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    For Chinese in Panama, Ethnicity Eclipses Cross-Straits Politics

    Beijing’s diplomatic victory holds little relevance to most Chinese immigrants in Panama or their relatives back home.

    GUANGDONG, South China — When Panama broke ties with Taipei in June and established diplomatic relations with Beijing, the tiny village of Qixin was suddenly flooded with reporters.

    Nearly everyone in Qixin has relatives in Panama, the Central American isthmus country across the Pacific. But one month after the news, few villagers were talking about Taiwan. Their chief concerns are much more domestic: how to make money and maintain their language and culture within their transnational families.

    In Panama, too, many ethnic Chinese feel alienated from the geopolitical dispute. “If Jews and Arabs can do business together in the Colón Free Trade Zone [Panama’s port], why should mainlanders and Taiwanese fight?” Juan Tam, a Chinese-Panamanian writer and historian, tells Sixth Tone.

    With its strategic canal, Panama was once the pearl among Taiwan’s diplomatic allies, of which only 19 countries and the Vatican remain. The Central American country has collected millions in investment and aid from Taiwan, and in return, supported Taipei on the international stage. But now Beijing has taken over the role of benefactor and ally to Panama — which has the highest proportion of ethnic Chinese in Latin America.

    Around 5 percent of Panama’s population of 4.3 million has Chinese ancestry, and the majority trace their roots to the area around Qixin. Now called Huadu District and administered by provincial capital Guangzhou, the area is still known to locals by its Cantonese name, Fa Yen. The district has sent its young workers to Panama since 1854, when Chinese laborers crossed the sea to work on railroad construction in what was then still part of Colombia.

    There is a long and colorful history to courting the loyalties of ethnic Chinese overseas — known as huaqiao or huaren. At the turn of the 20th century, most of the funds that statesman Sun Yat-sen raised to overthrow China’s imperial regime came from overseas Chinese who were still deeply invested in the liberation of their homeland. But these days, many overseas Chinese feel the cross-Straits dispute is far from their own lives.

    To Zhong Guohua, Beijing’s diplomatic triumph has had little impact on his family, which has sent four generations of emigrants to Panama. The 47-year-old agricultural production team leader speculates that the change might make some bureaucratic processes easier between the Chinese mainland and Panama. But the Taiwan connection had its perks, too: One of his relatives studied there for free through her Panamanian citizenship.

    Zhong’s family is a typical example of the immigrant story in Huadu District. His great-grandfather left Qixin to work on the Panama Canal and later died there in an accident. The last time the laborer’s son saw him was at age 11, just before the father set off on the two-month voyage. Then, in the 1980s, Zhong’s two brothers migrated to Panama while he stayed to take care of their parents. Now in their 70s, Zhong’s parents live in the house next door.

    Zhong’s brothers were part of the wave of Chinese emigration under Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening-up policies beginning in 1979. Like most of their generation, they made their way to Panama through relatives who were already there and could sponsor their residency applications and airfares in return for unpaid labor.

    Zhong’s eldest brother left Qixin in 1987 when he was 18 and worked in a relative’s grocery store in Panama for four years without pay, sleeping on soda boxes. Though his days were tough, Panama was still an attractive option for the young man, who had no education beyond middle school. By the end of his first decade in the country, he’d saved enough money to return to China for a visit.

    Li Xiangyi, an associate professor at Sun Yat-sen University, says that emigration to Panama from Huadu District has fluctuated with the fortunes of southern China. “They went abroad because there were few domestic job opportunities back then,” she says of Zhong’s generation. “In fact, people in Guangzhou had decent chances for upward social mobility through education, but those opportunities were not open to farmers with a relatively poor education.”

    Since 2000, Li says, the exodus to Panama has shrunk with the rise of the Chinese economy. And while Chinese immigrants in more developed countries typically seek citizenship, according to Li, many Panamanian-Chinese plan to return to China eventually. “Now, there are still 20-somethings who would like to go, especially those who have a lower educational background,” she says.

    Among Zhong’s own three children, his two daughters are both at university and have little interest in Panama. But his 17-year-old son, who hasn’t done well in school, is considering emigration as an escape.

    There is little visible evidence in Qixin to indicate the village’s connection to Panama, save for a few terracotta-and-cream villas built by emigrant cousins who brought blueprints back from their new Central American home. The houses sit empty all year until April, when the cousins dutifully return to pay their respects to their ancestors during Qingming Festival, also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day.

    As with other areas in southern China, the most obvious sign of the sizeable overseas migration in Qixin is the injection of hard-earned money into the area’s roads, schools, and ancestral halls. Chinese New Year and Tomb-Sweeping Day are the only times when the town is bustling, as returnees flock home to bow and burn incense in their clans’ temples.

    “See, all the tall buildings from before the liberation [in 1949] were built by the Panamanians,” says Zhang Wanxiang, a local official from neighboring Rulin Village. “Only those who’ve left their hometown are able to build nice houses,” he adds. In 2008, Zhang sent his 16-year-old daughter to work in a relative’s hardware store in Panama. The girl quickly learned to fill in forms for the manager and was soon given a comfortable desk job. A year later, Zhang sent his 15-year-old son to join his sister.

    Donations from emigrants help prepare Huadu District for their children’s eventual return. In 1996, Panamanian-Chinese donated more than $400,000 to build an elementary school in Rulin, with the agreement that their children would be able to study there tuition-free in the future. Many families working in Panama send their young children to live with relatives back in Huadu District, either because they don’t have time to take care of them, or so that their children can learn Chinese.

    Years of emigration have produced “shadow towns” in Panama that are bigger than the original villages in China. Liao Yundong, Rulin’s village committee secretary, says the current population of the village is around 2,600, while former villagers and their offspring in Panama total nearly 3,000.

    The discrepancy is due in part to expatriates’ exemption from China’s family planning laws. Liao says the one-child policy — which allowed rural couples to have two children if their first was a girl, in acknowledgement of a traditional preference for sons — even prompted some couples to leave. “Some couples whose first baby was a girl would worry, ‘What if the second one is the same?’” he says. “They would go if they could, stay and endure if they couldn’t.”

    Life wasn’t necessarily easier for those who left. In addition to backbreaking labor, new migrants to Panama had to contend with xenophobia from locals. Yeung Yauting, a 27-year-old second-generation Chinese-Panamanian, says that cross-Straits politics do not concern ordinary Chinese in Panama because they’re used to being lumped together.

    “People from Huadu [District] left their hometowns and suffered discrimination,” she tells Sixth Tone in a Shanghai café. “When locals accuse us of stealing their wealth, it doesn’t matter if we’re northerners, southerners, or Taiwanese — we have to unite.”

    Yeung says her parents, who arrived in Panama from Guangzhou in the 1980s, have a strong sense of ethnic identity and would not accept their two daughters dating non-Chinese people because of the linguistic and cultural barriers. “My parents are fairly open-minded — they definitely don’t mind us making friends of other races — but when it comes to relationships, the only thing they really insist on is that he is Chinese,” Yeung says.

    Yeung moved to Shanghai after marrying a mainland man whom she met while studying in the U.S. Her husband is originally from Nantong, a city near Shanghai, and at first, his mother disliked Yeung, calling her a “foreigner” — despite the perfect Mandarin she learned when she was sent back to study in China for a year at age 12.

    “I’m very grateful that my father foresaw the importance of Mandarin,” Yeung says. For her, nationality is more a matter of culture and convenience than ideology. She and her sister in Panama plan to “exchange” their children in the future so the next generation can also master both Chinese and Spanish. “What I can do is open more doors for them,” she says.

    Tam, too, says that the driving force behind the Chinese community in Panama is business, not politics. “Money has no name,” he reasons.

    As secretary of Panama’s National Ethnic Chinese Council, Tam also advises the government on issues relating to the country’s Chinese community. For locals, he suggests, switching diplomatic ties from Taipei to Beijing is a pragmatic move. “Locals see it as a change of checkbook to a larger and bigger checkbook account,” he says.

    But while earlier generations of ethnic Chinese in Panama band together despite their disparate origins, Tam says that newer waves of mainland urban professionals arriving in the last 15 years do not like to mix with the existing community.

    Yeung echoes his observations. “People from Huadu [District] and Taiwan share a cheerful personality. We get along very well and even offer each other the dishes we cook, as neighbors,” Yeung says, “but I feel that the new arrivals from [mainland] cities are less warm, maybe harder to get along with.”

    Editor: Qian Jinghua.

    (Header image: Zhong Guohua stares into the distance from the balcony of his home in Qixin Village, Guangzhou, Guangdong province, July 18, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)