This Latin American Melting Pot Will Surprise You
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s a reason this country’s cuisine is so different from the food in other Latin American nations.
By James Watkins
China is the world’s export powerhouse — and while that might be newly controversial, the Middle Kingdom has held the title since the days of the Silk Road. And we’re not just talking about goods, either. The world’s second-largest producer of people (there are 60 percent more live births in China than in the next most fecund country, bar India), it has long exported its human capital across the globe as well. Some experts suggest there are 50 million Chinese people living outside the borders of the People’s Republic.
And while most overseas Chinese live in nearby Asian countries like Thailand or Malaysia, or in the world’s top immigrant destinations such as the United States and Canada, one surprising country also breaks into the top ranks:
The third-largest Chinese community outside of Asia is in Peru.
Indeed, it’s estimated that up to 1.5 million people of Chinese origin live in this South American nation out of a total population of 30 million. Barrio Chino, or Chinatown, in the capital city of Lima, was the once-bustling heart of the community, though these days several thousand restaurants emblazoned with the word chifa — the name of Chinese-Peruvian cuisine — can be found on street corners throughout the sprawling megacity. Indeed, Peru’s exceptional geographic diversity is matched by the rare diversity of Lima’s people.
And the origins of the Chinese in Peru? It all started with bird shit — and lots of it.
By a common measure of ethnic diversity, Peru is in fact the third most diverse country in the Americas — behind only Bolivia and Canada and far ahead of the United States. The country’s Asian demographic, which also includes the second-largest Japanese community in Latin America, has had a major impact on the country’s cuisine, culture and even politics — Peru has had a president of Japanese descent and two prime ministers of Chinese descent in the past 30 years.
And the origins of the Chinese in Peru? It all started with bird shit — and lots of it. After a period of instability and division following independence, Peruvians seized on the potential of an unconventional natural resource in the mid-19th century — guano, or mounds upon mounds of bird shit on a couple of tiny islands, which happened to be an incredibly powerful fertilizer long treasured by the Incas.
Peru controlled the global fertilizer trade for decades, and the Guano Era brought prosperity and stability to the country — though this boom was built on the backs of indentured Chinese workers. With slavery abolished in Peru in 1854, the country addressed a major labor shortage by subsidizing the importation of Chinese laborers. The workers were shipped in what became known as “floating hells.” Those who survived the journey were sold and held in abominable conditions in guano mines on the “islands of hell.” Many were worked into their graves before their contracts expired.
“The only people who welcomed the Chinese were the plantation owners — and the government, which was pretty beholden to the guano farm owners,” says Justina Hwang, whose Ph.D. included research on the Asian community in Peru. Of the 100,000 Chinese who arrived between 1849 and 1874, largely from Guangdong province, only half survived.
Despite this grisly origin story, those who remained sought to integrate themselves into society — “after the contracts expired, the Chinese laborers who were originally sent to farm the guano decided to open stores and become merchants,” explains Hwang. By the 1880s, some Chinese merchants were among the largest traders in opium and pisco (Peru’s famous brandy). Ninety-nine percent of the Chinese in Peru at this time were men, and so many married Peruvian women and converted to Catholicism, writes researcher Isabelle Lausent-Herrera.
Despite a crackdown on Asian immigration in the 20th century (many Japanese-Peruvians were even shipped to U.S. internment camps during World War II), a second wave of immigration began in the 1980s. However, this group has largely come from the Hokkien- and Mandarin-speaking Fujian province of China, rather than Cantonese-speaking Guangdong, which has caused some turbulence in Lima between the Peruvian-born Chinese community and the new arrivals, suggests Lausent-Herrera. The community has somewhat fractured and increasingly spread into Lima’s suburbs, leaving the Barrio Chino somewhat of a dilapidated corner in an already rough-around-the-edges city.
Nevertheless, the Chinese influence in Peru is here to stay, often hidden in the national cuisine. The quintessential Peruvian dish of lomo saltado? It’s beef stir-fried with soy sauce and served with rice. Go figure.