When Taiwan's former President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) attended the inauguration of his Panamanian counterpart Juan Carlos Varela in July 2014, cross-Strait relations had never been better.

“Ma invited everyone in the Chinese community,” Juan Tam (譚堅) told me on my visit to the isthmus just two weeks after Ma had been there. This was a big change, said Tam, who is secretary of Panama's National Ethnic Chinese Council. “Normally, the other side – the mainlanders – just wouldn't go. There had always been infighting between the two sides, but for the first time this stopped and everyone showed up.”

Pressed for time en route to the Nicaragua Liberation Day celebrations in Managua, I had a half-day in Panama. Through some online wangling, I had procured Tam's contact details and got in touch. He had kindly agreed to show me around for the day, and I couldn't have hoped for a more perspicacious insight into the complexities of the Chinese diaspora in Panama.

A respected local historian, Tam is well known for his participation in conferences and events among overseas Chinese communities in Latin America. These descendants of the first Chinese immigrants are known as "laoqiao" (老橋), distinguishing them from later waves of immigrants. Tam, who has his ancestry down as “70 percent Guangdong Hakka,” has been documenting "laoqiao" fortunes in Panama and elsewhere for many years. As he drove me around town, he pointed out landmarks that testified to the 160-plus-year presence of the Chinese here.

We started with Way On (華安), a Chinese cemetery that dates from 1882. La Necrópolis Oriental, as it is known locally, is right next to El Chorillo, a slum which counts legendary boxer Roberto Duran and late dictator Manuel Noriega among former residents. It's just a few minutes drive from my hostel in a wide-laned enclave of Balboa District. Panama City is so compact that you can blink and things mutate from leafy suburbia to crumbling ghettoes.

As Tam pulled up alongside the gate to the cemetery, I made for the door handle. “No,” he said. “Don't get out.”

Drooped against the outer wall of the housing complex, two young men had taken an interest in us sightseers. From a grimy balcony above, bass-heavy reggaeton blared, as a bared-chested man stretched his arms out behind his head, accentuating an impressive set of biceps. Soon, he too was squinting in our direction.

“This time of day is not too bad,” said Tam. “It's hot. Most people are indoors. But still, you don't really want to hang around here too long.”

Not everyone agrees with this. A couple of hours earlier, I had been chatting at the hostel with a Costa Rican filmmaker who had spent a good while in slums in Panama and elsewhere. As I swung in a hammock on the back garden verandah, I mentioned passing through El Chorillo on the way from the airport.

“There's nothing to be scared of down there,” he assured me.


“Beggars and thieves want money,” he said. “But a smile works just as well.”

I relay this to Tam. “They all say that,” he said. “Until they get robbed.”

Panamanian Chinese celebrate Chinese New Year in Panama's City Chinatown, February 1, 2003. Panama has the highest population of Chinese in Central America. REUTERS/Alberto Lowe

Many of the locations Tam took me are testaments to the perennial battle the Chinese have faced to assert their rights in Panama. The cemetery, for example, was expropriated by the government in 1942. Only dogged lobbying by Tam and like-minded "laoqiao" leaders saw it returned to the Chinese community 60 years later.

Disenfranchisement has been the Panamanian-Chinese since the offset. Brought in to build a railroad, they soon moved into manufacturing and retail, and their success bred envy. In 1904, with the country finally completely independent, a new constitution was promulgated, which was hazy on the issue of citizenship for immigrants.

A 1909 decree left no room for doubt, suspending citizenship for Chinese, Turks and Syrians. Seven years later, a further edict banned naturalization for the same three nationalities. In 1941, a new constitution permitted citizenship for children who had one parent born in Panama, though the “prohibited races” were prevented from owning certain kinds of businesses. Finally, a 1945 amendment granted citizenship to Chinese Panamanians.

Later, as we drove past a branch of Super 99, a major supermarket chain in Panama, Tam clicked his tongue in disgust. “The owner was a Chinese guy who started in Colon,” he said. “He hired an accountant who was basically skimming him out, so that he could sell at a loss. The new owner? You guessed it – Ricardo Martinelli.”

Martinelli, who was president at the time, currently awaits extradition from Miami on graft and political espionage charges. Also the subject of an Interpol red notice, Martinelli has rubbed shoulders with Donald Trump, who frequently raised the issue of criminality among Latino immigrants during his presidential campaign.

Having visited the old and new Chinese districts, we made a final stop at the Mirador de las Américas (中巴公園). Comprising a memorial gate with two guardian lions outside, a two-story pavilion and an obelisk celebrating 150 years of Chinese contribution to Panama.

“It's a piece of shit,” said Tam. “China gave the two lions and $10,000 up front. The remaining $145,000 was paid by the Chinese community.”

Three years on, Panama has just broken ties with Taiwan. Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) attempted to shore things up by making Panama her first overseas visit in June last year, but to no avail. What does the "laoqiao" community make of the rupture?

“It depends on who you ask,” Tam tells The News Lens by e-mail. “Most people have been waiting for this moment. Policies are set by the government, and since Chinese society does not control any industries or have enough influence to impair others in the economy, they just play along to avoid losing money or face.”

In Tam's eyes, the switch to Beijing won't make much difference to Chinese Panamanians. “We should have a say in this process, but up to now neither side has paid any attention to us,” he writes. “Those with China will applaud and sing. But in the long run, when no money comes into their coffers, we will see something else.”

Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou smiles upon his arrival at Tocumen airport in Panama city June 30, 2009. Ma was in Panama to attend the inauguration ceremony for Panama's President Ricardo Martinelli. REUTERS/Jose Miguel

Editor: Edward White