Chinese in Mexico: A little-known history

The Chinese state television report above is an interesting introduction to the history of Chinese in Mexico, one that has a little-known bleak period.

Small numbers of Chinese arrived in Mexico centuries ago as servants of Spanish merchants. A far larger number, perhaps 60,000, came at the end of the 19th and beginning of the early 20th century, fleeing poverty and hardship in southern China’s Canton region. They called Mexico "Big Lusong," in contrast to "Little Lusong," which was the Philippines. 

The U.S. government barred Chinese immigration in 1882, so many of the Chinese migrants aimed to use Mexico as a springboard, but in the end most stayed in Mexico despite hardships.

Many of the Chinese settled in Baja California, particularly the city of Mexicali which became known as “Little Canton,” according to this bilingual blog on Chinese in Mexico.

A UCLA professor, Robert Chao Romero, published a book in 2010 called, “The Chinese in Mexico, 1882-1940.” A university description of the book included this paragraph:

“In 1899, the Mexican government also signed a treaty with China to recruit Chinese to work in agriculture in the northern border areas, Romero said. By the 1920s, Chinese immigrants who had settled in Mexico were the second largest immigrant group in the nation — after Spanish immigrants —with a population of 26,000, Romero said. They resided in every Mexican state except for Tlaxcala.”

Besides Baja California, Coahuila, Sonora and Chihuahua states were also magnets for the Chinese. In fact, the ugly chapter in the history started in Torreon, the Coahuila city, with the onset of the Mexican Revolution. Some 600 Chinese lived in the city, enough to have their own hotel and bank.

At the time of the Revolution, many Mexicans blamed foreign migrants for getting rich while leaving Mexicans poor. On May 15, 1911, the forces of revolutionary leader Francisco Madero, leading a division of Pancho Villa’s army, attacked the Chinese community in Torreon, killing some 300 of them.

Anti-Chinese sentiment swelled in Sonora, Sinaloa and Chihuahua, where Chinese migrants had come to dominate the merchant class, largely because they were single men without families and could charge lower prices.

By the mid-1930s, some 70 percent of the Chinese in Mexico were deported or expelled from the country, sent back to China or shoved across the border into Arizona. Later in the decade and up through the 1950s, some repatriation occurred.

Today, Chinese Mexicans are exploring their heritage and largely embraced socially. Indeed, one of President Enrique Pena Nieto’s Cabinet secretaries, Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, is of Chinese descent.