Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Iquitos, Peru: The Amazon Chinese (Part One)

A mototaxi fell into a hole in the road again on Sunday morning. How many times has this happened recently? People in the city seem to have quit counting, but the death toll and injury rate keeps on climbing; and so does the anger level of the locals, that anger directed at the Chinese government's handling of the sewerage system they are installing across the city, a schmozzle that is literally killing people. Dead people make for bad public relations, and the Chinese government seems not to be concerned about it, which is adding to the problem.

The word I hear often is "Arrogance." I might offer my own: "Contempt."

The Chinese government in Iquitos, in Peru, and in South America is working hard at making p.r. inroads to gain land for farming to feed its evermore demanding citizenry, raising food to satisfy a developing workforce's economic clout. People in China, just like in Texas, want beef, and there's too little land for cattle in China to allow for that. So, the Chinese are using land elsewhere, across Africa, for example, and in South America to feed their own. And if the locals of Iquitos in mototaxis fly into holes in the road and die, it doesn't seem to matter much to the Chinese government. They have their own version and their own vision of p.r., and it doesn't include anyone else's feelings about life and death. I don't say a thing. I just shake my head. I slap my forehead. I spit on the ground. But I don't say anything at all. I leave that to the Peruvian government that has now, as I have heard but not yet seen, posted two large signs near the aeroport  venting some rage at the Chinese, proclaiming to passers by that the Chinese government had better start treating Peruvian people better. To me, the first thing would be to stop killing people. There is no shred, like nothing at all in the way of evidence, that the Chinese government gives a rice cake about any of this.

I note a friend who once told me that it's amazing how strange normal can be. And in the case of Chinese government public relations, I can't think of anything at the moment stranger than their approach to winning friends by killing the locals and then getting belligerent over criticism of it. That's public relations of the wrong sort. If the Chinese government gets that, they also don't seem to care. And it's not like the Chinese government thinks they're just killing Indians from the jungle or the average Mestizo immigrant from the Andes: a lot of Iquitos' population, and a good portion of its business community, is ethnic Chinese. In simple terms of dollars and political pull, if not just in basic and ordinary terms of human life itself, the Chinese community in this city matters a lot. The Chinese government doesn't seen to give a shit about anyone at all. It is so seriously out of touch that one should not be surprised if the Chinese government workers are all lynched at some point by an enraged mob. And don't be surprised if the Chinese government doesn't care about that either. It's no wonder so many Chinese left the country and came to the Amazon over the course of over a century and more. Until the Chinese government came too, the Chinese community in Iquitos was doing pretty well. Now they have to worry, as do we all, that the Chinese government might kill them by negligence and idiocy. The Chinese have been in Iquitos for over a hundred years, and they have been hugely successful and beneficial. Now the Chinese government is here. Whoa! This is a different lot indeed.

I've made any number of attempts to talk to the Chinese government engineers in Iquitos to get their input about the sewerage system they are installing in the city. So far, after months of emails, phone calls, and visits to the door, nada at all. Happily for me, I have a number of Chinese friends in town, and they are quite happy to talk about the Chinese community in Iquitos, the history of the Chinese and the success they have made over the generations.

Chinese Peruvians, also known as tusán (a loanword from Chinese 土生 pinyin: tǔ shēng, jyutping: tou2 saang1 "local born"), are people of Overseas Chinese ancestry born in Peru, or who have made Peru their adopted homeland. The first Chinese immigrants to Peru came from Macau. Asian Peruvians are estimated at least 5% of the population.[3] One source places the number of citizens with some Chinese ancestry at 5 million, which equates to 20% of the country's total population.[4]
C.f. wikipedia, "Chinese Peruvians."

Chinese are the largest non-native ethnic group in Iquitos. Unlike the Chinese government workers in Iquitos, the local ethnic Chinese make good things happen.

Now, why on earth a movie by Philip Kaufman would stick in my mind after 40 years or so-- and one line from one scene-- I don't know, but it's been a running joke with me and my friend since we saw The Wanderers way back in the 70s, since we saw a Chinese street gang emerge from the cinematic fog, since we saw a kid come forth and say: "Nobody fucks with the Wongs." Since that moment I have had some kind of soft spot for anyone named Wong. This town is full of Wongs, and I get to meet them en masse. There's the Chinese government; and then there's the Wong family.

Next time, I'll come back with some look at the people, the Wongs, who help make Iquitos a great place to live, assuming one does live and that the Chinese government hasn't killed anyone else.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:
And here are some reviews and comments on said book:


truepeers said...

Wong means emperor. So, in a sense, no one and everyone fucks with them. It all depends on the mandate of heaven. In any case they have little concept of fighting afainst empire, as in Western religion.

Dag said...

I'm writing about the Chinese in Iquitos as part of a longer feature on architecture in the city. After the Introduction and Part One I go down the main street of town looking at some old Rubber Boom buildings to give my readers a sense of what the city is in some depth. I point out the history of buildings in terms of style, f.i. Art Nouveau, and I discuss the nature of ceramic tiles from Morocco. And I write some about the time some buildings were built, like when the most famous Indians in the area, the Jivaros, were, as is known to us still, as head-hunters, though they are at least three days and nights away by freighter today, and in Iquitos, named after the Iquitos Indians, the most famous Indians in this area are Shipibos, six days and nights away in the opposite direction by river, meaning I write about Rubber Boom buildings such as what is now called Inca Farma. This gives the curious person some idea of what it is to live in this city, and perhaps in cities generally.

Incas don't live anywhere close to the Shipibos. Incas are so far from Pucallpa as to be in a different world, geographically and historically. But here we have Inca Farma.

Inca Farma is the old Casa Wong. Casa Wong is a notable building because it has facade tiles from Reuben Cohen, a Moroccan Jew who sold his excess building tiles to his neighbour, Mr. Wong from Canton, China.

Mr. Wong, as I have been finding out today, was badly done by in China and left for, eventually, Peru where he was no longer a slave living in poverty, he go rich. And now his descendants live in Iquitos.

Suddenly, I no longer see Inca Farma, I see a hundred and more years of people who married the locals and are rich and happy and fun to be with. I see the triumph of man over nature and the triumph of man in himself, his family spread across the city, the city filled with people indistinguishable from city folk or jungle folk, Jews and Chinese and Spanish and, likely as not, Scotsmen from the high islands.

My buddy and I spent hours chatting with an ancient uncle who recalled the family tree, and then my buddy and I went for lunch and hit on girls for a while and chatted about stuff.

Every doorway opens into a universe so different that it makes my head spin to think of it. Man, there's Wongs all over the place here. And Inca Farma is now the place of another while the sale bought up the other side of the street. But everybody is Peruvian, and the girls are so beautiful I can hardly breathe sometimes because my system is so focused otherwise. Every doorway. Every person. What a great life for all of us.

Just one building, and there are two dozen to write about before I complete this task about architecture. I'm almost done, and I can't walk in this city now without being overwhelmed by it all. Nobody fucks with nobody. Everybody is a king here in some small way. So it should be in what is for me something like paradise.