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