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New Chinese Diasporas in the Americas

New Chinese Migrants in Latin America: Trends and Patterns of Adaptation

Weinong Gao

Background and Trends

Latin America was a major destination for Chinese migrants outside Southeast Asia in the nineteenth century. After World War II, and especially from the 1950s, Chinese emigration changed significantly in two main ways. First, between 1949 and 1979, many Chinese chose to migrate to Latin and South America and other countries because of wars, political turmoil and fear of persecution at home. During that period, Chinese migrants came mainly from Taiwan and Hong Kong. Their economic status and education levels were comparatively high. This changed the image and social standing of Chinese migrants, previously represented by those who had migrated before 1949. Second, migration from mainland China stopped after 1949 because the country was closed off from the outside world. Since mainland China was originally the prime source ofmigration to Latin America, this changed its configuration in terms of both origin and destinations. For a while after 1949, Chinese in Latin America were mainly from Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Soon afterwards, the new trend normalized. Chinese migrants were few in number and exercised scant influence on Latin America’s immigrant landscape. Few countries experienced notable influxes. Argentina wanted to develop its economy by

W. Gao (*)

Jinan University, Guangzhou, China © The Author(s) 2017

M. Zhou (ed.), Contemporary Chinese Diasporas, DOI 10.1007/978-981-10-5595-9_15

tapping into the capital and talent of the emerging “Four Asian Dragons” in the 1980s, and it implemented an “amnesty” program to grant some 400 illegal Chinese migrants resident permits. Between 1983 and 1984, there was a sudden spurt of immigration to Argentina from Taiwan, Paraguay and Bolivia. These migrants soon swelled into a population of tens of thousands, concentrated in Buenos Aires, and formed new Chinatowns (Bai 2002). Compared with other immigrant groups in Latin America, however, the number of Chinese was vanishingly small between the 1950s and the 1970s. Few countries welcomed Chinese migrants from Taiwan or other areas outside mainland China, and there were almost no migrants from there. So the Chinese diasporic community in the region sustained itself mainly through natural accrual in the form of descendants, whose ethnic identity faded with time.

The influx of new migrants from mainland China after the country opened its door to the world significantly altered the profile of Chinese immigration to Latin America. The year 1979 was a milestone. Before then, emigrants from mainland China were few in number, and even fewer went to Latin America. Yet after 1979, more and more Chinese with a diverse range of socioeconomic characteristics began to migrate to different parts of the world, giving rise to a new phenomenon—the new Chinese migrants, or xin yimin. Latin America has once again become a key destination.

According to present scholarship, new Chinese migrants fall into several groups (Bai 2002; Gao 2012a, b; Xia 2013): family members, including marriage migrants (mostly women), who join or reunite with existing migrants; student migrants; employer-sponsored migrants, skilled and unskilled; business people; and tourists. During China’s reform era, most new Chinese migrants in Latin America were lower-class workers, many of whom were driven by family reunions. There are Chinese students in some countries in Latin America, but their numbers are tiny and those who choose to settle after graduation are even fewer. As for investors and business people, most have limited capital and education and tend to be from villages and small towns in China.

Since the 1980s there has been a constant influx of Chinese migrants to Latin America as part of Chinese global migration. The origins of the new immigrants are much more diverse than those of previous migrants. The latter came mostly from Guangdong, whereas the former come mainly from developed coastal areas of Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu, Shandong, Shanghai and Beijing. Some are from the central and western provinces of China, but they comprise only a small percentage of the overall

Chinese migrant population. In fact, new Chinese migrants come from all over China. Their destinations include most countries and islands in Latin America, whether or not those places have established diplomatic relations with mainland China or Taiwan.

Most new Chinese migrants in Latin America are in the categories of family reunification, business people or “abnormal” migrants. They are largely dependent on local or clan networks. They tend to cluster, supporting each other and forming “networked” clan associations. Migrants try to bring their relatives and friends, and thus the pattern repeats itself. Relatives and friends from the same town or village gather together in their new places of residence. The basis for identification varies. The most common unit is the county, often known as yi, such as Taishan, Zhongshan, Enping and Jinjiang. In some cases it is dialect. The dialect area usually comprises several counties, such as the Siyi (four counties) in Guangdong, the Shiyi (ten counties) in Fuzhou, Southern Fujian and the Hakka region in northern Guangdong and Western Fujian. When the number of immigrants from a single place is small, the unit is extended. It can be based on a province in cases where there are few people from the same county or dialect region. Today in Latin America (mainly in its big countries), many of the associations set up by new Chinese migrants are based on provinces, which suggests that the migrants originate from all over China. In cases where the number of people from a single province is too small, people from different provinces end up together. For example, one association in Brazil comprises migrants from several provinces in southeast China.

In summary, new Chinese migrants in Latin America and other places commonly cluster in clan associations. Even though these migrants in some countries come from all over China, they still gather in clan associations, the unit of which is mainly the county or the province. Their residential areas in the host countries are sometimes concentrated, sometimes not. More important than residential areas are networks based on cities in the country of destination. If there is a clan building in the city, migrants usually gather in it. Otherwise they gather in a member’s company building, or members take turns in playing host. The main function of the network is to provide a platform for members to help each other at work and in their daily life. The dates of gathering are usually settled in advance, but they are sometimes rescheduled. The gatherings are never merely formalities, since members need each other’s help and support. Given the ease and ubiquity of modern transportation, the decrease in racial discrimination and the high prices of real estate in cities, new Chinese migrants rarely form highly centralized

Chinatowns of the sort that were common in the past. However, networks based on a common place of origin in China are still prevalent, not only for Cantonese and Fujianese.

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