Have you ever seen a Chinese restaurant in Puerto Rico? They exist in all sizes, colors, designs and for any budget. They are located in every sector, without discrimination based on the type of population, much less race, color or gender. They have a variety of names: from those that refer to their roots, such as Fu-Yu Restaurant, Wahlong Restaurant, Wah-Sen Restaurant; Americanized names such as China Express, Star Cream, River China, Flavor of China; and those with localized names, such as Corona China, Sabor China, Rica China Restaurant, El Caldero Chino, and many others.
There are more Chinese restaurants in Puerto Rico than McDonalds, Burger King and even Subway. There are eateries with Chinese owners since the 19th century. People of Chinese descent have established an ethnic-economic enclave and a community in Puerto Rico, but both in a very particular way. The question is, when and how did this migration begin? The Chinese migration to Puerto Rico has its own characteristics and can be divided into three important phases. The first was in the 19th century and the early 20th century. The second was around 1950 and the third began in 1990.
The first stage of Chinese immigration to Puerto Rico was an indirect result of a large movement of contract workers after 1847. Although China is one of the oldest civilizations in the world and one of the most scientifically advanced, during the 19th century it fell into misfortune and nearly lost its sovereignty to the European countries. A series of wars and circumstances led to the steep Asian decline. European countries such as Great Britain, through the introduction of opium, drugged and enslaved its inhabitants, taking control of a large part of Chinese territory and, indirectly, its large and poor population. As the population grew out of control, there was no alternative but to look for work in other parts of the world.
In this way, many Chinese, mostly from rural areas, emigrated and became contract workers. It was a system in which the worker emigrated temporarily to another country by signing a contract. The contract stipulated the working conditions, such as the time, pay, and benefits to be received. Thus began the “yellow trade,” under the guise of a voluntary, temporary and paid system. In the period from 1847 to 1873, it is estimated that more than 500,000 of these Chinese workers came to the Americas, without knowing where it was, where they would stay or what would unfold for them there. Worse, they did not know the language. Many of these Chinese workers arrived to regions that had recently abolished slavery or wanted to abolish slavery and needed workers. The number of Chinese who came to Cuba as contract workers – as replacements for African slaves – was surprising.
The contracts these Chinese workers voluntarily signed remained theoretical. Few Cuban landowners complied with them. In many cases, the co-existence of contractual Chinese workers and African slaves produced arguments, jealousy and serious conflicts. Although the Chinese were paid, they were mistreated, particularly in Cuba. They were treated as slaves. Many did not accept the life of violence and subjugation and they demanded their rights and denounced the mistreatment, but they were not heard. There was no justice for them, as they did not have anywhere to take their claims, so many took the law and vengeance into their own hands. The committed homicides against those who abused their power, assassinating officials, landowners and even blacks. The overall environment of the system of contract workers was so negative that revenge, suicide and violence became the only ways to survive.
Imprisonment was the immediate consequence of uprisings by Chinese workers against their mistreatment in Cuba. Many were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment off the island for homicide, plus several years of additional detention and a clause that prevented them from returning to Cuba.
Although it was attempted in Puerto Rico, a project of introducing Chinese contractual workers was never implemented to the same degree as in Cuba and other countries. In Puerto Rico, many were opposed, questioning the religious beliefs, customs and eating and hygiene habits of Chinese. Others simply alluded to the racial differences and preferred white European workers. Some said that Puerto Rico had enough labor and bringing in Chinese was a form of perpetuating slavery.
From 1865 to 1880, however, 350 Chinese arrived to Puerto Rico, not as contract workers, but as prisoners, all of them prosecuted for homicide. Upon arriving, they were not the same rural people who had signed a contract and left China. In Cuba, they had changed their names. For example, Hachin was a native of Canton and signed a contract in 1860 to go to Cuba, where he was called Alejandro. When many of the prisoners arrived in Puerto Rico, they had common names such as José, Juan, Antonio and Pedro, among others. Some names were accompanied by a classification that was assigned to them as a surname: First, Second or Third, depending on how many had the same name on that estate where they were contracted to work. Thus, names such as José Primero, Alejandro Segundo and Benito Tercero were common. Additionally, if they arrived to the prison in Puerto Rico and there was another Chinese prisoner with the same name, a number was added to distinguish him from the one already there.
Among the contributions of the Chinese prisoners in Puerto Rico was their work on the Central Highway. Still in use today, it connected San Juan to Ponce, passing through Río Piedras, Caguas, Cayey, Aibonito, Coamo and Juana Díaz. The Central Highway is considered by many to be one of the best highways of its time in the Americas. Chinese were distributed primarily in the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Brigades. A few of those who arrived after 1879 were assigned to the 4th Brigade. Most of the Chinese worked on the section through Coamo, Aibonito, Cayey and Caguas. Some of these brigades appear to have consisted solely of Chinese workers.
Some Chinese prisoners worked for as much as 14 years on this job. Spanish engineers continuously noted that the Chinese prisoners were a fundamental part of the construction of the most difficult sections of the Central Highway. However, they also did other jobs. Some worked on the construction of the Culebrita Lighthouse, making bricks in Ponce and on public works projects in the towns of Arecibo, Cataño and Río Piedras. Other Chinese prisoners did jobs such as gardening around the capital.
For some Chinese prisoners, Puerto Rico was their final destination. Some died of tuberculosis, chronic enteritis, cerebral anemia, elephantiasis, chronic diarrhea and fever. Many of these Chinese prisoners were baptized as they were dying and left behind their Confucian beliefs. Some were buried at the Santa Rosa Cemetery near the prison. Other Chinese prisoners did not accept baptism and remained faithful to their original religious beliefs until death. At the Coamo Cemetery there was a particular area for burying those who did not renounce their faith.
Some cases were very tragic, such as that of Crisanto, who died just days after being freed. Others, such as Pantaleón and Eliseo, chose suicide. Although the majority of the sentences imposed on the Chinese prisoners were for 10 years with two additional years of detention, the reality was that the majority were held longer. Some were held for more than 20 years in the prison. A third of the Chinese prisoners finished their sentences in Puerto Rico after putting up with years of abuse and discrimination. After serving their sentences, the majority stayed in Puerto Rico. Most of them chose to live in the capital, while others settled in Ponce, Cayey and Coamo, among other towns. Few returned to Cuba.
Some Chinese prisoners, after being freed, stayed in Puerto Rico and opened their own shops selling a variety of objects or opened restaurants. Others worked as gardeners, which earned them a few cents per day. Once free, many were able to start families, married and had children. There are various love stories that start with them. In the census of 1910, 18-year-old Antonio Segundo identified as a Chinese father. A similar case was that of Petrona Primero Calderón, a Santurce resident of mixed race. Other Chinese residents such as Lucas Yon, who lived in Cayey with Alejandra Rodríguez Nieves, worked in the tobacco industry and had several children.
The second stage of Chinese migration began in 1950 within the framework of the industrialization of Puerto Rico. During this period, the Island experienced an accelerated economic development and began a process of modernization, which led to a surge in new businesses and restaurants. For example, in 1951, Hing’s Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant, was established on Fernández Juncos Avenue in Santurce. The Puerto Rico Tourism Company sponsored a part of the project, which was considered a tourist attraction. In 1970, an “authentic Chinese furniture” store opened in San Juan. Richard Chang opened the establishment in the new basement of Plaza San Patricio in Caparra. During this period, new economic-industrial projects arose in Puerto Rico, diverse groups of immigrants arrived, and the Chinese community in the United States was reborn.
This second stage was also fed by Chinese immigrants fleeing the Cuban Revolution of 1959. Some of them were descendants of the contract workers. An example is the married couple of Alfredo Louk, a native of Canton, and Violeta Chang de Louk, born in Cuba to Chinese parents. They settled in Puerto Rico in 1963, after having lost all their belongings in Cuba.
The Louk-Chang family was able to leave Cuba on the ships that exchanged medication for prisoners captured in the attack on the Bay of Pigs in 1961. Although they first went to Florida, their destination was always Puerto Rico; the language and the island’s similar culture was one of the attractions. Once they arrived in Puerto Rico, they contacted Ángel Pons, a Chinese who had also arrived from Cuba who had begun in the early 1960s an ice cream shop on Vives Street in Ponce. There he opened King’s Cream. A year later, Violeta and her husband and children established Rex Cream in Guayama. By 1968, they had five ice cream shops.
In 1970, Chinese ice cream shops became a big attraction on the island. Located near the central plazas of the towns, they were a site visited by families. Thus, beginning in 1960 Puerto Rico became a refuge, not just for Cubans, but also for many Chinese who had lived in Cuba.
Among the Chinese immigrants from Cuba, one outstanding figure is that of Monsignor Tomás Su, parish priest and chaplain for the Chinese in Puerto Rico. He was born on December 16, 1923, in the province of Anhui in China. At age 12, he joined the Regional Seminary in China to become a priest. He was ordained on October 3, 1950, and sent to Sicily, where he lived for four years, from 1951 to 1955. He moved to Cuba on the invitation of a friend who was a priest. The numbers of Chinese in Cuba required a priest who spoke their language and could reach this large and isolated community in religious terms, a factor that was vital for Tomás Su in his decision to accept the invitation. He lived in the provinces of Pinar de Río, Bahía Honda, La Palma in Viñales and, finally, in Minas de Matahambre. He experienced Cuban communism and at age 64 he decided to emigrate. After going to Miami and New York, and being unable to resolve his immigration status, he arrived in Puerto Rico on September 8, 1987. He lived in Puerto Rico for more than 22 years and for most of that time he led the Sacred Family Parish in Río Piedras.
This second stage was not only represented in financial and religious circles, but also in academic and medical areas. In 1961, Dr. K.S. Koo, a Chinese scientist, arrived to be part of the academic personnel at the Nuclear Center of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. In 1973, two Chinese doctors opened an acupuncture center on the Island. The practice of acupuncture, which dates back centuries in China, gained notoriety during the visit of President Richard Nixon and his wife to China in 1972. The presence of these two Chinese doctors was not without controversy, however, as the Medical Examining Board of Puerto Rico accused them of not having a license to practice medicine on the Island.
Many Chinese immigrants who were part of this second stage were pioneers in establishing Chinese restaurants in various parts of the island. Most are now elderly or have died. The oldest are mostly Chinese-Cuban, who speak Spanish and have integrated into Puerto Rican culture, without losing their own. The second and third generations are descendants of these immigrants. Most were born in Puerto Rico, went to college and make contributions through their professional careers. In a way they have developed a hybrid identity, without necessarily following the footsteps of their parents.
Displaced by globalization
The third stage of Chinese immigration to Puerto Rico consisted of younger migrants, many of them undocumented and some of them the victims of exploitation. Most of them began coming to Puerto Rico after 1990 from nearby countries in the Caribbean and Latin America. The economic prosperity of the time on the Island and the decline in other regions of the Caribbean led many Chinese to go to Puerto Rico or the United States as their final destination.
Like during the first decade of the 21st century, Chinese became the second largest group of undocumented people on the island, after people from the Dominican Republic, and surpassing Cubans. This is obvious in news reports from Puerto Rico after 1990 about the detention of Chinese migrants who tried to enter the Island. Some of the headlines read: “2 Chinese seek asylum; arrive along with 92 others,” “More illegal Chinese arrested,” “Another 23 Orientals arrested,” “Undocumented Chinese captured in the west,” and “22 Chinese migrants detained on Culebra.”
In 2006, a group of 22 Asians -17 men and 5 women – were detained while trying to enter illegally at Rincón. The owner of a Chinese restaurant in the area served as an interpreter during the questioning. The detainees reported that they paid $60,000 to be brought to the United States but refused to give information about where they came from, except that they had arrived in the Caribbean two or three months earlier.
The Chinese immigrants of this third stage are mostly young but do not speak Spanish. They work on the island under conditions of semi-slavery, with no legal migratory status or political asylum. This wave of Chinese immigrants were victims of exploitation from the time they left China, where they committed to paying between $40,000 to $60,000 – or in some cases even more – to be brought to U.S. territory. Many of them remain hostages and do forced work in restaurants until they pay the totality of their debt.
In Puerto Rico, the illegal trafficking of Chinese is also linked to an international network of trafficking Asian women for prostitution, presumably with one of its headquarters in the Condado area. Charges were filed against three Chinese under this operation. The way the smuggling network worked, a group of Chinese women were brought in rotation from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and San Juan. One of them said she had arrived “from New York, forced to have relations with 40 men, which generated $6,000, which she gave entirely to her captors.”
Later, an operation by the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) arrested four people of Chinese nationality, including a minor, in Dorado. They were raising shrimp for the business Eureka Marine Products, based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, but could not prove they were in the country legally.
In 2007, federal authorities in Puerto Rico announced they had dismantled an alleged band of human traffickers consisting of 15 Chinese, the majority of them residents of the Island. According to the accusations, they operated a network to bring Chinese citizens from the Dominican Republic illegally to the United States. The members of the group were arrested at their residences in various parts of Puerto Rico, such as Rincón, Ponce, Las Piedras, Carolina, San Lorenzo and Vega Baja.
The nature of this last stage makes it difficult to determine the number of Chinese people who have arrived and settled in Puerto Rico. According to the 1980 census, there were 1,990 people from Asia in Puerto Rico, without mentioning a specific country of origin. The census of 1990 includes 2,301 Asians, of which 342 are Chinese. In 2000, there were 7,960 people from Asia and of those 1,873 were identified as Chinese. In the last census done in 2010, Chinese immigrants totaled 2,187. Undoubtedly, the number of Chinese immigrants in Puerto Rico is larger than reflected in the census. Most of these Chinese are working age, are male and live in groups, as their employers place them in housing near their jobs and transport them in groups.
Despite being a group of immigrants difficult to count, the Chinese are very visible in Puerto Rican society. Between 2012 and 2015 in Puerto Rico, there were more than 600 Chinese restaurants, an industry that generates millions of dollars a year and creates hundreds of direct and indirect jobs. It is estimated that about 10,000 Chinese residents make up the community.
The situation of the Chinese community in Puerto Rico grew more complicated with the rise of Covid-19. The terrible virus not only spread from the province of Wuhan in China, but also exacerbated and generalized a sense of discrimination against Chinese around the world. Discrimination and xenophobia have also been seen in Puerto Rico. As soon as the virus became known, memes and jokes denigrating Chinese soon appeared and sales at Chinese restaurants dropped dramatically. However, the virus was not brought to the island by a Chinese person. At the peak of the pandemic, the Chinese community in Puerto Rico delivered to the Island government a donation valued at $100 thousand in products such as disinfectants, masks and gloves to combat the virus and to remind people they are not invisible. Like most diseases, Covid-19 does not discriminate. We are the ones who discriminate.
Although the Chinese community is not well known, it exists and it is known where it lives and what it does. Chinese in Puerto Rico have their own suppliers, supermarkets, churches, doctors and associations, among other resources. They celebrate the Chinese New Year and, in the measure they can, maintain their traditional customs. They are not invisible and they are more organized and united than they appear.
The simplicity with which the Puerto Rican identity is constructed requires closer attention. The time for the trilogy of Indians, Africans and Spaniards is past. That construction should be left behind. Our racial and cultural identity, like that of many other Caribbean societies, is more complex than we think.
Castillo, Juan E., “La Carretera Central” en Revista de Obras Públicas de Puerto Rico. Año VI, número 72, diciembre 1929, p. 318.
Lee Borges, José. “Los chinos en Puerto Rico”. San Juan: Publicaciones Gaviota, 2020.
Meléndez Muñoz, Miguel. “Cuentos de la Carretera Central”. Río Piedras: Cultural Puertorriqueña, Inc., 1982.
Author: Dr. José Lee-Borges
Published: April 21, 2021
Revision: Dr. Lizette Cabrera Salcedo, April 20, 2021