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Japan - Peru

After Brazil, Peru is host to the second-largest Japanese population in South America, with approximately 80,000 inhabitants of Japanese descent. The Japanese legacy in Peru goes back to the late nineteenth century, when a shortage of indigenous labor led Peruvian planters to reach out to Asian countries for migrant workers; in 1899, the first Japanese immigrants arrived in a group of 790 to work on Peru’s cotton and sugar plantations. (As was the case in Argentina, the majority of Japanese migrants who settled in Peru were from Okinawa.) From 1899 to the start of World War II, the flow of contracted Japanese laborers to Peru was more or less continuous.  While many Japanese returned to their homeland once their contracts had expired, others settled in cities like Lima to work as domestic servants and street vendors. By the 1920s, many had achieved commercial success; for instance, beginning around 1904, Japanese barbers created a substantial niche within their profession in cities such as Callao and Lima. 


Nevertheless, the Japanese in Peru faced a difficult assimilation. During World War II, for instance, Japanese-Peruvians suffered significant persecution, due to Japan’s role in the war and Peru’s close relationship with the United States. These attitudes led to such events as an anti-Japanese riot in 1940 and (in the US) the mass detention of Japanese-Peruvians in Texas.


Despite these setbacks, the Japanese population in Peru continued to flourish during the 1950s and ‘60s. Renewed pride in their cultural heritage, together with their painstaking efforts to preserve traditional Japanese arts—while simultaneously embracing Peruvian culture—characterized this period, which was one of increasing acceptance of the Japanese by their fellow Peruvians. In 1990, Alberto Fujimori, a politician of Japanese descent, was elected president of Peru, winning two consecutive terms, and becoming one the most controversial and contested presidents in the history of Peru.  Today, the Asociación Peruano Japonesa works with different generations of the Japanese community to promote arts and research. The association also maintains a museum of the history of Japanese migration to Peru. 


One of the many legacies of the Japanese influx to Peru is an array of talented artists of all disciplines and ages, representing at least three generations. These include Eduardo Tokeshi, Carlos Runcie Tanaka, and Andrea Saito, all of whom have developed a contemporary artistic language that bridges their Japanese heritage with their Latin American upbringing. 

Japan - Peru

In 1908, the transatlantic ship Kasato Maru anchored at the Port of Santos in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, bearing the very first contingent of Japanese migrants contracted for work on Brazil’s coffee plantations. After the failure of the European migration initiative of the second half of the nineteenth century, the Brazilian government turned to Japanese immigration as a lucrative way to settle entire families in the coffee-producing region, to both work and populate the land. The Japanese government’s (somewhat different) goal was to send workers to Brazil who could then return to Japan with economic capital.  


The Japanese migration to Brazil can be divided into three stages: the intensive influx period (1908–1924); the restriction period (1942–1953), in which immigration was restricted due to Japan’s role in World War II; and the postwar period (1952–1960s), during which Brazil authorized 9,000 Japanese families to work on agricultural development. 


Due to the Japanese vital role in its rural economy, Brazil—unlike other Latin American countries—chose not to expel its Japanese workers during WWII, despite the threat they could pose to national security. However, despite their economic importance to their adopted nation, the Japanese were not well treated by the Brazilian government, who had long regarded them as second-class citizens. This added to the numerous difficulties they faced upon arrival—such as the challenges of a foreign climate, culture, language, diet, and beliefs. Artist Tomoo Handa recalls that he and his fellow countrymen were forced to “live in a house without tatami (floor mat), to not use the kimono, to move aside the bowl and the hashi (chopsticks) and to drink coffee instead of tea.” 


Cultural influence, however, tends to be a two-way street. Today, the legacy of the vast Japanese-Brazilian community has thoroughly permeated the cultural landscape of São Paulo; notable examples include Tomie Ohtake’s public artworks and the many programs organized by Bunkyo (the Sociedade Brasileira de Cultura Japonesa e de Assistência Social), which houses a research center and a museum devoted to the history of the Japanese migration.  


Another cultural boon of the migration was the creation of Seibi-Kai (Grupo de Artistas Plásticos de São Paulo), a powerful coalition of Japanese-Brazilian artists. By 1965, Seibi-Kai had 200 subscribers, ranging from sculptors to painters, including the famed artist Manabu Mabe. A legacy of this cultural initiative has been three generations of well-known contemporary Japanese-Brazilian artists. In 2008, the Instituto Tomie Ohtake published the book Laços do Olhar: Roteiros Entre o Brasil e o Japão, an ambitious research and exhibition project that tracked the vast cultural and visual exchange between Brazil and Japan. 

Japan - Brazil
Japan - Brazil

In the great migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Argentina was second only to the United States as a haven for immigrants, many of them Japanese. The Japanese migration to Argentina throughout this period can be divided into two major waves. The first, which began around 1908 and ran into the 1930s, coincided with the first Japanese migrations to Brazil; the second wave began after World War II and lasted until the 1960s—when Japanese migration to Latin America in general fell off sharply, due to the newly booming Japanese economy.  In both waves, the majority of the Japanese who arrived in Argentina did not migrate directly from Japan but entered the country by way of Brazil, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, and Bolivia.


Japanese immigration and settlement in Argentina followed virtually the same pattern as in Peru (which, like Argentina, drew most of its Japanese immigrants from Okinawa). In both countries, a significant majority of the migrants settled in the capital city, finding work as domestic servants, factory workers, and longshoremen; and, in some cases, eventually opened their own cafes, laundromats, and other businesses.  Unlike in Peru, however, the Japanese in Argentina were spared the devastating disruptions of internment and relocation in the 1940s. There are now more than thirty institutions—including medical, immigration, education, and general aid associations, cultural centers, and clubs—that work throughout Argentina to support and preserve the Japanese-Argentine community and their traditions.  


A notable figure of the Japanese diaspora in Argentina is the celebrated artist Kazuya Sakai, whose works unify Eastern and Western influences, often shifting from abstract expressionism to geometric abstraction.

Japan - Argentina
Japan - Argentina

The first Japanese migrations to Mexico can be traced to the sixteenth century, to the inception of the Manila Galleon Trade (1565–1815), which drew migrants from Japan, China, and the Philippines to the Americas, to trade Far Eastern goods for New World silver. However, it was not until 1897 that Japanese immigrants began to enter Mexico in significant numbers, most of them arriving at the southern state of Chiapas to work in sugar and coffee plantations or in mines. By 1910, some 10,000 Japanese had settled in the country. 


With the end of the tumultuous Mexican Revolution in 1920, vibrant communities of cotton farmers, fishermen, and merchants began to flourish in Mexico's northern regions, such as Baja California. However, during the Pacific War—due to Mexico’s alliance with the US—entire Japanese communities suffered dislocation when the Mexican government forced them out of Pacific coastal areas and away from northern borders. This resulted in a mass exodus of Japanese to big cities, notably Mexico City and Guadalajara, where they eventually put down roots and established institutions, such as the Instituto Cultural Mexicano Japonés, to preserve their cultural heritage.        


In 2011, curator Miho Hagino organized the exhibition Crystal Jungle at the Museo Universitario de Chopo, which included a diverse range of contemporary artists of Japanese descent. Some, like Luis Nishizawa and Hisae Ikenaga, represent separate generations of Japanese-Mexicans, with their differing artistic viewpoints; while others, like Kiyoto Ota and Hiroyuki Okumura, have only recently moved to Mexico and offer a newcomer's perspective on this fascinating country and community. 

Japan - Mexico

Japan - Mexico

Most of the Chinese migrants to the British West Indies—Jamaica, Trinidad, Guyana—belonged to the subethnic group Hakka of the Guangzhou (Canton) province of China; others came by way of Panama. The history of Chinese migration to Jamaica, as described by historian Patrick Bryan, can be divided into three periods. The first began in 1854—with the arrival of the first Chinese contract workers at Jamaican plantations—and ended in 1886, when the indentureship system was determined to be unsustainable, due to high costs as well as rampant violations of work contracts by plantation owners. 


The second period, which saw an influx of free businessmen (as opposed to indentured workers), lasted from the early 1900s to the 1940s. During this time, Chinese immigrants settled in Jamaica mostly as prosperous merchants in the grocery trade business, building a strong ethnic middle class. A salient feature of this era is the large number of Chinese women who migrated to Jamaica along with their husbands and fiancés, obeying a policy that was intended to prevent the Chinese from mixing with locals. Anti-Chinese sentiment likewise took a toll on the immigrants' businesses, many of which were wiped out in periodic eruptions of mass prejudice, such as during the labor riots of 1938. Additionally, one of the biggest obstacles faced by the Chinese in Jamaica was their difficulties with the languages of their new home, particularly Jamaican Creole. 


Nevertheless, Chinese businesses flourished, and a middle class gradually arose, along with a network of associations and clubs dedicated to preserving the Chinese community and traditions. The third migratory period began during the 1980s, when Hong Kong and Taiwanese entrepreneurs set up textile factories on the island, which were staffed by Chinese migrant workers. 


From these confluences of Chinese cultural, ethnic, and racial assimilation, Jamaica has nurtured a rich spectrum of modern and contemporary artists. Some of these artists, notably Margaret Chen and Albert Chong, embrace their (divided) Chinese identity in their work; others, while not directly addressing their Chinese heritage, illuminate other aspects of their identity, such as (in the case of Kereina Chang Fatt) the plight of the female artist in realms dominated by men. 


The National Gallery of Jamaica houses an extensive collection of three generations of works by Jamaican-Chinese artists.

China - Jamaica
China - Jamaica
China - Cuba

The Chinese diaspora in Latin America and the Caribbean was a two-way process. On the one hand, it filled a demand for contracted labor following the end of the African slave trade; e.g., to fuel the booming Cuban sugar industry. On the other, a colonial expansion within China itself fostered internal movements that facilitated the migrations. The contract laborers, known as “coolies” (now a derogatory term), were drawn almost entirely from the vicinity of the Pearl River Delta, notably the city of Canton in Guangzhou province. A small number came from other provinces in the region, such as Fujian or the Portuguese colony of Macao. The nearby British colony of Hong Kong, meanwhile, refused to participate in this contentious practice. 


In Cuba, an initial period of open migration was inaugurated in 1847, when Cuba was still a Spanish colony, but came to a swift end in 1877 with the Treaty of Peking, which prohibited the transportation of Chinese people to Cuba under labor contracts. Plantation labor in Cuba had not changed significantly since the end of slavery; though the Chinese migrants were technically contract laborers, their treatment on the sugar plantations was unremittingly harsh. As was the case in other parts of the Caribbean, most of the Chinese laborers in Cuba were male.    


The Chinese population in Cuba played an active role in the wars for independence from Spain. Following Cuba’s independence in 1902, the United States—who between 1890 and 1920 led numerous military interventions into Cuba—wielded considerable influence on the new government.  When US authorities limited Chinese immigration to the US in the early 1900s, Cuba quickly followed suit. Despite these laws, a steady, though now illegal, influx of young Chinese males continued to flow into Cuba in search of work. And even with the restrictions in place, there was a brief span—between 1917 and 1922—when free Chinese were permitted to migrate to Cuba to work in the sugar-producing regions or to open small businesses.  


Despite the discrimination they faced—both prior to and after Cuban independence from Spain—the Chinese assimilation in Cuba (and in the Caribbean in general) was more rapid than that of other Asian immigrants in the region, owing partly to its majority-male demographics. Chinese immigrants soon established niches within the laundry and produce industries, and built the Chinatown district in Havana, which at its peak supported two movie theaters, a cultural club, and several Chinese-language newspapers. The Cuban-Chinese community maintained strong ties with their cultural traditions and beliefs. After the Cuban Revolution of 1959, a substantial part of the Cuban-Chinese population left the island, the majority of them settling in the US. In the 1990s, Cuba initiated several rehabilitation projects in Chinatown, including the creation of La Casa de Artes y Tradiciones Chinas (the House of Chinese Arts and Traditions).


One Cuban-Chinese artist who vividly embodies his country’s blending of cultures and ethnicities is the modern artist Wifredo Lam. Academics have tended to view Lam through the lens of the European avant-garde, singling out his debts to Picasso as well as his role in the surrealist movement; little has been written on the influence of his Chinese heritage on his work, which some even regard as nonexistent. More recently, however, scholars have begun to address Lam’s unique sensibilities from the point of view of the Chinese migration to Cuba. 

China - Cuba

Although there are other New World nations with greater numbers of Chinese, Panama—which has the fourth-largest population of people of Chinese ancestry in the Americas—is a special case in that it is a small country with a low overall population. The first significant wave of migration from China arrived in Panama in the 1850s, attracted by the California Gold Rush; this influx brought new life to the dormant project of linking Panama and the United States by way of an interoceanic railroad, whose completion was largely dependent on the labor of Chinese immigrants. Panama was soon a bustling transit point between China and such destinations as the United States, Cuba, and Peru. The Chinese in Panama soon developed a strong merchant class that shielded many of them from foreign exploitation; for instance, during the first, failed effort (by the French) to dig a shipping canal through the Isthmus of Panama in the 1880s, attempts to use Chinese as cheap labor did not succeed. Then, after Panama’s secession from Colombia—a direct result of intervention by the US in its own (successful) attempt to build the canal—the new republic of Panama adopted in 1904 strict policies intended to stem the tide of would-be immigrants. In spite of this, thousands of Chinese immigrants, many of whom entered Panama illegally, managed to assimilate into the new culture.


The assimilation was an arduous one. From 1904 to the 1940s, the Chinese, widely regarded in Panama as indeseables (undesirables), were harshly persecuted. Their citizenship was revoked in 1941, only to be reestablished five years later; finally, in the 1950s, a new generation of Panamanian-Chinese professionals firmly established their indispensability to the small nation’s economy. Amidst these tensions, the Chinese community built a prosperous Chinatown district that in the 1970s reached its cultural and economic zenith. Today, Panama City has a new Chinatown, and the influx of immigrants from China continues to be steady. As a result of this unbroken flow of migrants—from China since the mid-nineteenth century, and from Taiwan since the late twentieth century—the Chinese community in Panama has become extraordinarily diverse.           


Today, acculturation and ethnic identity are signature themes of Panama’s numerous second- and third-generation Chinese contemporary artists; particularly Cisco Merel, Samuel Romaldo Choy, and Laura Fong Prosper, who, together, memorably address these issues in their collective #Panachina project.

China - Panama

China - Panama

The Asian diaspora in Suriname followed a very particular course, due to the unique challenges faced by the Dutch, who had colonized Suriname, in importing labor. The indentured workers who came to the inland Caribbean country to work on its sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations originated from three distinct Asian countries: China (2,600 people), India (34,000), and Indonesia (33,000). Even before the Dutch ended slavery in the country in 1863, the colonial government had begun relocating workers from Java to Suriname as early as 1853, following the success of the British in transporting plantation workers from India to Guyana; however, the transaction turned out to be too expensive, and not very appealing for the planters.   



Between 1853 and the 1870s, as part of its initiative to replace the slave workers, the Dutch government imported contract labor from Canton, Hong Kong, and Macao. This strategy proved too costly in the long run, as workers did not renew their contracts, choosing instead to open their own small businesses in Suriname or else return to China. In an attempt to make the contracts more appealing to both workers and planters, the government added travel benefits, such as return tickets to China, as well as initiatives to bring entire families to Suriname; but none of these efforts sat well with the planters, and in 1870 the Chinese indentured migration ended.  From the mid-1870s through the 1930s, however, a new wave of “free” (unindentured) Chinese flowed into Suriname. 

China - Suriname

China - Suriname

China - Trinidad and Tobago

The earliest migration of Chinese workers to Trinidad can be traced to the year 1806, when the ship Fortitude arrived at Trinidadian shores carrying a group of Chinese men recruited from various parts of Asia.  Chinese immigration nevertheless was meager until the 1834 British abolition of slavery created a shortage of field workers on Trinidad. Authorities responded by initiating the Chinese indenture trade, which between 1853 and 1866 brought at least 2,500 Chinese, most of them men, to work on Trinidadian sugar plantations. In the years that followed, this indentured labor force gradually diminished, as workers abandoned the plantations or bought out the remaining years of their contracts. This was followed by a wave of “free” Chinese immigration, wherein thousands of migrants fleeing poverty in China were allowed to settle and work in Trinidad without the burdens of indentureship. Meanwhile, thousands of formerly indentured workers, who had chosen not to return to China, built new livelihoods in Trinidad’s cities as tailors, cooks, barbers, and in other professions. The extraordinarily rapid assimilation of the Chinese in the Caribbean—and in Trinidad in particular—was driven largely by the majority-male demographics of the indentured migration, which resulted in Chinese immigrants marrying Caribbean women.   

China - Trinidad & Tobago
India - Guyana

India - Guyana

The Asian migration to Guyana resembles, in many respects, the contemporaneous Asian migrations to Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago: in each case, Indian indentured laborers were systematically imported from the subcontinent of India, ostensibly to fill the labor shortage created by the British abolition of slavery. Guyana, however, was one of the British Empire’s most agriculturally fertile West Indian colonies at the time of abolition, and its sugar planters were particularly active in petitioning their government to import contract workers to replace the African slaves—all of which led to an unusually large influx of migrants from such countries as India, China, and Portugal. As with the migrations to Suriname and Trinidad & Tobago, the vast majority of these foreign workers were from India.  The first two migrant vessels to arrive from Calcutta, the Whitby and the Hesperus, docked at Guyana on May 5th, 1838, with more than 300 men, 11 women, and 17 children.  


Despite the racial and cultural tensions under which they were forced to live during their servitude, Guyana’s Indian migrants—predominantly Hindus, with a small minority of Muslims—were generally allowed to maintain their traditions and religions. By 1917, when indentureship was finally eliminated, more than 230,000 Indians had settled in Guyana, making them the largest ethnic group in the inland Caribbean country.


In 2017, the Guyana Indian Indentureship Abolition Association, together with the Publication Arts Forum, organized the exhibition Ganga Ship 1917: The Long Journey, which showcased the work of several generations of contemporary Guyanese artists of Indian descent, such as Bernadette Indira Persaud.


In their artworks, Persaud and her fellow Guyana-born artist Suchitra Mattai shown the pressures, traumas, and yearnings experienced by migrants to Guyana and their descendants, largely from the point of view of women. Persaud's politically-themed work deals memorably with issues of freedom, repression, the transplantation of East Indian culture into Guyana, and power relationships between Caribbean cultures and other parts of the world. Mattai's work explores the intricacies of Guyana’s colonization, the various "gazes" of migratory actors, and the notion of “home”—all of which she situates within the framework of indentures and the interoceanic journeys of those who left their homes (and often their families) to seek work in Guyana. 

India - Trinidad and Tobago

With the waning of Chinese immigration, British authorities next looked to East India as a source of indentured labor for Trinidad’s plantations. Most of their recruits came from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. On May 30, 1845, the transatlantic boat Fath Al Razack arrived at Trinidad with 225 indentured workers, the first ripple of what would be of a massive wave of Indian migration. By 1917, due to pressure from Indian nationalists, the indenture system was abolished, and the flow of East Indian laborers to the island nation came to an end; by then, Trinidad’s Indian population had grown to more than 145,000. Compared to that of the Chinese, the assimilation of Indian culture in Trinidad was a relatively slow, complex, and syncretic process, due to its more gender-balanced demographics: labor recruiters in India often shipped entire families, whose languages, castes, and religions (primarily Hinduism and Islam) were important familial bonds. Eventually, Indian music, cuisine, art, and other customs achieved a partial assimilation by amalgamating with those of the host culture. 

India - Trinidad & Tobago

The Asian diaspora in Suriname followed a very particular course, due to the unique challenges faced by the Dutch, who had colonized Suriname, in importing labor. The indentured workers who came to the inland Caribbean country to work on its sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations originated from three distinct Asian countries: China (2,600 people), India (34,000), and Indonesia (33,000). Even before the Dutch ended slavery in the country in 1863, the colonial government had begun relocating workers from Java to Suriname as early as 1853, following the success of the British in transporting plantation workers from India to Guyana; however, the transaction turned out to be too expensive, and not very appealing for the planters.   


After the failure of Chinese indentured labor in Suriname, the Dutch government—still envying the success of the British in transporting Indian workers to Guyana—negotiated a deal with the British government to allow the Dutch to bring their own Indian labor to Suriname. One of the main concerns of the British was the high mortality rate of plantation workers in Suriname, so the deal they made with the Dutch stipulated that they should have a permanent consul in Suriname to oversee the management of labor and the treatment of the workers. However, despite the watchful eye of the British consul, the Dutch planters continued to run their estates more or less like slave plantations, and conditions for the Indian workers were unremittingly harsh. The first boat of Indian migrants arrived in 1873, and this brutal form of indentured servitude continued until 1916. 


India - Suriname

India - Suriname

The Asian diaspora in Suriname followed a very particular course, due to the unique challenges faced by the Dutch, who had colonized Suriname, in importing labor. The indentured workers who came to the inland Caribbean country to work on its sugar, coffee, and cotton plantations originated from three distinct Asian countries: China (2,600 people), India (34,000), and Indonesia (33,000). Even before the Dutch ended slavery in the country in 1863, the colonial government had begun relocating workers from Java to Suriname as early as 1853, following the success of the British in transporting plantation workers from India to Guyana; however, the transaction turned out to be too expensive, and not very appealing for the planters.


The first major Javanese migration of workers to Suriname began in 1890 through the Dutch company Soesmans Emigratie en Commissie Kantoor. Despite the Dutch colonization of Java, migrant labor in Suriname had generally come from East India through British companies, as the importing of Javanese labor was more costly. Nevertheless, Javanese migration was part of a new political effort by the Dutch to become less dependent on the British colonial government in India. A second wave of migration from Java took place from 1930 through the end of World War II; this initiative encouraged entire families to settle in Suriname to help populate the country. Javanese culture in Suriname has since mingled with the nation’s other cultures, including Indian, Chinese, Indigenous, African, and Dutch.

After the fulfillment of their contracts, many Indians and Javanese chose to stay in Suriname to continue working in the agricultural industry. Today, about 42% of Suriname’s population is of Asian descent.  


A legacy of the Asian migrations to Suriname is its remarkable range of artists, many of whom explore issues of identity, heritage, and tradition.  For instance, Soeki and Sri Irodikromo—father and daughter artists who represent two generations of artists of Javanese descent—incorporate Javanese techniques and iconography into their work, together with elements of Suriname’s diverse culture. Another notable example is Dhiradj Ramsamoedj, who deals with issues of otherness, family bonds, cultural traditions, and his own intricate journey to discover his Indian heritage.

Indonesia - Suriname

Indonesia - Suriname 

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