Project Description

Peruvian Chinese: From Half-Bloods to Proud Tusan

More than 100,000 coolies arrived in Peru between 1849 and 1874, and almost all of them were men. As indentured labourers, they suffered harsh conditions in the haciendas, and people cared more about Indigenous people’s rights as a minority than the amarillos (‘yellows’) or macacos (‘monkey’ or ‘lemur’), as they were often called in the papers.  Most of them took up relations with Indian or black women, but their children did not qualify to be referred to as mestizo, the term usually used for children born of Indian and Spanish parents; instead, the first generation of Chinese-Peruvians had to make do with injerto – ‘transplant.’

With constant new arrivals of Chinese migrant workers, girls born of such marriages were a very desirable party, as marrying a half-Chinese was always better than a Peruvian. But because they did not understand Chinese, these young daughters of successful merchant families were sent to China by their husband-to-be in order to learn the language and the culture. If the men could not find a mixed-race wife in Peru, they would send for a wife from China instead. As a result, there were less and less mixed blood members within a community of Peru-born Chinese or tusan – from the Chinese tusheng, ‘native-born.’

 

Credit: Mey Joy Choy, 1964.

Despite anti-Chinese riots breaking out into the twentieth century, the tusan continued to affirm their Chinese identity: they started clan associations, returned to China to find a wife, and sent their children to boarding schools in Canton. And when immigration laws in 1909 prevented them to do so, they simply opened a Chinese school in Peru. The Colegio Diez de Octubre was built in 1924 for Chinese-Peruvians, with a syllabus in Cantonese and Spanish. To find a nice pure-blood wife, they would employ a bilingual matchmaker or casamentera – an elderly tusan woman who received a portion of the bride-to-be’s dowry and an installment for each time they bore children.

 

Fast-forward a hundred or so years, and the situation couldn’t be more different.

About an hour’s drive from the centre of Lima, driving east along a dusty potholed motorway, the Villa Tusan Club is a small haven for the Peruvian Chinese elite, eager to escape the stifling humidity of the capital. Teenagers splash around in a pool while their parents sit at the bar, ordering an arroz chaufa (fried rice, a Chinese-inspired Peruvian dish) with their pisco sour. There are several sports grounds for members to use as they wish, and over a hundred white bungalows dot the surrounding hills – a little pied-a-terre for the weekend. By the gravelly driveway that leads to the club, the committee has leased a small field of pak-choy for a lady to sell in Lima’s Chinatown, the Barrio Chino.

The teenagers swimming, their parents, and the staff are all Peruvian, but some have distinctly Chinese features. This is because one of the pre-requisites for being a member here, besides the 10,000 soles membership fee, is to be able to prove your Chinese ancestry, no matter how far removed.

This is a far cry from the racist policies and prejudices of the earlier twentieth century, when the Peru-born, but self-proclaimed ‘more Chinese’ tusan themselves looked down upon their mixed-race counterparts. In the past 50 years, the Peruvian-Chinese community has been working to change attitudes by extending the term tusan to all descendants – regardless of their degree of “Chineseness” – and in response to growing investment by mainland China in Peru.

Today, Madam Tusan is a popular high-end Chinese restaurant in hip Miraflores, central Lima. Young tusan join social clubs to go paintballing, drinking and seeing movies together. The main Chinese Peruvian association of Lima organizes a “Miss Tusan” beauty pageant that is a big annual showbiz extravaganza. Wong supermarkets, a family-run chain that started as a small Chinese grocery store opened in 1942, evoke one tusan’s fulgurating success at breaking the mould. “Tusan” is now a powerful branding name for young and aspiring Peruvians, who see in China a land of hope, big money, and familiarity.

 

Source: “Tusans (tusheng) and the Changing Chinese Community in Peru” by Isabelle Lausent-Herrera.

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