Mexico’s oldest and largest Chinatown experiences rebirth
By Manuel Ayala
Mexicali, Mexico, Aug 13 (EFE).- In – and beneath – this city on the border with the United States lies La Chinesca, a neighborhood established more than a century ago by Chinese migrant workers who decided to make new lives for themselves in Mexico.
Both the above-ground and subterranean segments of the enclave began to fall into decline in the 1970s, but Mexicali remains home to the Aztec nation’s largest Chinese community and prospects for a revival of La Chinesca look promising.
The workers arrived circa 1900, brought in by the US-based Colorado River Land Company to build an irrigation system in Mexicali Valley, scholar and tour guide Arturo Villaseñor Valladolid told Efe Saturday.
He said that the decision to built the underground portion of the neighborhood, which grew in time to include a hospital, opium dens and tunnels to neighboring Calexico, California, was a response to summer temperatures as high as 48 C (118 F).
On a tour of one of the subterranean passages, Efe spotted an astrologer’s chamber, a Buddhist shrine, a casino and a martial arts studio.
In recent years, the numerous associations that organize festivals and offer language and calligraphy classes for Mexicali’s 15,000-strong Chinese community have taken an interest in bringing La Chinesca back to life.
New business have opened, along with cultural spaces such as Wok, a museum dedicated to Cantonese cuisine in this city that has more than 300 Chinese restaurants.
Prohibition in the US spurred a proliferation of bars, nightclubs and brothels in La Chinesca to cater to Americans craving night life.
During that era (1920-1933), Villaseñor told Efe, celebrities from north of the border, including Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, were a common sight in Mexicali.
Al Capone was a regular at El Tecolote bar in the border city, from where he was rumored to smuggle alcohol into the US via the tunnels.
Villaseñor said that when the boss of the local opium trade was slain, some in La Chinesca blamed Capone and set fire to warehouse filled with booze.
In 1927, Mexicali became the scene of violent disputes among Chinese secret societies – known as tongs – for control of lucrative rackets. The mayhem spurred the creation of an Anti-Chinese Movement abetted by authorities.
But the Chinese of Mexicali survived that episode and remained the city’s largest ethnic group until the middle of the 20th century, when the population swelled with an influx of people from other parts of Mexico.
The Chinese are now recognized as a vital element of the identity of Mexicali, which continues to attract immigrants from China. EFE