Asia Life | Security | East Asia

How Chinese Immigrants Found Their Way to Puerto Rico

The history of Chinese immigrants in Puerto Rico is intertwined with American restrictions on Chinese immigration through 1965.

Robert Farley
How Chinese Immigrants Found Their Way to Puerto Rico
Credit: CC0 image via Pixabay

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of a two-part series by Robert Farley. The first part is here.

Chinese migration to the United States in the latter half of the 19th century was substantial, and made a lasting cultural and economic impact on the country. It also generated immense discrimination and eventually legal prohibition on further immigration. The adoption of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the United States in 1882 sharply limited entry to the United States, with the accidental effect of driving Chinese immigration to Puerto Rico

Puerto Rican society adapted. Access to Wikipedia was sparse in the 19th century, and as such writers in Puerto Rico attempted to detail for readers the conditions of the Qing Empire in China, with various reports regarding its size and population. Confucian religious rituals were of great interest and occasional alarm to Puerto Rican readers. As elsewhere, Chinese migrants were associated with ancient wisdom and command of mystical arts, but also with heretical practices. Perhaps unsurprisingly, entrepreneurs took advantage of the situation to advertise based on special Chinese mystical knowledge of the latest in footwear and the best places to find fabrics and tools.

After 1898, however, Puerto Rico came under U.S. jurisdiction as a result of the Spanish-American War. The United States began applying the Chinese Exclusion Act to the island, limiting further Chinese immigration. The United States instead helped facilitate the migration of Chinese who already lived in the U.S. to Puerto Rico, hoping that they would provide the labor and know-how to reconstruct infrastructure on the island.

A final wave of Chinese immigrants arrived in the wake of the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the abrogation of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1965. In the former case, many Cuban-Chinese families of property fled the island, landing in Puerto Rico. The latter finally opened the United States (and by extension Puerto Rico) up to modern Chinese emigration from Taiwan and (eventually) the People’s Republic. This generation remains evident in the cuisine and cultural landscape of the island.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Today, Puerto Rico does not have substantial concentrations of Chinese families, and not even San Juan has a Chinatown. But while it is fair to say that the political imprint of Chinese immigration has been small, the social impact has been more significant. Chinese families have contributed through art, music, and cuisine, adding to the distinctively cosmopolitan nature of the island’s culture. And the contribution of Chinese laborers to the major reconstruction projects in the 19th century remains a well-known element of Puerto Rican historical memory, even if it has acquired a certain mythic quality. In 2017 Monica Ching, with the support of Sabrina Ramos Ruben (who also contributed incalculable assistance with this column), convened an exhibition of artworks associated with the Chinese experience in Puerto Rico. A history by Jose Lee Borges, Los Chino en Puerto Rico, appeared in 2015. Novels by Manolo Núñez Negrón, Rafael Acevedo, and Eduardo Lalo have helped illuminate elements of the Chinese cultural experience.

The grand currents of the 19th century, from the colonial conquests of Europe to the independence movements that gripped the Americas, to the end of the slavery and the decay of the Chinese imperial system, left unique imprints on every part of the world. Even in Puerto Rico, a small island remote from the tragedies that convulsed China for over a century, we find the marks of the deep geopolitical transformations that restored East Asia’s place in the international order.