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Monday, June 29, 2009

Santo Domingo IV

Santo Domingo has an amazing range of architectural styles, ranging from Renaissance Gothic to modernist/art deco and even pseudo-fascist/socialist functionalist.  I had a great time on quiet Sunday walking along the streets of Colonial Zone looking out for photo opportunities.  Loud merengue and classical music heard on the streets – the same seen across Caribbean/Latin America – such a musical people!  Locals relaxed on a Sunday afternoon, drinking with friends at neighbourhood bars.

Foreigners Club Hotel

A delightful place of the 1950's Miami Art Deco style building, whose guests are largely Bohemian minded or semi-retired Americans who spend extended periods enjoying Dominican cigars and cheap, good Presidente beer,
 

Faro a Colon (Columbus Lighthouse)

From Avenida Mexico, I got onto a taxi (D$150 or S$6) to Faro a Colon, the Columbus Lighthouse. This gigantic structure more than 10 storeys tall was built in 1992 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the "Discovery and Evangelisation of the Americas" by Christopher Columbus.  Inaugurated by then Dominican President Balaguer, Pope John Paul II and King Juan Carlos of Spain, some estimated that as many as 50,000 slum dwellers had to be moved and US$100 million was spent for the project.  The power that it consumes when fully switched on (thus able to project the shape of a cross on the skies over Santo Domingo) is so demanding that it would cause black-outs across the surrounding areas of Santo Domingo.  The building was designed in 1929 by a young British architect via an international competition organized by the then Dominican dictator General Trujillo, who probably loved those massive concrete blocks reminiscent of architecture typical of Stalinist-Fascist regimes of the era. 

 

At the heart of the complex was an elaborate marble structure enclosing the supposed remains of Christopher Columbus, guarded by a Dominican armed sailor in ceremonial naval blue-white uniform.  He rests in a room nearby and rushes to attention whenever visitors come (which is not a lot of the time).  After photos are taken of him, he relaxes and retreats back to his room.  Interestingly, there are two other claimants to the tombs of Columbus: The cathedrals of Seville, Spain and of Havana, Cuba.  Historians and forensic scientists had performed DNA test on the remains in Seville and concluded that those in Seville were mostly likely those of the great explorer. The Dominicans had refused to open their Columbus tomb and the Cuban tomb was considered least likely and was not investigated at all. Whatever the truth, I had visited the tombs of Columbus in Seville and Havana, and this visit to Santo Domingo ensures that I have at least covered all possibilities!

 

Two corridors of exhibition rooms on the southern side of the complex contain exhibits on the cultures and history of selected countries of the Old World and the New World, the latter including indigenous cultures destroyed by the arrival of the Europeans.  These dusty exhibits were of mixed quality and were donated by governments of the countries concerned. 

 

The whole complex appeared grey and worn.  Only the ground floor was occupied and the other nine floors were not opened to the public.  There were few visitors, even on a Sunday, which explained why the staff and naval guards there appeared a little bored.  I asked a few Dominicans and none have been there before. What a white elephant!

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.