Paisanos Chinos: Transpacific Politics among Chinese Immigrants in Mexico

Paisanos Chinos: Transpacific Politics among Chinese Immigrants in Mexico

by Fredy Gonzalez

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Paisanos Chinos tracks Chinese Mexican transnational political activities in the wake of the anti-Chinese campaigns that crossed Mexico in 1931. Threatened by violence, Chinese Mexicans strengthened their ties to China—both Nationalist and Communist—as a means of safeguarding their presence. Paisanos Chinos illustrates the ways in which transpacific ties helped Chinese Mexicans make a claim to belonging in Mexico and challenge traditional notions of Mexican identity and nationhood. From celebrating the end of World War II alongside their neighbors to carrying out an annual community pilgrimage to the Basílica de Guadalupe, Chinese Mexicans came out of the shadows to refute longstanding caricatures and integrate themselves into Mexican society.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520290204
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 05/09/2017
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Fredy González is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder.

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Paisanos Chinos

Transpacific Politics among Chinese Immigrants in Mexico

By Fredy González


Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-29019-8


Mexico for the Mexicans, China for the Chinese

Political Upheaval and the Anti-Chinese Campaigns in Postrevolutionary Sonora and Sinaloa

After arriving in Mexico, Cantonese immigrants underwent two processes that tied them more closely to political activities in China and encouraged them to identify as Chinese. The first was the formation of Chinese social and political associations. Tension between Mexico's two largest Chinese associations, the Guomindang and the Chee Kung Tong, led to open violence in the 1920s and lasting enmity throughout the twentieth century. The second was the anti-Chinese campaigns. Between 1931 and 1934, anti-Chinese associations in the northwestern states of Sonora and Sinaloa (see map 1), sheltered by the support of the state and federal government, increased pressure on Chinese immigrants until ultimately carrying out their expulsion from those states. While wealthy Chinese fled to other parts of the country or paid for their own passage to China, those without means were forced to cross into the United States, from where immigration authorities deported them to China. Both processes, which occurred in the context of the Chinese and Mexican revolutions, led to appeals to Chinese officials and continued engagement with Chinese politics.

A new wave of studies has uncovered the history of Mexico's Chinese immigrant population and the anti-Chinese movement that drove the vast majority from the country. This chapter will emphasize the role of politics both in organizing the community and in fostering postrevolutionary xenophobia. Few Chinese could escape the political upheaval of the early twentieth century, whether it was the anarchy of the Mexican Revolution, the internecine chaos of the Tong Wars, or the xenophobic violence of the anti-Chinese campaigns. The sober analyses contained in Chinese-language sources demonstrate that diplomats and associations had a sophisticated understanding of each, including the political and economic causes behind the anti-Chinese campaigns. Moreover, they show that migrants tried to appeal both to Mexico and to China to end xenophobic attacks, yet ultimately found that appealing to domestic officials was not an effective strategy. The anti-Chinese campaigns thus proved the utility of transnational ties to China.

Although the anti-Chinese campaigns were organized and backed by lower- and middle-class anti-Chinese activists around the country, crucial was the role of the Mexican government, particularly during the Maximato (1928–34). That period saw former president Plutarco Elias Calles wield more power behind the scenes than the three presidents he had helped bring into power. Indeed, crucial was the relative weakness of the office of the presidency during the Maximato, particularly during the presidency of Pascual Ortiz Rubio (1930–32), the peak of Calles's political power during this six-year period. The Maximato also witnessed the creation of a national political party that incorporated anti-Chinese activists and supported their message. The partnership between anti-Chinese associations and Mexico's emerging one-party state thus illustrates the crucial role of xenophobia in Mexican postrevolutionary state formation.

The support the Mexican government accorded to anti-Chinese activists led not only to new legislation primarily targeting the Chinese, but also to anti-Chinese associations being granted a wide latitude to go beyond the law in persecuting the Chinese. In turn, the anti-Chinese campaigns distracted from a grueling depression and served to increase popular support for the government. Government support for anti-Chinese campaigns was most notable in the areas in which Calles had the most control, particularly in Sonora and Sinaloa, the two states in northwestern Mexico where the expulsion of Chinese was most successful. In all, the anti-Chinese campaigns conducted during this three-year period saw the departure of three-quarters of the Chinese population of the country. Even for those who remained, the expulsion of Chinese from the state of Sonora represented a lasting trauma and a reference point for the community through the rest of the twentieth century.

This chapter will begin by examining the arrival of Chinese migrants in the country and the economic activities that brought them success. Whereas earlier scholarship has examined the emergence of violence among Chinese migrants and the role of such violence in spurring the anti-Chinese campaigns, this chapter will link such violence to Chinese political associations tied to mainland Chinese political currents. After examining the tactics employed by anti-Chinese activists to help encourage Chinese migrants to leave the country, it will examine the expulsion of Chinese migrants from the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, dispossessing Chinese migrants of the fruits of decades of hard work.


Chinese immigrants to Mexico, almost all of whom came from the Pearl River delta of Guangdong Province, formed part of a large wave of Cantonese immigration to the Americas. The Chinese of the Americas made a small but rapidly growing fraction of the eight million Chinese who had settled outside of mainland China by 1922. Coming from the same province and speaking similar dialects, these Chinese migrants could organize for mutual aid as well as respond to the anti-Chinese immigration restrictions and xenophobia that swept the Americas. For example, after the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States in 1882, networks involving Chinese migrants residing along several points of the Pacific Rim collaborated to help overcome exclusion laws and smuggle Chinese migrants to the United States. These networks first brought Chinese migrants to Mexico and soon after smuggled them across the U.S.–Mexico border, "inventing] undocumented emigration from Latin America."

Despite the initial impulse to find a circuitous path to the United States, many migrants chose to remain in Mexico. Though small groups of Chinese settled during the nineteenth century, the vast majority arrived after the 1899 Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Mexican and Chinese governments. Chinese immigrants arrived in a Mexico that had just begun to exercise control over its borders, and found that the migration service was understaffed, underpaid, and easily corruptible. As a result, foreigners like the Chinese often paid bribes to enter Mexico without proper authorization. From 1915 to 1920, the governor of Baja California, Esteban Cantú, alone brought in thousands of Chinese migrants to help develop the lands of the Mexicali Valley. Many of the migrants entered without documentation, and, according to the U.S. consul, paid up to $140 to enter the territory to work. After arriving, Chinese migrants were welcomed by representatives of Chinese organizations, "taught ... basic Spanish, and familiarized ... with the fundamentals of Mexican culture."

Chinese migrants took part in a variety of industries around the country. For example, many Chinese settled in the Mexicali Valley of northwestern Mexico and worked the lands of the Colorado River Land Company. Their toil helped irrigate the arid territory and turned the valley into a bountiful area for Mexican agriculture, particularly cotton. In Torreón, in the northeastern state of Coahuila, Chinese arrivals worked in the mines and on the railroad. In Monterrey, the earliest migrants worked in the construction of municipal public-works projects. On the Yucatán Peninsula, Chinese and other migrants worked the henequen plantations before moving on to the cities. By the 1920s, many migrants had remained in the country after the termination of their labor contracts and become small-business owners, largely divided among general stores, laundries, and cafés. The transition to small businesses was relatively easy, since they required little start-up capital. Moreover, because there was a need for their services, Chinese quickly found an eager clientele. Once they found success, some migrants began to send for family members to join them.

One of the most notable Chinese settlements in the first decade of the twentieth century was the city of Torreón, Coahuila — a city Chinese immigrants called "cai yuan," or vegetable garden. Chinese formed the largest foreign group in Torreón at the beginning of the twentieth century, with over five hundred residents. In addition to establishing grocery stores and laundries, wealthy Chinese residents bought large tracts of land for agricultural work (giving the town its Chinese name). Torreón's wealthiest resident was Wong Foon Chuck, who owned the Hotel del Ferrocarril in the city and five other hotels nearby, and who served as director of the Mexico-China Banking Company. Chinese reformer Kang Youwei took an interest and visited the city, which had formed a chapter of the reformist organization the Baohuanghui.

Much of the city's economic and political life was devastated during the Torreón massacre of 1911. After forces loyal to Mexican revolutionary Francisco Madero took control of Torreón, the city was sacked and over three hundred Chinese men and five Japanese were killed. The men had been "stripped, robbed, and mutilated while their homes and stores were ransacked and burned." The destruction of Torreón represented the worst act of violence ever committed against the Chinese in North America. Even after the Torreón massacre, a reduced Chinese community remained in the city for much of the twentieth century, and many worked the surrounding Chinese farms until the 1930s. But sophisticated Chinese commercial, social, and political activities would take decades to recover.

Even during the chaos of the Mexican Revolution, when Chinese and other foreigners were targeted for robbery or worse, Chinese continued to arrive in the country. Whereas there were only 1,023 Chinese in the country in 1895 — before the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Mexican and Chinese governments — by 1910 the number had grown more than tenfold, to 13,000. About one-third of the population lived in Sonora, where they formed the largest group of foreign residents in the state. During the Mexican Revolution, the number of Chinese migrants in the country would almost double, reaching 24,000 by 1926, "the second-largest immigrant group in all of Mexico."

Chinese migrants to Mexico were mostly men, a fact that partially explains the prevalence of Chinese-Mexican interracial romantic relationships. Of 15,976 Chinese recorded by the Mexican census in 1930, only 412 were women — a figure that would have included Mexican spouses of Chinese men. Reasons to explain these unions are numerous, and of course include romantic affection. Frequent interaction between Chinese business owners and female customers and employees often led to courtship and marriage. For Chinese laborers unable to return to China to marry, seeking a spouse in Mexico may have been a more feasible option. Others may have been attracted by the possibility of "claim[ing] a place in [Mexican] society." Having opened businesses and started families, many Chinese migrants before the anti-Chinese campaigns acquired Mexican citizenship.


Following the example set by Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia and the United States, as well as that of other communities of foreigners in Mexico, Chinese migrants established associations for mutual aid and assistance, facilitating the arrival and settlement of new migrants and advocating for their interests. Native-place associations, including the Haiyan Gongsuo, Zhongshan Huiguan, and Sanyi Huiguan, linked Chinese migrants from the same towns; surname and clan associations brought together Chinese of similar family backgrounds; and general associations served as umbrella organizations for Chinese migrants. These latter organizations were frequently named Zhonghua Huiguan, Zhonghua Shanghui, or Huaqiao Tuantihui and often called, in Spanish, asociaciones chinas ("Chinese associations") or camaras de comercio chinas ("Chinese chambers of commerce"). The functions of these associations were numerous: they provided migrants a place to sleep once they arrived in the country; they collected funds to remit to migrants' sending regions; they arbitrated disputes between migrants; they took care of elderly Chinese; and they helped negotiate conflicts between Chinese and native Mexican residents. More important, they also provided a vehicle for Chinese migrants to resist anti-Chinese racism, particularly during the anti-Chinese campaigns.

One of the largest organizations to precede the advent of the Republic of China was a fraternal organization known as the Chee Kung Tong (CKT), colloquially known as the Chinese Freemasons. Before the 1911 Xinhai revolution, it advocated the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the restoration of the Ming dynasty (fanqing fuming), by which it meant a return to a Han Chinese monarchy. Although their visions for the future of China were different, the Guomindang and societies like the Chee Kung Tong were, before the 1911 revolution, allies in the struggle against the Qing dynasty. In much of northern Mexico, CKT branches were founded well before branches of the Guomindang. In the first decade of the twentieth century, for example, Tampico and Torreón both established CKT branches, and a branch was established in Mexicali in 1914. Eventually, the Chee Kung Tong would establish a headquarters in Mexico City, which coordinated the activities of its branches around the country. In Spanish-language correspondence and publications, the CKT identified itself as a Masonic order and used Masonic symbols, but it was not strictly speaking a secret society, nor was it affiliated with other Masonic groups.

The formation of these Chinese associations took place in the context of increased contact between Chinese around the Pacific Rim and the Chinese government. Chinese migration to the region was a crucial factor behind the establishment of Chinese–Mexican relations in 1899, and the treaty the two countries signed promised Chinese subjects "free and voluntary" migration to Mexico. In the aftermath of the Xinhai revolution, the Chinese Republican government would strengthen its links with Chinese communities around the world. Seeing the Chinese communities of Southeast Asia and the Americas as instrumental to the revolution, the Republic of China established a government body, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, to keep Chinese overseas firmly tied to the government — representing Chinese migrants in times of trouble, asking them for contributions, and even claiming a responsibility for their education. In Mexico, the Republic of China opened consulates in areas with large Chinese populations far from Mexico City. By the mid-1920s, Nogales, Tampico, and Mexicali all had Chinese consulates, and Mazatlán and Tapachula had opened vice consulates by the following decade.

After the foundation of the Republic of China, cities across Mexico established chapters of the Guomindang (the Chinese Nationalist Party), the party established by Sun Yat-sen and the ruling party in China for much of the first half of the twentieth century. Cananea, Sonora, which had earlier established a branch of the Tongmenghui, opened Mexico's first Guomindang chapter. From there, the party spread to Mazatlán and Tampico during the 1910s, with a branch following in Tapachula in 1924 and Mérida in 1927. A national headquarters in Nogales, Sonora, organized the different party branches until the anti-Chinese movement; afterward, five main branches around the country coordinated party activities.

Even as, years later, anti-Chinese activists would describe the two organizations as secretive "maffias" that primarily engaged in illicit activities, during the 1920s both maintained regular contact with Mexican society as well as with local and national government officials. Both, for example, registered their associations in compliance with Mexican law. In different cities around the country, the Guomindang shared with Mexican officials the names of its officials and even agendas for high-level meetings. When, in 1928, Plutarco Elías Calles announced his refusal to extend his presidential term after the assassination of president-elect Álvaro Obregón, among the organizations to send their congratulations were two chapters of the CKT. In their openness and active participation in Mexican society, they resembled other kinds of Mexican civic associations, even those composed of foreigners.


Excerpted from Paisanos Chinos by Fredy González. Copyright © 2017 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations vii

Acknowledgments ix

Note on Language and Usage xiii

Introduction 1

1 Mexico for the Mexicans, China for the Chinese: Political Upheaval and the Anti-Chinese Campaigns in Postrevolutionary Sonora and Sinaloa 15

2 Those Who Remained and Those Who Returned: Resistance, Migration, and Diplomacy during the Anti-Chinese Campaigns 43

3 We Won't Be Bullied Anymore: The Chinese Community in Mexico during the Second World War 70

4 The Golden Age of Chinese Mexicans: Anti-Communist Activism under Ambassador Feng-Shan Ho, 1958-1964 102

5 The Cold War Comes to Chinatown: Chinese Mexicans Caught between Beijing and Taipei, 1955-1971 135

6 A New China, a New Community 166

Conclusion 189

Notes 197

Bibliography 249

Index 267

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