The relationship between Panama and China, politically speaking, has been more of a recent partnership, with Panama shifting away Taiwan over the past five years. However, culturally speaking, Chinese roots in Panama are some of the oldest in Latin America. Panama and China. You can see evidence of these roots all over the country, as well. Chinese culture is intrinsically part of larger Panamanian culture, and it’s something that many Panamanians are very proud of. Panama has always been a melting pot of culture and nationality, and this is probably the biggest example of Panama’s cultural diversity, outside of West Indian and American cultural adaptation. In fact, it is said that nearly 1 in 4 people in Panama have some sort of ethnic Chinese heritage.
How long have the Chinese had cultural and economic influence in Panama?
The first Chinese came to Panama in the mid-1800’s to help work on the trans-Panama railroad. They were contract laborers, and superseded most of Panama’s Canal-based foreign labor force by over 50 years. Though there was another wave of Chinese immigration in the 1880’s, by 1903 there were laws passed to try to slow down or outright stop Chinese immigration, however it was ineffective. The Chinese continued to immigrate to Panama, many (by that time) with family roots already there, or a work history there that was appealing to new business ventures where possible.
In the early 1940s, tensions hit a peak as Chinese immigrants were once again denied (on paper) entry into Panama. Also, Panama’s current Chinese residents were under pressure from a new constitutional law that revoked the citizenship of any non-Hispanic immigrant on the Isthmus. A law that did not sit well with many, and was revoked just a few years later in 1946. Things stabilized for the Chinese in Panama after that, with big growth in Chinese-run businesses and trade through the 20th century. Politically speaking, the relationship between Panama and the People’s Republic of China was chilly for nearly half a century, but that changed in the late 2010’s.
Where you can see and experience Chinese culture in modern Panama
These days, Panamanian and Chinese culture are so intertwined, you may not be able to separate the two if you’re unfamiliar. For example, many of Panama’s staple food dishes, particularly the ones served at “fondas” (local cafeterias) have their roots in Chinese food. Roasted pork with sweet sauce, fried rice with egg, and stir fried noodles, just to name a few, are as Chinese as they are Panamanian with how they’re prepared, and a daily staple in Panama. Chinese markets are also a staple in Panama, particularly small grocery stores, but also larger fruit and vegetable vendors in certain parts of Panama City.
If you are visiting or living in Panama City, you can take in a lot of Chinese culture and shop at Chinese markets in the area of El Dorado. This is more of a modern “Chinatown”, so to speak, with the majority of Chinese-run businesses and residents operating there. Towards Panama’s old city, Casco Viajo, there is another (smaller) “Chinatown”, which is the historical trade/commerce point for Chinese businesses. These days, it is less Chinese than it was, and certainly less than El Dorado, but it is still worth visiting to see some of the Chinese-inspired restaurants, small markets, and even a traditional Chinese gate at the entrance, much like you can see in New York, San Francisco, and Buenos Aires’ Chinese districts.