Panama is home to the largest colony of Chinese in Central America. The first 1600 immigrants arrived in 1854, after the end of the gold rush in the United States. They worked on constructing the first railway connection between the two oceans. In the 1980s, when China opened its borders, a second wave followed. The 200,000 Chinese in Panama have acquired considerable economic power in the country, but rarely intervene openly in the political sphere.
The barrio chino in Panama City is the largest Chinese neighborhood in Central America. Until the 1970s it was a bustling center for small stores. However, in recent decades the Chinese district has lost much of its original character. The most successful entrepreneurs have moved on. Now they run supermarkets and larger stores elsewhere in the city, and with that have become more integrated into Panamanian society. Others immigrated to nearby countries like Columbia, or to the United States, leaving the less successful entrepreneurs and more recent immigrants behind.
According to the 1946 Constitution, Chinese born in Panama automatically acquire Panamanian citizenship. But until then the Chinese faced a difficult situation in Panama. They were traditionally treated as second-rate citizens, sometimes had to pay special taxes, and in 1941 had even been deprived of their citizenship. To this day, Chinese must be naturalized before they can own stores. Since this is precisely the sector in which many Chinese still make their living, this law is often seen as a way of discriminating against this specific group of immigrants. On the other hand, it makes naturalization a priority for newcomers.
This story is part of Via Panam, Kadir van Lohuizen’s project about migration in the Americas.