2001 and Basch et al. 1994 discuss differences between these categories.
4. The term guanxi describes Chinese cultural practices of exchange.
5. England, France, Germany, the United States, and Costa Rica had their consulates in Bocas del Toro, and three newspapers, The Telegraph, The Citizen, and
The Central American Express, were all published in Bocas.
6. Portugal officially handed over Macau to the PRC in December 1999.

1. Here I am building on Said 1979; Enloe 1989; and Friedman 1998, among
2. A number of Asian American scholars have called for this approach, including Roshni Rustomji-Kerns (1999) and Lane Hirabayashi (2002).
3. My proposal is very much in line with Kaplan and Grewals discussion of
transnational feminism (1991).
4. I thank Lane Hirabayashi for pointing this out.


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abolitionists, 203
Accin Communal (Community Act), 40,
African slaves, 202, 203
Agrupacin (Agrupa), 46, 92, 190
lvarez, Rubn, 143
American imperialism, 1720, 3536, 197,
2045; and anticommunist rhetoric, 81;
canal treaty, 35; Chinese influence compared
to, 16770; departure of U.S., 37, 165, 16768,
17980; invasion of Panama, 142; military
expansion during WWII, 11415, 12629;
and politics of belonging, 13. See also Canal
Zone; English language; United States
Americas, collective identification with, 11112
Anderson, Benedict, 59, 64
Ang, Ien, 6, 78
Anti-China Society, 40
anti-Chinese movements, 3940, 119, 220n4,
APROCHIPA (Asociacin de Profesionales
Chino Panameos), 46, 216n14
area studies, xvi, 199201, 217n13
Arias Madrid, Arnulfo, 36, 40, 101, 109, 135,
223n15; nationalistic policies of, 114, 11521,
122, 135
Arnulfista political party, 116
Asian American studies, 200202
Asian and Asian American, 107, 202,
Asians in the Americas, study of, 2016
Asociacin Catlica China-Panamea, 46
Asociacin China de Panam, see Chinese Association of Panama
Asociacin de Jvenes Chinos, see Chinese
Youth Association
Asociacin de Profesionales Chino Panameos
(APROCHIPA), 46, 216n14

assimilation vs. contingency, 2627

Asociacin China de Mujeres Ejecutivas y de
Negocias de Panam, see Chinese Association of Executive and Business Women of
Association of Chinese in the Americas, 24
Balboa, Panama (port), 38, 165, 215n1
banking, 36
Barrio Chino (Sal Si Puedes) neighborhood,
34, 100, 131
Basch, Linda, 64
Basso, Keith, 90
beauty, standards of, 8283
beauty contests, 55
beauty pageant (Queen of the Chinese
Colony), 69 (fig.); disputed result in, 5455,
83; and gendered reproduction, 5863; and
immigrant community divisions, 7980,
8283; and meaning production, 5556; national differences in, 7779; and nation vs.
diaspora, 6875; and transnational networks, 5657
Bechtel Corporation, 38
belonging and unbelonging, 10, 28, 141
bilingualism, 49, 66, 132. See also languages
Black Atlantic, The (Gilroy), 88, 98
blacks and Asians, parallels between, 2023
Bocas del Toro, Panama, 2021, 128, 17576,
223n13, 225n5
Bogot (ship), 35
border studies, 25
Brazil, 1067
Brown, Jacqueline, 221n13
Buddhism, 46, 48
Bunau-Varilla, 35
business ownership, 5051, 11721, 14647
business work permits, 148

Canal, history of, 35, 39
Canal Administration, 1819, 39
canal treaty, 35
Canal Zone, 18, 25, 50, 12729; return of, 37, 165,
167, 17980. See also American imperialism
Canton (Guangdong), China, 2021, 46, 17576
Cantonese language, 49, 71, 7273, 7879
cartoon series (De to Sam a to Chang), xxii
(fig.), 12, 4, 27, 164, 16773, 171 (fig.)
Catholicism, 19, 46, 48
Central America, national differences within,
7779. See also Federation of Chinese in
Central America and Panama
Centro Cultural Chino-Panameo, see Chinese
Panamanian Cultural Center
Chamber of Commerce, Chinese, 46
Chen, Luis, 223n15
Chen Barri, Jos, 142, 146
Cheng, Jorge, 146
Chiang Kai-shek, 121, 187
China, Greater, 89, 221n3
China, Peoples Republic of (PRC): communist
revolution, 12225; fleeing from, 104; as
homeland, 23; Panamas relations with, 37,
16770, 181, 192, 216n16; repression of dissidents in, 147; Taiwan vs., 2023, 63, 16566,
17881, 183, 216n13, 220n8; and transnational
family formations, 4445; and Uncle Chang
cartoon, xxii (fig.), 2, 4, 27, 164, 16773. See
also homeland; Hong Kong
China, Republic of, see Taiwan (Republic of
Chinatowns, 21, 34, 100, 131, 185
Chinese Association of Executive and Business Women of Panama, 210
Chinese Association of Panama, 4647, 12931;
demographic changes and, 81; diaspora politics and, 6366; fair and celebrations hosted
by, 18081, 210; patrilineality and, 61; police
raids, response to, 145. see also Convention
of Chinese Associations of Central America
and Panama
Chinese Carnival Queen Pageant, 130
Chinese Chamber of Commerce, 46
Chinese Colony (La Colonia China), 16, 8082,
Chinese exclusion laws, 3940, 219n24
Chinese folk religion, 48
Chinese language, 4950, 71, 7273, 7879. See
also languages
Chinese Millennium Fair, 20912
Chineseness: and beauty pageant, 7173, 7475;
and cultural identification, 18991; and de-

mographics, 8182, 217n2; and diasporahomeland tensions, 7677, 189; and globalization, 42; Hakka vs. Punti, 15657, 16263;
in La Prensa cartoon, 17172, 173; and Millennium Fair, 21112; and Taiwan vs. PRC,
166, 17881. See also racial purity discourses
Chinese Panamanian Catholic Association, 46
Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center, 2122,
131, 18489
Chinese Panamanian Professionals Association
(APROCHIPA), 46, 216n14
Chinese presence, 16869
Chinese studies, 1213
Chinese Youth Association, 46, 81
chino and china, as terms, 107, 202
Chinspanglish, 20
Chiquita Brands, 175. See also United Fruit
Christmas holidays, 133
Chu, Arturo, 145, 158
Chung San Association, 46
citizenship: and American affiliation, 18; contingency of, 27; flexible, 102; immigration
and naturalization procedures, 148, 224n13;
and prohibited immigrants policy, 11517
class, 4445, 50, 103, 108, 155
Clifford, James, 87, 198
Cohen, Colleen Ballerino, 55
college degrees, 50, 106, 13233
Coln, Panama, 9394, 223n11
Coln Free Trade Zone, 36
Colonia China, La (Chinese Colony), 16,
8082, 220n2
colonialism, 9, 216n12. See also American imperialism
Columbia, 18, 172
Commercial Carnet law (1941), 117
communist China, see China, Peoples Republic of (PRC)
communist Chinese immigrants, 8081
communist revolution, Chinese, 12225
community, 28, 9293, 141, 217n19
Community Act (Accin Communal), 40,
compadrazgo, 48, 219n34
constitution, Panamanian, 35, 116, 127
consulate, American, 19, 118
contact zones, 216n12
contingency of diasporic citizenship, 2627, 28,
contract laborers, 15455
Convention of Chinese Associations of Central
America and Panama, 54, 6466, 6668;

business meetings of, 6162, 64, 73, 78. See
also beauty pageant (Queen of the Chinese
coolie status, 2023
cosmopolitanism, 87
Costa Rica, 66
criminalization of immigrants, 80, 14344
Cristbal, Panama (port), 38, 165, 215n1
cultural assimilation vs. contingency, 2627
cultural capital, 4445, 109, 12425, 132, 197
Cultural Center, Chinese Panamanian, 2122,
131, 18489
cultural citizenship studies, 710
cultural knowledge, and education in China,
cultural mediation, 27
dance, 70, 211, 219n1
Deleuze, Gilles, 152
demographics, 33, 37, 81, 156, 217n2. See also immigration
demonstrations, 119, 14647
desire, imaginaries of, 15253
deterritorialized nation-states, 64
De to Sam a to Chang (La Prensa), xiii, 12,
4, 27, 164, 16773, 171 (fig.)
development vs. contingency, 28
diaspora, defined, 1011, 76
diasporic, as term, 11
difference, 12, 26, 171, 19798, 2056; class,
4445, 50, 103, 108, 155; racial purity discourses, 4445, 5859, 8283, 205. See also
disidentification, 70
displacement, see migration; ruptures, social
diversity, demographic, 33, 37
dragon dance, 211
dress, national, 6970, 219n1, 220n10
Du Bois, W. E. B., 161
economic activity, restrictions on, 11721
education, 19, 4950, 19293; abroad, 44, 45, 50,
94, 109, 124; Sun Yat-Sen Institute, 21, 49, 121,
189, 21112
El Centro, see Chinese Panamanian Cultural
El Dorado (neighborhood), 2122, 34, 185
El Panam Amrica (newspaper), xviii
employment, 51, 12729; labor migration, 17,
3839, 118, 15455, 2023
Endara, Guillermo, 143, 146, 148
endogamy, 5859
English language, 1920, 49, 7374, 94, 99

Enloe, Cynthia, 170
Erbaugh, Mary, 15657
ethnic succession, 2627
exclusion, 1516, 19, 78; immigration restrictions, 3940, 96, 11516, 219n24
exogamy, 58
families: gender discrimination in, 1056; interracial, 9192; transnational formations
of, 4345, 102, 103, 12325, 219n32
family feuds, as metaphor, 172
family gatherings and reunions, 24
Fa Yin Association, 46
Federacin de Asociaciones Chinas de Centroamrica y Panam, see Federation of
Chinese Associations in Central America
and Panama
Federal Maritime Commission (U.S.), 215n1
Federation of Chinese Associations in Central
America and Panama, 24, 47, 52, 6061,
7779; and Taiwan, 5657, 6366, 131. See
also beauty pageant (Queen of the Chinese
Colony); Convention of Chinese Associations of Central America and Panama
female kinship networks, 6263
Ferguson, James, 20
fieldwork and research, xvixviii
flexible citizenship, 102
Fouron, Georges, 67, 64
French Canal, 35, 39
Friendship Park, 21
Fujimori, Alberto, 202
galleon trade, 35, 38
Gasteazoro Arango, Ral, 218n17
gender: and Chinese presence, 169; female
networks, 6263; and immigration, 92,
1023, 15254; masculinity, constructions of,
1023, 17072, 173; and native place associations, 60; parental discrimination, 1056;
patrilineality, 5962; and transnational split
households, 4344, 12324
genealogy, 46, 86, 110
geopolitical relationships, 89, 196. See also
specific nation-states
Gilroy, Paul, 24, 88, 98, 161, 221n13
Glick Schiller, Nina, 67, 64
Global Association of Cantonese, 24, 47, 64, 131
global diaspora and supranational organizations, 2425
globalization, 218n18; and Chinas influence in
Panama, 16768; and diasporic citizenship,
34, 204; and flexible citizenship, 102;

Panama as nexus in, 3438; role of Chinese
in Panama, 33, 42
Golden Venture (ship), 41
Gou Kong Chow (Say Yap) Association, 46
government, involvement in, 5152
Gran Feria de la China Milenaria, see Chinese
Millennium Fair
Greater China, 89, 221n3
Guangdong (Canton), China, 2021, 46, 17576
Guatarri, Flix, 152
Guatemala, 101
Gupta, Akhil, 20
Hakka Chinese, 15657, 162
Hall, Stuart, 12, 9293, 113, 198
hemispheric approach, 2016
Hoger, John, 225n15
Hok San Association, 46
home, 10910, 134
home decor, 105
homeland: and diasporic Chinese consciousness, 13, 19697; impossibility of return,
12125; long-distance nationalism, 64, 65;
and racialization of diaspora, 17374; state
mediation of relations with, 21; and tensions
in diaspora, 7677; transnational perspective on, 2034; tree and rhizome metaphors,
88. See also China, Peoples Republic of
(PRC); Taiwan (Republic of China)
Hong Kong, 149; cultural influence from, 81,
85, 125; handover of, 163, 165, 174, 17682
horizontal comradeship, 5960
Hu Jintao, xiv, 200
Hu-Dehart, Evelyn, 119
Hughes, William, 218n17
human trafficking, 15, 41
Hutchinson Port Holdings Group, 38, 165,
identity and identities: Americas, collective
identification with, 11112; and beauty
pageant, 63, 7475; and diaspora-homeland
tensions, 7677; diasporic, 12; disidentification, 70; double identities, 161; and migration, 19899; as process, 9293; self-identification, 91. See also Chineseness
imaginaries of desire, 15253
immigration: Central American patterns of,
7778; by contract laborers, 15455, 2023;
discursive constructions and divisions,
7983, 15559, 2023; history of, 3843; Japanese, 203, 204; labor migration, 17, 3839,
118, 15455, 2023; motivations and desires

for, 14954; naturalization process, 148,
224n13; and patrilineality, 6061; police
raids and responses, 42, 14349, 15960, 184;
recent immigrants vs. Panamanian Chinese,
13839, 155, 16263, 18586; restrictions on,
3940, 96, 11516, 219n24; and retail-market
sector, 11819; reuse of identity papers, 96,
16061; trope of immigrant in U.S., 215n7;
undocumented or illegal, 15, 80, 96, 13031,
14245. See also migration
immigration packages, 14950
incorporation, 3637, 217n12
India, 204
integration, 4041, 130, 158, 2023
International Commercial Bank of China, 210
intersectionality, 14, 23, 2526, 134, 201
Isla Coln (Isla Bocas), 175, 223n13
Jamaica, 93, 94
Japanese internment in World War II, 9, 205
Japanese migration to Latin America, 203, 204
Jewish Panamanians, 225n17
jokes, 216n9
Jones, Geomara de, 148
karaoke, Chinese, 81
kinship networks, 5962, 6263, 110. See also
Kuomintang (KMT), 64, 68, 12122
Kymlicka, Will, 215n3
labor migration, 17, 3839, 118, 15455, 2023.
See also immigration
La Chorrera, Panama, 222n10
Laguerre, Michel, 5
languages, 4849; at beauty pageant, 7174,
221n11; bilingualism and trilingualism, 49,
66, 78, 97, 132; hybridized, 20; in migration
narratives, 95, 9798; naming, politics of, 93,
96, 16061; and power asymmetries, 7879;
switching among, 12627, 18283; and U.S.
administration, 1920
Lao de Barahona, Edith, 148
La Prensa (newspaper), xviii, 15455; cartoon
and article series, xiii, 12, 4, 27, 164, 16773,
171 (fig.)
Latin American studies, 199200, 201
Latino studies, 201
La Zona, see Canal Zone
Lee, Alberto, 57, 58, 59
Lee, Horacio, 156
Lee, Jorge Federico, 148
Lee, Wen Ho, xiv

Leonard, Karen, 162
Lima, Ramn, 143
long-distance nationalism, 64, 65
Lott, Trent, 215n1, 225n1
Lowe, Lisa, 10
Macau, 181, 225n6
ma fa, 33
mafia, Chinese, 143
Making Ethnic Choices (Leonard), 162
Mandarin language, 4950, 71, 7273, 7879
Manila-Acapulco galleon trade, 35, 38
mapping, cultural, 90
marriage: businesses saved by, 12021; endogamy and exogamy, 5859; interracial, 9192;
as metaphor for international relations, 167,
172; picture brides, 223n12
masculinity, constructions of, 1023, 17072,
173. See also gender; patrilineality
mediation and diasporic citizenship, 27
memory, 93, 146, 159, 161
men, see gender
merchants, Panamanian Chinese, 5051, 11721,
mestizaje paradigm, 13, 75, 9192, 205,
216n1011, 221n5; as nationalist ideology,
1516, 40, 116, 222n12
Methodist schools, 19
Mexico, 108, 11920, 218n20, 219n35
Mexico City, 38
migrant circuits, transnational, 8788
migration: history of, 3843; and identity construction, 198; interview narratives of,
91108, 13940; labor migration, 17, 3839;
serial, 8691, 10812, 19899; and transnational split households, 4345, 102, 103,
12325, 13234, 219n32; unidirectional
assumption about, 9495. See also immigration
Miller, Toby, 215n3
mixing and self-identification, 91. see also mestizaje paradigm
Mon, Ramn, 144, 219n24
Monroe Doctrine, 204
Muoz, Jos, 70
music, 81, 85, 9798, 133
Nabuco, Joaquim, 203
Nader, Laura, 217n18
naming, politics of, 93, 96, 16061
apa, 3334
narratives and meaning construction, 8990,

national integration, cultural politics of, 2023
nationalism: Chinese racial-cultural, 177, 179;
long-distance, 64, 65; Panamanian, 1516, 18,
40, 11617
nationality, 77, 169
nation-states: complexity of diaspora relations
with, 57; deterritorialized, 64; and transnational forces, 9; violence and persecution by,
109. See also geopolitical relationships; specific countries
Native Americans in Panama, 218n15
native place associations, 46, 6061
Naturalization of Commerce law (1941), 117
naturalization process, 148, 224n13
New York Railway Company, 17
Nicaragua, xiii, 57, 78
Nonini, Donald, 109, 152
Noriega, Manuel, 36, 41, 80, 142, 144, 147
occupation, 5051, 13132; small business ownership, 50, 11721, 14647
Odd Couple, The (Simon), 95
Ong, Aihwa, 78, 102, 109, 225n16
Opium Wars, 39
oral histories, 111. see also narratives and meaning construction; serial migration
organizations, local, 4647
organizations, transnational, 13, 24, 47, 220n5.
See also specific organizations
organized crime, 143
Ossa de la Cruz, Ral, 130, 14243, 148
Overseas Chinese Affairs office (ROC), 6668,
Panama: as American protectorate, 35, 217n13;
as global nexus, 3438; political history and
context, 1417, 36; relations with PRC, 37,
16770, 181, 192, 216n16; relations with Taiwan, 2122, 37, 52, 6366, 178, 192. See also
American imperialism; Canal Zone
Panam Amrica, El (newspaper), xviii
Panama Canal, see entries at Canal
Panama City, 2122, 34, 100, 185, 20912
Panama Railway Company, 38
Panameista movement, 11617
Pan-American Nikkei Association, 204
Paper Sons, 93, 221n7
passports, 13638, 224n1
patrilineality, 5962. See also masculinity, constructions of
Peoples Republic of China, see China, Peoples
Republic of (PRC)
Peru, 96

picture brides, 223n12
police raids, 42, 14344, 184
political history of Panama, 36. See also American imperialism
political involvement, 5152, 130
political persecution, 109
population estimates, 33, 217n2. see also demographics
ports, 38, 165, 215n1
power relations, 7879, 216n12, 217n19
Pratt, Mary Louise, 20, 216n12
PRC, see China, Peoples Republic of
Prensa, La, see La Prensa (newspaper)
presidency, Panamanian, 36
professional fields, 13132
Professionals Association, Chinese Panamanian (APROCHIPA), 46, 216n14
prohibited roots policy, 11621, 122
Protestantism, 19, 48
Punjabi Mexican Americans, 162
Punti Chinese, 156
purity, racial, 4445, 5859, 8283, 205
quarantine station, 99, 221
Queen of the Chinese Colony, see beauty
racialization, panethnic, 202
racial purity discourses, 4445, 5859, 8283,
205. see also Chineseness
races prohibidas policy, 11621, 122
raids by police, 42, 14344, 184
railroad, transisthmian, 35, 38
religion, 19, 48, 225n17
religious organizations, 46
Republic of China, see Taiwan (Republic of
retail businesses, 5051, 11721, 14647
rhizome metaphor, 88
ROC, see Taiwan (Republic of China)
Rosaldo, Renato, 78
Rouse, Roger, 87
ruptures, social, xvii, 28; normalization of,
8687, 90, 11011
Sal Si Puedes (Barrio Chino) neighborhood,
34, 100, 131
Sam Yap Association, 46, 174
Sandanista Revolution (Nicaragua), 57
Say Yap (Gou Kong Chow) Association, 46
scholarships, Taiwanese, 19293
schooling, see education
seaports, 38, 165, 215n1

security, international, 172
self-identification, 91
self-introductions (at beauty pageant), 71
separateness of Chinese in Panama, 16
serial migration, 8691, 10812, 19899. See also
immigration; migration
ship registration, Panamanian, 3637
shopkeepers, Panamanian Chinese, 5051,
11721, 14647
Skidmore, Thomas, 203
slavery, Chinese, 15455
slaves, African, 202, 203
small businesses, 5051, 11721, 14647
snakeheads, 41, 14445, 224n1
social mobility and American occupation, 18
Sociedad Anti-China, 40
sojourners, 157
Soong Chang-Chih, 147
Spain, 3435
Spanglish, 20
Spanish language, 4849, 71
special commission on immigrants, 14849
stereotypes, 171
Stoeltje, Beverly, 55
subjectivity, 11, 87, 196
succession, ethnic, 2627
Sun Yat-Sen Institute, 21, 49, 121, 189, 21112. See
also Chinese Panamanian Cultural Center
Szanton Blanc, Cristina, 64
Tailor of Panama (film), 225n1
Taiwan (Republic of China): bond with diasporic Chinese, 18186, 197, 204; and Chinese
Panamanian Cultural Center, 2122, 131,
18789; embassy in Panama, 147, 18384, 187,
210; and Mandarin language use, 50; Overseas Chinese Affairs office, 6668, 131;
Panamas relations with, 2122, 37, 52, 6366,
178, 192; PRC vs., 2023, 63, 16566, 17881,
183, 216n13, 220n8; scholarships offered by,
19293; transnational organizations sponsored by, 24, 47, 5657. See also homeland
Thompson, E. P., 217n18
tiendas, 34
Torrijos, Omar, 184
tourism, 62, 67
tourist visas, 142, 145, 14950, 224n1
trade by galleon, 35, 38
trafficking in immigrants, 15, 41, 14445, 224n1.
See also immigration
transnational context of citizenship, 34, 710
transnational family formations, 4345, 102,
103, 12325, 13234, 219n32

transnational migrant circuits, 8788
transnational organizations, 13, 24, 47, 220n5.
See also specific organizations
transnational politics, 5152. See also globalization; specific countries
travel vs. serial migration, 87
treaty, canal, 35
trilingualism, 49, 78, 97. See also languages
Trinidad, 38
Troya, Mary, 148
Uncle Sam to Uncle Chang (La Prensa), xxii
(fig.), 12, 4, 27, 164, 16773
United Fruit Company, 17, 19, 175
United States: consulate, assistance from, 19,
118; education in, 45, 50, 109, 13233; and
Uncle Sam cartoon, xxii (fig.), 2, 4, 27, 164,
16773; violence against Chinese in, 223n8.
See also American imperialism
university degrees, 50, 106, 13233
University of Panama, 50, 106
University of Santa Mara la Antigua, 50,

values, Chinese, 190, 209
Vasconcelos, Jos, 216n10
violence and anti-Chinese movements, 3940,
119, 220n4, 223n8
visas and passports, 13638, 142, 145, 14950,
Way On Association, 46
Wilk, Richard, 55
women, see gender
Wong, Sau-Ling, 200
work ethic, 209
work permits, 148
World War II, 175; American military expansion during, 11415, 12629; Japanese internment in, 9, 205
Yanagisako, Sylvia, 200
Yan Wo Association, 46
Yee, Wong Kee, 217n5
Yin, Eduardo, 148
youth, 46, 5859, 81
Yuval-Davis, Nira, 8