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The Significance of Dominican Republic’s Barrio Chino

In Santo Domingo's Barrio Chino, A Food Market Between Two Worlds Shines

Chinese shops and restaurants in Chinatown/Barrio Chino along the Avenida Juan Pablo Duarte in the city Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, Caribbean. (Photo by: Marica van der Meer/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Image Source: Marica van der Meer/Arterra/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

A neighbourhood over from the bustling, cobblestone streets of the historical centre known as la Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo is El Barrio Chino, a lesser-known yet curious piece of Dominican history. On Duarte Avenue, a long street filled with Dominican merchants selling everything from imported electronics to services like manicures right on the block, is the traditional paifang gateway entrance. It stands out from the rest, signaling the section known as El Barrio Chino.

And every Sunday, this section is visited by Dominicans from all over for the food market. It's a piece of Asian pride in the Caribbean that reflects the larger history of cultural and political exchange, as well as migration between the two regions. This May, El Barrio Chino celebrated 15 years since its official launch.

Wei Wan, 28, a graphic designer of Taiwanese descent who provides education on her culture through her IG page, says the market is a source of pride for her. Her parents have had a spot there for seven years, selling vegetarian food and boba tea. "That space is like a piece of Asia in the Dominican Republic. It's like a corner where people can learn more about Asia, very different from what people are used to here. It's also extra income for us," she told POPSUGAR. "Sometimes you see people with a face asking, 'What is that?' and when you explain it and they get it, then they try it and they're like, 'Oh this is good.'"

Wan was brought to the country from Taiwan when she was 8 months old. She was raised here and says that she's "una Asiática aplataná"— which roughly translates to a Dominicanized Asian. "I say that because I have un chin de allá y un chin de aquí" — or a bit from there and a bit from here.

Chinese immigrants and descendants of immigrants have lived in the Dominican Republic since the mid-1800s, with the first documented people being written about around 1864. A large swath of Chinese and other Asian migrants and laborers migrated to the Caribbean from the US, where they were recruited as laborers only to be met by exploitation and oppression. In the US, Asian Americans faced anti-miscegenation laws, the "Yellow Peril" rhetoric, and other discriminatory practices. One piece of history that stands out is the WW2 era when Japanese laborers and their families were moved into internment camps. Throughout this time, workers made their way to Latin American and Caribbean countries where workers were needed — like Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Dominican scholar Mu-Kien Adriana Sang Ben affirms in her book "La migración China en República Dominicana 1961-2018" that the history of migration of Asian Americans has been one of not being accepted. The roots of migration to the Dominican Republic remain murky, yet it is documented that the largest migration was between 1862 and 1936. Scholar Edith Wen-Chu Chen of California State University wrote in her research that Chinese laborers came to the DR from neighbouring Caribbean countries because it was "less oppressive."

In this same study, Chen narrates how Barrio Chino was started thanks to the efforts of Rosa Ng Báez, a Dominicana whose father was Chinese. First, she started by opening a local Chinese-Dominican restaurant. "The Barrio Chino is a way for the Chinese community to show its appreciation for the hospitality and friendship Dominicans have shown them since 1864," she told a local paper. In a separate interview with Diario Digital, Ng said that the idea for a Barrio Chino came to her after her father passed away in 1974, and she couldn't say goodbye. Her father had arrived in 1928.

It was in 2008 when Barrio Chino was officially created after several businesses had already opened up.

Wei Wan

Image Source: Wei Wan

Wei Wan at her family's spot in el Barrio Chino.

For Wan, the market is not only a way to show her pride but also a form of extra income for her family. And many sellers are successful there too. "We only sell vegetarian food because we're vegetarian, so we want to share how good vegetarian food can be with others," she says. "People think it's only leaves and herbs."

On Sundays, before the noon sun fires up the streets, merchants put up tents, tables, and chairs to sell all kinds of goods down the two blocks of the Barrio Chino's brick-floor streets. Here, they sell anything from fresh fish to local fruits. Yet, the main attraction is the fast food market with Asian delicacies where visitors can find anything from Chinese bao buns and Japanese takoyaki to Korean corn dogs and Taiwanese bubble tea. The street is small yet the selection is rich, and in the large crowd of people, visitors line up to try foods from a region of the world on the other side of the globe.

While the crowds and lines can at times feel overwhelming, it is this vibrant energy that makes the space unique. There are so-called Chinatowns in different big cities all over the globe, yet the uniqueness of the Dominican Republic's Barrio Chino is in witnessing two non-Western cultures merge in a way that feels less transactional, and more like a cultural exchange. Strangers mingle freely in their excitement about trying new food, guiding one another to different spots, and even teaching each other how to use chopsticks.

"When we started, we were one of the only spots, now it's packed with people. In the beginning, it was more mixed, but now it's more organised," Wan remembers, adding that she's witnessed the evolution over the years as the market grows in popularity.


Image Source: Sara Garcia

Bao buns from El Barrio Chino, in Santo Domingo.

The neighbourhood is dubbed Barrio Chino with a specific nod to China, yet there are delicacies and migrants there with roots from all over the Asian continent. Wan says she has been called "Chinese" ("china" in Spanish) in the street, a generalization that is very common amongst Latin American countries, and part of an ongoing conversation on anti-Asian sentiments and misunderstandings within the region. Still, for Wan she says she thankfully always felt protected by her teachers in school, and never experienced large discomfort with her identity — though she did stand out.

"Going to school, that was an 'exotic experience' — my parents even changed my name and gave me a Spanish name" Wan remembers. "I don't know if it's because they thought I was going to get bullied. My name was Karina, but I don't like it anymore, that's why I got rid of it."

In the Barrio Chino, there are copper statues and renditions made specifically for Chinese culture and its traditional figures. There is a statue of a "Chinese Princess" described as one that brings prosperity, and of a Buddhist monk described as someone who "renounces all things earthly to dedicate his life to spirit." There is also a statue of Tsai Shen Yeh, the God of well-being and prosperity, and other life-size figures.

Meanwhile, the foods and people there represent Asia's rich diversity, with dishes from Japan, Taiwan, China, and Korea. For Wei, her family has held onto Taiwanese traditions by celebrating festivities like the Lunar New Year, speaking Mandarin, and primarily, honouring food — something that has kept her tied to her roots. This is why having a spot at the Barrio Chino is extra special to her.

That's ultimately what she loves most about Barrio Chino. "I like the connection that happens there because people go and meet another culture, they try a gastronomy that feels very different," she concludes.

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