Guangdong’s Panama Village exemplifies immigration legacy of 160 years

By Zhang Yiqian in Guangzhou Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/21 18:13:39

Chinese immigrants encouraged by establishment of China-Panama ties

A village in Guangzhou, South China's Guangdong Province, is known as "Panama Village," where many locals have migrated to Panama or have relatives doing business there

Chinese laborers helped the construction of the Panama Canal and its railway; today, many are working in business and trade

With the official establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Panama in June and the recent visit of Panama's president in Beijing, many are expecting more cooperation to follow

Children ride bikes past a new house being built by a family that immigrated to Panama years ago in Rulin village, Guangdong Province. Photo: Zhang Yiqian/GT

In rural Guangzhou, many can point to the direction of "Panama Village." The village is a nickname for Rulin, a town in Huadu district, Guangdong Province. Over the past two decades, it has acquired that sobriquet due to the large number of locals who have immigrated to Panama, a small Central American country.

Almost everybody in Panama Village knows someone in Panama. "Just ask every household down the street!" one woman told the Global Times. The villagers of Rulin are used to the fact that many homes in the neighborhood are always empty, with overseas immigrants only returning for holidays.

"First it's one person, then once they are there, they bring over their whole families," the woman said.

The village's history of immigration perfectly embodies the long relationship between China and Panama dating back to the mid-19th century. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Chinese laborers worked in the construction of Panama Canal and the canal's railway. In recent years, even more Rulin locals have been migrating there to do business.

After China and Panama established formal diplomatic relations in June, greater numbers of Chinese immigrants and companies have begun exploring the abundance of opportunities for business and trade in that tiny Latin American nation.


Chinese and Panamanian national flags flutter in Beijing during the visit of Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. Photo: VCG

Panama Village

When this Global Times reporter asked around, almost everybody knew exactly which families have immigrated to Panama.

"Just follow the road and pick out those new, pretty houses," a villager working in a seamstress shop told the Global Times. She said most locals, after making money abroad, return home and build new homes so they can retire in Rulin in comfort.

And yet, many of those new homes stand completely empty; most of their owners are still in Panama, where they have gradually brought over their relatives to help run their businesses there.

Strolling around the village, it is easy to distinguish which homes belong to migrants in Panama and which are being lived in by locals who have never left. The local homes look old and rundown, with exposed-brick walls; the homes of successful migrants are modern and flashy, complete with balconies and show-gardens.

Many of these new homes are three stories high, with multiple rooms on each level. Some are still being built. However, most of their front doors are locked up tight, as their owners are overseas and usually return for Qingming Festival (Tomb-Sweeping Festival) to worship their ancestors.

It is not difficult to locate Luo Junchi or his home in Rulin village. Four out of Luo Junchi's five children are abroad: three in Panama, one in Spain. They left more than 10 years ago, Luo said, after hearing about all the opportunities in Latin America. They work in retail, mostly selling food and groceries, such as bread and wine.

"It's quite tough, not any better than making money here in China. They've got to do a lot of work, get up early and go to sleep late, after 10 pm," Luo said.

His children do not come home often because they cannot leave their shops in Panama unattended. His sons only return for the occasional holidays or family wedding. After marrying a Chinese woman in Rulin, one of Luo's sons and his new wife immediately left for Panama, where they run their business together.

Last year, Luo and his wife visited their children in Panama for three months. But the two seniors were unable to adapt to the Panamanian culture, its lifestyle, the language and the food. They have vowed not to return.

Luo suspects many Chinese immigrants in Panama secretly feel the same way, which is why so many of them save their earnings to build nice new homes in Rulin, where they can retire instead of staying in Panama.

"The Chinese always get back in touch with their roots," he said.


Long, glorious history

Most Rulin natives attended school together at Rulin's one elementary school. It is a bond that they all share, and one that they hope to pass down to their children.

In 1995, a group of wealthier immigrants in Panama crowd-funded over 3 million yuan ($452,488) to renovate the school into a modern, four-story structure. Now the school bears the name "Overseas Chinese Elementary," in honor of its benefactors.

Some Rulin immigrants in Panama even send their children back home specifically to attend the school, where they can learn proper Putonghua and also become familiar with traditional Chinese culture and its customs. While in Rulin, the children live with their grandparents.

Local statistics show that, in 1955, approximately 800 people from Hua township (now named Huadu district of Guangzhou) were working in Panama. Ten years later, in 1965, the number doubled. By 1986, there were 36,659 Huadu locals in Panama, according to Southern Metropolis Daily.

In the distant past, Chinese immigrants in Panama mostly worked as contracted laborers for large projects. Starting in the mid-19th century, China's earliest contracted immigrant laborers were "shipped" to Panama to build a railway. They were recruited mostly from Guangdong and Fujian provinces and transited by boat through Hong Kong and Macao.

In 1855, the construction of the new railway line running 47.6 miles parallel to the Panama Canal, linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, was completed. At that point, many Chinese laborers chose to simply settle in Panama, making them the country's first generation of Chinese immigrants.

Chinese immigration to Panama peaked shortly thereafter, as it became the major transiting point to Latin America and the Caribbean. From 1880 to 1914, Chinese immigrants could be seen digging up what would become the Panama Canal. A rough estimate calculates about 10,000 Chinese laborers who contributed to that historic project.

Strengthening cooperation

According to the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of Guangzhou, there are more than 300,000 Chinese immigrants in Panama, about 7 percent out of the total 4 million national population.

With the formal establishment of relations between China and Panama in June, and with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela recently visiting Beijing, Chinese immigrants in Panama expect even more business, trade and cooperative opportunities.

Indeed, Luo told the Global Times that Panamanian natives have a habit of high consumption, which heavily contributes to the retail economy that many Chinese immigrants profit from. "They have a habit of going away on weekends and spending their money," he said.

On a larger level, many Chinese companies are also benefiting from the tight bond between the two nations. China is the second-largest client of the Panama Canal, right behind the US. Trade between China and Panama reached $6.4 billion in 2016.

Over 70 Chinese firms, including Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, operate in Panama, a significant increase from just three years ago, Wang Weihua, permanent representative of China's Office of Commercial Development in Panama, told the Global Times previously.

Wang told the Global Times that the establishment of diplomatic relations will make it even safer and secure for Chinese companies to invest in Panama. In the past, no formal bilateral agreement or political promises meant that Chinese investment in Panama brought a high degree of risk. He expects "a flood" of Chinese companies to pour into Panama over the next year.

Last Saturday, a China-Panama entrepreneurs forum was also held in Beijing. President Varela and 30 business representatives took part in the meeting. Varela said that even though the two countries have had only five months of official diplomatic relations, their history together dates back 160 years.

Chinese and Panamanian companies at the meeting expressed a willingness to cooperate as well as extend the Belt and Road initiative into Latin America.

Newspaper headline: Linking oceans

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