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Dorcas Tang '19's Los Paisanos del Puerto: Living Narratives of the Chinese Diaspora Community in Puntarenas, Costa Rica

Listen: Los Paisonos del Puerto

Dorcas Tang
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Earlier this semester, Dorcas Tang ’19, spoke about her art exhibition funded by the Genevieve Ching-Wen Lee Grant, the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, and the Swarthmore College Libraries. For her project, she focused on the Chinese diaspora in Puntarenas, Costa Rica in the time frame of 1855-1955. She discusses her connection to her topic, being a third-generation Chinese Malaysian.

“One of the people I interviewed after also told me, ‘Without your project, I would never have had the excuse to talk to someone else who was Chinese, go to their house, and there had never been this platform to talk about their shared experience,’ which I think was therapeutic to some extent. I always grappled with, 'Am I Chinese, am I Malaysian?'"

Tang recently graduated from Swarthmore College as a studio art major and a double minor in Spanish and educational studies.

Audio Transcript:

Ron: Okay. Get this started. My name's Ron Tarver. I teach photography here at school, and thank you all for coming out on this really beautiful day. I'm here to introduce Dorcas. Dorcas has been my student way too much. So, she's taken a couple of classes in independent study class and has done some really amazing work. This work that she's done, that she's going to talk about, was work that she did last summer in Puerto Rico. I'm sorry, Costa Rica, that other P word. But she did really amazing work there.

She spent a lot of time shooting and calling me for help, so, which I appreciate. This was a big project for anybody to take on, even a seasoned journalist. I mean, we talked about that, and how she should approach the project. I come at this from a journalism point of view. I was a photographer at a newspaper for a long time, and I told her that the best way to do it is to make contacts, which she did. And once you get on the ground, you just have to sort of figure it out when you get down there. And it's a difficult thing to do a story like this, especially telling a story that hasn't been told before. And I think that the pictures she came out with, while it's not the finished thing, she's going to go back this summer, I think is a really good start.

So with that, I'll introduce you to Dorcas.

Dorcas: Thanks so much to Ron for that wonderful introduction. I remember calling Ron and texting him right before I was leaving. It was like, oh my God, what if I'm super especially awkward, like what if I don't take, what if I take shitty photos, like what ... can I borrow a camera bag. And he just kind of texted me back. He was like, "Okay, first of all, you are socially awkward, go take photos, and here's the camera bag." So, that speaks to the person that Ron is and has been for me, just this great amount of support.

So, my name is Dorcas Tang. I'm a studio art major, double minor in educational studies and Spanish, although my parents still hold up hope for me to be a lawyer someday. So thank you all so much for being here and supporting me on this wonderful day with beautiful weather. I would like to acknowledge that we are standing on Lenape land, so settler colonialism. And I also want to express my gratitude for certain organizations and people before we start.

So, to the Genevieve Ching-Wen Lee Grant, established in memory of Genevieve Ching-Wen Lee, class of 1997, in support for projects that talk about Asian-American studies. The Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility, so without these two ... I was able to realize this project without any financial stress.

Thank you to Professor Edwin Mayorga, Profesora Nanci Buiza, and Professor Christopher Fraga for graciously supporting me and giving me invaluable advice. And finally, thank you to Swarthmore College Libraries, specifically Roberto Vargas and Susan Dreher for really allowing me this platform to speak on my project, and also my first solo exhibition. This would not have been possible without you guys.

[Spanish 00:03:45]

Okay, so ... I wanted to start with the name of the project. It's called Los Paisanos del Puerto. Los Paisanos was a term that means countrymen. So, it was a term of endearment that the Chinese folks would use to refer to one another. And El Puerto refers to the port town of Puntarenas. So, the title literally means Chinese people from Puntarenas, in a more poetic way.

And, this topic isn't something that you kind of just accidentally stumble into. So, it's very specific. I was basically studying abroad in Costa Rica. I was volunteering in a school, and my third and fourth graders would come up to me and ask me, "Do Chinese people eat rats or dogs?"

They would pull their eyes back, and I was like, "Oh, my goodness," like I ... This is something else, but ... And it was the first time I had ever felt so conscious of being Chinese all the time because I would be referred to as like chinita, like china, and at the same time, I also knew that there was this really big Chinatown in the capital. So, it was the barrio chino, and that got me kind of thinking like it's fine for me as a foreigner to kind of field these questions of constantly being othered, right?

But what was it like for someone who was born and raised there, their parents are from there, grew up there all their lives, but still faced these question?. So what was that experience like for these folks?

And so, I had some of these questions that I was thinking about, and I kind of want you guys to sit with while I'm presenting. So, what does it mean to be Asian? What does it mean to be Latinx? What overlaps or intersections exist between Asian and latinidad? What can we learn from underrepresented diasporic narratives? And what is the power of visuals in telling these narratives?

So, I focused on the very specific time frame of 1855 to 1955, partially because of my own relationship with my identity, my diasporic identity. So I identify as third generation Chinese-Malaysian. It was kind of the story that I didn't see talked about a lot ... that we were this multi-generational identity. And I was also, I really was focusing on the living narratives. I had come across a good amount of academic research focusing on the histories of these communities, but not necessarily anything talking about what it meant to be Chinese in Costa Rica today.

It was also important for me to visibilize these communities because, for me, seeing is believing, and so what I ended up was taking photos of, portraits of this community, and having oral interviews, connected oral interviews with the folks who I encountered.

And, photography has this kind of long history of exoticizing and othering folks, especially when you look at publications like National Geographic, that is very ... it has kind of a problematic history. And so I was constantly aware of this relationship. And I am Chinese, but I felt like I've treaded the line of insider versus outsider positionality with this group. I had a professor, before I left, she very bluntly asked me, "Why the fuck should these people tell you their stories?" And that was a question that kind of sat with me throughout the whole time. Why was ... Why should they tell me their stories? And so these were kind of going through my mind as I was in Costa Rica.

So, I did want to talk a little bit about the context of this community. In 1855, you have 77 indentured laborers stepping off from arduous boat journey, arriving from southern China to the Pacific side of Costa Rica for the first time. They set foot onto strange soil, a journey precipitated by what we call now the Trans-Pacific slave trade. So, this is European businessmen seeking cheap replacement for slave labor. And, this group of Chinese bachelors, mostly, endured harsh, inhumane conditions. There was records of them committing suicide, which was seen as a means of escaping and returning back to China.

And, there was significant anti-Chinese legislation in Costa Rica in addition to anti-black sentiment. So, African and Chinese immigration is banned between 1862 to 1943. And so, you have the start of very much this unwanted and displaced within the mestizaje identity in Costa Rica.

I did not arrive through arduous boat journey. Instead, I stepped off a air-conditioned bus from the capital city to Puntarenas. And the first salty sea air hit me, and I walked towards the small lighthouse that had the large, white portón, which is a gate. And I peered in, and suddenly this tiny white-haired grandma runs out, she grabs me by the arm, she hugs me as if I am some long-lost kin and not some random stranger who just came to the house for the first time.

She's like, "Dorcas, [Spanish 00:10:14]."

And it was just like, "Okay."

She grabs me by the arm, pulls me into the kitchen as she's asking me, "Are you hungry? Have you eaten?" And, which I understand is not a question but a statement, as she plops down a plate of porks feet and rice in front of me. And I'm shoveling this into my mouth. This porks feet tastes exactly the way my dad would make it. And my mouth drops, not literally, metaphorically, because my mouth is full of food. This woman, she looks like she could be my grandmother, but she's speaking in this rapid torrent of Spanish.

So, that was my first impression. And it was a huge culture shock for me when I first got to ... Puntarenas.

So this was me and my host grandmother. Her name was Flora Angela Lee Chang, is her name. And our relationship, we bonded just so much over just gossiping, just sharing cups of tea outside the house, and just hanging out. And she was so funny, and we just had a real blast.

It was also interesting for me because I had never been able to communicate with my own grandmother. We were ... There was this huge language barrier that stood between us. It was ... She spoke a Chinese dialect that I never understood. But with Flora, I was able to fluently communicate with her in Spanish, which was kind of interesting and ironic. And Flora loved dancing. She would dance paso doble and boleros when her husband was alive, and this is her actually dancing ballet típico, which is like the traditional Costa Rican dance with her group of elderly seniors.

And, she also talks about when she was younger. So this is her, right in the center. And she's hanging out with a group of all these Chinese kids who all grew up together in the main commercial street, because they all lived above their parents' businesses. And I also just wanted to play this short audio clip of Flora talking about her youth. Again, oral interview were important to me because it gave them agency to tell their stories in their own words.

Recording: [Spanish 00:12:53]

Dorcas: Okay, so that audio clip kind of shows this really colorful history and how much fun that Flora was just having as a young Chinese person growing up.

So another really important space where a lot of Chinese folks would hang out with the Asociación China de Puntarenas, which was colloquially known as the Club Chino. It was founded in 1907 and was established as a support network for newer immigrants coming to Costa Rica. And when I got there, it was ... so, I don't know if you can see, but there's this gate, there's a gate, and then there's a door, and then there's a long flight of stairs going up. So ... I was able to open the first door, I mean, I knocked on the gate, and this guy peers at me. He's like, "What do you want? ..."

And I was like, "I just want to take some photos. Please let me in."

So it was just, and he was like, "I'll make some calls."

Eventually he let me in, but this was a space that clearly was not being used and was really inaccessible for a lot of people. But in its heyday, you could hear both the click-clacking of mah-jongg tiles, and southern Chinese dialects, and ping pong, and Spanish all kind of coming together in this one space.

This was the Club Chino in 1907, and you can see the Republican Nationalist flag and Taiwanese imagery.

And, here's Flora again. She is Miss Señorita Colonia China, which is, she's like the winner of this little beauty pageant at her wedding reception.

So clearly, this was a space that was used by a lot of folk, quinceañeras, all that stuff.

And then, this is today. So everything is locked up. It's ... There's this one guy that just they pay to be there to guard the place, actually, because this one President of the Chinese Association had said, "We just want this for Chinese people. We can't let other people come in and destroy the things that are in here."

This was another really important space for the Chinese community, or historical. It was called La Bomba Arcón, and it was a gas station. It was founded in 1948. I wanted to use this space to kind of illustrate how our immigrant narratives are not necessarily monolithic.

I had my own family, I always associated with the idea of struggle and the idea of poverty. But this family, they owned the whole block. It stretched from this corner to down all the way to here, and they had come to Costa Rica with money. They were landowners in China, and they were like, "Oh, how can we make more money? Let's go to Costa Rica." So it was something that I was really surprised by, and it was very different from what I had known.

Yeah, within the same family, you also have very different narratives. So, this woman's name was [Maritza Hong Arcón 00:18:34]. So she was part of the family, but her mom and ... her parents had actually fled Communism. Since they were landowners in China, they were persecuted. And her story was pretty memorable for me. I remember spending hours in her home sipping on cold, Chinese tea as we heard the sounds of the road going on outside. And she had a very bittersweet and complex relationship that she kind of navigated with being Costa Rican.

In one interview she says, "I don't feel proud to be Costa Rican." She recounted in this, her talk that her father, she would watch her father practice martial arts at night until his knuckles were bloody because he was preparing to, in case he ever needed to defend himself. At the same time, she had moved to the States for a really long time, never thought she would come back, but every summer she would bring her sons back to Costa Rica because she said her legacy for them was being able to teach them Spanish.

So I want to play another short audio clip. This one's in English because Maritza, so ...

Recording: ... I felt a lot of racism here in Puntarenas. Before we speak, my father have making fun of him, because we were Chinese, saying the same thing. And my older brother also felt more racism because he was the oldest one. I remember one time he was coming from high school, from high school and [inaudible 00:20:39]... Jose Marti, Jose Marti. He was just getting here to my, to the house in the corner, and some guy, I don't know who was it, he was eating an orange, and so he would, he come here with the orange, ladies with him, and then you get the estopa, right? So he would just drag that and throw it at me, throw it at me, just because you are Chinese, and they like they are, they have the right to do that.

Dorcas: So think this audio clip, you can kind of hear the pain in her voice, and shows what the result of this very normalized harassment and discrimination is. And at the end of interviewing, I remember she told me, "Dorcas, don't talk about ... Don't show my image online. Don't put it outside of your university because that Chinese supermarket down the road, they got harassed, and they got robbed because they were Chinese. People thought they had money." So, that was her relationship with Costa Rica.

On kind of a more brighter note and different kind of sentiment here is one of my favorite photos. It's kind of illustrating this idea of community. They're making dumplings, they're making ... This is Flora's friends and family, and they've all gotten together to make this dumpling called har gaw. And har gaw in Cantonese means shrimp dumpling. And usually it's about this small. And I remember ... this was really interesting because instead of shrimp, they had substituted for meat filling, and they had ... some of them, they knew how to fold it, so they had these empanada makers, and they would just like squash it together to fold the dumpling. So kind of like the improvisation and how the culture evolved.

And, you kind of question why did these ingredients kind of evolve like this. Why did they not know how to fold the dumpling?. And part of it was because when people would bring food back from Hong Kong or from Panama, Chinese ingredients, it would get detained at customs. They would say, "Oh, this doesn't look right. We're going to take it away from you."

So, and another ... Oh, okay. So this is a dumpling that is actually very well folded. I can't do that.

Another interesting ... This is at the same table, but I think it illustrates a little different story. There two really interesting things that I wanted to focus on with this photo. First of all, the food that they're eating is Chinese-Costa Rican food. So much like Chinese-American food, Chinese-Costa Rican food was so popular. They had chop suey, arroz cantonés, fried wantons, it was ... You would even find Chinese-Costa Rican restaurants that were run by non-Chinese folks.

So, that brings to the question of why do you love the cultural products of this community, but not the actual people. And then the second question I had was what is this authentic Chinese food. Did they think it was authentic? Did they think it was Chinese? Because they are Chinese, and they are eating Chinese takeout food.

And then, another topic I was interested in was the role of religion in the community. So, Catholicism is big in Costa Rica. Church and state is pretty much super intertwined. So there was, a lot of the times, the Chinese folks would learn about Catholicism through schools. They would teach it in schools and be converted there. And I'm an atheist, but I went to mass every Sunday with my host grandmother. And I played church bingo for five hours. Well not, I don't know if I would recommend that, but I did it.

And so, this was also another religious event. This man's name is Hernán Pipe Chan, and I remember asking him, "Why do they call you Pipe? What's the story behind that?" And he was like, "I don't know. They called me that one day, and it just stuck."

So, it's funny, nicknames in Latin America, big thing. And this was at his finca, which was his farm. And basically, they had taken a virgin statue and had a procession for it. And they ended up at his house, and he served his guests fried rice and tea. And, so he wanted the community to be more religious and more Catholic.

So this woman's name was Neri Obando Chan, and she was Pipe's niece. Big family, the Chan family was huge. But, so her story was interesting because her brother, José Antonio Obando Chan, had died at the age of 15 trying to save people from a bus that had fallen into the sea. And it was, he was deemed a national hero. He was on stamps, he had statues everywhere, but what I was curious about was that nobody talked about the fact that he was Chinese. These really permanent kind of Chinese folks in Costa Rica, but why was nobody talking about this history?

And ... Oh, I guess you'll also notice that these two kind of portraits of women, I either kind of consciously and unconsciously decided to also focus on narratives of women because I connected with older women more, and a lot of the times they would tell me, "Why do you want to talk to me? That's not important. I can tell you my story in like 15 minutes."

And I was like, "No, no. I want to hear your story. I think it is really important."

So this woman's name was Sonia Hernández Lo, and she was basically the only female Asian ping pong coach in Costa Rica. And there's something about Chinese people and ping pong. It's a thing. I grew up playing it every Saturday. And Muti, her nickname was Muti, and she would care for her father's store during the day, and every single night and on the weekend, she would train people in ping pong. And that was her true passion. That was ... Recently she just texted me. She was like, "Oh yeah, we went to the championships in Guatemala. We won. And it was like nice." So we was really driven by that.

And so here you see, this is in the Chinese Association. They had championships there, they had tables in there, and you even have people representing Costa Rica on a national level, Chinese folks.

So another really important sport in Costa Rica was basketball. And ... this is like the nationalist Taiwanese imagery, and there were non-Chinese Costa Ricans on the Chinese Association's team, and they would play around the country.

So this is today. This is my photo. And this boy, his name is José Manual Gonzales Sánchez, and he was the grandson of someone who was in one of the earlier photos. And ... so sports in Costa Rica were mostly dominated by folks who were black. And this basketball team was no exception. So I was really interested to see how these two kind of other groups in Costa Rica interacted with one another in this context. So this is José's other brother, named Mario José, and on the team, Mario José was called chino, and José Manuel was called chinito, or mini chino. And it was just their names, and that's what they went by.

And so, again, focusing kind of on these younger folks, her name, this woman's name was Iris Lan Chen. She was a arts manager in San José. A lot of folks did not actually end up ... Younger folks left the town because in 1970s, Puntarenas entered this steep economy decline, and so you have all of these younger Chinese folks leaving to the capital to find work. And so Iris was a really strong personality. She knew exactly what she wanted and how she was going to get it. And she talks about ... The interesting part of her story was that she talks about getting bullied on the playground when she was younger. They would call her china capuchina, which kind of like means Chinese monkey. And she describes how she would physically fight back. So imagine this tiny little Asian girl who just ... like punching at it and biting them back. She was like, "Yeah, the teachers never did anything to stop me. They never punished me for fighting back." And I was like, but I feel like the real question is why didn't they stop the bullying from happening.

So across these narratives, you also see a lot of the Chinese folks experiencing harassment, bullying in schools, but the passivity of the teachers, they never did anything to stop it.

Iris was also a lesbian. She lived with her Chinese-Costa Rican partner and her partner's son. And she would say, "Oh, my modern family."

And, I'm just going to skip over this audio clip. Or, I'll just play it. So this is her talking.

Recording: [Spanish 00:31:47] ... don't ask don't tell. [Spanish 00:32:02] we were like very close friends for everyone. It's like our friends did know, but we were always low profile, always together but never showing like care.


Affection. That's why we always were at home. But for me, it was never difficult, but for her it was, even though I was the Chinese one. [Spanish 00:32:47] ... has been always okay with it.

[Spanish 00:32:48]

Nuclear family. [Spanish 00:32:59] worked for the college, Universidad de Costa Rica, since always. [Spanish 00:33:15].

[Spanish 00:33:23]

Coming out from what? I was never ... I always thought that straight people never come out, so why, from where? What closet?

Dorcas: Yeah, so that's Iris talking about kind of her queer identity and how that related to her Chinese identity.

And, so this woman's name was Marcela Io Soto. She was seventh generation Chinese. Her great-great-grandfather was Chinese, and ... Oh, here she is holding a photo of her. So she had never identified as being Chinese growing up until she went to the capital city, San José, and people would ask her, "Why is your last name Io?" Io is not a Hispanic surname. And people would look at her and be like, "You look a little different. Where are you from?"

So, it's kind of like even after all this time, even after so many generations, Chinese people, they were still seen as this other. And her relationship with being Chinese was really interesting for me because she said, "Chinese is something I feel inside, like I feel Chinese." So, that begs the question of how do you grapple with your Chinese identity if you're mixed, even after all these generations.

So, these are ... Back to my original questions, kind of reflecting on that. And I guess some of the conclusions I came to, to answer my professor's question, who was I to, why should they tell me their stories. And I'll just come ... I remember when I was there, the second week I was there, I went to a funeral ... It wasn't really by choice. So, I was there with my camera, and I was taking photos, really uncomfortable, people were crying, and I was like, "I don't know these people. Why ... ?"

And, I remember the people whose, the family of the person who had passed away, they were like, "No, no. You need to take these photos. These are part of our community's stories," and physically pushed me to take these photos. So it was really important to them because it was the first time, I think, that this identity had been validated in this way, that someone had cared enough to come to this place and tell these stories.

One of the people I interviewed after also told me, "Without your project, I would never have had the excuse to talk to someone else who was Chinese, go to their house, and there had never been this platform to talk about their shared experience," which I think was therapeutic to some extent. For me, as someone who always grappled with, am I Chinese, am I Malaysian ... When I went back to Malaysia, because I grew up in China, my cousins would call me China girl. And I was like, "We're all Chinese here. I don't know what's going on, but ... cool."

And then when I went back to Shanghai, where I was living, the taxi drivers would charge me a foreigner rate, and they'd be like, "Where are you from?" I was like, "I ... here." So for me, there was always this question.

But, when I went to this community, it kind of allowed me to see that. I didn't really need to choose between the two. Instead, I pertained to this larger diasporic network that was part of the Chinese diaspora, and I felt this kinship with this community that I had not felt necessarily in Malaysia or China.

In the future ... Oh, okay. Kind of also coming back to this, so one last story. This was my last night in Costa Rica, and I was flipping through this book, which was in the Chinese Association. It was really yellowed and frayed, but I was so enthralled by these photos of the Chinese folks. It was book of Chinese people who had come in 1922, every single Chinese person that came. And as I was flipping through it, the President of the Chinese Association tells me how they found it. And basically what had happened was it was found discarded in heaps of bureaucratic trash. It was found outside of the building, in the garbage. Someone picked it up and was like, "Oh, maybe this is important. Let's give it to the Chinese Association."

And from then on, they were like super protective of it. They were like, "We're not going to let anyone take it even for conservation purposes. We just don't trust anyone."

And this kind of illustrates for me the importance of continuing to tell these stories. And for me, I am going to continue telling these underrepresented stories of the diaspora because who else will? Behind the lens, I am the curator and creator of me and my community. So, follow me [inaudible 00:39:03].

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