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The Chinese Creoles of Nicaragua: Identity, Economy, and Revolution in a Caribbean Port City

From: Journal of Asian American Studies
Volume 4, Number 3, October 2001
pp. 209-233 | 10.1353/jaas.2001.0033

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Journal of Asian American Studies 4.3 (2001) 209-233

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The Chinese Creoles of Nicaragua:
Identity, Economy, and Revolution in a Caribbean Port City

baron pineda

The beach area of the Mosquito Coast city of Port, or Bilwi and Puerto Cabezas as it is known in Miskitu 1 and Spanish respectively, is littered with gigantic pieces of rusting metal that jut from the sand in the midst of hundreds of gutted sea turtle shells, the waste product of butchered sea turtles that represent a significant part of the modern local diet. In contrast, the rusting metal comes from trucks, locomotives, water tanks, and long-abandoned warehouses that give testimony to the period in which the city served as a company town to U.S. and Canadian lumber, mining, and fruit companies. The juxtaposition of industrial scrap metal and artisanal turtle fishing speaks to a tumultuous history of boom and bust cycles in the enclave economy of Nicaragua's Mosquito Coast. 2

In a city that in the present is connected to the interior by only the most treacherous of mud roads, a 100km railroad originally built and maintained by Nicaraguan, West Indian, and black American laborers had previously linked the port to the mines, lumber camps, and banana plantations of the inland sub-tropical rainforest. In its heyday, Port had a U.S. Consulate (not to mention U.S. warships and garrisons), a potable water system, a deep water pier, weekly visits from U.S. steamships bound for New Orleans, tennis courts, an American club (that excluded non-Whites), a company commissary stocked with the latest goods available in the United States, a signal beacon, a large saw mill, functional chemical ponds [End Page 209] for treating lumber as well as movie theaters, and other infrastructure for entertaining foreign workers. 3 Most of this infrastructure is currently unavailable for the population of Port, which since the civil war of the 1980s has swollen to a population of about 25,000 people -- mostly Indians from the interior. Modern residents of Port widely lament the absence of this infrastructure as well as the unavailability of goods and wage labor that they perceive to have once existed in abundance. In general, Porteños (the term used locally to refer to people of Port) idealize this period in their history, which they refer to as "company time." Company time stands in stark contrast to a collective sentiment of war, abandonment, hardship, and isolation that has characterized the period after the Sandinista revolution in 1979.

The flight of the Chinese population of the city, mainly to the United States, in the tumultuous years before and soon after 1979 is symptomatic of this larger economic decline in the region. Like the rusting industrial machinery on the beach, the decaying structure of the "Wah May," a large wooden building with Chinese motifs set on the city's main plaza, has come to symbolize the deterioration of conditions in the port. Wah May formerly housed the Chinese social club, which is remembered primarily as having been a gambling association for the Chinese population of Port. The Chinese of Port had primarily dedicated themselves to retail trade along the once-bustling "calle comercial" (commercial district). In addition Chinese Porteños had also been concentrated in office work positions in government, foreign companies, and the Moravian church. During my fieldwork period in Port, the Wah May was held by a local police official who had taken possession of it in the aftermath of the revolution in which, on a national level, thousands of properties came into government hands after the forced and unforced evacuation of the country by wealthy Nicaraguans. He had converted it into a restaurant and air-conditioned bar that featured music videos. Other buildings formerly owned by Chinese traders had also fallen into the hands of Sandinista officials. Few of these properties had been reclaimed by the original owners after the anti-Sandinista U.N.O. (National Opposition Front) administration came to power in 1990 promising a reversal of Sandinista...