Photo from China Daily.

China Daily, a state-controlled, English-language newspaper, ran a feature story about Sol de León, a third-generation Chinese Panamanian woman who visited her ancestral hometown near Guangzhou. De Leon went to a Jewish school in Panama before going to university in Mexico. She eventually settled in the United States with her American husband.

I’ll admit that roots-finding stories aren’t terribly exciting, and that they all seem to sound the same after a while. However, this article does provide a good overview of the history of Chinese settlement in Panama:

The first Chinese arrived in Panama in the mid-19th century by way of Canada and Jamaica to work on the Panamanian railroad, according to Juan Tam, a historian and writer with the Chinese Association of Panama.

In 1903, the government declared Chinese “undesirable citizens”. Ten years later, just before the Panama Canal’s completion, a “head tax” was imposed on the Chinese community. The 1941 constitution stripped citizenship from all Panamanians of Asian ancestry.

Arnulfo Arias, Panama’s president at the time, ordered Asian immigrants’ property to be confiscated. That year, Arias was deposed in a coup, but the persecution didn’t end, as Arias’ followers forced many Chinese-owned stores to close.

“But they couldn’t expel my grandfather because he had a Panamanian wife and children,” De Leon said.

An article out of Chinese state media aimed at foreign audiences must end with a line about how China is awesome and why you should come visit. This article is no exception:

Both Paolo and Amy were recently granted a scholarship from the Chinese government and accepted to Nanjing University. “After our last trip to China, a whole new world has been opened for all of us,” de Leon said.

This is a very clear ploy to get readers (especially diasporic Chinese) to think positively about China and associate the country with new opportunities for young people. Providing opportunities for education and cultural exchange is key in this flexing of “soft power” muscle. One aspect of Chinese language schools that I am looking at for my master’s thesis is the extent of Chinese and Taiwanese state involvement in what these schools teach.

Thanks, Sonny Le, for forwarding this to me!

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