Xenophobia and racism against Chinese and Koreans in Argentina

Anti-Asian sentiment and rhetoric circulate widely in Argentina. As an illustrative example, yesterday I searched for “chinos Argentina” (Chinese people Argentina) on Facebook. Here is the first page of results:
For those who don’t read Spanish, a translation of all the names of groups in the picture:

  1. The Chinese invaded Argentina
  2. THE CHINESE DO HELLA BUSINESS IN ARGENTINA [1]
  3. Join if you want to close the Chinese supermarkets in Argentina
  4. the Chinese have taken over Argentina… sneakily
  5. If the Chinese keep coming… in a few years ARGENTINA will be CHINA 2
  6. I, TOO, THINK THAT THE CHINESE ARE TAKING OVER ARGENTINA!
  7. In Argentina there are more Chinese than Argentines.
  8. They should make a Great Wall of Argentina so that the Chinese can’t come over
  9. If Korea beats Argentina, we loot all of the Chinese supermarkets! [2]

This is not restricted to the troll-infested nether regions of the Internet. You see this reflected often in sensationalist articles in national newspapers, on television, and on mainstream, “authoritative” blogs. Last week, I came across (via Adri Bosch) Yuri Doudchitzky’s post on China-focused Spanish-language website Zaichina about “the out of control Chinese mafia” in Argentina. Doudchitzky argues that the Chinese mafia is a serious threat to the country that’s even more violent than other mafias that Argentina has historically had to manage. Whether the Chinese mafia actually exists is something I don’t have enough information to comment on, but it’s clear that the rhetoric surrounding the Chinese mafia is often xenophobic and racist. The author even acknowledges so:

In the anti-Chinese Western media, they like to talk about a “Chinese mafia” to create a bad image of the huge emerging power. On the other hand, the “pro-Chinese” factions (read: those who do a lot of business with China) would rather avoid this term.[3]

Academic studies of anti-Asian racism in Argentina
There has been some academic work done on anti-Korean racism in Argentina, and much of it relates to Chinese, as well. Santamaría and Itzcovich’s (2005) analysis of a 2002 set of interview and survey data on discrimination towards Korean and Paraguayan immigrants revealed that Korean immigrants were strongly perceived as being dirty, exploitative, and closed to outsiders.

Perceptions of Chinese are fairly similar. Many Chinese immigrants speak Spanish poorly, and because working within the community reduces the need to acquire more advanced Spanish, interactions with non-Chinese tend to be minimal. This lack of interaction has given rise to stereotypes and distrust among non-Chinese. One common stereotype is that Chinese immigrants are extremely wealthy businesspeople who compete on unfair terms and who are not willing to associate with the rest of the population.

The perception that Chinese immigrants do not conduct business fairly is an especially touchy subject. Some Argentines believe that the Chinese do not pay taxes (or that the Chinese government reimburses them for taxes), that they unplug their freezers at night to save money, or that they do not pay fair wages.

Korean immigrants are also stereotyped as unfair businesspeople; however, Koreans are additionally perceived as being exploitative towards migrant workers from neighboring Latin American countries. Korean immigrants, who came to dominate the Argentine textile industry, are frequently said to employ undocumented Bolivian, Paraguayan, and Peruvian workers. News reports of labor abuses in Korean-owned textile factories have often portrayed “the Koreans” as “exploiters” and slave drivers (Courtis 2000). As the majority of Chinese-owned supermarkets employ only other Chinese, the community is generally not seen as exploitative. However, the fact that they tend to employ only other members of the community may reinforce the perception that the Chinese community is closed to outsiders.

Is Buenos Aires safe for East Asian visitors?
Someone found my blog by Googling “is buenos aires racist asians”. The answer isn’t easy. As a young, able-bodied man of East Asian descent living in the downtown area (known as el Centro to most or San Nicolás to bureaucrats) and taking the Subte to the equally upscale Belgrano neighborhood to do field research in Chinatown, I never received racially-tinged threats of any sort. There were certainly many misunderstandings (like the woman who approached me in a Chinatown curio shop and asked me how much an item cost) but no racially threatening experiences that I can remember.

Your mileage, however, may vary. Many of my ethnically Chinese respondents report being made fun of in school or harassed on the street. A Taiwanese immigrant friend of mine who lived in Monserrat was often heckled by cartoneros (trash pickers working in the informal economy) who worked on his street at night. They would yell “¡Chino! ¡Chino!” (Chinese! Chinese!) as he passed; even if they weren’t a physical threat, they made him feel uncomfortable and publicized his foreignness and his lone presence.

There has been a rash of murders of Chinese people in Argentina lately, but these targets have all been supermarket owner-operators. Doudchitzky mentions this as a reason many suspect that there is a Chinese mafia at work. Unless you plan to open a supermarket yourself, I don’t think there’s any reason to fear.

To sum up, anti-Asian sentiment and rhetoric definitely circulates in Buenos Aires and the rest of Argentina. It might even be escalating as China’s influence in Latin America grows. Whether you experience any threats coming out of this sentiment ultimately depends on being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

[1] “Hella,” Northern Californian for “very much,” is the closest thing I can find to Argentine slang “re-”. If you have any better suggestions, please let me know!

[2] World Cup 2010. This conflation of ethnic groups in deciding targets for violence reminds me of the murder of Vincent Chin in the US.

[3] “En los medios occidentales anti-chinos les gusta hablar de ‘mafia china’ para crear una mala imagen de la gran potencia emergente. Mientras, los ‘pro-chinos’ (léase los que hacen buenos negocios con China) prefieren evitar esa palabra.”

Courtis, Corina. 2000. Construcciones de alteridad: Discursos cotidianos sobre la inmigración coreana en Buenos Aires. Buenos Aires: Eudeba.

Santamaría, Roxana, and Gabriela Itzcovich. “Percepciones y prejuicios hacia inmigrantes coreanos y paraguayos residentes en la Argentina.” Relaciones interculturales: experiencias y representación social de los migrantes. Eds. Néstor Cohen and Carolina Mera. Buenos Aires: Antropofagia.


  1. yuri doudchitzky

    Hi: above all i regret my english. Commenting my article you say: “Doudchitzky argues that the Chinese mafia is a serious threat to the country”. That’s not true. After that you say that i know that the rhetoric surrounding the Chinese mafia is often xenophobic and racist. Then, you quoted me. Why you didn’t quote me before?
    I think you must translate my entire article. I am foreigner in argentina, i have a jewish name and i lived my fist years in Beijing. But i dont like to portrait me like a victim of xenofobists and racists. Maybe you need to go to the psycologist.

    • Hola Yuri,

      No fue mi intención insinuar que lo que dijiste fue xenófobo o racista. La cita fue para mostrar que hay blogueros argentinos que saben que la retórica sobre “la mafia china” es xenófoba y racista.

      Esta parte me llevó a escribir “Doudchitzky argues that the Chinese mafia is a serious threat to the country”: “Pero ya es hora (al menos para mí) de dejar de hacerle el juego a unos y otros y empezar a comprometerse en la defensa de la gente común y corriente que lo único que busca es un futuro mejor para sus hijos.”

      English translation of the above:

      I did not intend to suggest that what you said was xenophobic or racist. The quotation was to show that there are Argentine bloggers who recognize that the rhetoric around the “Chinese mafia” is xenophobic and racist.

      This part of the post led me to write that “Doudchitzky argues that the Chinese mafia is a serious threat to the country”: “It’s time now (at least for me) to stop fooling ourselves and begin to engage ourselves in the defense of the common people [here referring to the Chinese] who are only looking for a better future for their children.”

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Having lived in Chile since second grade elementary, I will always remember the “chino cochino” lessons imparted by teachers to encourage washing your hands with fondness.. or not.

    I think the issue is unfortunately compounded with that Koreans are not very labor friendly.. just look at how it is in Korea with Korean workers. Anti-labor sentiment even among the self-touted “progressives” or “common sense minded civil society” is strong, and I wouldn’t expect Korean owners to treat local workers any better..

    Also, like anywhere else in the World, racism seems to have the tragic effect of getting worse with class/income level. I have awful memories of my public school years, while in private school everyone was nice an dandy.

    • As they say, money whitens. (Although I suspect that the higher you go up the socioeconomic ladder, there’s less racial diversity -> less outward racism within the class.)

  3. Andrew

    Calvin, your blog is very impressive. Keep up the good work. :)

  4. Peoni

    I am a british citizen of chinese heritage. I have been to several south american countries, having just returned from a 4-week holiday in Argentina. It saddens me to say that I have experienced discrimination and prejudice in all these countries, including Argentina. Examples of threatening behaviour I have experienced are: loud shouts of ‘china, china’ and people jumping in front of me to make exaggerated kung-fu kicks and karate moves.
    It’s such a shame that Argentina, like many countries in S America, are made up of either people who are descendents of former colonial countries and immigrants (largely White European in Argentina’ case) cannot in the 21st century accommodate or at least be friendly to tourists who are people of colour. I do know that the Chinese settlers are unwelcomed in many many countries but it still makes me very sad think that as a tourist, I cannot get the same sort of service as my white European counterpart in any of the south american countries I have travelled so far.

    A disappointed traveller.

  5. m

    Yes, there are a lot of racists in Argentina, overall in media (infobae, radio 10, radio mitre, clarin, TN), even in churches and UBA (University of Buenos Aires, School of Engineering). I experience it all the time EVERYDAY. Sorry for my poor English. Thanks for the post!!

  6. Have you noticed how few likes those facebook pages got though? I bet most of them come from uneducated kids just being silly. I think you’re taking it a little too seriously.
    If you get a hang of Argentinian culture, you know that Argentinians are generally pretty outspoken and don’t think too much about how other people might take what they say until it’s sometimes too late (I’ve seen people feel bad after putting their foot in their mouth).
    Humiliation and insults are just part of their everyday life and the kind of humor they handle. You either take it and get that it’s not really personal, and mock everyone else too, or they don’t really know how to handle themselves around you and it gets awkward and you feel excluded.
    I think Koreans behave like this among themselves too, If they are familiar and friendly with each other. It just comes to a shock to them because their culture makes them much more rigid and structural towards near strangers and they take, you know, mocks and jokes so seriously and they take it as if they weren’t being respected or whatever, when they’re unable to see that that’s just the way Argentinians are.
    I think many of them are a little sensitized, and feel prejudiced where there was no real evil intention. I think as many times as there is racism and xenophobia, there’s an ethnic group that guards themselves up and sees enemies everywhere, and draws a line or a barrier or a wall where, with a little open mindedness (which you need if you’re thinking of immigrating) and a little understanding, could have been dissolved in the blink of an eye.

    By the way, I think we need to be a little more honest and admit that Koreans can be as racist and xenophobic towards the locals as they feel the locals are with them.
    I know it comes from feeling or having felt excluded, disrespected, reduced, and oftentimes threatened in the past.
    But I believe this generation at least needs to let go of the grudge or bad blood or soreness or whatever, and needs to be more honest, and less blind towards certain uncomfortable facts about how things were played at our ascendants’ time.
    I think we need to question more what we assumed in the past and have a more open heart and understand that races are, honestly, nothing that should divide us humans, and it’s so easily demonstrable when you have an open, truthful attitude.

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