“Por una Taza de Té” (“For a Cup of Tea”) by Luis Chang Reyes

Luis Chang Reyes (via Wikimedia Commons) Luis Chang Reyes (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Chinese diaspora, and the diasporic experience, is typically covered country-by-country or perhaps region-by-region, the geography usually determined by what is relevant to a particular group of readers. The narratives of the Chinese in, say, California and London are usually treated separately.

The recent Spanish-language Por una Taza de Té (For a Cup of Tea) by Luis Chang Reyes, himself part of the very diaspora he discusses, aims for a correction by providing a single history of the diaspora as a whole; in doing so, Chang—being Peruvian—provides more detail than is typical on the Chinese in Latin America in general and in Peru in particular.

Por una Taza de Té: Breve Historia de la Diáspora China, Luis Chang Reyes (Centro Cultural Peruano China, February 2019)
Por una Taza de Té: Breve Historia de la Diáspora China, Luis Chang Reyes (Centro Cultural Peruano China, February 2019)

Chang, after a decades-long career in multinational institutions and government—culminating as Peruvian Ambassador to China—has turned to writing, and says (in translation):

 

This book arose from a restlessness resulting from a wish to know the reasons why my father left China and came to Peru, leaving family and friends, facing an unknown world, with a language and culture radically different from his own.

 

The resulting book contains a recapitulation of Chinese history and the troubles that left to mass emigration in the 19th century. The final quarter of the book, however, contains the detailed discussion of emigration: where the Chinese went, what they did when they got there, the political and popular responses. Chang goes country-by-country, from Mauritius, New Guinea, Tahiti to France, Russia and Cuba. In the case of Peru, to which Chang dedicates a section of its own, he notes that:

 

The abolition of black slavery produced a shortage of cheap manual labor to work in the extraction of guano and in the sugarcane and cotton plantations.

 

They were replaced with imported Chinese labor who

 

were treated in the same manner as the black slaves, with the difference that they worked for the duration of their contract: eight years.

 

Some 100,000 Chinese culíes arrived in Peru between 1849 to 1874. The bulk worked on plantations, but some 10,000 each worked on the railways and to extract guano.

But things changed and the book’s final chapter (“De culíes a poderosos ciudadanos”) sums the story up: “from coolies to citizens of power”.

The book concludes with a series of long appendices, one of which is a detailed and extended essay on the Manila galleon, with interesting sections on direct Chinese involvement and the role of Peru.

 

Chang himself is a reminder of our interconnected world: Chinese by ethnicity, Peruvian by nationality and national service, very much a global citizen. Although his book is in Spanish, he—and his book—is also a reminder that as far as “all that is China” is concerned, there lies a world beyond the English-speaking one.


Peter Gordon is editor of the Asian Review of Books and co-author of The Silver Way: China, Spanish America and the Birth of Globalisation, 1565–1815.