The Chinese in Rio

Posted by Fan Fan – PhD Student at the Department of Spanish & Portuguese, NYU

In the Royal Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro: the Palma Filia stands in place of the first royal palm (Palma Mater), planted by Dom João VI in 1809, after the latter palm was struck by lightning in 1972.

Brazilian journalist João do Rio published the crônica “Visões d’ópio” in Rio de Janeiro’s Gazeta de Notícias in 1905. The piece drew my attention not only because it is one of the few cultural texts I’ve seen from the belle époque period that provides a description of the Chinese in Brazil, but also for the unusual way that it approaches the topic. The crônica recounts the experiences of the journalist and a friend as they explore the alleyways of Rio’s Misericórdia neighborhood, where Chinese addicts languish away in provisional opium dens. True to his reputation as a writer of Rio’s margins, slums and other unsavory corners, however, the cronista focuses not on the Chinese themselves but on his fascination with opium and the drug’s associated images of the Orient and decay. Though the Chinese are the inhabitants of the Misericórdia slums, the consumers of opium, and the source of the abject, yellowed bodies on display in the crônica, the only hints João do Rio gives as to who they were and why they were in Rio are coded and sparse. He writes, “Os chineses são o resto da famosa imigração, vendem peixe na praia e vivem entre a rua da Misericórdia e a rua D. Manuel” (104) and “olham-nos com o susto covarde de coolies espancados” (106, original emphasis).

My reading of João do Rio’s crônica gave rise to several questions. Who were these Chinese, and how did they end up in Rio? What was the “famosa imigração” to which João do Rio referred? Why didn’t the journalist list other information about this immigration? Was it for stylistic reasons, or was it such common knowledge that it was assumed that his readers would readily understand his reference? Moreover, to what extent does his language reflect the trending expressions regarding Chinese laborers? Were the Chinese in the opium dens actual “coolies,” or was this word part of a popular linguistic currency?

Through preliminary research, I learned that Chinese laborers had set foot in Brazil as early as 1814 and furthermore, that their presence was in fact implicit in a wider network of imperial relations. In 1812, Raphael Bottado de Almeida, senator of the Portuguese colony of Macau arranged for the translocation of the first tea seeds (Camellia sinensis) from Macau to prince regent Dom João VI’s botanical garden in Rio (Busch et al., 157). In order to facilitate tea cultivation, in 1814 Dom João VI proceeded to import approximately 300 Chinese from Macau to work in the grounds of the garden (Lustosa 9). The function of the royal garden as a conduit to systematically introduce specimens from European colonies around the world—including the Chinese tea that set off a craze in the British market—calls attention to the intimate links between a global/imperial circulation of plant species, the influence of mind-altering commodities in the colonial imaginary, and migrant labor.

With these questions in mind, the goal of the project was to collect as many archival documents as possible that would provide information on the Chinese in Rio. Visits to the Royal Botanical Garden and the Biblioteca Nacional revealed a myriad of documents regarding the Chinese. While this first group of Chinese laborers to the Royal Garden in 1814 most sparked my interest in this project, the documents that turned up through archival research reflected a later wave of Chinese migration. These documents  spanned the years 1846 to 1892, with the majority written in between 1888 (the year in which slavery was abolished in Brazil) and 1892. Because these documents are mainly letters or speeches that express the views of public intellectuals on the recruitment of Chinese agricultural workers after the abolition of slavery, they take place within political debates on free and unfree labor. The next step of the project is to transcribe these documents and more closely analyze their views, as well as to search for more documents on the Chinese within the time period of the earlier immigration.



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