In search of ancestral roots -- a chronicle of a Chinese-Peruvian family

Source:Xinhua Published: 2016/11/24 8:29:49

A century ago, a Cantonese man said farewell to China and boarded a ship bound for Peru, some 20,000 km away across the Pacific.

He worked hard and started a family in the South American country, but never had the opportunity to return to his place of birth.

But his descendants did, three generations afterwards, in a way he would never have imagined.


The man from southern China first arrived in Peru's Port of Callao. We don't know his name except for the family name "Chia" scribbled by the illiterate Chinese peasant. He chose the Spanish first name of Aurelio. He was then presumably aged 20 to 25.

Although as early as the 16th century some Chinese merchants running businesses in the Philippines settled in Peru, Chinese migration to Peru in a large scale didn't take place until the 19th century.

It is estimated that from the 1840s to the 1870s, 300,000 to 400,000 Chinese indentured labor arrived in Latin America, most of them permanently settled in Peru. Between 1840 and 1874, some 100,000 Chinese immigrants came to the Port of Callao after a death toll during the torturous sea voyage of up to 30 percent of those who departed from China.

Their living conditions were almost the same as those of former African slaves and coolies, according to historical records. Chia had been engaged for many years in cotton farming in the southern Peruvian province of Ica before paying off his debts and even opening a bakery.

In 1959, Chia died and was buried in Peru. He had eight children, none of them could speak Chinese.

His sixth child Juan Francisco Chia was born in 1925. Juan Francisco had a difficult life in childhood. When he grew up, Peru's economy improved, spurred by the export of raw materials. He worked as a cab driver and ran a small store. All of his 10 children became professionals in their chosen fields.

While none of them could speak Chinese, they were imbued with such traditional Chinese values as hard work, frugality and valuing education.

In 1952, Juan Francisco Chia, Jr. was born. He came to realize that he was a Chinese descendant when he was eight or nine. Because of his different face, kids in the neighborhood called him "El Chino," or "the Chinese boy."

He dreamed of studying in the United States. The country was for a long time Peru's largest trade partner, and their relations were close.

After graduating from Peru's National University of Engineering, he worked as a metallurgical engineer for a mining company, which offered him a scholarship for study in the United States in 1981.

In 1983, he returned to Peru. It was also the year when Lima became Beijing's first sister city in Latin America.

Even though there was little family talk about China, he decided to send the kids to the Juan XXIII Peruvian-Chinese Secondary School.

The school was then no longer exclusive to the Chinese community in the Peruvian capital Lima. Although Mandarin was not a main course, a wide variety of extracurricular programs were China-related, including martial arts and table tennis.

After that, the Chias all went to the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), one of the country's top universities.

In 2004, the eldest son, Juan Francisco Chia III, was admitted to a US college to study biology and medicine.


During the study at PUCP, Maria Esther Chia, the eldest daughter of Juan Francisco Chia, Jr., met Fernan Alayza and Guillermo Danino, two old China hands.

Maria was a journalism student under professor Alayza. She once interviewed sinologist Danino, who told her stories about a China which was undergoing reforms and huge changes.

In an article, Danino has written that as a native Peruvian, he would like to tell the hundreds of thousands of Chinese-Peruvians that they should take pride in the culture of their ancestral land and come to understand and spread it.

A student exchange program in 2007 provided Maria with an opportunity to go to Peking University for a year of study.

She thus became the first member of the Chia clan to set foot in China since her great grandpa came to Peru a century ago.

Her parents paid a visit to her. In China, they also visited Xi'an, deeply charmed by China's history, architecture and culture.

"Peru has the Inca culture and sites, but China's ancient culture is more impressive," said Juan Francisco, Jr, who is even more astonished with China's modern development.

While having classes in English, Maria found learning Chinese a necessity for a better life in China. Perhaps it was in her DNA, but it only took a year before she reached the highest level of an internationally recognized Chinese exam called the HSK.

She extended her stay in Beijing rather than return home, feeling the Chinese people to be kind and believing China to be a safer place to live.

She received a full MBA scholarship to study at Tsinghua University and a part-time job at the Spanish news agency EFE's Beijing office, which enabled her to cover the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China at the Great Hall of the People in 2012.

Maria researched China-Peru ties, and had wrote her thesis in Chinese.


Maria's brothers, Juan Francisco III and Juan Carlos, soon joined her in China.

In 2011, Juan Francisco III failed to find a job in the depression-hit United States. He accepted Maria's invitation to spend a few months in Beijing.

Like his sister, he felt at home in the Chinese capital. He also received an MBA scholarship from Tsinghua University. In 2014, he began working for China's Hainan Airlines in the investment department.

Today, he lives in Beijing and has a three-year-old child, the fifth generation of the Chia family.

While he has made China his home, Juan Francisco III retains some of the Peruvian life habits. He loves pisco, Peru's grape-derived firewater, which is not easy to find on this side of the Pacific.

Eager to have his friends in China try it, he and his sister opened a bar in eastern Beijing. The bar's name "Gran Pacha" refers to Pachacutec, the most famous Incan Emperor. Maria thinks Pachacutec is to Peru what Emperor Qinshihuang is to China.

They also hired a Peruvian chef from Lima to help bring Peru's renowned cuisine to China.

Younger brother Juan Carlos, a 31-year-old electrical engineer, has come to help his siblings in the bar while also studying at Tsinghua University.

Seeing the potential in Peru-China trade ties, the three Chias plan to set up a business incubator to increase the exchange of goods.

China's social networking app Wechat helps them stay in touch with their parents, who visit regularly.

Earlier this month, they called to tell their father about President Xi Jinping's visit to Lima.

They also told him they had chosen that day to open their Peruvian restaurant in Beijing.


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