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Monday, June 29, 2009

The Chinatown of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

Today, I visited Santo Domingo’s Chinatown, which was just north of the UNESCO-listed Colonial Zone: Centred around the stretch of Avenida Duarte bounded by the streets of Avenida Mexico, Jacinto de la Concha, Avenida Mella and Calle José Martí. According to a report in the Listin Diario newspaper, “there are at least 40 Chinese-owned businesses in the area, including restaurants, laundries, beauty salons, video clubs, furniture stores, supermarkets, and pensions, primarily occupied by Chinese residents. The Dragon House Restaurant, on Avenida Duarte, about 50 meters from Avenida México, is a popular outing for middle class and even upscale families on Sundays.”

According to DR1.com: “The first recorded mention of a Chinese presence in the Dominican Republic was in 1864 during the War of the Restoration, with references to a man named “Pancho el Chino,” who fought in the War. There are also reports that a businessman named Gregorio Riva brought a handful of Chinese laborers over from Cuba to make bricks and quicklime in the Cibao region. This group of Chinese immigrants eventually built warehouses in Samana, Yuna and Moca. By 1870 the Chinese migrants had built the cemetery in Moca.”

A large influx of Chinese came during the American occupation of the Dominican Republic in 1916-20, when Chinese came over to take part in the rapid economic expansion that resulted from the occupation. DR1.com says that “by 1920 there were a total of 255 Chinese residents…(historian] Bordas highlighted the honor with which the Chinese businesses carried themselves and added that this was to the benefit of small Dominican business.“

Chinese immigration continued throughout the 20th century, but the next major influx occurred in the 1980s-1990s when new immigration laws allowed residency upon investment in either a local property or business. This led to a new influx of Mainland Chinese, many of whom bought apartments in the fashionable neighbourhood of Avenida Anacaona, as my friend, Esther, said. I was also told that although large megamarket chains have everything, it’s the Chinese neighbourhood supermarkets that have the freshest vegetables and personalized services. Esther told me as we visited one of these in her neighbourhood that the family that runs this particular supermarket have been in Dominican Republic for over 30 years and their children study in the American School and speak good English.

According to DR1.com, “Although no official census has been made, there are estimates of about 15,000 people of Chinese origin living in the DR and this number could be much higher if the number of mixed heritage Chinese-Dominicans is counted. Chinese Dominicans have made great strides in the DR. Jose Chez Checo was former President of the Dominican Academy of History and historian and writer Dr. Mu Kien Adriana Sang has also contributed greatly to Dominican culture.”

Two traditional Chinese gateways guard the entrances to Santo Domingo’s Chinatown along Avenida Duarte, one with the plaque that says “四海为家” (Home everywhere) and the other says “天下为公” (Justice in the world – quotation from Chinese revolutionary Sun Yat Sen’). Shops in Chinatown sell general merchandise mostly imported from China. There were also a few Chinese restaurants that were not open when I walked through the area. Hence I could not verify if they sell authentic Chinese food, or were they the cheap generic pica pollo Chinese eateries found all over Dominican Republic that sell deep fried chicken and other meat, plus bastardised Dominican interpretation of Chinese cuisine.

At the eastern end of Chinatown, there was also a small pavilion with a statue of Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy. The street leading to it was lined with stone statues of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.

Later in the day, I visited a pica pollo near my hotel where I ordered a box of rice with chicken and vegetables for only D$100 (just under US$3), which was cheap by Dominican standards. I tried to speak Mandarin to the lady proprietor and her pretty daughter, but they did not seem to understand me. Instead, she spoke to me in Spanish. I suppose they must belong to the older group of Chinese-Dominicans and not the later group of Mainland Chinese that came in recent decades.


1 comment:

Eric Chu said...

「四海為家」literally means "home in the four seas" and can be interpreted as " homes everywhere" but not quite having the same flavour. It has special meaning for Chinese migrants living overseas, emphasising on the wandering around the four seas, thus feeling homesick.「天下為公」literally means "heaven and earth belong to all", kind of idealistic wishful thinking. It is most often contributed to Confucius from 「禮記:禮運大同篇」(the book of civility), although its origin has been disputed. It is definitely not originated from Dr Sun Yat-Sen, although he used that a lot in his writing and speeches.